Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos, the heroic and saintly last Eastern emperor of Byzantium

Constantine XI Dragases Palaiologos (Κωνσταντῖνος ΙΑ' Δραγάσης Παλαιολόγος) lived from 8 February 1405–29 May 1453, dying on the very day that his imperial city, Constantinople, and his Empire, fell to the heathen Islamic marauders.
 
He was the last reigning Byzantine Emperor, a member of the Palaiologos imperial family. He and his elder brother, Emperor John VIII Palaiologos, were both supporters of reunion with Rome and both became Catholics, as did the sons of Emperor Constantine XI.
 
His death marked the end of the Eastern Roman Empire, which had continued for 977 years after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 (later revived in 800 with Charlemagne).
 
He was the eighth of ten children born to Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos and Empress Helena Dragaš, the daughter of the Serbian magnate Constantine Dragaš. 
 
Devoted to his mother, he added her surname (Dragases) to his own upon becoming Emperor.

Contemporaries spoke well of the Emperor Constantine and he was highly regarded by all.
 
While his brother John VIII Palaiologos was Emperor, Constantine had became the Despotes ("Despot" meaning "lord" or "master" and not having the same meaning as its English derivative) of the Morea (the medieval name for the Peloponnesus) in October 1443. He ruled from the fortress and palace in Mistra, a fortified town also called Sparta or Lacedaemon due to its proximity to that ancient Greek city.

Constantine XI married twice, on 1 July 1428 to Theodora Tocco, niece of Carlo I Tocco of Epirus and, after her death, on 27 July 1441 to Caterina Gattilusio, daughter of Dorino of Lesbos but she died in August 1442 after suffering a miscarriage. He had no children by either marriage.

After his imperial coronation in 1449, Constantine XI sent a commission under George Sphrantzes asking Mara Branković, daughter of the Serbian Despot Đurađ Branković and Byzantine princess Irene Kantakouzene, to marry him. 
The proposal was welcomed by her father, Despot Đurađ Branković, but it foundered on the objection of Mara herself who had vowed that "if God ever released her from the hands of the infidel she would lead a life of celibacy and chastity for the rest of her days".
 
Accordingly, the courtship failed and Sphrantzes took steps to arrange for a marriage with a princess either from the Empire of Trebizond or the Kingdom of Georgia
 
The choice eventually fell to an unnamed Georgian princess, daughter of King George VIII of Georgia.

Sphrantzes started official negotiations with the Georgian king, who had sent an ambassador to Constantinople for that reason.
 
It was agreed that the next spring, Sphrantzes would sail for Georgia to bring the bride to Constantinople, but, alas for the course of true love, Constantine's plans were overtaken by the events of 1453 and total disaster.
During the absence of his older brother, Emperor John VIII, at the Council of Florence in Italy, negotiating a reunion of the Eastern Orthodox back to the Catholic stem, Constantine served as his regent in Constantinople (1437–1440).
 
Constantine XI was an equally avid defender of the reunion with Rome.


Emperor John VIII Palaiologos
from Benozzo Gozzoli's 1459 representation of the Three Kings


At the Council of Florence Emperor John VII was called by the Council "Emperor of the Romans", including in the preface to the decree of re-union, Laetentur Caeli of 1439, and his throne was placed, together with that of Pope Eugene IV, by the empty throne of the Western Roman Emperor, that office being temporarily sede vacante as the Prince-Electors of the Empire had yet to decide upon a new Holy Roman Emperor.

The Council of Ferrara had been moved to Florence in January 1439 and made steady progress on a formula for reunion.

On 6 July 1439 Laetentur Caeli was signed by Patriarch Joseph II of Constantinople and all the Eastern bishops but one, Mark of Ephesus, who, contrary to the views of all others, held that Rome continued in both heresy and schism.

Upon their return, the Eastern bishops found their agreement with the West broadly rejected by the monks, the populace and by civil authorities, with the notable exception of the Emperors John VIII and Constantine XI who remained committed to union until the fall of the Byzantine Empire to the Turkish Ottoman Empire two decades later.

In 1446 the Sultan Murad II of Turkey, albeit not so belligerent as some Turkish sultans, came out of retirement, once again to attack the Christian Eastern territories, alleging unjustified action by the Byzantine emperors, and led an army of 50,000–60,000 soldiers into Greece to seize power from Constantine in the Morea.
 
Constantine and his brother Thomas prepared for the inevitable battle. 


Eastern Byzantine Christian Roman Emperor Constantine XI

Sultan Murad used bombards, siege engines and scaling ladders, breaching the walls on 10 December 1446. Murad's janissaries (captive Christian children indoctrinated and turned into Muslim slave-warriors) poured through the opening and the defenders panicked and fled.

