• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

Unlikely Companions: Anglo-Byzantine Relations 500-1500



While it would hysterical to claim Byzantine links to the English were ever stable, considering the fact Lundenwic and Constantinople stood 1,556 miles apart – the opposite ends of Christendom – influences between the two peoples were surprisingly strong.


From an early stage, Romans enthusiastically deployed Britain in their rhetoric. Less because of its political importance (which, as a source of both military revolts, Caledonian incursions and Saxon pirates was mainly negative) than because it stood (as with the Iberian Columnae Herculis) as a liminal marker against the bleak and primordial Oceanus, with nothing more than rumours of a Thule (Scandinavia) beyond.


In short, it stood for the endlessness of Roman rule both in reality and the imagination. To give one example, Horace, court poet to first Emperor, described the imperium romanum as extending from Persia at one end to Britain at the other:


“Praesens divus habitur Augustus, adiectis Britannis imperio gravibusque Persis”[1]


Later, one of the last Roman historians, Kritovoulos of Imvros, employed the same sort of bookend oratory when he dedicated his history to Mehmed II and justified his use of Greek on account of its international cachet, which would – he pleaded – enable even those who lived in the Britannic islands to read it.[2]


In reality, this was overly optimistic. Despite sparks in the firmament (lights that ranged from John of Basingstoke (d.1252) to Robert Grosseteste (d.1253), from Roger Bacon (d.1292) to intellectuals rubbing shoulders in Renaissance Italy), Greek learning in English schools didn’t take off until c.1600. The hard truth was that few European scholars bothered with Kritovoulos’ book thanks to the Renaissance, which geared itself to the achievements of the ancients rather than their medieval heirs.[3]


Furthest removed from Roman trade and diplomacy, if the English thought of Constantinople it was as an orientalist’s paradise that numbered among its privileges a title that counted as a Christian equivalent to the Ottoman “protector of the two sacred cities [Mecca & Medina].” Sure, here and there were luxury items like the Sutton Hoo “bucket” that migrated west via elite exchanges. And, a few tiers below, pilgrims brought back souvenirs (such as Coptic belt buckles) and spare change (silver miliaresion, for instance) from their travels but, in general, an enquiry about the city would have received a blank stare from your average Englishman.


By the time any intellectual attention was thrown on the Eastern Romans, facts were thin on the ground and speculation filled the air. Typical was the fourteenth-century Adam of Usk, who was driven to conjecture when he remarked that Constantine took 30,000 Britons with him to found Constantinople. And – letting his fantasies run further – that it was thanks to their nobility that they were now allowed to carry axes (a clear reference to the emperor’s partially English guard, the Varangians).[4]



In turn, when Byzantium turned its eyes as far West in the figure of Prokopios, it inherited a large measure of classical historiography that placed Britain opposite Spain and pictured the islands as stretched from east to west (with Hadrian’s wall going from north to south), tempered with doses of contemporary affairs that explained:


“Three very populous nations inhabit the island of Brittia, and one king is set over each of them. And the names of these nations are Angles, Frisians and Britons who have the same name of the island.”[5]


In general, however, the Byzantine record on Britain was jumbled and garbled. Even today the facts and mythological elements are hard to place accurately as they are (semi)applicable to multiple locations according to interpretation. Academic controversies still froth over whether Britannia, Brittany or the homelands of the Angles, Saxons and Frisians are being referenced. [6] This confusion was replicated even at the time as Franks abused eastern ignorance of the situation:


“The King of the Franks actually sent some of his friends to the Emperor Justinian in Byzantium, and despatched with them men of the Angles, claiming that this island [Britain], too, is ruled by him. Such then are the matters concerning the island called Brittia.”[7]


Despite widespread bewilderment, the nursery rhyme of Old King Cole preserved the ancient lore that Constantine was in some manner a product of British soil. First written down by a Welsh chronicler in the twelfth century, Geoffrey of Monmouth, he claimed Old King Cole had a daughter, Helena, who married Constans and had by her a son called (in Celtic) Cystennyn i.e. Constantine. This Constantine, with his three uncles, made war upon Rome and “Maxen the Cruel” i.e. Maxentius.[8]


A claim on much firmer ground was that the last Byzantine emperors (John V – Constantine XI) were descended from William I, a line that can be traced through Anne of Savoy who was wife to Andronikos III. Despite such genealogical links, however, knowledge of Greek and respect for the Romans was much higher on the hinge of late antiquity and the early medieval period (when it wasn’t tainted with the stereotypical mix of of wiliness and ecclesiastical pride) than this late intermingling of houses.


