Enrico Dandolo’s Revenge or The Fourth Crusade

Conquest Of Constantinople By The Crusaders In 1204

Enrico Dandolo had an ax to grind.  At first, it seemed like he had a pretty good life.  He was born in the early 12th century to an influential Venetian noble family.  His father was Vitale Dandolo, who was a famous jurist and diplomat.  His uncle, another Enrico Dandolo, was the patriarch of Grado, the highest ranking churchman in Venice.  Young Enrico followed in his father’s footsteps and went on many diplomatic for the Republic.  He was a shrewd politician and survived a disastrous mission Constantinople in 1171.  The Byzantine Empire was the biggest kid on the block, and had seized the goods of thousands of Venetians living in the Empire and threw the people in prison.  The initial mission was a complete mess, and ended up with the Doge being killed by a mob.  Dandolo survived and made many diplomatic trips to Constantinople, Ferrara and Sicily.  It is said one trip to Constantinople, Enrico lost his sight.  One story says that he so vigorously defended the rights of the Venetians living in Constantinople, the Byzantine emperor had him blinded.  However, Groffroi de Villehardouin, a chronicler of the fourth Crusade, reports Dandolo lost his sight from a blow to the head.  However, he lost his sight, it did not quench his ambition or his ability, and stoked a growing hatred for the Byzantine Empire.

At a time when most men were settling down, Dandolo began his rise to power.  He became the forty-first Doge of Venice on June 1, 1192.  He was 84 years old and blind to boot.  However, he wasn’t about to rest on his laurels.  He had a score to settle with Byzantium.  By the end of the 12th century, there had been three crusades to retake the holy land with varying degrees of success.  The Third Crusade had just ended with the Treaty of Jaffa, which left the city of Jerusalem under Muslim control.  No one much liked that.  The Saladin died, and his successors looked easier to beat.  So in 1198, Pope Innocent III immediately began calling for a new crusade to free Jerusalem.  Unfortunately, no one was much interested as literally everyone in Europe was busy with something else.  

Finally in 1202, the  army of mostly French recruits, marched to Venice, who had agreed to provide them with transport to Cairo.  Slight problem, no one had any money to pay the Venetians.  This turned into a huge problem for Venice as they had sunk all their ready cash in building a fleet for the crusaders, which put their shipbuilding economy on hold.  Plus there were 12,000 soldiers wandering around with no money and bored out of their minds.  That wasn’t going to end well.  A deal was struck.  The crusaders could go to Cairo, if they captured the port of Zara on the Dalmatian coast for Venice on the way.  Zara was a Christian city, but no matter.  They would get some cash plus revenge for the Dalmatians not aligning themselves with Venice, the crusaders would get where they needed to go.  Win win.   Not exactly in the eyes of Pope Innocent III, who put tried to put the kibosh on the plan by threatening to excommunicate everyone if they went through with it.  Everyone kind of forgot to tell the rank and file that, and they took Zara anyway.

So, now that Dandolo was officially excommunicated he was now free to do exactly what he wanted, and he smelled profit and revenge.  While all this was going on,

Tomb of Enrico Dandolo in Hagia Sofia in Istanbul Photo Credit- https://wordscene.wordpress.com/tag/fourth-crusade/

there was a power struggle in Constantinople.  Isaac II lost the throne and his brother was crowned as Alexios III.  Isaac’s son, another Alexios, was not keen on losing his inheritance, and cast about for allies and found one Enrico Dandolo.  Dandolo had the crusader army sale not for Cairo, but for Constantinople with Isaac’s son in tow.  He was to be proclaimed basileus for the tidy sum of 236,000 silver marks.  Yet another problem-  Isaac’s son did not have that kind of money.  Alexios decided to keep that to himself as the crusader army and Venetian ships attacked Constantinople.  They almost lost, but eventually Alexios III lost his nerve and fled.  Young Alexios was crowned Alexios IV as co-emperor with his old father, Isaac II.  It was time to pay up, but Alexios decided to try to to skip out on the debt.

