Hundreds of additional titles available for
online reading when you join Gateway to the Classics
THE FORSAKING OF THE HIGH ENTERPRISE
'Tis Greece, but living Greece no more.
BYRON: Childe Harold.
HE Siege of Zara affords one more example of
the fatal disunion which was always appearing
among the ranks of the Crusaders.
From the first, the Abbot de Vaux, who had to some
extent taken the place of the priest Fulk (now gone to
his rest), had protested against warring upon the King
of Hungary, who was himself a Crusader. The Pope sent
urgent messages forbidding the whole enterprise; and
when he found that the Venetians paid no heed to this
prohibition, the Marquis of Montferrat, leader of the host,
found convenient business which would for some time
detain him from leading the host against his fellow-
Even when the Crusaders assembled before the city
walls, there were plenty of traitors in the camp only too
ready to work mischief. When the people of Zara,
utterly dismayed at the sight of the great host before
their walls, sent messengers to the Doge, offering to yield
up city and goods, if only their lives were spared, the
latter replied, quite rightly, that he must first get the
consent of the counts and barons of the Crusading
pilgrims before he could accept any conditions.
 But while the Doge tried to obtain this consent, some
of the discontented and disloyal members were busy
talking to the envoys. "Why should you surrender
your city? The pilgrims will not attack you-have no
fear of them. If you can defend yourselves against the
Venetians, you will be safe enough." One of them even
went upon the walls of the city and made a similar
declaration to the citizens.
Consequently the envoys returned to those who sent
them, and the negotiations were broken off.
Meantime the Doge and the barons had promptly
decided to accept the conditions offered, and were
returning to make this known in public, when the Abbot
de Vaux confronted the council with—"Lords, I forbid
you on the part of the Pope of Rome to attack this city;
for those within it are Christians and you are pilgrims,"
and then informed the Doge that the envoys had
Great was the wrath of Dandolo, as he declared to the
counts and barons, "Signors, I had this city, by their own
agreement, at my mercy, and your people have broken
that agreement; you have covenanted to help me to
conquer it, and I summon you to do so."
"Now are we ashamed if we do not help to take the
city," was the verdict of the Crusaders when the matter
had been discussed, and they came to the Doge and said
"Sire, we will help you to take the city in despite of
those who would let and hinder us."
It was a sorry business altogether, that siege of Zara,
and though we may sympathise with their reluctance
to attack their fellow-Christians with the arms destined
for the fall of Islam, we must remember the solemn
undertaking given to the Doge in payment of a just debt.
 Fortunately the siege lasted but five days, when the
citizens, finding their position hopeless, surrendered the
city on condition that their lives were spared. With
great generosity the Doge divided the town into two
parts, and handed one over to the French for winter
quarters. The Venetians settled on the other, for it was
impossible to return before Easter.
Scarcely had they been lodged there three days when
"there began a fray, exceeding fell and fierce, between
the Venetians and the Franks . . . and the fray was so
fierce that there were but few streets in which battle did
not rage with swords and lances and cross-bows and
darts; and many people were killed and wounded."
Perhaps this incident served to convince the leaders
of the difficulty of inducing the quarrelsome soldiers
of two nations to sit down together in peace for any
considerable period, and to induce them to look with
more favour upon their next visitors. These were the
envoys of King Philip of Germany and the young
Alexios, who came, bringing this message to the Crusaders
and the Doge:
"Lords," said King Philip, "I will send you the
brother of my wife, and I commit him into the hands of
God-may He keep him from death-and into your
hands. And because you have fared forth for God,
and for right, and for justice, therefore are you bound, in
so far as you are able, to restore to their own inheritance
those who have been unrighteously despoiled. And my
wife's brother will make with you the best terms ever
offered to any people, and give you the most puissant
help for the recovery of the land oversea."
This proposal was the occasion of much debate. The
Abbot de Vaux was all for the dispersal of the host, or
 an immediate advance upon Palestine. The other side
pointed out that they would not be able to do anything,
disunited as they were, if they went to Palestine, and
that it was only" by way of Babylon or of Greece, that
the land oversea could actually be recovered."
"If we reject this covenant," they urged, "we shall be
shamed to all time."
So the treaty with Alexios was accepted, even by the
Marquis of Montferrat, who had at first held aloof in
deference to the wishes of the Pope. Innocent himself
did all in his power to break down their resolve, hurling
the bolt of excommunication upon the Venetians, and
warning the Crusaders that the Empire of Constantinople
was under his special protection. But Dandolo remained
unmoved, and the Crusading chiefs, influenced by the
desire for the rich booty of Constantinople, were all on
his side save Simon de Montfort, who betook himself,
with his men, and several of his colleagues, forthwith to
the Court of Hungary. It was pointed out to the Pope
that the fall of Constantinople would bring back the
Eastern Church within the fold of the Western Church,
and the threats of Innocent grew fainter and fainter as
preparation for the attack went on apace, and the young
prince Alexios himself joined the host at Zara.
So, on the Eve of Pentecost, 1203, "there were all the
ships assembled, and all the transports, and all the
galleys of the host, and many other ships of merchants
that fared with them. And the day was fine and clear,
and the wind soft and favourable, and they unfurled all
their sails to the breeze.
"And Geoffrey, the Marshal of Champagne, who
dictates this work, and has never lied therein by one word
to his knowledge, and who was, moreover, present at all
 the councils held-he bears witness that never was yet
seen so fair a sight. Well might it appear that such a
fleet would conquer and gain lands, for, far as the eye
could reach, there was no space without sails, and
ships, and vessels, so that the hearts of men rejoiced
At the Straits of Malea they met two ships full of the
pilgrims who had deserted them at Venice and taken
their own way; "Who, when they saw our fleet so rich
and well-appointed, conceived such shame that they
dared not show themselves."
