The End of the Fourth Crusade and the Early Years of the Latin Empire, 1204–5 Part III

If the final destiny of some of the crusaders is relatively clear, the fate of the first Latin ruler of Constantinople was not. As we saw above, Emperor Baldwin had been captured by King Johanitza at the Battle of Adrianople in April 1205. Niketas Choniates reported that the prisoner was taken to Tirnovo, Johanitza’s capital, deep in the Balkan mountains, where he was cast into a dungeon with metal bands clamped around his neck. Pope Innocent III wrote to Johanitza to try to convince him to release the emperor, but in vain. By the summer of 1206 it was generally believed that Baldwin was dead, and on 20 August Henry of Flanders was crowned emperor in the Hagia Sophia.

The precise details of his brother’s death are elusive and for that reason generated an intense amount of speculation. Niketas reported that when, in the summer of 1205, one of Johanitza’s Greek allies, Alexander Aspietes, defected to the Latins, the king was thrown into an uncontrollable rage. He ordered Baldwin to be brought before him and commanded that his legs be chopped off at the knees and his arms be severed at the elbows. In this horrifying, crippled condition, the mutilated emperor was cast into a ravine where he lived for three days before expiring. A sanitised confirmation of Baldwin’s fate was to come from Johanitza himself, who replied to Innocent III’s request to free the emperor by writing that this was not possible because the prisoner had died. Unsurprisingly perhaps, he did not provide any further details.

Two further accounts offer even more imaginative versions of the Fleming’s fate. The Greek writer George Akropolites claimed that Johanitza cut off the emperor’s head, hollowed out the skull and used it as a drinking cup. As we saw earlier, Gervaise of Bazoches had claimed the dubious precedent for a crusader’s head becoming a posthumous drinking vessel, a fate also shared by the Antiochene noble, Robert fitz-Fulk the Leper, after he died at the hands of Tughtegin of Damascus in 1119. It is also possible that Johanitza was copying one of his own ancestors who had treated enemies in this way; in any case, Akropolites confirms that Baldwin died in captivity.

Alberic of Trois-Fontaines supplies a different story and one that he himself voiced doubts about, although he still chose to include it in his chronicle. He described how a Flemish priest journeying through Tirnovo had heard that Johanitza’s wife tried to seduce Baldwin and get him to promise to take her away if she would free him. Given Baldwin’s impeccable behaviour thus far, even as a widower, he was unlikely to be tempted by his captor’s wife. When he spurned her, the angry queen told Johanitza that Baldwin had promised to marry her if she helped him to escape. The king was furious and started drinking heavily; then, in his drunken rage, he ordered that Baldwin should be executed and had his corpse thrown to the dogs. The truth of this version may be tenuous, but again the end result was the emperor’s death in captivity.

Baldwin’s disappearance did not just cause problems in Constantinople, but also raised considerable difficulties back in his native Flanders. It seems that some did not believe – or did not choose to believe – that he was dead. The ambiguous status of a prisoner meant that it was hard for families to move on with their lives: some captives died in jail, a few were incarcerated for decades and then returned home, while others simply disappeared. The fact that Count Baldwin had left two infant daughters, and that he ruled over one of the most wealthy and important areas of northern Europe, created conditions tipe for controversy, and various political players tried to exploit the situation for their own ends. The detailed ramifications of this episode are not relevant here, but an historian has drawn attention to a bizarre episode that stemmed from the turmoil in Flanders and the mysterious fate of its crusading emperor.

After Baldwin’s death, his daughter Joan steered the county into a closer relationship with the French crown – a policy opposed by some within Flanders. In 1224 a hermit in the village of Mortaigne, near Tournai, was identified as a crusading companion of Baldwin, but this he denied. Within a year, however, as various nobles and clerics came to see him and talk to him, the man eventually stated that he was the count himself. In Holy Week 1225 he showed scars that the real Baldwin had allegedly possessed. Inconveniently, however, he was about a foot shorter than the count, his local geography was hazy and his French was rather more erratic than people remembered. One writer put these factors down to advancing age and time spent in Greek ptisons. With this flexible approach to memory and physical likeness, the town of Valenciennes received the individual they called ‘emperor’ and he took a ceremonial bath and had a shave. Such was their delight at his ‘reappearance’ that the monks of St John’s abbey kept his whiskers and drank his bathwater.

