Crusaders vs. Constantinople, 1204

From: City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas, by Roger Crowley (Random House, 2012), Kindle Loc. 1547-1597:

The Crusaders repaired and re-armed the ships and prepared to launch a new assault the following day: Monday, April 12.

They adjusted their equipment for this second attempt. It was clear that a single ship throwing its flying bridge forward to attack a tower had not worked: The defenders could bring all the weight of numbers to bear on the one spot. It was now decided to link the high-sided sailing ships, the only vessels with the height to reach the towers, in pairs, so that the flying bridges could grapple with a tower from both sides like twin claws. Accordingly they were chained together. Again, the armada sailed out across the Horn to the din of battle. Murtzuphlus was plainly visible in front of his tent directing operations. Trumpets and drums sounded; men shouted; catapults were cranked up—the waterfront was quickly engulfed in a storm of noise, “so loud,” according to Villehardouin, “that the earth seemed to shake.” Arrows thocked across the water; gouts of Greek fire spurted up from the siphons on the Venetian ships; enormous boulders, “so enormous that one man couldn’t lift them,” were hurled through the air from the sixty catapults ranged on the walls; from the hill above, Murtzuphlus shouted directions to the men, “Go here! Go there!” as the angle of attack altered. The defensive arrangements of both sides worked well. The Greek fire fizzled out against the timber superstructures on the ramparts, which were protected by leather casings soaked in vinegar; the vine nets absorbed the force of the boulders which struck the ships. The contest was as inconclusive as the day before. And then, at some point, the wind shifted to the north, propelling the giant sailing ships closer to the shore. Two of these vessels which had been chained together, the Paradise and the Pilgrim, surged forward, their flying bridges converging on a tower from both sides. The Pilgrim struck first. A Venetian soldier clattered up the walkway, sixty feet above the ground, and leaped onto the tower. It was a gesture of doomed bravery; the Varangian Guard advanced and cut him to pieces.

The Pilgrim’s flying bridge, responding to the surge of the sea, disengaged and closed in on the tower for a second time. This time a French soldier, Andrew of Durboise, took his life in his hands and leaped the gap; scarcely grabbing the battlements, he managed to haul himself inside on his knees. While he was still on all fours, a group of men rushed forward with swords and axes and struck him. They thought that they had dealt him a deathblow. Durboise, however, had better armor than the Venetians. Somehow he survived. To the astonishment of his assailants, he climbed to his feet and drew his sword. Appalled and terrified by this supernatural resurrection, they turned and fled to the story below. When those on that level saw the flight, they in turn became infected with panic. The tower was evacuated. Durboise was followed onto the ramparts by others. They now had secure control of a tower and tied the flying bridge to it. The bridge however continued to dip and rear with the movement of the ship against the sea. It threatened to pull down the whole wooden superstructure. The bridge was untied, cutting off the small band of soldiers on their hard-won foothold. Farther down the line, another ship struck a tower and managed to take it, but the Crusaders on the two towers were effectively isolated, surrounded by a swarm of men on the towers on either side. The contest had reached a critical point.

However, the sight of flags flying from these towers put new courage into the attackers now landing on the foreshore in front of the seawalls. Another French knight, Peter of Amiens, decided to tackle the wall itself. Spotting a small bricked-up doorway, he led a charge of men to try to batter it open. The posse included Robert of Clari and his brother, Aleaumes, a warrior monk. They crouched at the foot of the wall with their shields over their heads. A storm of missiles pelted down on them from above; crossbow bolts, pots of pitch, stones, and Greek fire battered on the upturned shields while the men beneath desperately hacked away at the gate “with axes and good swords, pieces of wood, iron bars and pickaxes, until they made a sizable hole.” Through the aperture they could glimpse a swarm of people waiting on the other side. There was a moment of pause. To crawl through the gap was to risk certain death. None of the Crusaders dared advance.

Seeing this hesitation, Aleaumes the monk thrust his way forward and volunteered himself. Robert barred the way, certain his brother was offering to die. Aleaumes struggled past him, got down on his hands and knees and started to crawl through with Robert trying to grab his foot and haul him back. Somehow Aleaumes wriggled and kicked his way free to emerge on the far side—to a barrage of stones. He staggered to his feet, drew his sword—and advanced. And for a second time the sheer bravery of a single man, fueled by religious zeal, turned the tide. The defenders turned and ran. Aleaumes called back to those outside, “My lords, enter boldly! I can see them withdrawing in dismay. They’re starting to run away!” Seventy men scrambled inside. Panic rippled through the defense. The defenders started to retreat, vacating a large part of the wall and the ground behind. From above, Murtzuphlus saw this collapse with growing concern and tried to muster his troops with trumpets and drums.

Whatever the new emperor may have been, he was no coward. He spurred his horse and started down the slope, probably virtually unaccompanied. Peter of Amiens ordered his men to stand their ground: “Now, lords, here is the moment to prove yourselves. Here comes the emperor. See to it that no one dares to give way.” Murtzuphlus’s advance slowed to a halt. Unsupported, he drew back and returned to the tent to rally his forces farther back. The intruders demolished the next gate; men started to flood inside; horses were unloaded; mounted knights galloped through the gaping holes. The seawall was lost.

Meanwhile Peter of Amiens advanced up the hill. Murtzuphlus abandoned his command post and rode off through the city streets to the Bucoleon Palace, two miles away. Choniates bewailed the behavior of his fellow countrymen: “The cowardly thousands, who had the advantage of a high hill, were chased by one man from the fortifications they were meant to defend.” “And so it was,” wrote Robert of Clari from the other side, “that my lord Peter had Murtzuphlus’s tents, chests, and the treasures which he left there.” And the slaughter began: “There were so many wounded and dead that there seemed no end to them—the number was beyond computation.” All afternoon the Crusaders plundered the surrounding area; farther north, refugees started to stream out of the land gates.

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Filed under France, Greece, Italy, Mediterranean, military, religion, war

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