The Venetian Doge Dandolo, meanwhile, launched his own forces against the sea wall. He had built scaling towers, equipped with drawbridges, on the decks of his ships.
On the face of it, the contract looked like a windfall. A group of French knights wanted transportation to Egypt to begin a new crusade. The five-year truce Richard the Lionhearted and Saladin signed had ended, and both Saladin and Richard were dead. The leader of the knights, Boniface of Montferrat, was willing to pay the Venetians well for carrying his army across the Mediterranean. Egypt, Boniface told the Doge of Venice, was the most vulnerable part of Islam, and the key to the Holy Land.
But to the Doge, Enrico Dandolo, Egypt was something else: It was Venice’s leading trading partner.
A lesser man would have resigned himself to losing either the ferry contract or the lucrative trade with Egypt. Dandolo did neither. He sent a message to Saphadin, Saladin’s brother, who was now Sultan of Egypt, telling him not to worry. Then he spoke with his council.
Dandolo cared nothing for crusades. His only concern was Venice. Now 80, he had fought the Pisans, the Genoese, and the Byzantines for control of the eastern Mediterranean. His city was now the greatest power on the inland sea. In one of his battles with the Byzantine Greeks, he had suffered a blow on the head that killed his eyesight. Though his eyes were useless, there was nothing wrong with Dandolo’s hindsight or foresight. He could look back at the years of strife between Venice and Constantinople, including a massacre of all Italian merchants in the Byzantine capital. He remembered, too, that when Saladin had captured Jerusalem, Isaac Angelus, the Greek emperor, had sent his congratulations. He could also look forward to a Venetian thalassocracy based on Crete, Rhodes, Cyprus, and the Greek islands. The Great Council, the ruling body of the Venetian Republic, endorsed the Doge’s plan.
An army held hostage
Dandolo agreed with the Crusaders to transport 4,500 knights, 4,500 horses, 9,000 squires, and 20,000 heavily armed soldiers called sergeants to Egypt. He would also supply 50 warships and their crews and furnish the army with nine months’ rations. In return, the Crusaders would pay Venice 85,000 silver marks—four marks for each horse and two for each man—and give the Venetians half of the booty they captured. The contract would last for one year from the day the fleet sailed. The Crusaders borrowed 5,000 marks from Venetian bankers as a down payment. Dandolo put them up on the island of Lido, several miles from Venice, and began building a fleet. When the fleet was ready, Dandolo asked for his money but the Crusaders didn’t have it.
“You shall not depart from the island until we are paid,” he said. Then he made them a proposal. The King of Hungary had stolen the city of Zara from Venice, Dandolo said. (Actually, Venice never held Zara, but the North European rustics didn’t know that.) If the Crusaders would take back the city, Dandolo would forgive their debt.
The Crusaders besieged Zara. Some of them deserted and went to the Holy Land alone, but most remained. They took Zara and asked for their passage to Egypt.
It was too late, the Doge told them. The winter storms would make passage to Egypt impossible—they’d have to wait until spring. It was, after all, their fault, because they were so late in paying their debt. Meanwhile, Pope Innocent III had excommunicated all the Crusaders who attacked Zara for having shed Christian blood after talking the cross. A little later, realizing that his wily Italian compatriots had taken in this crowd of northern bumpkins, he revoked the excommunication but warned them not to do it again.
Then a young man named Alexius Angelus appeared at the Crusader camp. Alexius was the son of the Greek emperor, recently deposed by a usurper who was also named Alexius. The crusaders didn’t know it, but Prince Alexius was part of a scheme hatched by the blind Doge. If Dandolo could use the Crusaders to restore him to power, Prince Alexius would become a Venetian puppet.
Putting young Alexius on the throne would not be an easy task. Constantinople was the strongest city in the world. For centuries, it had defeated Goths, Huns, Avars, Slavs, Magyars, Russians, and Arabs trying to take it. On the other hand, Dandolo controlled the world’s most powerful navy, and now he had the world’s most powerful army under his thumb.
