Sunday 24 December 2017

A Christmas visitor: the Byzantine emperor's trip to London in the winter of 1400–01

The aim of following post is to share an interesting fifteenth-century image of the meeting between King Henry IV and the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Palaiologos in 1400 at London. The emperor was touring western Europe trying to solicit help for the Byzatine Empire against the Ottoman Turks and visited England for two months over the winter of 1400–01, staying with king for Christmas and being lavished by him with presents and entertainments.

The meeting between King Henry IV of England and the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Palaiologos at London in 1400, from a late fifteenth-century manuscript of the St Alban's Chronicle (image: Lambeth Palace Library MS 6, f. 240r).

The trip to England by the Byzantine, or Eastern Roman, emperor Manuel II Palaiologos in 1400 was the first such visit to these islands by a Roman emperor since Emperor Constans arrived in Britannia in AD 343, more than 1,000 years before. Emperor Manuel had been urging the rulers of western Europe to send men or money to the aid of Constantinople against the Ottoman Turks, who were close to a final conquest of the Byzantine Empire, and it was eventually decided that the emperor should travel to the west himself to put his case personally, which he did in 1400. Arriving initially in Italy and France, the emperor brought with him a large retinue of his own priests and dignitaries, alongside a collection of relics and treasures to offer as gifts to his hosts, as he sought to enlist their aide in his cause.

It appears that the emperor at first intended to cross over to England to visit Henry IV in the September of 1400, but was forced to wait whilst the new king dealt with the Scots in the north of the island. Emperor Manuel finally set sail from Calais to Dover on 11 December 1400, suffering a rough sea crossing, and was greeted by the Prior of Christ Church at Canterbury on 13 December, where he visited Thomas Becket's shrine. He then travelled on to London with an English noble escort and met King Henry at Blackheath on 21 December, subsequently staying with the king for nearly two whole months. Needless to say, this visit by the Emperor of Constantinople excited considerable interest in England at the time, with Thomas Walsingham's Chronicle observing his arrival as follows:
At the same time the Emperor of Constantinople visited England to ask for help against the Turks. The king with an imposing retinue, met him at Blackheath on the feast of St Thomas [21 December], gave so great a hero an appropriate welcome and escorted him to London. He entertained him there royally for many days, paying the expenses of the emperor's stay, and by grand presents showing respect for a person of such eminence. (Chronica Maiora of Thomas Walsingham, s.a. 1400)
An apparent eyewitness account to his arrival is also offered by Adam Usk, who comments on the emperor's retinue of priests, the unusual dress of the visitors, and his feelings about the emperor's plight that drove him to tour western Europe:
On the feast of St Thomas the apostle [21 December], the emperor of the Greeks visited the king of England in London to seek help against the Saracens, and was honourably received by him, staying with him for two whole months at enormous expense to the king, and being showered with gifts at his departure. This emperor and his men always went about dressed uniformly in long robes cut like tabards which were all of one colour, namely white, and disapproved greatly of the fashions and varieties of dress worn by the English, declaring that they signified inconstancy and fickleness of heart. No razor ever touched the heads or beards of his priests. These Greeks were extremely devout in their religious services, having them chanted variously by knights or by clerics, for they were sung in their native tongue. I thought to myself how sad it was that this great Christian leader from the remote east had been driven by the power of the infidels to visit distant islands in the west in order to seek help against them. (The Chronicle of Adam Usk, 1377-1421, pp. 119-21)
The surviving late fifteenth-century Great Hall of Eltham Palace, London (image: Dun.can/Flickr, CC BY 2.0).

Whilst at London, the emperor stayed with Henry at his favourite palace of Eltham (now within the Royal Borough of Greenwich, south-east London), where he was treated to a grand Christmas party, with a great tournament being staged in the palace grounds in his honour. The people of London also went out of their way to entertain their exalted guest, with the Chronicle of London recording under 1400 that 'In this year was here the emperor of Constantinople: and the king held his Christmas at Eltham; and men of London made a great mumming to him of 12 aldermen and their sons, for which they had great thanks.'

As for Emperor Manuel, he was clearly highly impressed by the lengths the king had gone to in order to entertain his imperial guest, as a letter written by the emperor whilst in London to his friend Manuel Chrysoloras indicates:
Now what is the reason for the present letter? A large number of letters have come to us from all over bearing excellent and wonderful promises, but most important is the ruler with whom we are now staying, the king of Britain the Great, of a second civilized world, you might say, who abounds in so many good qualities and is adorned with all sorts of virtues. His reputation earns him the admiration of people who have not met him, while for those who have once seen him, he proves brilliantly that Fame is not really a goddess, since she is unable to show the man to be as great as does actual experience.
This ruler, then, is most illustrious because of his position, most illustrious too, because of his intelligence; his might amazes everyone, and his understanding wins him friends; he extends his hand to all and in every way he places himself at the service of those who need help. And now, in accord with his nature, he has made himself a virtual haven for us in the midst of a twofold tempest, that of the season and that of fortune, and we have found refuge in the man himself and his character. His conversation is quite charming; he pleases us in every way; he honours us to the greatest extent and loves us no less. Although he has gone to extremes in all he has done for us, he seems almost to blush in the belief—in this he is alone—that he might have fallen considerably short of what he should have done. This is how magnanimous the man is. (Letters of Manuel II Palaeologus, Jan/Feb 1401, p. 102)
Manuel II Palaiologos finally returned to France in February 1401, with high hopes of the king providing substantial help and funds for Constantinople. On taking his leave, he was apparently showered with gifts by Henry IV and in return he presented the king with a priceless piece of the seamless tunic woven by the Virgin Mary for her son, which is said to have delighted the king—he subsequently divided the piece in two and gave one half to Westminster Abbey and other to Thomas Arundel, who gifted it to the high alter at Canterbury where it was placed in a silver-gilt reliquary alongside a thorn from the crown of thorns and a drop of Becket's blood.

Unfortunately, the emperor's hopes for aid were only partially realised. Whilst Henry provided Emperor Manuel with the huge sum of £2,000 in funds before he departed England, no military help appears to have materialised, despite a subsequent letter from the emperor's nephew in Constantinople, John VII, in June 1402 requesting official military aid and paying tribute to the English noblemen who were apparently then engaged in the defence of Constantinople in a personal capacity. Fortunately for the Byzantine Empire, however, such aid was not in the end required—the Turkish Sultan Bayezid I was defeated and captured by the Turco-Mongol ruler Timur at the Battle of Ankara in 1402, granting Constantinople a reprieve and postponing the final fall of the Byzantine Empire for another 51 years.

The content of this post and page, including any original illustrations, is Copyright © Caitlin R. Green, 2017, All Rights Reserved, and should not be used without permission.