For instance, a Byzantine priest Theodore of Tarsus was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in AD 668 and convened its first synod at Hertford five years later. He also set up a school at the Monastery of St Augustine at Canterbury and added Homer, as well as Byzantine medicinal books, to its library.


Despite this shot of Romanitas to the arm, knowledge of Greek faded by the reign of Edgar (d.975), a king who employed a Byzantine bishop that local monks at Ely found more of a politician than a scholar.[9] If there were influences to be discerned, they were to be found less in individual figures than,

  • The (now) faceless swathes of iconodules who fled the east clutching their precious artworks. Copied and adapted, R. Byron and D. Talbot Rice charted their effects on western art in Byzantine Painting and Developments in the West before AD 1200 (1948).

  • The (now) faceless swathes of pilgrims; devotees who included the English secretary of William the Conqueror whose pilgrimage left behind a Byzantine seal that was thrown up in excavations at Winchester.[10] Oddly perhaps, it’s not the only one. A protospatharios was part of a Byzantine diplomatic mission to the country in 1070, recruiting soldiers to take the fight to the Seljuk Turks – an endeavour that left another seal behind.[11]



In the same period, Edward the Confessor had a dream that the seven sleepers of Ephesus had turned in their sleep – a bad omen. English Chronicles claim ambassadors were then sent to the emperor, who then thanked them for communicating the vision as the sleepers had been checked and found to have shifted on to their left sides.[12]


With such a lofty (if erratic) diplomatic record and one of the West’s oldest monarchies (the House of Wessex liked to throw their genealogy back to Cerdic [d. 534]), the English might have been forgiven for thinking they sat closer to Byzantium in the international pecking order than the barbaric Northmen who terrorised their shores.


They would have been wrong, however. These grisly warriors had found themselves a place as mercenaries fighting against Arabs in Crete and Anatolia or defending “Miklegarth” as far back as the ninth century. Indeed, when Harold Hardraada landed on English soil, he challenged Harold II as a manglabites and spatharokandidatos of the court in Constantinople.


Yet within a generation the status quo would be reversed. The English, or at least,


“Those who were still in the flower of youth travelled into remote lands and bravely offered their arms to Alexios, emperor of Constantinople, a man of great wisdom and nobility… The English exiles were warmly welcomed… and were sent to battle against the Normans… The Emperor laid the foundations for a town named Civitot for the English, some distance from Byzantium. Later, however, when the Norman threat became too great he brought them back to the imperial city and set them to guard his chief palace and royal treasures. This is the reason for the Anglo Saxon exodus to Ionia; the emigrants and their heirs faithfully served the holy empire, and still honoured among the Romans by Emperor, nobility and people alike.”[13]


The Saga of Edward the Confessor[14] adds that the exiles were led by Sigurd, Earl of Gloucester, two other earls and eight barons.[15] Sailing in 350 ships via Gibraltar, N. Africa, Majorca, Minorca and Sicily before reaching Constantinople, it claims the land the emperor offered lay six days sailing north across the Black Sea. And that when they arrived they conquered the locals and set up towns and cities with names like York and London.[16] Italian and Catalan navigators in the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries preserved many of the names on their portalans. They list places such as Varangolimen, Vagropoli, Varangido agaria, Londina, Susaco (perhaps connected to the name, Saxon).[17]


The Latin World Chronicle claims that the number of ships was more like 235, the year of their arrival was 1075, and that 4,350 agreed to Alexios’ terms to become part of his bodyguard and the remainder went off to win their own slice of territory. This large band conquered “Domapia”, a place “at the beginning of the Scythian country” on the Black Sea and renamed it Nova Anglia.[18]


Nova Anglia represents a reverse image of the upright, trusty English Varangians. Its settlements murdered officials sent by the emperor to collect tribute, earned their living by piracy, refused to submit to the patriarch (preferring to send their own priests to Hungary be made bishops) and shipping their biggest thug (Hardigt) to the Great Palace in order to kill anybody (or animal) who challenged him – one by ripping him in two from his chest down – feats curiously rewarded by elevating him to commander of the naval forces.[19]



