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Byzantium - the English Connection

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  • Sunday, August 14 2005 @ 06:53 PM AEST
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In 330 AD, when Britain was still a Roman possession and the ancestors of the English race had not yet appeared on the scene, Emperor Constantine the Great built a new capital for the Roman Empire.

The great new city was built on the site of the old Greek port of Byzantion. With typical lack of modesty, the Emperor re-named it Constantinople, after himself. For over 11 centuries it was the capital of the Empire we now call Byzantium – the richest, most powerful in Christendom. It was the largest and most beautiful city in the Christian world. Its magnificent churches glowed with gold and mosaics, with facings of porphyry, the purple marble exclusively reserved for the Emperor’s use. Beside Constantinople, London and Paris were mere clusters of hovels.

Enormous fortifications protected the City. At the landward end, the point of greatest danger of attack, stood the impregnable Walls of Theodosius, built in the 5th century AD.  Behind a wide moat they stood a triple line of white limestone, each higher than the one before it, decorated with horizontal bands of red brick, with enormous square and octagonal stone towers at regular intervals.

Constantinople stood on the Bosphorus straits, linking Europe and Asia, and straddling the major trade routes between Europe, Persia, Egypt and China. It was known as New Rome in the Mediterranean, Miklagard to the Vikings and Anglo-Saxons, but to the Byzantines it was simply the City. When the western Empire fell in 476 AD, the eastern, based at Constantinople, kept the flame of Roman civilisation, administration and learning alight for almost another thousand years. Latin dropped out of use as the official language, to be replaced by Greek. But the Byzantines still referred to themselves as Rhomaioi – Romans – and regarded the Roman Empire as their own; one and indivisible.

Despite the great distance separating them, the links between the Byzantine Empire and the Anglo-Saxons were stronger than is widely known. The 7th century AD Anglian royal tomb unearthed at Sutton Hoo contained silver Byzantine spoons and bowls. Edward the Confessor sent to the Byzantine Emperor for confirmation of a dream he had about sacred relics in Ephesus - and was duly answered.

But the major connection between to two cultures appears to have been through the Byzantine Emperors’ elite bodyguards, the Varangian Guard. While it began as a unit of Vikings from the Norse settlements in Russia, from the late 11th century onwards many English warriors served in the Guard.

The numbers of English who left home immediately after the Norman Conquest is thought to have been relatively small.  At first, William kept many English nobles in place – not only to lend legitimacy to his rule, but to provide men experienced in running this new country successfully. But after the rebellion of 1069 he confiscated territory and positions and handed them over to Normans. After the second rebellion of 1075 few English nobles continued in power. The rebellions had failed, and all hopes of outside aid to overthrow William had been dashed. A new generation of English nobility growing up without a future in a Norman-dominated England left to seek their fortune elsewhere.

Before the Conquest, the Byzantine Emperor had approached William of Normandy for mercenaries. After England was his, William may have been glad to be rid of dispossessed young Anglo-Saxon nobles, who could be the focus of further trouble and rebellion. Golden Byzantium beckoned. The Empire was known to the English and would have been a natural place for landless nobles to look for a living with their swords - or axes.  Englishmen travelled via Russia to Byzantium, a large contingent arriving in 1081.

Emperor Alexios Komnenos had just seized the throne of Byzantium, and was in dire need of warriors. His predecessors had allowed the Empire to run down - after decades of neglect, the army had dwindled to a shadow of its former self. The rich wheat-growing plains of Asia Minor had been lost to the Turks after the disastrous battle of Manzikert in 1071. In the years that followed the Empire’s fortunes declined still further. For the first time in history, the nomisma, the major coin of the Empire, of gold so pure that other states valued their currency by it, and known in Europe as the bezant, was devalued – by 25%. Emperor succeeded Emperor, each more worthless than the last, while the eunuch-dominated civil service maintained its stranglehold on the Empire and systematically starved the army of funds, equipment and manpower.

Alexios took over just in time. Since the beginning of the century landless Norman adventurers had been travelling to Italy, hiring themselves out as mercenaries. Like many hired swords before and since, they realized that their employers were rich and helpless, and began to take over. Ten years earlier, the Italo-Normans had captured Bari, the last Byzantine possession in Italy. Now the Norman warlord Robert Guiscard (the Cunning) had crossed the Adriatic and besieged the port of Dyrrakhion. This city stood at the beginning of the main highway east to Constantinople. Guiscard planned to use it as a beachhead to invade the Empire and capture Constantinople.