Prince Alexius was persuasive. Geoffroi de Villehardoin, one of the crusader leaders, recalled that Alexius offered:
Firstly, if God permits you to restore his inheritance to him, he will place his whole empire under the authority of Rome, from which he has long been estranged. Secondly, since he is well aware that you have spent all your money and now have nothing, he will give you 200,000 silver marks and provisions for every man in your army, officers and men alike. Moreover, he himself will go in your company to Egypt with 10,000 men, or, if you prefer it, send the same number of men with you; and furthermore, so long as he lives, he will maintain, at his expense, 5,000 knights to keep guard in the land overseas.
The Crusaders sailed to Constantinople.
The Crusaders sent an envoy to the usurper, Alexius III, to tell him they had come to restore Prince Alexius to his throne. If the current emperor would step down, he could live as a wealthy man. If not, he would not live at all. Alexius III did not abdicate. Then the invaders took Prince Alexius up to the city walls in a small boat.
“Here is your natural lord,” they told the crowds on the walls. “Rally to his side and no harm will come to you.” The crowds gave no sign that they recognized young Alexius.
The next day, Dandolo’s host launched the assault. The Byzantine army lined up on shore to meet them. The Crusaders hesitated, but the Doge said his ships would clear the way. Catapults and ballistas on the fore and stern castles of the warships hurled boulders and spears at the Greek soldiers. Crossbowmen in the fighting tops and decks shot clouds of bolts. The Greeks fell back. The Crusader assault boats scraped ashore and dropped their drawbridges. Armored knights rode ashore with lowered lances. The Greeks turned and ran back into the city, breaking down the bridge that led to the entrance. The Greeks still held the harbor, a narrow arm of the sea called the Golden Horn. They had stretched a chain across it from the city to the fort of Galata on the other side. The Crusaders besieged the fort. The Greeks sallied out but were beaten back. The Crusaders followed so closely the Greeks couldn’t close the gate of the fort. While the French were taking the fort, the Venetians attacked the chain. They sent galley after galley crashing into the chain. The chain snapped.
Dandolo wanted to attack the city’s sea wall. It was only one wall, whereas the land side had a double wall, with the space between the two ramparts so constricted that getting over the second wall would be most difficult. The French, however, protested that they were landsmen.
They needed terra firma beneath them when they fought. The crusaders lined up their siege engines and crossbows, opened fire, and attacked a gate tower with scaling ladders. The Varangian Guard, English and Scandinavian mercenaries who had been in imperial service since Viking times, held the tower. The Varangians used the big Danish battleaxe, which chopped through the Crusaders’ armor with frightening facility. The French failed.
Dandolo, meanwhile, launched his own forces against the sea wall. He had built scaling towers, equipped with drawbridges, on the decks of his ships. Again, the Venetian catapults banged and crossbows snapped. The warships closed in. This time, the Greeks shot back with their own engines and archers. The Venetian crews moved back.
The old Doge told a sailor to bring him the banner of St. Mark, the flag of his city-state. Holding it before him, Dandolo screamed at the sailors he could not see, “Put me ashore, you craven dogs!”
The ship pulled up to the bottom of the wall. A dozen men leaped out to shield their Doge, who jumped off the ship. Up on the ship’s tower, the drawbridge thumped down, and Venetian soldiers charged over it to the wall. The other warships now joined them, and Venetians and Greeks were soon battling all along the sea wall. Dandolo’s men captured 25 towers on the wall and moved into the city. The Emperor called his men, who were fighting the French, to stop the Venetians. The Italians retreated before the assault, but they set fire to the houses between them and the Greeks. The wind from the sea blew the fire back toward the imperial troops, and the Venetians fortified their captured towers. The emperor then led his army out of the city to attack the French.
“We had no more than six divisions while the Greeks had close on 60, and not one of them but was larger than ours,” Villehardoin recalled. “However our troops were drawn up in such a way that they could not be attacked except from the front.”
The Crusaders “took all the horse-boys and cooks who could bear arms and had them fitted out with quilts and saddle cloths [for armor] and copper pots [for helmets],” wrote Robert de Clari, one of the Crusaders. The Crusaders could not advance, for fear of being outflanked, and the Greeks had no desire to fight on a narrow front where their numbers would mean little. The Emperor slowly withdrew into the city. That night, Alexius III and his household sneaked out of Constantinople. The people of the city let old Isaac out of his dungeon and opened the city gates. Invincible Constantinople had fallen.