When the Venetians found out they were pissed.  They refused to leave the city until they got every cent, and eventually the crusader army and the citizens of Constantinople were brawling in the city streets.  The citizens were fed up and brought in a new basileus, yet another Alexios who became Alexios V.  This Alexios was very anti-Latin, as the crusaders and Venetians were called.  Dandolo knew they weren’t going to get any money from him, so they declared him a usurper and let the crusader army loose on the great city of Constantinople.  Not exactly what Pope Innocent had in mind, but he eventually got his cut so he let it slide.

The city fell to the crusader army on April 13, 1204 and it is estimated that 900,000 silver marks was looted out of Constantinople.  Jerusalem wasn’t conquered and the Muslims were never engaged in one battle.  The only people who fought were Christians against Christians, which greatly belittled the worth of the Pope’s word.  Innocent fought that battle for years after.  However, everyone made their money and Dandolo got his revenge.  However, the price for his revenge was quite high.  The Byzantine Empire had been the bulwark against the Muslims for years and this little escapade had weakened it significantly.  There was a series of “Latin” rulers, but within sixty years the Greeks were back in charge.  However, it never recovered and became an easy mark for the Ottoman Empire.  


The Loves of John Smith

mtiwnja4njmzotc0mtk1nzi0As we discussed in our previous post on Pocahontas (http://www.historynaked.com/pocahontas/), explorer John Smith had his life saved by the Native American princess.  Some historians have cast doubt on this story as the only source we have is a letter Smith wrote to Queen Anne describing the event in 1616 when Pocahontas journeyed to England.  Smith’s only journals from that time make no mention of the event and describe the Powhatan people as nothing but friendly.  What is known is Smith had a thing for princesses as another one made a significant impact on his life.

Before his journeys to the New World, John Smith was a bonafide pirate.  As a boy, Sir Francis Drake had been his hero, and in 1596 went to the Continent to join a company of English mercenaries.  He fought in France and in the Netherlands, picking up practical military skills and education.  He learned riding and Italian from Theodore Palaeologus, the riding master to the Earl of Lincoln.  Theodore was also an interesting character and was the last of the Byzantines.  (For more information on Theodore, please see this post:  http://www.historynaked.com/constantinople-barbados-via-cornwall-strange-fate-last-byzantines/)  Along with his knowledge, Theodore also passed on to John a hatred of the Turks.  With a burning desire to strike a blow against the infidel, John found himself back on the Continent in 1600 looking for “brave adventures”.  En route to Hungary to join the Austrian army against Turks, his ship sank.  John made it to an island off Cannes, and was eventually picked up by a Captain La Roche, who made his living plundering ships in the Mediterranean.  This adventure in piracy  made John Smith a wealthy man and allowed him to finally make it to Graz and join the Austrian campaign against the Turks.

With the Austrians, John made a name for himself as a creative and resourceful soldier.  At the battle of Limbach, he was able to use an innovative system of signals to communicate with the besieged garrison in the town.  Then fooled the Turks into thinking the Austrians were attacking to the west by using string, cloth and powder to create the illusion of an army of flintlock muskets.  Then the real army attacked from the east after the Turks repositioned their troops.  At the siege of Alba Regals, he created “fiery dragons”, which were pots filled with gunpowder, covered with pitch, brimstone and turpentine.  Then these were coated with musket bullets.  These were then set on fire and flung into the Turkish lines.  To top this, he defeated three Turkish champions in single combat and won the right to put “three Turkish heads” on his shield.

This is all well and good, I hear you saying, but where is the princess?  Be patient.  I’m getting there.  After the siege of Alba Regals, he was wounded in a minor skirmish with the Tartars and left for dead.  From there, he was captured and taken to the slave market and in John’s words, “we all sold for slaves, like beasts in a market-place; where every merchant, viewing their limbs and wounds, caused other slaves to struggle with them to try their strength.”  He was bought by a Turkish nobleman, who gifted him to his Greek mistress in Constantinople, one Princess Charatza Tragabigzanda.  Charatza became smitten with her new English slave and even made plans to marry him.  She sent him to her brother to “to learne the language, and what it was to be a Turke, till time made her Master of her selfe.”  However, Charatza’s brother had other plans.  Instead of training him as a bureaucrat as he promised, he made John the slave to the Christian slaves, which was the lowest position in the household.  John was abused and mistreated terribly, and began to look for ways to escape.  One day, he was out threshing wheat and the brother came out to inspect his work and began beating him.  John snapped, and beat the brother with the threshing bat killing him.  He then stole his former master’s clothes and horse and got the heck out of Dodge leaving Charatza behind.