 Byzantium was financially strapped and militarily unprepared. Alexios hastily assembled a miscellaneous force of Greeks and foreign mercenaries to oppose Guiscard and lift the siege. Among his troops was a contingent of “Warings” (Varangians), mostly Englishmen armed with their “double axes” (caudatis bipennibus)(1). The sources agree these warriors were all young men, and Alexios placed great trust in them. What went through their minds, matched in battle against the self-same race that had taken their country from them? We will never know.

At first they proved a great obstacle to the Normans. Placed on the left flank, they charged impetuously and forced the Norman right flank back towards the sea. The Normans began to collapse, and men floundered in the water or were cut down by axes. It looked like the battle was over. But the Varangians, inexperienced in war and carried away by battle fury had advanced too far and were now isolated from the rest of the Byzantine army.

Exhausted by the weight of their armour, cut off, and hit from the flank, many retreated to the Chapel of St Michael, but the Normans set fire to it and most died in the flames (2). Alexios was unable to lift the siege of Dyrrakhion and it fell to the Normans. However, Guiscard’s dreams of conquest were short-lived. Though he advanced eastward, he was held up by stern Byzantine resistance, and the whole expedition ground to a halt. Desertions and rebellions at home forced the Normans to withdraw, and within a few short years, even Dyrrakhion was again under Imperial control.

Alexios’ daughter Anna was favourably impressed by the valour and loyalty of the Varangians from “the Island of Thule”, and must have spoken with at length with them. In her biography of her father, she notes that their homeland had once been part of the Roman Empire and the inhabitants “had been servants of the Emperors in distant past years

According to the Icelandic Jalvardar saga some winters after the Norman Conquest, English leaders, sure by then that the Danes would send no help against William, left their heritage and fled away, a great host with 350 ships. Their leader was Sigurd, Earl of Gloucester, accompanied by two other earls & eight barons. The fleet sailed to Gibraltar, captured Minorca & Majorca, continued to Sicily, and arrived at Constantinople which was ruled by Kirjalax, the name by which the Varangians knew Alexios I.

They were in the nick of time to save the City from a seaborne invasion. In gratitude the Emperor gave them permission to re-take a land to the north across the sea (probably in the Crimea), recently lost by the Empire. If they could win it back, it would be theirs. Some stayed in Emperor’s service, most went to this land and re-took it. They called it England, and gave English names such as London and York to cities they captured and to new ones they built. They would not accept Orthodox Christianity but sent to Hungary for Roman clerics.

This saga was originally regarded as a mere fable, but has received more serious consideration in the past few decades, particularly as these events mirror actual events in 1091. Was this “Sigurd” really Siward Barn, who fought alongside Hereward the Wake? It is possible. After Hereward’s defeat Siward was captured and only released on William’s death in 1087. He disappears from Anglo-Norman sources thereafter.

Alexios I fortified the town of Chevetot (Cibotos) across the Bosphoros Strait from Constantinople and garrisoned it with Englishmen who had fled before William the Bastard. However, the city could not be held and Alexios had them moved to Byzantium as his life-guards.

These English expatriates did not give up trying to re-take England, and when King Svend Estridsson of Denmark visited Constantinople, they tried unsuccessfully to persuade him to reconquer it from the Normans. But some at least, and perhaps most, settled down to make new lives in a strange land. An Englishman of high rank from Canterbury impressed the Emperor so much he was given a “dukedom”, and was able to marry a rich woman of high family. He had a church built in Constantinople dedicated to Saints Nicholas and Augustine of Canterbury. This church was popular with the English in Byzantium and became the chapel of the Varangians.

It appears that others joined these Englishmen in Imperial service as time wore on. Dissatisfied souls at home probably received word about the success and respect these men enjoyed in the Empire from English travelers returning home. One such may have been the monk named Joseph from Canterbury. While returning from pilgrimage to the Holy Land in about 1090 he visited Constantinople and encountered his own countrymen serving in the Imperial household, and even recognised friends of his own among them. In the reign of Henry I, a man named Ulfric from Lincoln in the Danelaw was sent home to England by Emperor Alexios, perhaps in a further attempt to hire mercenaries.

At the battle of Beroe of 1122, Emperor John II was protected by axe-bearers who are described as “a Brittanic people who of old served the Roman Emperors”.

The end of the Varangians as a unit came with the Fourth Crusade of 1204, which resulted in the fall of Constantinople to the Franks. This Crusade was a travesty of greed, stupidity and brutality. Proclaimed with the aim of attacking Egypt, the Crusade was soon perverted. The Crusaders needed a fleet to transport them, and contracted the Venetians, probably the foremost naval power in the Mediterranean at the time, to build and sail it for them. But the Crusaders’ estimates of how many of them would turn up were grossly over-optimistic. The fleet was far too large for the army it was to transport, and the Crusaders who had arrived in Venice found themselves marooned on one of the Venetian islands until they could agree on how to pay for it. In any case, the Venetians had a lucrative trade going with the Muslims in Egypt, and did not want it disadvantaged.

