Written by Vladimir Moss



     Fr. Andrew Phillips describes how ripples from the Norman Conquest of England in 1066-70 spread through Continental Europe. Thus "Alsin, Abbot of St. Augustine's at Canterbury, took refuge in Norway. Sweden, where English missionaries had long been at work was another destination and perhaps Finland too. It was, however, Denmark which proved to be the most popular destination. It was from here that King Swein had thought to mount invasions in 1070 and 1075. These were supported in England, especially in the North and the East where Danish sympathies were strong...

     "Many churchmen also fled abroad, their places taken by the feudal warrior-bishops and clergy of the Normans, such as Odo of Bayeux, who fought at Hastings. Scandinavia seems to have been their main destination.

     "Other exiles went to the Continent, to Flanders, France and Italy. King Harold's daughter, Gytha, moved further still. She was to marry the Grand-Prince of Kiev, Vladimir, and lived in Kiev, then a great centre of Christian civilization. Here, having been made welcome, she gave birth to several children, of whom the eldest son was named Harold like his grandfather, but also received the Slavic name, Mstislav.[1]

     "Possibly the greatest emigration, however, was elsewhere; the Old English were attracted above all by the almost mystical name of Constantinople, fixed they believed, as Constantine had believed before them, at the middle of the Earth, joining East and West (which Kipling wrongly said would never meet). It is certain that from the Conquest on, and especially during the 1070's but right on into the middle of the twelfth century, huge numbers of English emigrated to the New Rome. Moreover, this emigration was an emigration of the elite of the country. The great scholar Sir Frank Stenton has discovered that several noble families simply disappeared after the Conquest and they were not all killed at Hastings - they emigrated. It was particularly the young who left to seek a better future elsewhere. In historical terms this emigration is comparable only to the emigration of the Russian elite and nobility in 1917 when confronted by the Bolshevik terror. So great was this emigration, especially it seems from the West Country, the Fens and East Anglia, and so long did it continue, that we must assume that it occurred with the approval of William I and his successors. It seems almost certain that it was their method of ridding themselves of the rebellious Old English ruling class and their supporters among the people. Exile, organised by the State, was after all a bloodless elimination of those who opposed William and the new order. It is no coincidence that the exodus continued right into the twelfth century. Why did they choose Constantinople? First, because probably already in the Confessor's reign (let us not forget that he was also half-Norman) discontented elements seem already to have left for Constantinople where the Emperor needed men to fight in his armies, especially against the Turks, who posed a threat in the East. Secondly, many Danes and other Scandinavians (such as Harold Hardrada) had formed the elite 'Varangian Guard' there and found fame and fortune; news of this had certainly reached England. Thirdly, what was the future for a young English noble in Norman England? We know that in 1070 a certain Ioannis Rafailis, an Imperial agent or 'prospatharios' came to England recruiting for the Imperial Army. Young Englishmen and Anglo-Danes, especially those of noble birth, would certainly have been attracted. All the more so, since though the Emperor faced the Turks in the East, in the West, especially in Southern Italy, Sicily and Dalmatia, he faced the hated Normans; what better way for an Englishman of avenging himself? Fourthly, there were those who did not like the new order in the Church or in the State under the Normans. Spiritually they could find refuge in Constantinople and the freedom to continue to live in the ritual and the spirit of the Old English Church in the imperial Capital. Perhaps unconsciously their instincts and feelings drew them to that City which symbolised the unity of Christendom through the Old English period and which had had so many connections with the Apostles of the English, Gregory and Augustine..."[2]

     The contribution of the English exiles was immediately felt. Thus Stephen Lowe writes: “Nikephoros Bryennios, writing in the first half of the twelfth century, describes a palace coup in 1071. Emperor Romanos Diogenes owed his position to being stepfather to the legitimate Emperor Michael VII Doukas. After Romanos was defeated and captured by Seljuk Turks at the disastrous battle of Manzikert, Michael seized the throne on his own account. Varangian guards were used as bullyboys to over-awe the opposition, and Bryennios implies that these palace guards were Englishmen ‘loyal from of old to the Emperor of the Romans’.”[3]


