Anglo-Saxon England and Byzantium, Again

This is going a bit beyond what I work on normally, but digging up the evidence for this has been fun – it’s interesting to see how people from Byzantium, the distant medieval Roman Empire, may still have had some contact with Britain long after the period I study. There is certainly no evidence of official contact between late Anglo-Saxon England and Byzantium in the tenth and eleventh centuries, but there are nonetheless oblique hints that people and envoys were on the move between the two opposite ends of Europe.

Since the time of Aethelstan (924-39), for example, English kings sometimes described themselves as the basileus ‘of the English’ or basileus ‘of all of Albion’ – βασιλεύς being the Greek word for ’emperor’. Sarah Foot’s recent biography of Aethelstan (2011) further suggests that the king’s awareness of Greek norms can be tied to Duke Hugh of the Franks’ embassy to the king, as he sent a number of gifts to England in 926, which included a Byzantine onyx vase. Similarly, a fragment of the True Cross given to Aethelstan in the same collection may have had an eastern origin as well, since the Byzantines gave a similar relic to the Western Franks in 872. This is only a supposition based on what we know about – I think it would be safe to presume that the Anglo-Saxon elite were fully aware of the implications of the word basileus even without material evidence of Constantinople’s wealth in their treasury. Their kingdom was after all increasingly dominant in Britain, so a title as grand as ’emperor’ was eminently suitable – though we should note that many other formulations were also used as the titles of Anglo-Saxon kings.

Strikingly, a notably less effective king, Aethelred ‘the Unready’ (978-1016) continued the same trend and based on a brief look at the Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England, I see that he was described as a basileus in 50 of his charters (or there about), compared to 7 featuring imperator, the Latin word for ’emperor’. Admittedly the usage of this word was dwarfed by the far more common ‘king of the English’, but it is nonetheless I think a significant demonstration of the pretensions of Aethelred’s court. The same pattern would continue into the reigns of Cnut and Edward the Confessor (yet another so-so king), which tells you a little about how eastern imperial nomenclature was hardly unknown in late Anglo-Saxon England. As noted by Jonathan Shepard, given that βασιλεύς only became the norm in the Eastern Roman court in the seventh century, Anglo-Saxon uses of this title was unlikely to have been due to classical influences, but more likely the result of their awareness of the Roman Empire of their time.


Edward the Confessor, basileus/emperor of the English?

There are a number of other interesting connections. William of Malmesbury, a twelve-century historian, recorded that there was a Greek monk at Malmesbury named Constantine in the early eleventh century. More surprisingly, William also said that the monks believed that Constantine was once an archbishop, but did not know why he left his native land. This tale may well be legendary, but it does tell us something about what later generations thought about the possibility of foreigners in eleventh-century Malmesbury. Sometime between 964 and 1030, we also know that a Greek monk named Andrew served in the New Minster at Winchester, since he was named in the local Book of Life, which recorded names that were to be commended to God during mass. Finally, we also have a certain ‘Bishop Sigewold’, apparently a ‘Greek by origin’, who was involved in a property dispute in the 960s. Michael Lapidge has further suggested that he can be identified as Bishop Nikephoros (both this and Sigewold means the same: ‘Victory-Bearing’) of Herakleia, who was apparently snubbed by the Byzantine emperor in 956 for unknown reasons, as recorded by the historian John Skylitzes. This is a very unlikely suggestion, as Nikephoros of Herakleia was an equally obscure figure and there is no reason for us to think that he could have travelled all the way to England. Perhaps more importantly, we should note that being Greek by origin did not mean that people really saw themselves as ‘Greek’ or that they had travelled from Byzantium. Identity is a difficult issue to understand and often very flexible – someone with an ethnic name, for instance, did not necessarily have to belong to that ethnicity (or their ‘original’ ethnicity, for that matter).

What is more interesting is that someone in England wrote this factoid down and noted Sigewold’s involvement in a property dispute, with a Dane of all people, which indicates that this bishop, real or not, had a great deal of influence (or imagined influence) in contemporary society. It perhaps speaks more of contemporaries’ awareness of the diverse origins of their bishops, than a definite reference to a visitor from Byzantium. It is worth remembering here that during the ‘golden age’ of the Anglo-Saxon church in the late seventh century, as seen by the Venerable Bede, the archbishop of Canterbury was Theodore of Tarsus, a Greek monk from Cilicia (modern day Turkey), and his right-hand man was Hadrian, an abbot from North Africa. This has no bearing on whether Sigewold was really from the east, but it’s a useful reminder that in the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ extensive travel was very possible and should not be immediately dismissed.