In part payment the Venetian Doge, Dandolo, persuaded them to attack the city of Zara and return it to Venetian control. Unfortunately, Zara was a Christian city, and when the Pope found out, he excommunicated the perpetrators. This caused little concern among the Venetians, and the debt was still not paid in full.  Then events conspired to bring matters to a head. The son of the deposed Byzantine Emperor escaped and made his way to Italy, where he promised the leaders of the Crusade that if they restored his throne he would pay all their debts in full from Byzantium’s coffers and supply them with a Byzantine army to aid with the Crusade.

So the Venetian fleet took the Crusaders and Prince Alexios to Constantinople and attacked it. An attempted landing near the Palace of Vlachernai was repulsed by the Pisans and “the axe-bearing barbarians”. “English, Danish and Greek” defending the towers with “axes and swords”. When the Crusaders sent negotiators to the Emperor, posted at the gate of the city and all the way along to the Palace were Englishmen and Danes, fully armed with their axes. In the long run, however, the City fell to the invaders, and the glory days of the Varangians ceased. However, there were still traces of the English presence in the Empire for a considerable time later. The composite name Englinovarangoi can be dated with certainty to 1272.

As late as the nineteenth century one of the towers in the land wall near the Adrianople gate had contained many stones with funeral inscriptions relating to the “Warings”. These had probably come from the Church of St Nicholas and St Augustine, mentioned above. In about 1865 the English ambassador asked to have these removed to the English cemetery at Scutari, but the Turks refused, and shortly afterwards they were removed and used for building.

The history of the English exiles post-Conquest is a rich and full one, and deserves to be more widely known.


Blondal, S. translated, revised & rewritten by Benedikz, B.S., The Varangians of Byzantium, Cambridge Press, 1978.

Dawkins, R.M., The Later History of the Varangian Guard: Some Notes, The Journal of Roman Studies Vol. XXXVII (1947), pp 39-47.

Shepard, J., “The English and Byzantium”, (Traditio: Studies in Ancient and Mediaeval History, Thought and Religion Vol. XXIX (1973), pp. 53-93.  (The Anglo-Saxons)

Walker, G., The English at the Battle of Myriokephalon, Varangian Voice No. 36, August 1995.


1. Geoffrey Malaterra, referring to the Battle of Dyrrakhion of 1081, describes the “Angli vero, quos Waringos appelant” as carrying “caudatis bipennibus”. This is often translated as “double” axes (Shepard p.74), leading to the idea that they used “two-headed” axes similar to the labrys used in Ancient Crete. There is evidence that such axes existed in this period (the Utrecht Psalter of the 9th century and late 12th century manuscript illuminations). However, these are almost without exception depicted as short-handled and moreover almost always used by cavalry.  The word “bipennibus” is more accurately translated  “double-feathered or double-winged”.  Even a cursory look at two-handed axes, both depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry and as found in large numbers in the archaeological record makes it clear that these are the axes being referred to. The two “wings’ are the equal-armed sides of a single-edged axe, as distinct from the asymmetrical “bearded” axe also in use at the time.

According to John Dillon, a medieval and early modern Latinist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the USA, "bipennis" here probably just means "axe", not specifically a double-bladed one. Although this word did anciently signify an axe with blades on either side of the shaft ("feather" or "wing" for "blade" is, as you have guessed, a metaphor; compare English "wing nut"), by the early Middle Ages people were already using it to denote an axe of any sort." This sort of semantic shift can be paralleled by numerous other instances in which an ancient term implying a particular shape or material is used in the Middle Ages and beyond to denote an object of different shape or material but serving the same purpose(s). A good indication that this has happened with "bipennis" occurs in the early medieval epic poem Waltharius, which at line 918 reads ancipitem vibravit ... bipennem ("he shook a two-headed axe", the adjective "anceps" showing that "bipennis" by itself is not to be taken as meaning "double-bladed"). "Geoffrey Malaterra will have read enough high-style Latin poetry to know "bipennis" as a word meaning "axe". But he won't have had our sense of the difference in material culture between his own time and that referred to by the ancient poets and thus will almost certainly have thought of a "bipennis" as an axe similar to those he himself was familiar with (though precise definitions of this word had been preserved in texts that Geoffrey probably didn't read)."

2. The name of the Varangian leader at Dyrrakhion, Nabites has been postulated by Dawkins as probably from Old Norse nabitr, “corpse-biter (= hunting animal) and that perhaps this was a nickname for someone whose real name was something like Wulf (Dawkins p. 41)

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