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The Story of Constantine XI; The Last Byzantine Emperor (1448-1453 AD)

The position of the Byzantine state during the reign of Constantine XI was so dire and the facts so contradictory to what anyone would expect, that it makes this story one of the most unusual in history.

Constantine Palaeologus was born Feb. 9, 1404, the eighth of 10 children, to Emperor Manuel II and Irene. Irene was, through her father, a member of the Serbian Royal family who claimed French blood through Helene de Courtenay, Queen of Serbia 1262-1308 AD, who was of the French royal family.

On the death of his brother John VIII, Oct. 3, 1448, Constantine's next youngest brother, Demetrius, claimed the throne on the basis that he was born "in the purple" or while his father was emperor. It looked like civil war would erupt. It was decided to put the question of who would be the next emperor of Constantinople to none other than Murad II, the sultan of the Turks.

Being a thoroughly correct and honest man, Murad, though it was against his best interest, declared Constantine emperor. This is like the Russian leader appointing the American leader. Constantine at the time was despot of the Peloponnesus, and on Jan. 6, 1449, he was crowned in Mistra. He did not enter Constantinople until March 12, 1449.

On Feb. 5, 1451, Sultan Murad II died, leaving his 21-year old son, Mahammed, sultan. The new sultan was highly educated and spoke Arabic, Greek, Latin and Slavonic. Mahammed II was not pure Turkish, for his mother had been a beautiful Albanian slave; nor was he raised by an entirely Turkish heritage as his stepmother, the sultana, was Mara Brankovich of Servia.

On the death of his father, Mahammed II gave his stepmother rich estates in Macedonia and permission to return to her father, the influential George Brankovich, ruler of Serbia. He also granted the Byzantines of Constantinople 300,000 aspers a year to keep Orchan Effendi, an Ottoman prince who had sought refuge in Constantinople, housed and living up to his station.

To show how interrelated everyone was, Constantine XI, twice a widower, was looking for a wife. Protostratorissa Palaeologina, a relative of the emperor, suggested that Constantine might marry her nice, Mara, the former sultana of the Turks and stepmother to the sultan. He did propose, but he was declined.

The strange event that started the siege of Constantinople was a request to the Turks from the Byzantines for more money. It seems there was not enough money in the treasury to pay the salaries of state officials or the few companies of the emperor's guard. Foolishly, fatefully, they decided to raise the money by requesting more to house Ottoman Prince Orchan Effendi.

When they approached the Grand Vizier Chalil-pasha of the Turks, himself a Greek and Serbian, by the way, he flew into a rage. The sultan, on hearing this request then and there resolved to honor his father Murad II's deathbed request to take Constantinople.

At this point, Constantine sent emissaries to the West for help. Pope Nicholas tried to help, but France and England were at war. The French King Charles agreed to end the war and help Constantinople, but King Henry of England would not.

While things looked hopeful for a time, it came to nothing. As a last resort, the emissaries asked the Pope to at least send the 10 ships and men he promised. The Pope replied that he could not do this until the union of the two churches was accomplished. The Byzantines agreed and on Dec. 12, 1452, a joint mass was celebrated in St. Sophia.

This meant that the ships could come, but the people were enraged. They hated Westerners, "the Latins" from the time of the Crusaders and proclaimed "Better we should be Turks than Latins". One nun known for her piety donned a turban and began sacrifices for Mohammed.

By the way, the ships from the Pope didn't arrive in the area until two days after the fall of the city and the death of Constantine.

Everything was against Constantin XI. The Hungarian maker of big guns, Orban, went over to the Turks at four times the money the Byzantines were paying him. There were 7,000 Christians defending the city and 30,000 Christians fighting with the Turks. Even 1,500 soldiers of George Brankovich of Serbia, friend to Constantine XI, sent to Constantinople weren't told until the last minute they were fighting for the Turks. The soldiers and workmen in the city would not perform their duties until they were paid. Silver from the churches had to be made into coins and paid out before these patriots would fight or work.

It was said and circulated to the panic-stricken residents of the city that "the residence of the emperors would not pass to other master until ships were seen sailing under full canvas across dry land". Even this happened on the night of May 21, 1453. The sultan had moved 30 ships across five miles of land from the Bosporous into the bay of the Golden Horn. He did this by clearing a connecting valley of brush, digging a canal, paving it with logs, then covering them with tar, lard and tallow. The ships were then drawn through the canal at night with sails unfurled by teams of buffalo assisted by soldiers.

Though Mahammed II offered Constantine XI peace and a territory in Greece to rule, and his inner council asked him to flee, Constantine felt he must stay and die with the empire. On May 29, 1453, the body of the emperor was recognized by his purple shoes with double headed eagles embroidered on them.

The emperor's head was exposed for some time in front of the imperial palace so all would know he, the last Greek emperor onf the Byzantines, was dead. Mahammed II allowed the body of the emperor to be burned with all honors and he paid for a flame to burn at that spot eternally.

"There are not coins known for Constantine XI though collectors have searched diligently for them". This is what P. D. Whitting wrote in his book Byzantine Coins published by Putnam in 1973 and he was right.

"The issue of coins in John VIII's name may have continued into the reign of Constantine XI, though since half stavrata of the latter have recently come to light there may be full stavrata also" commented Philip Grierson in his 1982 volume, Byzantine Coins.

In the interim Simon Bendall had discovered the first coin of Constantine XI and later he spotted one which has been sold as a John VIII in a list five years earlier by a now defunct company.

At this time, a group of 83 coins of Constantine XI has come to light which include stavraton, half stavraton and eighth stavraton.

As coins of John VIII tend to have wear and these coins are fresh, it would appear that they were struck during the siege. Another indication of this it the fact that the die work on many is inferior even by standards of the period. These few coins must be the most historically significant of the Byzantine Series.

Copyright @ 1997 by Harlan J. Berk, Ltd. - http://www.harlanjberk.com - E-Mail: info@harlanjberk.com

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