The chance to unify the faithful -- and gain a strong ally -- led to the conquest of Christendoms's leading city.
In April 1204, the armies of the Fourth Crusade broke into the city of Constantinople and began to loot, pillage, and slaughter their way across the greatest metropolis in the Christian world. Within months Pope Innocent III, the man who had first called for the Crusade, bitterly lamented the spilling of "blood on Christian swords that should have been used on pagans" and described the expedition as "an example of affliction and the works of Hell."
Niketas Choniates, one of the inhabitants of the city, condemned the Crusaders' actions in understandably harsh terms: "In truth, they were exposed as frauds. Seeking to avenge the Holy Spirit they raged openly against Christ and sinned by overturning the Cross with the cross they bore on their backs, not even shuddering to trample on it for the sake of a little gold or silver." To the Crusaders themselves, the capture of Constantinople seemed an astonishing turn of events. One wrote: "We might safely say that no history could ever relate marvels greater than these so far as the fortunes of war are concerned....This was done by the Lord and is a miracle above all miracles in our eyes."
How could a combined land and naval force of perhaps twenty thousand men take a city with an estimated population of 350,000? In reality, the combination of a particularly favorable set of political circumstances, military and maritime skills of the highest order, religious zeal, and sheer good fortune enabled the Crusaders to succeed.
Before we explore the reasons behind this victory, it is crucial to explain why the Fourth Crusade arrived at Constantinople. Just over one hundred years earlier, in November 1095, Pope Urban II had issued a call to the knights of France to liberate the city of Jerusalem from Islam. In return for their efforts, these warriors would be rewarded with the remission of all their sins.
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