The Most Disastrous Pilgrimage in History – The Fourth Crusade


When most of us think of a pilgrim, an idea of a peaceful traveller journeying to seek spiritual enlightenment springs to mind. In 1202, a pilgrimage set out to Jerusalem with armed pilgrims, ready to recapture the Holy Land for Christianity. They ended up sacking Constantinople, the largest Christian city in the world, probably not helping their religion very much.

Despite the impression that the Crusades may give, Islam and Christianity have peacefully coexisted for most of their shared history. The Rashidun Caliphate were the first to bring Jerusalem under Muslim rule in 638. However, as they allowed Jewish and Christian pilgrims to travel and live in Jerusalem – for a fee – there was little outrage from anyone but the Byzantine Empire, who were understandably annoyed at losing their territory.

A series of successive Caliphates would trade Jerusalem for the next four centuries, but there remained a general tolerance towards pilgrims. Until, suddenly, the Seljuk Turks swept through Persia and Anatolia (modern-day Turkey), capturing masses of territory from the quickly-shrinking Byzantine empire. In 1095, Emperor Alexios I wrote a letter to the Pope, asking for assistance against the Seljuks, who were posing a serious threat to Constantinople, the Byzantine capital. This idea snowballed into Pope Urban II calling for the “pilgrims” to fight their way into the Holy Land, bringing peace to Christendom through a Holy War, despite the fact that the men were definitely soldiers rather than pilgrims.[1][2]

Pope Urban II preaching the First Crusade in the square of Clermont by Francesco Hayes

Somewhat unbelievably, this worked. The Crusaders brought the Holy Land under Christian control, and for their “pilgrimage”, the Pope claimed that anyone who fought in a Crusade would gain entry to heaven. The success would soon be overturned, necessitating more Crusades. The Second Crusade was a total failure, with most of the army being defeated in Anatolia before even reaching the Holy Land. The Third Crusade was also unsuccessful at retaking Jerusalem, despite the leadership of Richard Lionheart. However, the framing of Crusaders as pilgrims endured. There was an inexhaustible supply of people who wanted to get into heaven, so when the Fourth Crusade was called by Pope Innocent III in 1198, once again people were there to “take up the cross.”[3]

Trouble beset them from the start. Richard Lionheart died in France in 1199, depriving the force of a potential leader. The kings of the major nations were all busy with internal squabbles, so only minor nobles could lead. It took until 1201 for them to elect a leader, and yet another year to set off. The army showed at least some willingness to learn from their previous mistakes, and decided to sail to the Holy Land. They travelled to Venice, but upon their arrival they realised that the Venetians expected them to pay for the boats that they had built for the army. The Crusaders could not afford the 85,000 mark asking price, almost double the annual income of France.[5]

This would not daunt the so-called pilgrims, who struck a deal with Venice. Zara (currently Zadar in Croatia) had recently rebelled and put itself under the protection of Hungary, and Venice wanted it back. The Crusaders offered to retake Zara in lieu of payment for the ships. The only slight problem with this plan was that Zara was a Catholic city, and Hungary a Catholic nation. Emeric, the Hungarian king, had even pledged himself to the Crusade. Pope Innocent was furious to hear of this bargain, and threatened the army with excommunication. While some Crusaders left the army over this issue, most of them were fine with this plan. And so, Catholic “pilgrims” attacked the Catholic city of Zara.

Siege of Zadar by Andrea Vicentino

It was at this point that everything started going very wrong. Pope Innocent followed through on his threats, excommunicating both Venice and the Crusaders. They then decided that, rather than go on to Jerusalem, that they would go to Constantinople, the largest Christian city in the world. The current Byzantine Emperor, Alexios III, was a usurper, having seized the throne from Isaac II Angelos in 1195. Isaac II’s son, also called Alexios, was desperate to regain the throne, and petitioned the Crusaders to overthrow the pretender. Many of the Crusaders followed, expecting they would be rewarded at Constantinople and then could go on to the Holy Land. They arrived outside the walls of Constantinople on the 24th of June 1203.

The route of the Fourth Crusade, and the subsequent division of Byzantine territory.
Kandi / CC BY-SA

Nearly 50,000 laid siege to the city, including 4,500 mounted knights. The false king, Alexios III, was unprepared for this attack, and seeing little hope in resistance, fled Constantinople in July. Victorious, the Crusading army restored Isaac II and his son Alexios IV to the throne. Soon they found themselves less popular than expected. In fact, they were hated. Foreseeing their arrival, Alexios III had issued propaganda against the Crusaders, and the people accepted neither their presence nor their choice of king. Within half a year, the people supported a coup by Alexios Doukas, nicknamed Mourtzouphlos, and executed both emperors, both father and son.

The Crusaders now had nothing to lose. They were excommunicated, running out of food and patience and had no way to get to the Holy Land. In their frustration they resolved to sack Constantinople. They stormed into the city massacring the people, burning houses and, ironically, desecrating churches. The atrocities committed were truly awful, but almost none of the perpetrators suffered any repercussions. It was quite the opposite in fact. Venice gained enough territory to completely dominate Mediterranean trade for many years. In contrast, Constantinople was ruined. It had previously been a beacon of Christianity to the East, the most culturally vibrant city in the world. But it was destroyed, and with impunity. The soldiers returned home and were granted absolution for their sins by the Pope. While there would be more Crusades, there would never again be such a chaotic and self-destructive campaign, and, thankfully, pilgrims would soon become pacifists again.


  1. Pope Urban II, Speech at the Council of Clairmont, 1095
  2. Mark Cartwright, “The Crusades: Causes & Goals“, Ancient History Encyclopaedia, 4th Jul. 2018
  3. Thomas F. Madden, “Crusades“, Encyclopaedia Britannica, accessed 29th Jun. 2020
  4. Crusades“, HISTORY, 21st Feb. 2020
  5. Mark Cartwright, “Fourth Crusade“, Ancient History Encyclopaedia, 3rd Sep. 2018


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