The Wayward Crusaders

On June 24, 1202--the date agreed upon a year earlier--Venice had a magnificent fleet ready for the Crusaders of the Fourth Crusade. No Christian man had ever seen a richer or finer collection of vessels, reported one observer.

If 4,500 French and German knights had arrived at Venice as promised by the Crusaders, or if those who did arrive had been able to pay 84,000 marks as agreed, perhaps the course of history would have been dramatically different. In fact, however, about 1,500 knights gathered with only 50,000 marks available among them.

waywardThe Venetian Doge Enrico Dandolo proposed a solution that would solve two problems for Venice at one time: Venice would defer the balance owed by the Crusaders for transportation and supplies if--while enroute to Egypt--the Crusaders would assist the Venetians in recapturing Zara, a city on the Dalmatian coast just across the Adriatic. Zara had recently rebelled from Venetian rule and cast its lot with the Kingdom of Hungary. The anomoly of Crusaders attacking a Christian city was overlooked by most of the assembled Crusaders in light of the financial shortfall they faced (though not by the Pope, who excommunicated all of the participants).

In a last minute surprise, Doge Dandolo, at least 85 years old and functionally blind, announced that he had decided to become a crusader himself. On November 8, 1202, he embarked at the head of a fleet of 480 ships. Zara fell within a week in the face of such a powerful force, freeing the crusaders to proceed on their original mission to Egypt after wintering in Zara. New events were under way, however, leading under Dandolo's guiding hand to a new destination in the Spring: Constantinople, the capital of Byzantium, the Eastern Roman Empire.


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1998-9 C. I. Gable