More positively, the English Varangians fought with Alexios at Dyrrachion in 1081 against the Normans who – under Robert Guiscard – had turned against their erstwhile Roman overlords. They were then sent on a mission to garrison a fortress (the Civitot of Orderic Vitalis) built on the Gulf of Nikomedia as a bulwark against the Seljuks. Indeed, there were enough English running about the capital that a Cantuarian monk named Joseph could claim his compatriots let him get away with a relic of the apostle Andrew.[20] Actions that were clearly par for the course as Kekaumenos felt obliged to complain to the emperor that he was being far too generous with the titles conferred on Englishmen – known in official texts as “Inglinoi.”[21]


Fast-forward to Nikephoros Byrennios the Younger (d.1137) and we find the English being described as axe-bearing barbarians from the regions near the Ocean, who were “loyal to the Emperor from the days of old,” and then Choniates (d.1217) who recounted how the English stood defending the walls of Constantinople during the fourth crusade. The historian recorded how they launched a bold-counter attack near Blachernai,[22] perhaps an understandable exploit when one thinks of how behind them lay a community they’d built over one hundred and twenty years; an identity that even encompassed an English church (according to the World Chronicle it’d been built by a chap called “Coleman” and dedicated to the “Blessed Nicholas and St Augustine”)[23] as well as a monastery dedicated to the Panagia Varangiotissa.


Not that all the English were quite so devoted to their eastern overlords. Some fell in line with the Latin argument that their brothers in the east served crooked and guileful masters. William of Malmesbury, for example, who wrote not long after Alexios’ death cast the English as dupes to the Machiavellian ways of Byzantium, observing the emperor “was more noted for cunning and deceit than for his worth.” In fact, he “was famed for duplicity…[though] he venerated the fidelity of the English… and transmitted his esteem for them to his son.”[24]


In the long run, even the Frankokratia failed to destroy the Varangian guards’ loyalty. When William of Villehardouin was taken prisoner by Michael Palaiologos in 1259, he was held prisoner by the Varangians.[25] Pachymeres wrote of “axe-bearing Kelts” who served the empire at Nicaea.[26] Ever-loyal yet hardly incorruptible, Englishmen served in a number of prestigious roles. In 1285, for instance, Henry – captain of the guard at Thessalonika – is said to have (romantically or ambitiously?) released one of the empire’s most important political prisoners, Michael Doukas, in order to win the hand of his sister.[27] And in the late twelfth century, Peter the Englishman played Byzantine ambassador to Genoa.[28]


The historical stage-light did shift slightly from the Varangians, however. Franciscan friars were sent to convert the Great Khan of the Mongols by Pope Innocent IV in 1246-47, and more importantly gather intelligence about their plans for conquest. Headed by Plan Carpini and documented by Benedict the Pole among others, they headed east through “Cumania.”


On their travels, the brothers “Had on their right the land of the Saxi (‘terram Saxorum’)”. The Saxi were Christians “whom we believe to be Goths,” they wrote. Goths had been in the Crimea since the third-century and it’s conceivable that that they had integrated with their English cousins by the thirteenth – the friars certainly had multiple theories on who the Goths were – but the insistence that they were “antiquorum Saxorum” (old Saxons) repeatedly rears its head.[29]


Carpini’s account included a description of a Tartar assault on the Saxons. Recalling how the Saxons built machines that destroyed all the Tartars’ siege engines, he wrote how the latter were “unable to approach the city on account of the machines and ballista’s.” Indeed, when the Tartars dug a tunnel under the city walls, the Saxons defeated them within the city.[30] If this muddling of Goths and English can be considered sound, historians should wipe the latter out twenty-two years after the fall of Constantinople when the principality of Theodoro was finally defeated.


Back in mainstream Byzantine society, and despite the hiccups of warriors such as Henry, the Varangians were still picking up the keys to whatever city the emperor happened to reside and, according to Ps.-Kodinos, still saluting the emperor in their own language as late as the fourteenth century.[31] The sources don’t fall silent about them until the civil war of 1341-47, when garrisons contained Catalans and other nations but never the English. Even in 1453 Cretans seem to have usurped the Varangian role and John Grando (an engineering genius specialising in mining and counter-mining), though cast as Scottish by Runciman (who relabelled him “John Grant”), was called “the German” by at least one chronicler.