The man now began to tell of his escape from Johanitza, the tortures that he had endured (which included the loss of some toes), his suffering during several periods of captivity at the hands of Muslims, and his final journey back to the West. Joan of Flanders sent her lover to interview the hermit and he was convinced that the man was her long-lost father. More and more towns came out in support of the returned hero – and thereby created a vehicle to assert Flemish independence from France and to turn against Joan’s rule. She tried to have him discredited: Baldwin’s former chancellor could not recognise him, and the hermit could not remember the old court official. In spite of testimonials by men claiming to have seen Baldwin killed on the battlefield (another error because, as we have seen, all the sources indicated that he was captured), the imposter rallied massive popular support and Joan was forced to flee to Paris. The hermit was taken so seriously that King Henry III of England wrote to him to ask for a renewal of earlier alliances between Flanders and England.

Joan turned to her ally, King Louis VIII of France (1223–6), for help. The king sent his aunt Sibylla, who was also Baldwin’s younger sister, to meet the claimant. She did not recognise the man, but hid this from the hermit and convinced him to meet King Louis. Before this, with his confidence now at a peak, the impostor processed through Flanders dressed as an emperor and with his adherents walking ahead, bearing a cross and banners. He even issued charters, knighted ten men and confirmed documents with a seal that described him as the count of Flanders and Hainault and the emperor of Constantinople. The cities of Lille, Courtrai, Ghent and Bruges all welcomed him as he went on to an audience with the king at Péronne.

Louis received the ‘emperor’ with due courtesy and started to question him. Perhaps the man was by now so assured that he did not anticipate such an interrogation: in any case he was ill-prepared. He could not recall where, and how, he had done homage for Flanders to Louis’s father, King Philip; nor was he able to recollect being knighted, or his marriage to Marie of Champagne. His supporters argued that he refused to respond to such questions out of pride; soon, however, he asked for a rest and a chance to eat. Once he had left, several churchmen rushed forward to claim they recognised the man as a jongleur who had once tried to impersonate Count Louis of Blois, another noble killed on the Fourth Crusade. The bishop of Beauvais claimed to have had the man in his prison; he was a professional hoaxer and a charlatan who had lost his toes to frostbite, rather than torture.

Even as he left the interview chamber the impostor realised that he was in trouble and escaped back to Valenciennes, where many of his baronial supporters abandoned him, although the poor continued to proclaim their loyalty and prepared to resist Joan by force. Next, the hermit fled first towards Germany and then southwards into Burgundy where he was captured and sent to Louis. The French king had found the whole affair at Péronne highly entertaining and passed the prisoner on to Joan with a recommendation that she spare his life. Joan was far less amused and had the hermit tried and condemned to death at Lille. He was made to confess his true identity as a jongleur and put in the pillory between two dogs. He was then tortured, hanged and his body impaled upon a pole surrounded by armed guards. The mob, it seems, still refused to accept that he was not Baldwin and accused Joan of parricide. In modern times, DNA testing means that such a hoax could not hope to succeed for so long. In the thirteenth century the fact that no one had seen Baldwin die, coupled with a strong desire by many nobles and lesser people to find a way to oppose Joan’s pro-French policies, led to the impostor having such a lengthy career. In reality, Baldwin of Constantinople had died thousands of miles from his homeland at the hands of a violent and unforgiving king of Bulgaria.

While the strange tale of the impersonator of Baldwin of Flanders is one legacy of the Fourth Crusade, perhaps the most intriguing and dramatic reactions to the capture of Constantinople belong to Innocent III. Over the course of the campaign he had watched with growing alarm as his great project – for which, as head of the Catholic Church, he bore full spiritual responsibility – had veered from Zara to Corfu and thence to Constantinople. He had seen how his bull of excommunication, the supreme papal sanction, had been cynically suppressed. Yet still he held firm to the hope that the core of the crusaders could extricate themselves from their paralysing debt to the Venetians and somehow get help to the Holy Land. He had tried to create a balance between his role as leader of the Catholic Church and the need to make allowances for the practical demands of the expedition. There had been times, particularly in the case of the Venetians, when he felt that the proper boundaries had been overstepped, yet he recognised the requirement for a degree of flexibility to prevent the whole enterprise from grinding to a halt. Coupled with these competing tensions were the problems of distance and poor communications. At times, therefore, the pope was only the passive recipient of news and, if the crusaders had acted of their own accord, he could only react to, rather than direct, events.

From the start, Innocent had made plain his opposition to any attacks on Christian lands, yet to the modern reader the inclusion of clauses allowing this in conditions of necessity always leaves a slightly ambiguous feel to his pronouncements. He tried to include safeguards concerning the need to secure the permission of his legate before making such moves, but the churchmen on the expedition did, at times, perform in ways that their master found frustrating. Given this fact, as well as the Venetians’ apparent willingness to ignore his threats of excommunication at Zara, it might be thought that creating any potential loophole in the ban on attacking Christian territories left a hostage to fortune.