After he escaped, John Smith got bit by the colonization bug and headed to Virginia.  Perhaps he thought it was good a place as any to escape any slave hunters.  There he met Pocahontas and then returned home after a spark from a friend’s tobacco pipe ignited Smith’s gunpowder bag as he slept in Jamestown.  The explosion wounded him severely and blew off his genitals.  He barely survived the two month journey home.  He did return to the New World in 1615, and tried to start the first permanent colony in New England.  Unfortunately, his ships were ravaged by pirates and storms and it didn’t stick.  He did try to name a spot near the Isles of Shoals in New Hampshire Tragabigzanda, after Charatza, but that didn’t stick either.  It’s nice to know he didn’t forget her though.


The siege of Kaffa
The siege of Kaffa

It is recorded that by 1331 The Black Death was ravaging its way through central Asia. It was for a long time a mystery as to how exactly this plague managed to make its way to the shores of Europe but by reading ancient texts historians and biologists think they have traced its advancement to the city of Kaffa in Crimea and the first ever recorded use of biological warfare.

As the plague killed half the population of China and made its way through India and Persia somehow trade managed to continue. It’s of no surprise then that plague infested rats climbed aboard trading vessels and found their way into Southern Russia around 1345.

This was land known as the ‘Golden Horde’ and it was Mongol ruled territory. The plague spread rapidly through this area and made its way to Crimea.

In the city of Kaffa a group of merchants from Genoa were allowed by the Mongols to control the seaport on the Crimean peninsula. The Mongols allowed this as it was highly advantageous to them but tensions often ran high between the Catholic Italians and the Muslim Mongols. As things often do, violence eventually broke out, in a small town called Tana, between the Genoans and the local people, subsequently a Muslim man was found dead.

Although not a picture of The siege of Kaffa, this is a Mongol style siege.
Although not a picture of The siege of Kaffa, this is a Mongol style siege.

Fearing execution by the Mongols the Genoans fled for their lives back to the main city of Kaffa. They were given sanctuary and the pursuing Mongols were refused entry. Incensed by this action the Mongols laid siege to the city but it wasn’t long before in turn The Black Death caught up with them. It is here we have a first-hand account of events by Gabriele de’ Mussi; “whereupon the Tartars (Mongols) worn out by this pestilential disease and falling on all sides as thunderstruck, and seeing that they were perishing slowly, ordered the corpses to be thrown upon their engines and thrown into the city of Kaffa. Accordingly were the bodies of the dead hurled over the walls, so that the Christians were unable to hide or protect themselves from this danger, although they carried away as many as possible and threw them into the sea”

A map showing the progression of the plague from 1346 to 1350
A map showing the progression of the plague from 1346 to 1350

Of course it cannot be proven as to whether it was the bodies that then infected those within the walls of the city or that the rats carrying the disease made their way inside. Either way it was the death knell for many of those holed up inside. In 1347 the Italians finally fled Kaffa and headed for their ships. On their way back to Italy they stopped at Constantinople and infected the city. Thousands upon thousands were killed as it spread its way through Asia Minor and eventually on to infect the Genoans homeland of Italy and the rest of Western Europe.


Empress Irene

Empress Irene (image from "Pala d'Oro", Venice)
Empress Irene (image from “Pala d’Oro”, Venice)

Not much is known about Irene’s early life.  She born between 750 and 755 CE and was related in some way to the noble Greek Sarantapechos family of Athens.  She was an orphan, and there is some mystery around why she was chosen from obscurity to be the bride of Leo IV, heir to Constantinople.  It is thought she might have been selected in the first instance of a “bride show”, where girls of outstanding beauty were brought together and a wife was chosen.  There is no evidence of this though.

However, she came to the attention of Constantine V Copronymus, the ‘dung-named’ so nicknamed after an unfortunate baptismal font incident as an infant, he married Irene to his son Leo in the chapel of St. Stephen in the Daphne palace.  She was crowned in the same ceremony.  The couple had a son, named Constantine after his grandfather.  Four years later, Leo succeeded his father Constantine to the throne of the Byzantine Empire.  Little Constantine was made co-emperor with his father when the child was five years old.  This did not make Leo’s half brothers happy as they were angling to get a share of the inheritance.  However, Irene and her son withstood the first of many conspiracies against them.