If there is a postscript on the topic, it is a dismal one. Manuel Chrysoloras visited the library of Salisbury Cathedral in 1409 and his verdict on English learning was the same as Poggio Bracciolini’s who found it impossible to find either Greek books or teachers nine years later.[32] J. Harris has published excellent monographs and a book on some of the Byzantine emigres, including those in England. Detailing the rather depresseing stories of Emanuel Constantinople, Andronikios Kallistos, Georgios Hermonymos of Sparta, Demetrios Kantakouzenos and Iohannes Servopoulos among others, most worked as scribes on works that never quite lit the Anglo-intelligentsia’s touch-paper.


Recommended Reading: Sigfus Blondal & Benedikt S. Benedikz, Varangians of Byzantium (1978).


[1] Horace, Odes, III, v, 2-4

[2] Kritoboulos of Imbros, Din Domnia lui Mahomed al Il-lea anii 1451-1467, ed. V. Grecu, Bucarest, 1963, p.27.

[3] There is only one manuscript of it and even that was not edited until 1870 (C. Muller, Fragmenta Historicorum, V, I, Paris, 1870).

[4] Originally set up by Basil II (d.1025) who organised them as a special unit made largely if not entirely of Russians.

[5] Wars VIII, 20, 6-8.

[6] For an extensive discussion on the identity issues involving Brittia, Britannia and Brittany see E. A. Thompson, “Procopius on Brittia and Britannia,” Classical Quarterly, n.s.30 [1980], 498-507.

[7] Wars VIII, 20, 8-10. The basis of this supremacy was supposed to be the marriage of Ethelbert of Kent to the Frankish princess, Bertha. Some interpreted this as raising Ethelbert to Frankish parity, other to his subordination.

[8] Geoffrey of Monmouth, Historia Regum Britanniae, ed. A. Griscom [London, 1929], pp.338-340.

[9] F. M. Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, third ed., Oxford, 1971, pp.181-182.

[10] V. Laurent, “Un sceau inedit du patriarche de Jerusalem Sophrone II trouce a Winchester,” Numismatic Circular, LXXII, 3 [1964], pp.49-50.

[11] V. Laurent, “Byzannce el l’Angleterre au lendemain de la conquete normande. A propos d’un sceau byzantin trouve a Winchester,” Numismatic Circular, LXXI, 5 [1963], pp.93-96. Other embassies included one sent by Alexios I to Henry I, which was led by a Wilfricus, a man from Lincoln, and brought relics of John the Evangelist. The same emperor’s grandson, Manuel I, struck up an epistolary relationship with Henry II, describing his defeat at Myriokephalon (1176) and even offering his daughter to Henry’s son, John. In the end, presents were exchanged and Henry sent the curious emperor an account on the customs of the English as well as a pack of English bloodhounds. Later still, Richard II conferred a knighthood on a Byzantine ambassador at Lichfield and the king’s council voted that a sum of money be raised for the relief of Constantinople (Richard personally advanced £2,000, which was embezzled by a bank in Genoa, forcing the king to send the amount again). Finally, Henry IV rode to Blackheath (punctiliously observing the customary sixth or seventh milestone requirement for an imperial adventus) before spending Christmas with the emperor at Eltham palace.

[12] The Life of King Edward who rests at Westminster attributed to a monk of St. Bertin, ed. and trans. F. Barlow [London, 1962], pp.67-71.

[13] M. Chibnall, The Ecclesiastical History of Oderic Vitalis, II (Books III & IV), Oxford, 1969, pp.202-205; cf. IV, pp.14-17.

[14] Almost certainly a fourteenth-century compilation, the saga draws indirectly on earlier matierial. C. Fell suggests that the compiler used Vincent of Beauvais’ Speculum Historiale and material from an English service book similar to that found in the Exeter Breviary (“The Icelandic Saga of Edward the Confessor: The Hagiographic Sources,” Anglo-Saxon England, I [1972], 258).

[15] Jonathan Shepard identifies this Sigurd with the rebel Siward Barn, who held extensive properties in Gloucestershire at the time of the Norman Conquest, and who took part in the uprising in the Fenland in 1071 (“Another New England? Anglo-Saxon Settlement on the Black Sea,” Byzantine Studies, I, 1 [1974], 19). He also places the arrival of the English much later than the Saga, at 1090-91 to fit in with the English ‘relief’ of Micklegarth, which could conceivably refer to the military situation at Constantinople when Pechenegs (destroyed by Cumans) threatened by land, and Turkish pirates may have been destroyed by the English fleet of exiles.