     In 1075, continues Phillips, "a fleet of 350 ships (according to another source 235) left England for exile in 'Micklegarth', the Great City, Constantinople. The commander of this fleet was one Siward (or Sigurd), called Earl of Gloucester. It is not impossible that he is identical with Siward Barn who had taken part in the Fenland uprising of 1071 with Hereward. With him sailed two other earls and eight high-ranking nobles. If, at a conservative estimate, we accept the figure of 235 ships and place forty people in each ship, this would indicate an exodus of nearly 10,000 people, and this was only one group - albeit by far the largest - which left these shores after 1066... When they arrived in Constantinople they found the city under siege and, we are told, thereupon relieved the inhabitants, scattering the Turks before them. This 'relief', and it occurred, earned the gratitude of the Emperor and the English were granted lodging and places in the Imperial Army. The English were particularly valued since they were mostly young, many were of noble birth and they all loathed the Normans. The elite showed such loyalty that they entered the Imperial Household and formed the Emperor's bodyguard. Their exemplary loyalty to the Emperor of the Romans echoed the loyalty of the Old English to the Pre-Conquest Papacy, to St. Gregory the Great, Pope of the Romans.

     "We read of English troops fighting at Dyrrachium (Durazzo) in 1081, where they suffered heavy losses against the Normans. Again in the 1080's the Emperor granted the English land on the Gulf of Nicomedia, near Nicaea to build a fortified town known as Civotus.[4] We are told that from the great fleet of 1075 some 4,300 English settled in the City itself, which at that time was the most populous, advanced and cosmopolitan city in the world. Further we read that the English sent priests to Hungary, which was then in close contact with Constantinople, for them to be consecrated bishops, since the English preferred the Latin rite to the Greek rite of 'St. Paul'. According to the sources, far more English than the 4,300 who settled in the city went further still. With the blessing of Emperor Alexis, these went on to recolonise territories lost by the Empire. It is said that they sailed on from the city to the North and the East for six days. Then they arrived at 'the beginning of the Scythian country'. Here they found a land called 'Domapia', which they renamed New England. Here they founded towns and having driven out the invaders, they reclaimed them for the Empire. Moreover, they renamed the towns 'London', 'York' and called others after the towns where they had come from...

     "After painstaking research it has been discovered that medieval maps… list no fewer than six towns with names suggesting English settlements. These settlements on maps of the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries are located along the northern coast of the Black Sea. One of the names appears as 'Susaco', possibly from 'Saxon'. Another town, situated some 110 miles to the east of the straits of Kerch near the Sea of Azov appears variously as 'Londia', 'Londin' and 'Londina'. On the twelfth century Syrian map the Sea of Azov itself is called the 'Varang' Sea, the Sea of the Varangians, a name used for the English in Constantinople at this period. It is known that in the thirteenth century a Christian people called the 'Saxi' and speaking a language very similar to Old English inhabited this area, and that troops of the 'Saxi' served in the Georgian army in the twelfth century. There seem to be too many coincidences for us to think that the Sea of Azov was not then the first 'New England'.”[5]

     Concerning this expedition of 1075, Lowe writes: “They sailed to Gibraltar, captured Minorca and Majorca, and then went on to Sicily. They sailed to Miklagard (Constantinople) ruled at that time by Kirjalax (Alexios I), and arrived in the nick of time to save the City from a seaborne invasion by heathens. In gratitude the Emperor gave them permission to re-take a land to the north across the sea, taken from him by the heathens. If they could win it back, it would be theirs. Some stayed in the 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… The land in question is possibly the Crimea, which the Empire had lost not long before.”[6]

     Phillips continues: "As for those thousands of Old English who settled in the Great City itself, they may have lived in a quarter known as 'Vlanga' [from 'Varangian'], near the Sea of Marmara...”[7]

     In the thirteenth-century Edwardsaga we read that Earl Sigurd of Gloucester and his men reached Constantinople “and set the realm of the Greek King free from strife. King Alexius the Tall [Comnenus, 1081-1118) offered them to abide there and guard his body as was the wont of the Varangians… but it seemed to earl Sigurd that it was too small a career to grow old there… They begged the king for some towns of their own… [The Emperor assigned some lands in the north, if they could re-conquer them.] Sigurd and his men came to this land and had many battles there and they took possession and gave it a name and called it England and they gave names to the towns that were there and called them London and York.”[8]

     Lowe continues: “Joscelin’s Miracula Sancti Augustini Episcopi Cantuariensis tells of an Englishman of high rank from Canterbury who ‘obtained such favour with the emperor and empress… that he received a dukedom over wise soldiers and a large part of the auxiliaries’. He married a rich woman of high family, and 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.[9]

     “Another report tells of a monk of Canterbury named Joseph, who visited Constantinople in about 1090, on his return from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He found there a number of his own countrymen, and recognised friends of his own among them. They were now in the Imperial household, and were friends of the officer in charge of guarding holy relics. The Historia Monasterii de Abingdon records that in the reign of Henry I, an Englishman named Ulfric (from Lincoln in the Danelaw) arrived on a mission from Emperor Alexios – the purpose is not stated, but it may have been a further attempt to hire mercenaries.