From one of these a sergeant suddenly let himself
down into a boat, saying to those on deck, "I am quits
to you for any goods of mine that may remain in the ship,
for I am going with these people, for well I deern they will
"Much did we make of the sergeant," comments
Geoffrey, quaintly, "and gladly was he received into the
host. For well may it be said, that even after following
a thousand crooked ways a man may find his way right
in the end."
And so at length they came to the port of St Stephen,
from whence they had a good view of Constantinople.
"Upon which they looked very earnestly, for they never
thought there could be in the world so rich a city; and
they marked the high walls and strong towers that
enclosed it round about, and the rich palaces and mighty
churches—of which there were so many that no one would
have believed it who had not seen it with his eyes—and
the height and length of that city which above all others
"And be it known to you that no man there was of such
hardihood, but his flesh trembled; and it was no wonder,
 for never was so great an enterprise undertaken by any
people since the Creation of the World!
"Next day they took port before the magnificent royal
palace that faced the city, just across the straits, and
finding plenty of corn, for it was harvest time, the
leaders took possession of the palace, and all were well
It was not long before the usurping Emperor Alexios
realised his peril, and sent to them envoys bearing fair
"Lords," said they, "the Emperor Alexios would have
you know that he is well aware that you are the best
people uncrowned, and come from the best land on earth.
And he marvels much why, and for what purpose, you
have come into his land and kingdom. For you are
Christians, and he is a Christian, and well he knows that
you are on your way to deliver the Holy Land oversea
and the Holy Cross and the Sepulchre.
"If you are poor and in want, he will right willingly
give you of his food and substance, provided you depart
out of his land. Neither would he otherwise wish to
do you any hurt, though he has full power therein, seeing
that if you were twenty times as numerous as you are,
you would not be able to get away without utter
discomfiture if so be that he wished to harm you."
"Then arose that good knight, Conon of Bethune, and
said, 'Fair sirs, you have told us that your lord marvels
much why we should have entered into his kingdom and
land. Into his land they have not entered, for he holds
this land wrongfully and wickedly, against God and
against reason. It belongs to his nephew, who sits upon
a throne among us, and is the son of his brother, the
Emperor Isaac. But, if he is willing to throw himself
 upon the mercy of his nephew and to give him back his
crown and empire, then will we pray his nephew to
forgive him, and bestow upon him as much as will enable
him to live in wealth. And if you come not as the bearer
of such a message, then be not so bold as to come here
Next morning the Crusaders determined to show the
young Alexios to the people of the city; so the Doge of
Venice and the Marquis of Montferrat entered into one
galley, taking the prince with them, and the knights and
barons crowded into as many other boats as they could
get. They came close to the city walls and showed the
youth to the Greeks, saying, Behold your natural lord!
And be it known to you that I have not come to do you
harm, but have come to guard and defend you, if so be
that you return to your duty. Now behold the rightful
heir. If you hold with him you will be doing as you
ought, and if not, we will do to you the very worst that
But the citizens were far too much in awe of the
Emperor Alexios to show a sign of sympathy, and so they
returned to the host.
Then a terrible siege began, and for ten days both
sides fought with might and main. One of the most
interesting incidents is thus related by the eye-witness
"Now may you hear of a strange deed of prowess; for
the Doge of Venice, who was an old man and saw naught
(seeing he was blind) stood, fully armed, on the prow of
his galley, and had the standard of St Mark before him;
and he cried to his people to put him on land, or else that
he would do justice upon their bodies with his hands.
"And so they did, for the galley was run aground,
 and they leapt therefrom, and bore the standard of St
Mark before him on the land.
"And when the Venetians saw the standard of St
Mark on land, and the galley of their lord touching
ground before them, each held himself for shamed, and
they all got to the land, and those in the transports leapt
forth and landed; and those in the big ships got into
barges, and made for the shore, each and all as best they
"Then might you have seen an assault, great and
marvellous and to this bears witness Geoffrey de
Villehardouin, who makes this book, that more than forty
people told him for sooth that they saw the standard of
St Mark of Venice at the top of one of the towers, and
that no man knew who bore it thither.
"Now hear of a strange miracle. Those that are
within the city fly and abandon the walls, and the
Venetians enter in, each as fast and as best he can, and
seize twenty-five of the towers, and man them with their
That same night, after a disgraceful retreat from a
conflict before the gates, the Emperor Alexios "took of
his treasure as much as he could carry, and of his people
as many as would go," and fled from the city.
The rest of the citizens drew the poor blind Isaac from
his dungeon, clothed him in the imperial robes, and seat-
ing him on a high throne, did obeisance to him; after
which they hastened to tell the prince Alexios and the
barons of what had happened.
Great was the joy throughout the host. "Him whom
God will help can no men injure," was said of young
Alexios, yet with the distrust which the Greeks always
inspired, the leaders hastened to send envoys to enquire
 whether Isaac meant to ratify the covenant made by the
prince, his son. With much reluctance, this was done,
though the words with which the request was received
might well be thought to ring false.
"Certes," said the Emperor, "this covenant is very
onerous, and I do not see how effect can be given to it,
nevertheless, you have done us such service, both to my
son and to myself, that if we bestowed upon you the
whole empire, you would have deserved it well."
There was now nothing else to wait for save the
coronation of the new Emperor, and when once that
was over, had their hearts been really set upon the
cause of God, they would resolutely have turned their
faces to the Holy Land. But they had already too
lightly forsaken their high enterprise, and readily turned
away again from its fulfilment.