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The Fall of Constantinople
by Villehardouin

by Jim Jones, West Chester University of Pennsylvania (c.2013)
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Geoffrey of Villehardouin (c1154-c1218) was a leader of the Fourth Crusade and its best known chronicleer. Born into a noble family, he bypassed an older brother to become the Marechal of Champagne (France) in 1185. He "took the cross" in 1199 and led an army on the Fourth Crusade, where he fought well and saved a Frankish army after the failed siege of Adrianople. After the end of the Crusade in 1207, he started to write the history from which this excerpt was taken. It concerns the fall of Constantinople in 1204 following the second siege by the Franks and their allies, the Venetians. Villehardouin relied on his own recollections, plus accounts from other participants, for his sources. His history is the earliest known example of prose history in French (i.e. not written as an epic poem), and it served as a model for many later military historians.



The Fourth Crusade (1202-1204) was called by the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI (the son of Frederick Barbarossa, who died during the Third Crusade), in order to extend his control over territory in the Mediterranean. Henry even had a claim to the Byzantine imperial crown, thanks to the marriage of his brother Philip to Irene, the daughter of emperor Isaac Angelus (ruled 1185-1195 until he was overthrown). Pope Innocent III did not approve of the Fourth Crusade and tried to stop it. Most of the rest of Europe's nobles simply ignored the whole business.

The Fourth Crusade was led by a group of minor French nobles who opted to attack Egypt instead of Palestine in the hope of capturing territory to exchange for land around Jerusalem. The Crusaders needed ships to reach Egypt, so they headed first to Venice, home of the largest Christian fleet. There, the Crusaders' leaders negotiated a contract with Venetian merchants to obtain sea passage in exchange for launching an assault against Zara, an eastern Christian port city on the Adriatic Sea, whose merchants competed with those in Venice.

Pope Innocent III protested the attack by Christians against Christians, but the assault went forward in 1202 and the Crusaders sacked Zara. As punishment, the pope excommunicated all of the participants, but they continued on to Constantinople where they deposed the Byzantine Emperor and restored Isaac Angelus (the Holy Roman Emperor's father-in-law) to the imperial throne in 1203. That incited a rebellion in Constantinople, so the Crusaders invaded the city in 1204 and sacked it "with unparalleled horrors," according to one historian. Note that Villehardouin described "a scene of massacre and pillage; on every hand the Greeks were cut down."

The Crusaders installed Baldwin II of Flanders as the new emperor and replaced the Greek patriarch of Constantinople with a Venetian named Morosini. The Byzantine emperors shifted their capital to Nicea and ruled from there until Emperor Michael VIII retook Constantinople in 1261. The Fourth Crusade never reached Egypt, let alone Jerusalem, and as a result of the conquest of Christian cities like Zara and Constantinople, it completely discredited both the Pope and the crusading movement in western Europe.

A mangonel used to hurl stones at a defensive wall
A "mangonel" used to hurl stones at a defensive wall


map of the defenses of Constantinople
The defenses of Constantinople


  1. The group of soldiers that aided Bohemond "intended to serve the prince as mercenaries." What was the difference between mercenaries or crusaders? Which makes a more effective soldier?
  2. What does this reading say about the relative contributions of the Franks and the Venetians to the victory?
  3. What was Constantinople like in 1204?
  4. How did the Crusaders behave after they entered Constantinople?
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