Abruptly, Leo died when Constantine was ten years old under mysterious circumstances.  There was a rumor Leo died of a fever after taking and wearing a jeweled crown from the church of St. Sophia.  This was supposed to be the wrath of God.  However, other rumors persisted that his death came from a more earthly sources-  Irene, as she stepped in as Empress-Regent for her young son.  The jeweled crown story was not just to cover Irene’s tracks.  This period in Byzantine history is fraught with conflicts between iconoclasts and iconophiles.  Icons were images, most of which were beautifully wrought and encrusted with gold, jewels and swathed in silks, of God and the saints.  Leo and his forefathers were iconoclast, which meant they followed a strict prohibition against images because they felt they were blasphemous.  Many of the icons were destroyed.  Irene was an iconophile, and revered the icons as holy.  The crown story put a stain on Leo’s memories, and helped gather support for the policy u-turn on the icons Irene began implementing.

Again, Leo’s half brothers raised their head and tried to overthrow Irene.  She had the head of the revolt, Nicephorus, as well as other generals and consuls arrested, scourged and tonsured, or forcibly made monks.  Nicephorus and his brothers were ordained priests, which disqualified them from becoming emperor.  The brothers were forced to administer communion at Christmas Day mass in St. Sophia.  Although it was a regency, Irene began ruling in her own name.  She issued coins holding the orb of state and Constantine’s name was placed on the reverse.  She replaced minister with men who owed their power to her not her husband or father-in-law.  They were inexperienced, but were loyal and that was what Irene was looking for.  She and her minister, Staurakios, ruled the empire.  The empire grew rich from trade, especially the silk trade.  Irene recognized its importance, and like China before them the Byzantine Empire tried to corner the market.  Irene built the palace of Eleutherios, which was surrounded by the silk workshops.  These were mostly staffed by women, and because of fears of having the skilled workers kidnapped they were not allowed to leave.

This solidus struck under Irene reports the legend BASILISSH, Basilisse. Photo Credit- Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.
This solidus struck under Irene reports the legend BASILISSH, Basilisse. Photo Credit- Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.

Little Constantine came of age and was ready to rule in his own right, however, Irene was not ready to step aside.    He mounted a rebellion, but unfortunately for him an earthquake gave Irene and Staurakios time to counter his plans.  Irene had her son imprisoned and made the imperial army swear they would never allow him to rule and they would only be loyal to her.  However, she was not popular with the army before and this did not improve that at all.  Constantine finally got his rebellion and confined his mother her palace of Eleutherios, where she was as trapped as the silk workers.  Constantine did not make an especially good showing as a ruler.  He was defeated by the Bulgars and the Arabs.  The generals tried to bring back his Uncle Nicephorus, but Constantine was not going quietly and had his uncles blinded and their tongues torn out.  There was a old law that the Emperor had to be of sound body, so anyone missing organs was right out.

Constantine was on the wrong side of the army, and got himself on the wrong side of the church when he tried to divorce his wife and marry a new one.  He went ahead and put his mistress on the throne, but no one was happy about it.  When the new wife miscarried a son, Irene sprung into action.  Constantine was riding back from an unsuccessful campaign against the Arabs when he was captured and taken back to Constantinople.  He was thrown in a dungeon and his eyes gouged out, effectively making him ineligible for rule.  There is debate as to whether Irene gave the order to maim her own son, but she must have certainly knew about it.  Constantine died not long after.  Irene was the sole ruler of Constantinople, and empire was thicker than blood.

The Empire was frantic.  With Constantine dead, there was no heir and Irene was getting on in years and a woman besides.  At one point, it was proposed she marry Charlemagne, which would have united the Eastern and Western empires for the first time in hundreds of years.  Pope Leo had declared the throne of Constantinople technically empty since Irene was a woman.  This would unite the empires and put a man on the throne.  However, no self respecting Byzantine wanted to see a barbarian Frank on as Basileus of Constantinople.  Irene’s minister of finance, another Nicephorus, mounted a coup d’etat and crowned himself emperor.  Irene was exiled to the island of Lesbos and forced to support herself by spinning wool.  She died a year later on August 9, 803.


