A medieval new England: the Anglo-Saxons’ eastern odyssey

As unlikely scenarios go, the one that saw a band of English exiles fleeing William the Conqueror and setting up a colony on the shore of the Black Sea takes some beating. Caitlin Green tells the story of a remarkable medieval adventure

The Varangian Guard, as shown in the 12th-century Madrid Skylitzes. Around this time, the guard, which protected the Byzantine emperor, was apparently dominated by English warriors who had fled the Norman conquest. (Image by Bridgeman)

Anglo-Saxon resistance had been resourceful and determined. It had seriously troubled the new Norman regime. But, by the mid-1070s, it had become clear even to the most optimistic of rebels that William the Conqueror had won the battle for England. The Anglo-Norman chronicler Orderic Vitalis tells us that, in the wake of their defeat at Hastings, “the English groaned aloud for their lost liberty and plotted ceaselessly to find some way of shaking off a yoke that was so intolerable”. That yoke remained firmly in place, however, and so, a little under 10 years after William’s invasion, the Anglo-Saxon lords were left with a stark choice.

Advertisement

The options they faced were two-fold: they could stay and see what Norman rule would bring, or they could abandon England to its conquerors and seek to make a new life elsewhere. Several thousand English nobles and their followers seem to have decided to take this last option. But they didn’t simply flee to neighbouring regions of Europe. Instead they sailed right across the Mediterranean, establishing a new homeland for themselves thousands of miles away – creating a medieval New England on the northern coastline of the Black Sea.

A host of heathens

So how much do we know about this remarkable Anglo-Saxon odyssey? The fullest descriptions of the vanquished lords’ decision to quit their homeland is contained within the pages of the early 13th-century Chronicon Laudunensis and the 14th-century Icelandic Saga of Edward the Confessor (Játvarðar saga) – both of which are thought to be based on a lost 12th-century account. “When the English chiefs were sure that the Danes would not help them against William…” the saga tell us, “then they left their estates and fled away from the land with a great host” in 350 ships. The exiles were led by “three earls and eight barons”, of whom the foremost was an “earl of Gloucester” named Siward – probably one of the Anglo-Saxon lords of this name who joined Hereward the Wake’s famous rebellion against the Normans in 1071.

The nobles had two choices: to see what Norman rule would bring, or quit England. They chose the latter

The English fleet is said to have set sail for the straits of Gibraltar, before voyaging around the western Mediterranean, raiding and adventuring along the way. The Játvarðar saga tells us that the Anglo-Saxon exiles attacked Septem (modern Ceuta) on the north coast of Africa – where they slew “a host of heathen men” and obtained a great “fee in gold and silver” – and that they also launched assaults on Majorca and Minorca.

Eventually, however, the English exiles heard of “great strife out of Micklegarth [Constantinople], and how heathen folk beleaguered the city both by sea and land”. They therefore sailed to the aid of the Byzantine empire, arriving (so the Chronicon Laudunensis tells us) in 1075. There, we learn, they fought so boldly against the “heathen folk” (presumably the Turks, who did indeed threaten Byzantium around this time) that the emperor offered to take them into his service – not as rank-and-file soldiers but as members of his personal bodyguard: the Varangian Guard.

A map of Anglo-Saxon travels
Our map shows the route the exiles reportedly took after leaving England in the mid-1070s. After attacking Septem, they settled in Constantinople, before apparently establishing a colony on the Black Coast. (Map by Battlefield Design for BBC History Magazine)

Neither the Játvarðar saga nor the Chronicon reveal what the Anglo-Saxon exiles made of Constantinople – the capital of the Byzantine empire and one of the greatest and most populous cities in the world. But its massive defensive walls, porticoed streets and monumental architecture – the most impressive example of which was surely the remarkable cathedral of Hagia Sophia – must have proved awe-inspiring to men used to England’s relatively small cities.

As the nerve-centre of an empire, Constantinople would also have offered the English exiles a wealth of new experiences, as the Chronicon‘s account of one of those exiles, a man named Hardigt, implies:

“He was reputed to be the strongest of all the Angli, for which reason he was suspect to the Greeks, who cunningly let loose a lion to devour him,” the Chronicon relates. “Hardigt was alone in the courtyard of the palace. But he ran to the marble columns that stood in the atrium of the palace to use them as protection against the lion. Then (by a series of adroit manoeuvres) he succeeded in braining the lion by bashing its head on a column.”

We’re then told that, for his troubles, the lion-slaying Hardigt earned himself a promotion to chief of the Varangian Guard, before becoming commander of the imperial fleet. But can we give this story any credence? Could an English émigré really have secured a post at the very pinnacle of the Byzantine navy? The historian Krijnie Ciggaar certainly considers the claims credible, suggesting these appointments took place in the later 1080s/1090s. She highlights a reference in the Byzantine author Kekaumenos’s late 11thcentury Strategikon that complains of the emperor favouring the “foreigner who has come to us from England” and “making him head of a department of state or general”.