     “The Byzantine chronicler Kinnamos, writing about 1180-3 of the actions of Emperor John II at the battle of Beroe of 1122, describes ‘the axe-bearers who stood around him (they are a Brittanic people who of old served the Roman Emperors)…’ Inglinoi [English] were present at the disastrous battle of Myriokephalon in 1185 (?). However, by this late stage these Englishmen, whom Emperor Manuel describes as ‘some of the leading men of the nobility of England’ were more likely to have been Anglo-Normans than Saxon exiles.

     “In 1204 the Frankish army of the Fourth Crusade, diverted from its original aim to attack Muslim Egypt, instead besieged and captured Christian Constantinople. Niketas Choniates was a Roman chronicler of the fighting that led to the City’s fall. He writes that an attempted landing near the Palace of Vlachernai was repulsed by Pisan mercenaries and ‘the axe-bearing barbarians’.

     “The Frankish eyewitness and chronicler Robert de Clari describing the battle tells of the ‘English, Danish and Greeks’ defending the towers ‘with axes and swords’. The Frankish Crusader de Villehardouin reports the walls being manned by English and Danes – and that the fighting was very violent with axes and swords. One of the negotiators sent to the Emperor, de Villehardouin describes walking past Englishmen and Danes, fully armed with their axes, posted at the gate of the city and all the way along to the Palace.[10]

     “There are few mentions of the Varangian Guard after the City’s fall, and it is thought they dwindled to a shadow of their former glory. However, traces of the English Varangians still remained. Emperor Michael VIII (1261-1282) who recaptured Constantinople after the Frankish ‘Empire’ collapsed, refers to the active and repeated use of his ‘Englinovarangoi’ in defending his reduced Byzantine realm.

     “The fourteenth-century De Officiis of Pseudo-Codinus, states that English was used in the acclamation to the Emperor at the Imperial banquet at Christmas – after the Genoese, Pisans and Venetians, came the Inglinisti, clashing their weapons with a loud noise…”[11] 

     Perhaps the most lasting image of the English Orthodox in exile is Anna Comnena's description of their last stand against the Normans at the Battle of Durazzo (present-day Albania) in 1081. This was truly the last stand of the English Orthodox, fighting, as was appropriate, in the ranks of the Byzantine Emperor against the Roman Catholic invaders: "The axe-bearing barbarians from the Isle of Thule", as Anna called them, thrust back an attack on their part of the line, and then pursued the Normans into the sea up to their necks. But they had advanced too far, and a Norman cavalry attack threw them back again. "It seems that in their tired condition they were less strong than the Kelts [Normans]. At any rate the barbarian force was massacred there, except for survivors who fled for safety to the sanctuary of the Archangel Michael; all who could went inside the building: the rest climbed to the roof and stood there, thinking that would save their lives. The Latins merely set fire to them and burned the lot, together with the sanctuary..."[12]

    Thus did the chant of the English Orthodox warriors, "Holy Cross! Holy Cross!" fall silent on earth. And thus did the Lord accept their sacrifice as a whole-burnt offering to Himself in heaven. As the Old Roman Liturgy for the dead, the native rite of the English, chants: “May Michael the standard-bearer lead them into the holy Light, which Thou didst promise of old to Abraham and his seed."


June 19 / July 2, 2018.

St. John Maximovich.


[1]Harold Mstislav became Great Prince of Kiev in succession to his father (1126-1132). He was given the title “the Great” for the excellence of his rule, and is counted among the saints. See N.M. Karamzin, Predania Vekov, Moscow: Pravda, 1989, pp. 177-179. The Patericon of St Pantaleon Cloister in Cologne says that "Gytha the Queen" died as a nun on 10 March. A year later Vladimir Monomakh married another woman ( (V.M.)