Such was Innocent’s overpowering obsession with regaining the Holy Land that there is no doubt where his ultimate priorities lay, yet one wonders what conflicting emotions he felt on hearing of the capture of Constantinople. He had castigated the Greeks for their failure to support the crusade back in 1198; he knew that they had broken their promises to the westerners and had murdered their emperor (whose case he had earlier declined to support). He was also a pope who, above all others in the medieval period, had a staggeringly high conception of papal authority that stretched across the ecclesiastical and secular worlds and undoubtedly encompassed Rome’s supremacy over the schismatic Greek Orthodox Church. With the crusaders achieving victory, surely God had ruled on whose cause was right?

In a letter to Emperor Baldwin of 7 November 1204, Innocent expressed his joy at the capture of Constantinople and described it as ‘a magnificent miracle’. In this letter, and one addressed to the clerics with the crusading army (13 November), he portrayed the campaign as God transferring the Byzantine Empire from ‘the proud to the humble, from the disobedient to the obedient, from schismatics to Catholics . . .’; this, he concluded, ‘was done by the Lord and is wondrous in our eyes’. Innocent was delighted and placed the Latin Empire under papal protection – a mark of special favour – and decreed that the task of preserving the newly conquered lands should be rewarded with the remission of sins (the same as for a crusader to the Holy Land). In other words, he harnessed a fundamental element of the crusading concept – the defence of Christian lands – to the immediate priorities of Emperor Baldwin. At this point, perhaps rather naively underestimating the work needed to consolidate the new conquests, the pope still imagined that the crusade would be able to continue onwards to the Levant.

A swathe of letters from early 1205 shows Innocent’s euphoria continuing unabated. He seems to have been totally caught up in this mighty step forward for the Catholic Church. For him, the momentous scale of God’s judgement heralded a Golden Age that would see the liberation of the Holy Land, the return of all schismatic Christians to St Peter’s see, the conversion of many heathens and the salvation of Israel – the last of which would signify the Second Coming and the End of Time. This was a remarkable agenda, but one evidently conceivable within contemporaneous currents in papal thought. The pope continued to profess his pleasure at the events in Constantinople: ‘I am enveloped by great wonder, along with those who are with me, at the novelty of such a miracle that has come to pass in these days.’

So content was Innocent that, for the moment, he overlooked yet another arrogation of papal authority by the Venetians. The March Pact of 1204 had stated that the losing party in the imperial election should have the right to provide a patriarch. Thus it fell to the doge’s churchmen to choose a candidate and they elected Thomas Morosini as their head. Unsurprisingly, as a Byzantine, Niketas Choniates found the presence of this man loathsome and he offered a savage pen-portrait of the Venetian: ‘He was of middle-age and fatter than a hog raised in a pit; his face was clean-shaven, as is the case with the rest of his race, and his chest was plucked smoother than pitchplaster; he wore a ring on his hand, and sometimes he wore leather coverings which were fitted to his fingers.’ Innocent was more concerned with Thomas’s spiritual attributes and acknowledged that he was of good character – notwithstanding the fact that the process outlined in the March Pact was a serious transgression of papal prerogatives. The agreement was, after all, a deal concluded between secular parties (the Venetians and the other crusaders), but the relevant clause here concerned election to one of the five patriarchal seats of the Christian Church, something that those enjoined to the contract had no right to decide. For this reason, Innocent had no hesitation in declaring the election void. Yet such was the pope’s positive mood at this time that he listened to representations from Baldwin, Boniface and the other crusade leaders that emphasised the huge Venetian contribution to the campaign and argued that this merited a proper reward. In response, Innocent conceded that Thomas was indeed a suitable candidate for patriarch, regardless of his improper election. Then, most realistically of all, ‘wishing to show favour to the Venetians in the hope that they might be tied more strongly to the service of the Cross of Christ’, he informed the churchmen in Constantinople that he now properly elected and confirmed Thomas as the first Latin patriarch of Constantinople.

By the middle of 1205, however, events in the Holy Land and Constantinople conspired to darken Pope Innocent’s mood considerably. The situation in the Levant plunged into a new crisis with the death (from a surfeit of fish) of King Aimery of Jerusalem, followed quickly by the demise of his infant son. War between the Christian states of Antioch and Armenia, along with a fear that the Muslims of Egypt and Damascus were poised to break a treaty made with Aimery, created huge anxieties for the papacy. The Franks were vulnerable enough anyway and these calamities threatened their fragile hold on the Syrian coastline.