William the Conqueror's fleet sails for England, as depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry.
William the Conqueror’s fleet sails for England, as depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry. Many Anglo-Saxons would find his domination of their homeland “intolerable”. (Image by Alamy)

While the Chronicon and Játvarðar saga may contain the most detailed descriptions of the English exiles’ escapades, they are far from the only sources to mention an epic Anglo-Saxon voyage east in the 1070s. Orderic Vitalis says that some of the defeated Anglo-Saxons who couldn’t bear to live under Norman rule travelled into “remote lands and bravely offered their arms” to the Byzantine emperor. And when a Canterbury monk named Joseph visited the Byzantine capital in around 1090, he encountered there “men from his own homeland… who were part of the emperor’s household”. His contemporary, Goscelin of Canterbury, refers to an unnamed “honourable man” from England who, “along with many noble exiles from the fatherland, migrated to Constantinople; he obtained such favour with the emperor and empress as well as with other powerful men as to receive command over prominent troops and over a great number of companions”.

If these reports are to be believed, the English émigrés seem to have made a success of their new lives in the eastern Mediterranean. But soon, according to the Chronicon and Játvarðar saga, they sought a permanent a settlement of their own – a ‘Nova Anglia’ or ‘New England’, as the Chronicon puts it. Both the Chronicon and Játvarðar saga relate that the exiles, under the leadership of Earl Siward, begged the emperor “to give them some towns or cities which they might own and their heirs after them”. The emperor is said to have responded that there was “a land lying north in the sea, which had lain of old under the emperor of Micklegarth, but in after days the heathen had won it and abode in it”. In short, the emperor agreed that if the English could conquer this land, then it was theirs.

The Játvarðar saga continues: “Earl Sigurd and his men… took that land into possession and gave it a name, and called it England. To the towns that were in the land and to those which they built they gave the names of the towns in England. They called them both London and York, and by the names of other great towns in England… The land lies six days’ and nights’ sail across the sea in the east and north-east from Micklegarth [ie across the Black Sea]… and that folk has abode there ever since.”

London in the sun?

Like the tale of Hardigt’s lion-slaying, it’s all too easy to dismiss the idea of a wandering band of Anglo-Saxons pitching up on the banks of the Black Sea and establishing a thriving colony as hopelessly fanciful – and some historians have done just that. But study the sources in detail and evidence emerges that might support the narrative of the Chronicon and Játvarðar saga.

First of all, it’s interesting to note that the time it took the English to reach their destination on the Black Sea – and the direction in which they sailed to get there – matches the apparent length of the sea-journey from Constantinople to the Crimean peninsula as recorded in early sources. What’s more, there is also evidence that the Byzantine empire did indeed reassert its authority in this area around 1100, as the Chronicon and Játvarðar saga imply.

Franciscan friars who passed through the Black Sea region in the 1240s claimed that Christian “Saxi” had fought off the might of the Tartars

Further evidence that tales of a medieval ‘Nova Anglia’ might be grounded in history is provided by five place-names that appeared in coastal charts of the north and north-eastern Black Sea dating to the 14th–16th centuries. The British historian Jonathan Shepard has shown that three of these seem to refer to Varangian settlements in this area (including a “Varangolimen” on the Crimean peninsula). The other two are even more suggestive: there’s “Londina”, which is, of course, strikingly similar to the English capital; and “Susaco”, which may have been named in honour of Sussex, the land of the ‘South Saxons’.

And if accounts of an English settlement on the Black Sea settlement were indeed works of fiction, then how to explain the claim – made by Franciscan friars who passed by the region in 1246–47 – that Christian “Saxi” had successfully defended themselves against the might of the Tartars. “When we were there we were told that the Tartars besieged a certain city of these Saxi and tried to subdue it,” reported the friars. “The inhabitants however made engines to match those of the Tartars, all of which they broke, and the Tartars were not able to get near the city to fight owing to these engines and missiles.”

While this English settlement was apparently thriving on the banks of the Black Sea, English Varangian Guards continued to protect the emperor in Constantinople – and would do so until at least the siege of Constantinople in 1204 (when a crusader army sacked the city). It’s been suggested that the ranks of the Varangian Guard were replenished by men from the colony of ‘Nova Anglia’ over successive generations.

Quite how long this colony lasted is unclear. But as late as the mid-14th century, the De Officiis of Pseudo-Kodinus related that the Varangians still constituted a separate people. More intriguingly, the De Officiis records that, at Christmas, these Varangians wished the emperor length of life – and that, almost 300 years after their ancestors set off on their extraordinary voyage into the unknown, they did so “in their native tongue, that is, English”!

Caitlin Green is a historian specialising in archaeology, place-names and the literature of late Roman and early medieval Britain. You can read more about the medieval ‘New England’ on her website, caitlingreen.org

Advertisement

This article was first published in the Christmas 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine