Byzantium and England

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D. M. Nicol


This article examines the few and irregular contacts and relationships between Byzantium and England, and between the English and the Byzantines up to the 15th century. The Byzantines, like the Romans before them, thought of England as the most remote western island in the world. The English, like their neighbours in Scandinavia, thought of Constantinople as a distant and romantic city called Micklegarth. There were legends about the English origin of Constantine and his mother Helena. And it can be proved that there was some English and Scottish blood flowing in the veins of the last Byzantine Emperors. There were Greek missionaries and scholars in Britain in the 6th and 7th centuries, notably Theodore of Tarsus, who became Archbishop ofCanterbury. Byzantine influence on English art was very strong in the 8th and 9th centuries. Pilgrims from England soon began to travel through Byzantine territory on their way to Jerusalem. Excavations at Winchester have revealed some evidence of this kind of contact. In 1066, the Normans, led by William the Conqueror, defeated the English King, Harold, and occupjed the country. Many of the Anglo-Saxon inhabitants left England as refugees, some of whom found their way to Constantinople, where they took over the duties of theVarangian Guard, though others went on to found an English colony on the shores of the Black Sea. Diplomatic contacts between Byzantium and the Kings of England began in the 12th century under Manuel I Komnenos, who corresponded with Henry II. The Fourth Crusade and the establishment of the Latin Empire of Constantinople helped to revive the study of Greek in the West. The revival was particularly strong in England. But it was short-lived; and during the 14th century there is very little evidence of the knowledge of Greek in England. In 1400, the Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos came to London from Paris and was entertained by King Henry IV. But his visit, though interesting as an event, was not very productive. The King of England could not afford to send any soldiers to help in the defence of Constantinople. Nor did the Emperor’s stay in London inspire a new revival of interest in Greek culture. A few Greek scholars are known to have worked in England in the 15th century. But Greek was not seriously studied there until after 1500. The last link between England and Byzantium is to be seen in a church in Cornwall, where there is the grave of Theodore Palaiologos, who died in 1636. Theodore claimed (on rather doubtful evidence) to be descended from Thomas, brother of Constantine Palaiologos, the last Byzantine Emperor.

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