Sources available on request

The Varangian Guard-  Vikings in Constantinople

13173670_272341436441279_9143543112331458610_nConstantinople was the crossroads of many cultures, so it is unsurprising that the Vikings made their way there as well.  Vikings came originally as traders or raiders, depending on which would give them the most profit.  Then they settled in what would become Russia founding the settlements of Novgorod and Kiev.  They intermarried with the native Slavic tribes to consolidate their power base.  The Slavs called the Vikings “Rus”, which eventually lent its name to the region which became Russia.  However, the Greeks and eastern Slavs called them Varangian.  Varangian meant a stranger who had taken military service.  Eventually, it came to mean he foreign warriors still arriving from Scandinavia to trade, or offer their swords for hire to the Rus.  These mercenaries made their way south and found the rich city of Constantinople, where they could they could sell their swords at exorbitant rates.  The Byzantines were no stranger to mercenaries, and often hired Normans, Hungarians, Turks, Lombards, Georgians, Armenians, Arabs, Slavs and many others.  The first Varangians in the service of Constantinople were mentioned in 902 as an expedition to Crete.

Emperor Basil II to Varangian aid from Vladimir I to stabilize the Eastern Empire.  In return, Vladimir married the emperor’s sister, Anna, and converted to Christianity.  From then on, the Varangians, or the “axe-bearing barbarians”, formed the core of the Imperial Bodyguard.   Basil was said to trust the Varangians more than his own people, and began to depend on them more and more.  It was a close knit elite group and all Norsemen coming to Constantinople were not automatically inducted.  The group had higher pay, could be among the first to loot after a victory, and even had the privilege of plundering the emperor’s palace after his death.   Plus, the guard had the ear of the emperor so they could influence policy or bring down favorites.  Princess Anna Komnene wrote in her history The Alexiad, the Varangians were known for their fanatical loyalty to the emperor and seemed to pass this down from generation to generation.  They remained at the emperor’s side at all times, accompanying him to festivals and parties, religious activities and private affairs.  The Varangians were barracked within the imperial palace to make sure they were nearby at all times and even guarded the emperor’s bedchamber when he slept.  They were in charge of crowd control and always made sure there was an escape route out of any gathering.

Although originally only Norsemen, the Varangian Guard expanded to include men from the British Isles.  A fee of seven to sixteen pounds of gold was charged to allow entrance into the army, but it was recouped very quickly with all the opportunities for plunder.  In fact, the best recruitment tool was tales of the vast wealth the Guard could be expected to win.  The Icelandic Laxdaela Saga tells of a certain Bolli Bollason who went to Byzantium and there climbed the ranks to become an officer of the Varangian Guard. His homecoming in 1030 is described in the following way: “Bolli brought back with him much wealth, and many precious things that lords abroad had given him. Bolli was so great a man for show when he came back from this journey that he would wear no clothes but those made of scarlet and fur, and all his weapons were bedight with gold: he was called Bolli the Great. […] Bolli rode from the ship with twelve men, and all his followers were dressed in scarlet, and rode on gilt saddles, and all were a trusty band, though Bolli was peerless among them. He had on the clothes of fur which the Garth-king (Emperor) had given him, he had over all a scarlet cape; and he had Footbiter girt on him, the hilt of which was dight with gold, and the grip woven with gold; he had a gilded helmet on his head, and a red shield on his flank, with a knight painted on it in gold. He had a dagger in his hand, as is the custom in foreign lands; and whenever they took quarters the women paid heed to nothing but gazing at Bolli and his grandeur, and that of his followers.”

However, it wasn’t all plunder and glory.  In the disastrous battle of Manzikert in 1071, the regular troops mutinied and fled.  The Varangians stayed and died to a man defending the emperor.  And like the Pretorians before them, the Varangians began to fall to corruption.  After the fourth crusade, there is no additional mention of the Varangian Guard or Norsemen guarding the emperor.  However, it was good while it lasted and the Varangians survived longer than their Viking cousins.


Sources available on request