14 January 2012

When Constantine became emperor

Byzantine plaque placed in modern times to mark the crowning
of Constantine XI, which probably never happened.
Ag. Demetrios, Mistra.

Becoming emperor was for Constantine, like becoming despot, a muddled and unpleasant process sabotaged by his older brothers.  Consider becoming despot. Theodoros, his older brother and despot of Mistra, decided in 1427 that he wished to withdraw from ruling and enter a monastery -- never-mind that his wife was pregnant -- he had been working this idea off and on since at least 1423 and probably earlier.  When John arrived with Constantine to install him as despot at Mistra, just after Christmas, Theodoros had changed his mind.

The net result of this was that Constantine, with Thomas and John, managed to go out and acquire Patras, and Elis, and wives, bringing the whole Morea except for the Venetian ports, under Greek control.  Theodoros hived off a great deal of his own territory in an effort to pacify Constantine, and Constantine made Sphrantzes governor of the southern territories that Mehmed would give Korkondelos Kladas in 1460.

In 1436 Theodoros again decided he was finished with being despot and would prefer to be closer to Constantinople. It was noticed that he was avid to be heir to the throne. John had not been well. John sent Constantine to Mistra to take over -- he had created Constantine and Thomas despots in 1428 while in the Morea -- and Constantine went in June.  Theodoros followed him on the next ship and the next thing anyone knew armies had been collected and Theodoros was briefly at war with Constantine and Thomas.  John had to send two sets of clerics to Mistra to get things calmed down.

Finally, in 1443, Theodoros was really finished with being despot of Mistra, and it was settled that Constantine would have Mistra and Theodoros would have the small territory of Selymbria (Silivri) just down the coast from Constantinople. Everyone knew that Theodoros wanted to be close to Constantinople. John's health was poor, and Theodoros wanted to be emperor.  Everyone also knew that John, their mother Helena, and nearly everyone else but Demetrios wanted Constantine to be emperor.

There was never a set sequence for the heir to the throne in Constantinople.  It was usual for the reigning emperor to designate an heir, and have him crowned in advance of actual need. Manuel himself had been made co-emperor with his father over his older brother Andronikos.  Then Manuel made his nephew John VII, co-emperor over his oldest son, later John VIII. Manuel was present at his son's crowing in 1421. Despite this immediate and flexible precedent, John never formally designated Constantine his heir -- he talked about it, but nothing was put on paper and there was no ceremony.  It is inconceivable now that he would have been so careless in those fragile times, particularly considering how ill he was.  He had nearly died from his first attack of gout in 1432, and since the Council of Union, he had never been really well.

Theodoros had watched his uncle dying of gout at Mistra in 1407 and he knew what was happening with John.  By the early summer of 1448 his plans were accomplished, he had made an alliance with Alfonso V of Naples who selected a Spanish bride for him.  Alfonso would supply troops to take Constantinople, and once Theodoros was in place, the bride would be shipped out.   Then a Catalan ship arrived in port at Selymbria and it was carrying plague. It may have been carrying troops, too, but that didn't matter.  Plague spread in the city.  Theodoros was advised to leave for safety, but in his usual manner he dithered.

Theodoros died miserably of plague on June 21.  They carried his body to Constantinople where it was buried in the Pantokrator in a night ceremony, and then his supporters -- there appear to have been quite a few -- had to figure out how to explain themselves.  It was three months before there was a formal court observance of his death -- he was family: it had to be done -- but John was not present.  Scholarios spoke, mostly about their collective fury at Theodoros' behavior, but still trying to do a proper eulogy. 

A little more than a month later, on October 31, John died. The way should have been clear for Constantine, but Demetrios knew about sabotage, he got to Constantinople first, and he had his own supporters. Considering the violence of four and a half years later, one can have a certain sympathy with the pro-Ottoman party, particularly as Demetrios was known to be strongly anti-Union. Thomas was on the way to Constantinople at the time, and got the news at Gallipoli.  Their mother, Helena, and the upper nobility managed to keep control with Thomas' support, though apparently it was nearly a month of uncertainty (or waiting for a ship) before men were formally dispatched to inform Constantine.  Alexios Philanthropenos Laskaris, who had been travelling with Thomas, on a mission from Constantine, was sent back to Mistra with Manuel Palaiologos Iagros. (One wonders if Constantine, knowing of John's illness, had planned for Thomas and Laskaris to discuss his position with John.)

On January 6 they made him emperor --
βασιλέα πεποιήκεν, Sphrantzes writes: he wasn't there, being off on a mission from the court to ask permission of Sultan Murad II for Constantine to accept the title.  There is no information as to how they made him emperor. Pseudo-Kodinos has two coronation ceremonies: what appears to be central to both is the act of anointing, and then of placing a crown on the emperor's head by the patriarch. Sphrantzes never mentions a crowning.  Pseudo-Sphrantzes says "they crowned Kyr Konstantinon," implying that Philanthropenos and Iagros (both relatives) did the crowning.  Two people (the emperor and the patriarch) could perform a crowning if there was to be a second emperor, such as John VIII.

Something happened in Mistra, but there is no evidence for its happening in Ag. Demetrios. Did Constantine symbolically crown himself as did his grandfather, John VI Kantakuzenos? There was no official crown for the Eastern Empire, in the way that the British monarch is crowned with St. Edward's Crown.* Other emperors -- Manuel I and John VI -- who had become emperor outside the City made a point of a ceremony performed by the Patriarch when they got there.  A later crowning for Constantine in Constantinople would have been very nearly impossible -- the Patriarch was a committed Unionist, Constantine was a pragmatic Unionist -- while most of the clergy, the people, and most important, the Empress Helena were in violent opposition to the idea.**  Anti-Unionist John Eugenikos, in a letter to Constantine of 1450 emphasizing his faults, wrote that he had not been crowned.

There was no Greek ship to take Constantine to Constantinople. (What happened to all that famous Monemvasia shipping?) He tried to get the use of a ship from Crete, but the duca said he had to get permission from Venice. A Catalan ship appeared -- Constantine and Thomas had also been in correspondence with Alfonso V, and a bride for Constantine was also under discussion -- and the last emperor arrived in Constantinople on 12 March 1449.

* I cannot remember where I acquired this information about there being no official single crown.  I would be grateful for corrections, information, and sources.

** Donald M. Nicol, The Immortal Emperor, p. 37-40.


  1. Most interesting. Thanks for sharing. The stake of another civil war just five years before the Fall stuns me. The Ottoman sultans custom of brother-killing, though cruel, makes sense now.

    About there not being just one crown, I think it can be acknowledged just by looking at images of emperors painted in their time. From century to century que design differs.

  2. About the crowns -- in Pseudo-Kodinos when he specifies the dress for various formal occasions, he nearly always says something to the effect of "the emperor, wearing the headgear of his choice, will . . .."


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