Anyway, these are the people who we know were alive around Aethelred’s reign and who had possible eastern connections, but all these links can still be doubted to differing extents. This is why we have to supplement this with other evidence. Luckily for us, scholars such as Michael Lapidge have done all the legwork already. For one version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the word dromon (Latinised form of δρόμων) was used to refer to ships rather than an Old English word, similarly when the chronicler referred to light galleys as moneris, a Latinised form of μονήρης. As the author was Aethelweard, a counsellor serving King Edgar (959-75), it is possible that this was due to the court’s acquaintance with eastern norms – or equally likely in my opinion, the results of Scandinavian travelers to England who had once served in the Byzantine navy. Shepard has also speculated that the well-known Scandinavian links with England may have led to a donation of relics of the eastern saints Cosmas, Damian, and George to Winchester by Emma, wife of Cnut (and previously of Aethelred) after the king’s death. I find this a bit unlikely, since all three saints were well known in the west before this period, but I suppose that it is hard to tell whether the relics of eastern saints were in the west already or were newly acquired from abroad given the evidence available.

What about the Byzantines then? What evidence exists of their views of the Anglo-Saxons? Michael Psellos, the premier intellectual of the eleventh century, noted c.1060s that life amongst provincials was akin to being a Greek exile living in Britain, implying that the provincial Greeks did not speak the language properly (or at least, not up to the high standards of Psellos). This perhaps also hints at his awareness that people in Britain spoke poor Greek. A Byzantine seal of a treasury official from the same time has also been found in London, likewise for a seal of the logothete Leo, c.1000, as well as that of John Raphael, the commander of the Varangians in Italy in 1046, found in Winchester. This evidence has even been interpreted by Peter Frankopan as signs that the Byzantines were recruiting Anglo-Saxon mercenaries, well before the First Crusade. We do know of Anglo-Saxons going east to serve in the Varangian Guard after the Norman Conquest of 1066, so it’s not a stretch to think that adventurers from Britain were serving in Constantinople before then as well. The earliest evidence of this emigration is perhaps the words of Kekaumenos, who got annoyed that foreigners ‘from England’ were honoured c.1070s, though note that this reading of the manuscript is disputed (see Charlotte Roueché’s comments here). More recently, an article, available to read here, discussed a fascinating Byzantine seal once owned by a ‘Sphen’, who was both a patrikios and a ‘translator of the English’ – the dating remains unclear, but provides an interesting context for Kekaumenos’ words. The Anglo-Saxons were perhaps not so unknown in Constantinople after all.

My last suggestion is just that, a suggestion, but I hope that my summary of the available evidence does not rule out that possibility. We definitely do not have any official accounts of diplomatic contact, but from other sources, whether the odd names that popped up in the sources or the occasional references to distant lands, I think it would be fair to say that the Anglo-Saxon court of Aethelred knew about Byzantium and plausibly had some contact with it, if only very tangentially through intermediaries. The political and military histories tell us nothing about these movements, but I think if we dig a little deeper through other sources, we can get a slightly more colourful picture of how Anglo-Saxon England was tied to the wider world.


A lot of the information can be found in M. Lapidge, ‘Byzantium, Rome and England in the Early Middle Ages’, in Roma fra Oriente e Occidente: 19-24 aprile 2001 (Spoletto, 2002), pp. 363-400, and J. Shepard, ‘From the Bosporus to the British Isles: The Way from the Greeks to the Varangians’ (2010), an article that’s probably most easily accessed here. Other useful references can be found in S. Foot, Aethelstan: The First King of England (2011), and P. Frankopan, The First Crusade: The Call from the East (2012) – both very readable books and well worth taking a look anyway! The invaluable Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England can be accessed here – it’s a fantastic resource, if sometimes a bit confusing to navigate. More specifically, the information on Aethelred’s titles can be found here.



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3 responses to “Anglo-Saxon England and Byzantium, Again

  1. Levi Roach

    Interesting stuff – thanks for the post! One word of caution. Graecisms are *extremely* popular in later Anglo-Latin prose, starting in Æthelstan’s reign, and there are grounds for thinking that ‘basileus’ is being used in its more classical sense here as a fancy sounding equivalent to ‘rex’: it almost invariably replaces ‘rex’ in titulature and is even bilingually glossed as ‘rex, cyning’.


  2. Judith Jesch

    Hi there – You hint at the significance of the Scandinavian connection and I think you could perhaps make more of this – at this period the Scandinavians are very well connected to both Byzantium and England. Don’t know you if you a recent book on Byzantium and the Viking World:


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