The band of knights who gathered at Count Thibaut of Champaigne's castle in November 1199 intended simply to enjoy their host's hospitality and impress their ladies in jousting tournaments. But when the electric preacher Fulk of Neuilly gained entrance to the castle and publicly lamented the success of Saladin's Muslim forces in the Holy Land, frivolity left the hall. Wearing crosses of cloth across their shoulders, Count Thibaut and a company of knights marched to Pope Innocent III and pledged their lives to war.

Innocent was delighted with Thibaut's offer. For over a year, he'd worked among the monastic orders to inflame crusader wrath over the losses Saladin had inflicted—to little effect. Finally, a new leader had emerged to challenge the Muslims. Rome could now answer the frantic calls for help coming from besieged crusaders in the coastal city of Tyre.

Innocent and Thibaut decided to strike first at Egypt, the vulnerable underbelly of Saladin's forces. In 1201, Thibaut sent envoys to the doge of Venice requesting ships for the voyage, since the Turks now made land passage too dangerous. The doge agreed, setting a departure date of June 1202. But he charged a hefty price of 85,000 silver marks.

Deals in the dark

Then the unexpected happened. Thibaut fell ill and died, and another nobleman, Boniface of Montferrat, took his place as commander of the Fourth Crusade. While visiting a friend in Germany, Boniface met Alexius Angelinus, son of Constantinople's dispossessed emperor, now seeking men and arms in his quest to regain the throne of Christianity's eastern empire.

Alexius tried to persuade Boniface to redirect the crusaders away from Egypt and retake Constantinople for the Angelina family. In return, Alexius offered ...

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