To compound these troubles Peter Capuano, the papal legate, had left the Holy Land – against Innocent’s wishes – and travelled to Constantinople. There, incredibly, he had released all the westerners from their crusading vows. In other words, they were no longer obligated to go to the eastern Mediterranean, the area that Innocent continued to see as the final destination of the expedition and a region now in urgent need of help. Capuano had, in effect, terminated the Fourth Crusade. His reasoning for this is not explicit, although in the way that he had allowed the expedition to attack Zara in order to preserve its unity, pragmatism was probably at the root of his thoughts. He may have taken the view that the best way to sustain the fledgling Latin Empire was to concentrate the crusaders’ efforts in and around Constantinople and that this, rather than an exodus of men to the Holy Land, was in the best interests of the Church. Whatever Capuano’s intentions were, Pope Innocent was livid. On 12 July 1205 he wrote a stinging rebuke to the legate: ‘We leave it to your judgement as to whether or not it was permissible for you to transform – no, rather to pervert – such a solemn and pious vow.’ Ironically, therefore, an agent of the papacy brought the Fourth Crusade to a close. Innocent’s grand design had been grounded on the shores of the Bosphorus and, in the short term, his hopes of reclaiming Christ’s patrimony were ended.

In conjunction with this disastrous development, the pope’s perception of the capture of Constantinople was changing. Stories concerning the evils perpetrated by the crusaders during the sack of the city were growing ever more unpleasant and troubling. As we saw earlier, the letters sent to Rome by the expedition’s leadership had chosen to pass over the westerners’ brutality. But as the months went by, rumours carried by traders and travellers were supplemented by information from returning crusaders, such as Bishop Conrad of Halberstadt or Bishop Martin of Pairis, and exposed the full horrors of the episode. Innocent was sickened by what he learned – what had seemed a glorious success was in reality a sordid exercise in greed and violence. His letters lamented: ‘By that from which we appeared to have profited up to now we are impoverished, and by that from which we believed we were, above all else, made greater, we are reduced.’ Innocent questioned why the Greek Church might wish to express its devotion to the papacy – as the crusaders so proudly claimed that it would – when it saw in the Latins ‘nothing except an example of affliction and the works of Hell, so that now it rightly detests them more than dogs’. He recounted the crusaders’ merciless slaughter of Christians of all ages, men and women alike, ‘staining with blood Christian swords that should have been used on pagans’. He grimly recited some of the other atrocities: the rape of matrons, virgins, nuns; the sack of the churches and the violation of sacristies and crosses. Initially Innocent seems to have believed that only the imperial treasuries had been looted, but he was horrified to learn of the plunder of churches across the city.

Innocent had also become aware of the Latins’ terrible defeat at Adrianople, yet instead of lamenting the death of so many great knights he described the episode as one of Divine Retribution for the crusaders’ deeds – an uncompromisingly harsh judgement on the loss of many genuinely pious warriors. The pope felt that events of April 1204 damaged future calls for a crusade because those who had been on the campaign would be returning home, dispensed from their vows and laden with spoils.

The details of the sack caused Innocent to express doubts as to the true motives of some of the crusaders. He had already been deeply sceptical of the Venetians’ aims, but now, in a letter to Boniface of Montferrat, he suggested that the marquis had ‘turned away from the purity of your vow when [you] took up arms not against Saracens, but Christians . . . preferring earthly wealth to celestial treasures’. Innocent indicated that ‘it is reputed far and wide’ that the crusaders had behaved disgracefully towards the people and churches of Constantinople.

Yet alongside this anger there was also a sense of puzzlement. As the contemporary churchman and writer Gerald of Wales stated: ‘The judgement of God is never unjust even if it is sometimes hard to understand.’36 The pope struggled to reconcile the divinely approved outcome of the expedition with news of the crusaders’ behaviour during the conquest. In the final analysis Innocent had too much of a pragmatic streak to condemn the crusaders wholeheartedly. He did not, for example, raise the question of excommunicating the army for their deeds, let alone suggest a withdrawal from Byzantium. The pope accepted God’s judgement against ‘an evil people’ (the Greeks) and retreated behind rumination on ‘the incomprehensible ways of God’. He concluded: ‘For who can know the mind of the Lord?’ He also urged Boniface to hold, defend and even extend the lands he now ruled, which shows that Innocent saw the new Latin Empire as a permanent feature of the political and religious landscape. The pope instructed the marquis to do proper penance for his sinful acts and to exert himself for the relief of the Holy Land because ‘through this [Byzantine] land, that [the Holy Land] can be easily recovered’.

If Innocent’s feelings towards the sack of Constantinople now reflected a more accurate sense of what had really taken place, he could not step back from the fact that the Catholic Church had, through its capture of the patriarchal city of Constantinople, derived an enormous (if unforeseen) benefit from the Fourth Crusade. There now remained the need to reinforce and defend this land – yet another onerous responsibility for the head of the Latin Church and one of the most far-reaching consequences of the campaign.