Constantine and Thomas barely escaped to Mistra while Murad devastated the coast line, taking 60,000 prisoners for the Turkish slave markets.

When his brother, Emperor John VIII Palaiologos, died childless, a dispute erupted between Constantine and his brother Demetrios Palaiologos over the throne. Demetrios drew support by opposing the union of the Orthodox and Catholic churches. The Empress Helena, acting as regent, supported Constantine.
 
They appealed to the Ottoman Sultan Murad II of Turkey to arbitrate the disagreement because, by then, the Eastern Empire was having to pay tribute to the Sultan.
 
Ironically, Murad decided in favour of Constantine, and on 6 January 1449 Constantine was crowned in the cathedral at Mistra by the local bishop. It was rare, but not unprecedented, for an emperor to be crowned in a provincial city.

The Patriarch of Constantinople at the time, Patriarch Gregory III, being in favour of reunion with Rome, was shunned by most of his clergy. Constantine knew that to receive his crown from Gregory would add fuel to the existing fires of religious discord in the capital.

Sultan Murad died in 1451 and was succeeded by his 19-year-old son, Mehmed II, who was obsessed with the conquest of Constantinople and soon found an excuse to besiege the great city. Belligerent Turkish sultans were obsessively bent upon conquering Constantimople (just as they were obsessed to take what they called "the Golden Apple", Vienna, or, even better, Rome).
 
Facing the imminent threat, and at the eleventh hour, the reunion was officially proclaimed by Bishop Isidore of Kiev in Hagia Sophia, the great Cathedral of Constantinople (now a mosque), on 12 December 1452 (and it is said that Isidore gave communion to Emperor Constantine XI the same day).  
The bishops and people of Constantinople accepted this act as temporary provision, at least until the removal of the Ottoman threat, but it was too late.

On 29 May 1453 Constantinople fell and the reunion with it.   


Sultan Mehmed II prepares to invade the great Eastern Christian Roman capital of Constantinople

Constantine led the defence of the city and took an active part in the fighting alongside his troops.

At the same time, he used his diplomatic skills to maintain the necessary unity between the Genoese, Venetian, and Greek troops.
 
The poor state of the Byzantine economy meant he struggled to defend the city from the huge, invading Ottoman army. 
 
Desperate, he appealed to the West, reaffirming the union of Florence. 
 
Infamously, Constantine's chief minister and military commander, Loukas Notaras, said “Better to see the turban of the Turks reigning in the City than the Latin mitre”. 
 
He got his wish with lasting consequences.
 
In the end, the saintly and heroic Constantine XI doffed his imperial finery and fought with his men as a common soldier, leading a final charge against the invading Islamic marauders.



The Muslim invasion of Constantinople: Emperor Constantine XI leads his troops into battle for the final showdown against the heathen invaders...


These were his last words to his soldiers:

"I would not go if there was any benefit to leave the city, but I cannot go away...I will not leave ever. I have decided to die with you."

He died heroically at the head of his men, sword in hand, faithful and loyal to the last.

He knew he was defending the ancient Christian capital of Constantine, the Eastern Roman Empire and ‘όι ρωμαίοι ("hoi Romaioi",“the Romans”, as the Easterners always called themselves) from the infidel horde, a true soldier for Christ defending the bounds of Christendom, faithful unto death.

He remains the hero of heroes to the Greeks (and, indeed, to all Christians) ever since.

Majorem hac dilectionem nemo habet, ut animam suam ponat qui pro amicis suis....

μείζονα ταύτης ἀγάπην οὐδεὶς ἔχει, ἵνα τις τὴν ψυχὴν αὐτοῦ θῇ ὑπὲρ τῶν φίλων αὐτοῦ...

"Greater love than this no man hath, that he lay down his life for his friends...."

John 15:13


An ikon of the saintly Emperor Constantine XI

He is a saint for our time so threatened by those same heathen infidel terrorists.
 
His sons later, living in the West, became Catholics, bequeathed the title King of Jerusalem to the Holy Roman emperors (who already claimed it) and the Sacred Military Constantinian Order of St George to the Farnese Dukes of Parma whose family head, today HRH the Duke of Calabria, remains the Grand Master of the Order.
 
Emperor Constantine XI, is venerated privately by both Catholic and Orthodox as a saint and, in the West, as a champion of the reunion of the Churches.





Άγιος Κωνσταντίνος ΙΑ, προσευχηθείτε για μας!
Beatus Constantinus XI, ora pro nobis!
Blessed Constantine XI, pray for us!



The imperial double eagle of the Palaiologoi emperors of Byzantium

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