Friday, July 9, 2021

The Anglo-Saxons of the Byzantine Empire

After being defeated by the Norman-French in the Battle of Hastings, fought on 14 October 1066, many Anglo-Saxon soldiers started looking for new employment opportunities. Some of them flocked to the Byzantine Empire, which in those days was in need of valiant mercenaries, and was known to be a good paymaster. 

The Játvarðar Saga, which is the Icelandic story of the life of Edward the Confessor, King of England (1042–1066), relates that after the Battle of Hastings a large body of Anglo-Saxon nobles, soldiers, and their families fled from England in 350 ships to escape the wrath of William the Conqueror, the first Norman monarch of England. After many adventures in the Mediterranean, in which they defeated the infidels and took their gold and silver, they reached Sicily, where they learned that Constantinople was being besieged by Seljuk Turks. 

The Anglo-Saxons arrived in Constantinople and defeated the besieging Seljuk fleet and army, and won the gratitude of the Byzantine Emperor who gave them important positions in his army. The Anglo-Saxons rose rapidly through the ranks of the Byzantine army. Many of them were chosen for serving in the elite Varangian Guard, which had the responsibility of guarding the Emperor and important members of the Royal family. 

The Byzantine Emperor told the Anglo-Saxons that they could build their settlement in the land to the north-east of the Black Sea which once belonged to his kingdom but was now occupied by invaders. The Anglo-Saxons defeated the invaders, evicted them from the land, and made that land their own settlement. They named this land Nova Anglia (New England). Till the fall of the Byzantine Empire to the Ottomans in 1453, the Anglo-Saxons continued to dominate the Varangian Guard.

Sir Walter Scott’s 1831 novel Count Robert of Paris is set in Constantinople at the end of the eleventh century, the time of the First Crusade. Anna Komnene, daughter of Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos, plays an important role in the novel, as herself. Scott presents Anna as a brilliant historian and philosopher, but he gives her the character of a spoiled princess who feels that she is entitled to rule, and is being pampered by professional courtiers and her mother, Empress Irene Doukaina. Her father used to let her have her way in almost everything.

The protagonist of the novel is a young, handsome Anglo-Saxon called Hereward, who is employed in the elite Varangian Guard and has the responsibility of guarding Anna’s father, the Emperor. While Hereward is a fictional character, the Count Robert in the novel is inspired by the deeds of a Frankish Knight, a minor historical character, who arrived to the Byzantine Empire with the First Crusade and created a diplomatic scandal, during the oath taking ceremony, when he occupied the Byzantine’s Emperor’s throne, probably because he mistook it for an empty seat.

The presence of a gallery of famous leaders of the First Crusade brings a sense of realism to Scott’s novel. These First Crusade leaders include: Godfrey de Bouillon, Peter the Hermit, Count Baldwin (future Baldwin I of Jerusalem), Count de Vermandois, Bohemond I of Antioch, Prince Tancred of Otranto (future Tancred, Prince of Galilee), and Raymond IV (Count of Toulouse). 

Anna’s husband in real life, Nikephoros Bryennios, is also present in the novel. Scott characterizes Nikephoros as a lecher who tries to seduce Count Robert’s wife, an amazonian woman called Lady Brenhilda. She challenges Nikephoros for a duel, promising to give herself to him if he wins. Count Robert presents himself at the duel in his wife’s place. But Nikephoros did not arrive since he was arrested on the orders of the Emperor for his involvement in a coup attempt.

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