Saturday, December 16, 2017

An Emperor's Christmas at Eltham in 1400

by Mark Patton

The south London suburb of Eltham today seems an improbable location for a Medieval Christmas celebration involving kings and emperors, but the area was, in the Fifteenth Century, in open countryside, just a day's ride from London, but sufficiently distant from the polluted Thames and from the frequently plague-ridden capital, for a King of England to entertain his guests in style and to enjoy, with them, the favoured pastimes of the time and season, notably hunting and jousting.

Eltham Palace: the Medieval great hall is on the right; the buildings on the left
were added in the 1930s, as the private home of Stephen and Virginia Courtauld.
Photo: Nick Blackburn (licensed under CCA).

Over the Christmas season of 1400-1401, the King in question was Henry IV, and his guests included the Byzantine Emperor, Manuel II Palaeologus. We refer today to the "Byzantine Empire," but nobody who lived in it ever thought of it as anything other than the "Roman Empire." Although his capital was Constantinople, not Rome, and his people spoke Greek, rather than Latin, Manuel regarded himself as the heir to the empires of Augustus and of Hadrian: and of Constantine, who had made the empire Christian and moved the capital eastward to a new city named after himself.

King Henry IV, UK National Archives DL 42/1
(image is in the Public Domain).

Emperor Manuel II Palaeologus,
Bibliotheque Nationale de France
(image is in the Public Domain).

Roman or Byzantine, however, the Empire, in 1400, was crumbling. The schism that had opened up in 1054, between the Eastern Orthodox and Western Catholic Churches, had never been repaired: and in 1204, the forces of the Fourth Crusade, in open defiance of the Pope, had sacked and pillaged Constantinople, dividing much of Byzantine territory up between Catholic French, German and Italian nobles. Now the Empire faced a new threat from the Muslim Ottoman Empire, which had more or less encircled Constantinople, cutting it off from its agricultural hinterland.

The Hippodrome of Constantinople, here shown on a 17th Century print,
was destroyed by the forces of the Fourth Crusade and never restored
(image is in the Public Domain).
The chariot races held here were among the city's last
tangible connections to the Rome of the Caesars.

The Mediterranean World in 1400 (image is in the Public Domain).

Manuel's journey to the west, far from being just a friendly visit, was a life-or-death diplomatic mission to secure the military and financial support that might enable his Empire to survive. One can hardly fail to admire his efforts, but the harsh truth is that it was probably already too late to save the Empire, which would ultimately fall to the Ottomans in 1453.

As a young man, Manuel had been a hostage of the Ottoman Sultan, Bayezid I at Bursa, and had escaped to Constantinople, where he was proclaimed Emperor. Bayezid besieged Constantinople from 1394 to 1402, and it was during a lull in the fighting that Manuel and his family had slipped away from the city to seek support overseas. Leaving his capital under the regency of a nephew, and his wife and children under the protection of his brother in Greece, Manuel traveled to Venice, and on to Padua, Milan, and Paris, where he met the French King, Charles VI.

The meeting of the magi, from Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry,
Musee Conde (image is in the Public Domain).
The figure on the white horse is believed by some to be styled on Manuel.
Clearly a fine horseman, the fifty year old emperor impressed the Parisian crowd
by leaping from one horse to another without touching the ground. 

His Christmas sojourn in England may, in fact, have been an accident, prompted by a recurrence of the mental illness that had dogged Charles throughout much of his reign. Henry IV, however, was a natural ally. He was more widely traveled than many English monarchs, having participated with the Teutonic Knights, in a "Crusade" against the supposedly Pagan Lithuanians, and having made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, where he had promised to return as a Christian liberator.

Henry met the Emperor at Blackheath, and conducted him, with his forty retainers, to Eltham Palace. Manuel spoke no English, which was unsurprising, but he equally spoke no Latin (the universal language of diplomacy and scholarship in the Catholic west). His entourage must have included men who could translate between Latin and Greek, whilst Henry's court would have included many who could translate from Latin to English. Conversation cannot have been easy; already, from Paris, Manuel had complained in a letter to a Greek friend, that "the difference in language ... did not allow us to converse, as we had wished, with really good men who were extremely anxious to show us favour."

Hunting in December, from Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry,
Musee Conde (image is in the Public Domain).

The Medieval hall of Eltham Palace (extensively remodeled by Edward IV).
Photo: David Hatch (licensed under CCA). 

Manuel had brought with him Christmas gifts of religious relics: fragments of the True Cross and of garments believed to have been worn by Christ and the Virgin Mary. There was much hunting and feasting, and some of the people of London traveled down to Eltham to entertain the royal party with carols and mumming. Ultimately, however, Manuel returned to Constantinople empty-handed. Neither his English nor his French allies were able to offer any meaningful assistance, their own armies and treasuries seriously depleted by decades of war and plague.

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.

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