[16] The Saga of Edward the Confessor in The Orkneyingers’ Saga, III, Rolls Series, London, 1894, pp.425-428. Cf. R. M. Dawkins, The Later History of the Varangian Guard: Some Notes, Journal of Roman Studies, XXVII (1947), pp.39-46.

[17] A. E. Nordenskiold, Periplus: An Essay on the Early History of Charts and Sailing Directions, trans. F. A. Bather (Stockholm, 1897), plates V (c.1300); V (1311); VI (1318); p.33 (1320); VII (1327); IX (1339; XII and p.32 ff. (1375); p.31 (C14th). See also J. Lelewel, Geographie du Moyen age… Accompagnee d’Atlas… (Bruxelles, 1852-57), II, portulan general, 14. Each of the locations may have been Byzantine or English or Anglo-Byzantine forts that established coastal bridgeheads.

[18] This conquest accords with Byzantines sources which note that at the turn of the eleventh century the region was returned to Roman rule. First, Theophylact of Ochrida wrote to Gregory the Taronite observing that the Danishmend Emir as now unable to collect tribute from around the Black Sea (Theophylact of Ochrida, Epistola XXVI, P.G., ed. J. P. Mignre, CXXVI, col. 412). Second, Manuel Straboromanus addressed Alexios I and listed areas around the black sea as being recently recovered for the empire (see P. Gautier, “Le dossier de… Manuel Straboromanus,” Revue des Etudes byzantines, XXIII [1965], 190-91).

[19] Ciggaar, op. cit., p.323, lines 95-109.

[20] C. H. Haskins, “A Canterbury Monk at Constantinople, c. 1090,” English Historical Review, XXV (1910), pp.293-295.

[21] V. Vasilievsky & V. Jernstadt, eds., Cecaumeni Strategicon et incerti scriptores De officiis regiis libellii (St Petersburg, 1896), p.95.

[22] Niketas Choniates, Historia, ed. I. Bekker, (Bonn, 1835), p.721, line 19.

[23] The founder might be identified with an Englishman who remains anonymous Goscelin’s Life of St Augustine of Canterbury, who also built an English church in the capital.

[24] William of Malmesbury, De Gestis Regum Anglorum, ed. William Stubbs (Roll Series, vol. XC, London, 1887-89), p.276.

[25] Chronicle of the Morea, ed. P. P. Kalonaros, Athens, 1940, 4318-4321.

[26] George Pachymeres, De Michaele Palaeologo, ed. I. Bekker (Bonn, 1835), p.71, line 10.

[27] Pachymeres, De Andronico Palaeologo, pp.73 ff.

[28] Miklosich and Muller, Acta et Diplomata, III, p.37-40.

[29] J. Sheppard (p.33, see note 106) makes the intriguing point that “The Crimean Goth vocabulary (as recorded by the traveller Busbek in the late sixteenth century) has some strikingly odd features which led R. Loewe to conclude that Crimean Gothic was a branch of West Germanic, and that it was ‘an independent branch of Ingvaonish next to Anglo-Frisian.’ Among the word-formations which led Loewe to this conclusion was: the disappearance of the final sound –s; the disappearance of w after ng in singhen; the disappearance of m before f and extension of the preceding vowel in fyyf; the transformation of the Germanic sound after a vowel to d/t/th e.g. malthata – ‘to say’. The latter transformation is ‘strikingly like that to the Anglo-Saxon moelan. And the i- sounds thiine (ten), treithyen (thirty), furdeithien (forty) ‘show Crimean Gothic as closest related to Anglo-Saxon,’ as also did the form of the definite article tho, the. Loewe noting this and certain word-formations common to Old Norse, suggested that Crimean Gothic and its speakers originated from North Schleswig, Jutland and the Danish islands. But the direct influence of Anglo-Saxon and Norse speakers – Varangians – offers a simpler explanation than the somewhat torturous sequence of migrations postulated by Loewe, Die Reste der Germanen am schwarzen Meere (Halle, 1896).

[30] Plan Carpini, Itinerarium: SF, I, 91.

[31] Pseudo-Kodinos, Traite des Offices, ed. J. Verpeaux (Le Monde byzantin, I), Paris, 1966, p.209, line 26–p.210, line 3.

[32] R. Weiss, Humanism in England during the Fifteenth Century, third ed., Oxford, 1967, p.11-26; G. Cammelli, I Dotti Bizantini e le Origini dell’ Umanesimo, I: Manuele Crisolora, Florence, 1941, pp.146-47

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