[2]Phillips, Orthodox Christianity and the Old English Church, pp. 29-30. A.A. Vasiliev (History of the Byzantine Empire, Madison, Milwaukee and London: University of Wisconsin Press, 1952, vol. II, p.484) writes: “In the eighties of the eleventh century, at the beginning of the rule of Alexius Comnenus,as the English historian Freeman emphasized in his very well-known work on the conquest ofEngland by the Normans, some convincing indications of the Anglo-Saxon emigration into the GreekEmpire were already evident. A western chronicler of the first half of the twelfth century [OrdericusVitalis] wrote: ‘After having lost their liberty the Anglians were deeply afflicted… Some of themshining with the blossom of beautiful youth went to distant countries and boldly offered themselvesfor the military service of the Constantinopolitan Emperor Alexius.’ This was the beginning of the‘Varangian-English bodyguard’ which, in the history of Byzantium of the twelfth century, played animportant part, such as the ‘Varangian-Russian Druzhina’ (Company) had played in the tenth andeleventh centuries.”

[3]Lowe, “Ancestral Trust: The English in the Eastern Roman Empire”, Medieval History Magazine, 13, September, 2004, p. 11.

[4]Called "Chevetogne" in the West. According to Ordericus Vitalis, the English were given lands in Ionia, where a town was built for them (Thierry, A History of the Norman Conquest, p. 230).

[5]Phillips, op. cit., pp. 30-32.

[6]Lowe, op. cit., p. 14. Other researches indicate that the English conquered land further on the southern shore of the Sea of Azov, and held it for centuries against Tatar onslaughts. Caitlin Green, “The Medieval ‘New England’”, See also A. A. Vasiliev, “The Opening Stages of the Anglo Saxon Immigration to Byzantium in the Eleventh Century,” Seminarium Kondakovianum 9 (1937).

[7]Phillips, op. cit., p. 30.

[8] Edwardsaga, in M.J. Cohen and John Major, History in Quotations, London: Cassel, 2004, p. 108).

[9]V.G. Vasilevsky (Works, St. Petersburg, volume 1, p. 275) has described the history of another church dedicated to the Mother of God: "The saga links a miracle of St. Olaf, who appeared in support of his brother [Harald Hardrada], with the story about the building of a church in honour of this Norwegian king in Constantinople. Immediately after they returned to Micklegarth, the Varangians carried out the vow they had made to build a large church, but the Emperor put obstacles in the way of its consecration and Harald had to devote considerable labour to overcome this stubborness, etc. It goes without saying that neither in the Byzantine nor in any other sources do we find a trace of evidence that there ever existed in Tsargrad a church dedicated to the Norwegian Olaf, as the saga affirms. Other Scandinavian sources - the saga of Olaf in its shortest edition and the homily on the day of the holy martyr-king both belong to the second half of the 12th century - do not say that the church built in honour of Olaf was called by his name. They represent the event in a somewhat different light. The Byzantine emperor himself, being threatened by pagan enemies, turned in prayer to St. Olaf for protection and gave a vow to build a church in Constantinople 'in the name of the saint and in honour of the Holy Virgin'. But when it came to carrying out his vow it turned out that the Greek emperor did not consider himself or his Church bound to accept the definition of the Norwegian assembly which in 1031 recognised King Olaf, who had been slain in battle, as a saint. The church was built in honour and in the name of the Holy Virgin... The Varangians only helped in its construction and adornment. In this form the story seems much more probably, if not with regard to the reason, at any rate with regard to the consequence, that is, the construction of a Varangian church of St. Mary. It is here that we learn of the 'Varangian Theotokos'."

     Phillips (op. cit.) writes: “We also know of a convent dedicated to the Mother of God, called Panagia Varangiotissa. This was recorded until at least 1361 and from its name it may well have been founded by an Englishwoman. One of the English exiles, probably a certain Coleman, 'vir sanctus', a holy man educated at St. Augustine's in Canterbury, founded a basilica in the City and had it dedicated to St. Nicholas and St. Augustine of Canterbury, his patron." The ruins of this church survive to this day. (V.M.)

[10]John Godfrey writes of the battle for the city in 1204: "The Franks put up two ladders against a seawall barbican near Blachernae, and two knights and two sergeants, followed by fifteen men-at-arms, managed to get on top of the wall. They found themselves opposed by 'the English and Danes, and the fight which followed was hard and ferocious', says Villehardouin; and the courage of the Anglo- Danes put heart into the hesitant troops inside the barbican, who now threw themselves into the fray" (1204: The Unholy Crusade, Oxford University Press, 1980, p. 107). Phillips (op. cit.) notes that, according to de Clari, these English soldiers had their own priests in Constantinople. (V.M.)

[11]Lowe, op. cit., p. 15.

[12]Alexiad, II, 11, 9; IV, 6; translated by E.R.A. Sewter, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1969, pp. 100, 96, 147-8.

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