The destruction of Constantinople by the crusaders – the year 1204

The Taking of Constantinople
The Taking of Constantinople 

A Christian city destroyed by crusaders. It had resisted waves of invaders from Bulgars to Russians and the Muslim emirates. But it was brought to its knees by people it should have been able to trust. This was the betrayal of Constantinople. The worst act of the crusades.

There in the eastern Mediterranean was “The City” – the most opulent metropolis of the Middle Ages. Standing at the end of the Silk Route, a collection of golden domed edifices built by the Roman emperor Constantine and further embellished by rulers like Justinian and the great Byzantine emperor Basil.

Constantinople was beyond doubt the greatest city of late antiquity and the early Middle Ages.

ConquestOfConstantinopleByTheCrusadersIn1204Unfortunately, it had a deadly rival in Venice – an emerging maritime power in the medieval period.  The Doge – ruler of Venice – funded the Fourth Crusade but finding the crusaders unable to cough up what they owed him, he ordered them to sack Constantinople. Even though the eastern Christians of the city had rejected papal power and formed what we now call the Orthodox church, the pope was still sufficiently scandalized by what he now saw as an abuse of the crusades. He condemned their actions repeatedly but to no avail.

Here was a military venture that was supposed to push back Islam and reassert Christian power in the Middle East. Their original target was supposed to be Muslim Cairo. Instead, the crusaders were heading off to beat up the largest Christian power in the east because they owed money to the Doge. Tragically, they did indeed manage to breach the city’s walls – built in the 400s and thought to be impenetrable. The multi-layered walls had repelled everybody from the Huns to the Arabs and Bulgars. But not this army.

A weak and divided Byzantine leadership crumbled. The crusaders set fire to large parts of the city – and you can still see evidence of the damage in modern Istanbul today, as I have done – and then moved in to the Hagia Sophia. This was the massive cathedral built by Justinian in the mid-500s that still inspires awe today.

Gold and silver and jewels were stripped off the walls and altars. A contemporary chronicler recounted the events with horror:

“For the sacred altar, formed of all kinds of precious materials and admired by the whole world, was broken into bits and distributed among the soldiers, as was all the other sacred wealth of so great and infinite splendour.”

Stealing wasn’t enough for the crusaders as they decided to defile the church by crowning a prostitute as bishop:

“Nay more, a certain harlot, a sharer in their guilt, a minister of the furies, a servant of the demons, a worker of incantations and poisonings, insulting Christ, sat in the patriarch’s seat, singing an obscene song and dancing frequently.”

If you visit Venice, look up at the four horses above St Mark’s church – they were looted by crusaders in this year. A so-called Latin kingdom was established that lasted a few decades before the Byzantines were able to reassert control. However, Constantinople would never fully recover from this battering and sank into an irreversible decline.

Paganism in Europe at the time of the Templars

Ancient Roman anti-Christian graffiti depicting Jesus as a crucified donkey

We imagine that at the time of the Knights Templar, the whole of Europe was long converted to Christianity. Well, think again. Paganism was persistent for centuries after the Romans adopted the cross under the Emperor Constantine in the year 313.

When Constantine embraced Christianity, it’s estimated about 10% of the population of the empire were on board with the new religion. Many of those were among the elite with local peasant populations holding fast to the old beliefs.

The first century of legalisation saw Christians at each other’s throats over what their faith really meant. Was Jesus truly human? Was he purely spiritual? Could the son really be equal and co-existent with the father? Was there a god of good and a god of evil? Was Jesus a Jew come to fulfil prophecy and the law or something completely new who spoke to gentile and Jew alike?

Blood was spilt over these questions.

Jupiter – didn’t go quietly

But worse for the new religion was the pagans were not prepared to give up quietly. There’s often the impression given that Romans switched peacefully and totally from paganism to Christianity overnight. Simply not true.

The state had to cajole, coerce and threaten capital punishment to bring over the population across the empire. There were even tax breaks for becoming a priest and career opportunities if you just signed on the dotted line!

By the end of the fourth century, an impatient and pious (some might say bigoted) emperor Theodosius began a full-blown programme of temple demolition to enforce Christianity. And not just any old version of the faith. He and successive emperors were determined to root out both non-orthodox variants of Christianity and to stamp out the still very prevalent paganism.

And pagans were not just ignorant rustics. There were aristocrats in Rome and philosophers in Athens and Alexandria who found Christianity vapid, illogical and vulgar. Conservative opinion wanted to retain allegiance to the gods that had brought victory to Rome. They lobbied the emperor strenuously to retain the statue of Victory in the Roman senate.


So resilient was paganism that by the sixth century after Christ, the emperor Justinian was still trying to stamp out non-belief in his court and empire. He threatened both non-orthodox Christians and pagans with capital punishment. And it was Justinian who shut down the famous Athenian academy that had produced the greatest philosophers humanity has ever known.

Eventually, most of western and southern Europe, north Africa and the near Middle East converted – until the arrival of Islam changed the religious dynamic again. But pockets of pagans continued to worship old gods – not least in the Baltics and what is now Russia.

ironlordIron Lord is a Russian movie that depicts Christian conversion in Russia as the Prince of Rostov takes on a pagan cult based around a violent bear!  He kills the bear and the tribe converts.  They convert to what one pagan calls the ‘Greek God’ – namely the version of Christianity that was being promoted by the Byzantine empire, what we now call the eastern orthodox church.

But astonishingly, in the early 13th century, the ‘Old Prussians’ of what is now northern Poland and the Baltic state of Lithuania had still not converted.  Indeed they held out so vigorously that the papacy mounted a full crusade against them, spearheaded by the Teutonic knights – an order not entirely dissimilar to the Templars.

The Teutonic Knights also turned their attention to the Russians, who had adopted the Byzantine version of Christianity, much to the pope’s disgust. However – the knights came a cropper in what is called the Battle of the Ice where the Russians let the ice do the talking.

So, in spite of what you might have thought before, it took nearly a thousand years from the conversion of the Emperor Constantine to finally bring Europe under Christian domination.  And not everybody bowed willingly to the cross.