I shall be as a son to you if you will be my father. From henceforth let there be no rivalry or differences between us.
Prince Suleyman to the Emperor John VII
For most of the time that Manuel Palaeologus had been absent from Constantinople, the capital had remained in a state of siege. His nephew John VII had done his best, and was throughout valiantly supported by Chateaumorand and his French troops, who would make periodic foraging sorties outside the walls under cover of night or while the besiegers were otherwise off their guard. Without them, the city might well have fallen half a century earlier than it did, for Bayezit was in arrogant mood. We read in one anonymous account of how, gazing covetously across at the great churches and palaces, he mentally decided on a use or an occupant for each: for himself, he proposed to take over St Sophia as his official residence. Meanwhile he had kept up the pressure and at one moment - probably in the summer or autumn of 1401 - had sent John an ultimatum:
If I have indeed driven the Basileus Manuel from the city, I have done so not for your sake but for my own ... If then you wish to be our friend, withdraw from thence and I will give you whatever province you may choose. But if you do not, then, with God and his great Prophet as my witnesses, I will spare no one, but all will I utterly destroy . . .
Byzantium still had strength enough for a spirited reply to the Turkish envoys:
Go, report to your Lord: we are in poverty and distress and there is no great power to whom we may have recourse, except to God Himself, who gives succour to the powerless and who overcomes the powerful. And so, if you wish to do anything, do it.
But the city could not hold out for ever. By the summer of 1402, when John heard from his uncle that no appreciable help could be expected from the West, he knew that he would have to come to terms. According to Ruy Gonzalez de Clavijo, Spanish ambassador to the Mongol court at Samarkand, he actually reached an agreement with the Sultan by the terms of which he undertook to surrender the city once the latter had overcome the Mongol invaders; a Greek chronicle in the Vatican Library goes even further, maintaining that ambassadors from Constantinople bearing the keys to the city were already on their way to the Ottoman camp. Be that as it may, it seems clear that Bayezit's defeat came, for Byzantium, not a moment too soon; and that the deliverer of the city was not Manuel, or John, or even Boucicault or Chateaumorand. It was Tamburlaine himself.
Timur-lenk, or Timur the Lame, otherwise known as Tamerlane or Tamburlaine, had been born in 1336. Claiming descent from Genghis Khan, he had seized the throne at Samarkand in 1369, and thirty years later his dominions extended from Afghanistan and northern India to the borders of Anatolia. His name was feared the length and breadth of Asia - the Mongol army was known to destroy everything in its path and to leave nothing but death and devastation in its wake - and though now in his middle sixties he had lost none of his energy or his ambition. A campaign in 1400 culminating in the capture of Sebasteia — which he predictably levelled to the ground, massacring the entire population -was not immediately followed up, since he had work to do in Mesopotamia; but in the spring of 1402 he was back once more in Asia Minor, ready for the ultimate trial of strength with the Ottoman Sultan.
It occurred on Friday, 28 July, on the Chubuk plain just to the north of Ancyra. The immense Turkish army was commanded by the Sultan in person, who took his place in the centre with his crack regiment of ten thousand Janissaries. The left wing he entrusted to one of his sons, Suleyman; the right, which was composed largely of European contingents, to his Serbian vassal Stephen Lazarevich. The Christians fought heroically, the Muslims less so. Bayezit had made the cardinal mistake of placing his Anatolian Tartar cavalry in the front line. Unwilling to fight men of their own race, they deserted almost at once and went over to the enemy. An hour or two later, fifteen thousand of the Ottoman army, Christian and Muslim alike, lay dead on the battlefield. But Bayezit refused to surrender; he was not used to losing battles. Withdrawing to a small hill-top, he and his sons, together with his bodyguard and the remaining Janissaries, fought on late into the night until at last they too recognized that the situation was hopeless. The fate of the eldest of the Princes, Mustafa, is uncertain; he disappeared and was presumed dead. Another, Musa, was captured. The others managed to escape, but their father could not move so fast: overtaken by the Mongol archers, he too was taken prisoner and led in chains to Tamburlaine's tent, where the great conqueror was playing chess with his son.
Tamburlaine at first accorded Bayezit all the honour due to a captive sovereign; soon, however, his attitude changed. Thenceforth, as he advanced through Anatolia, he is said to have had the Sultan carried before him in an iron cage.1 Occasionally he imposed still greater humiliations upon his captive, using him as a footstool and a mounting-block. Soon he took over Bayezit's harem for his own personal use and forced the Sultan's Serbian wife Despina to serve, naked, at his table. After eight months of such treatment, even Bayezit's spirit was broken. In March 1403 he suffered a sudden apoplexy, and a few days later he was dead - probably as a direct consequence of the stroke, but quite possibly by his own hand.2
Tamburlaine, on the other hand, was in his element. Descending on Bursa, the Ottoman capital, his hordes burned, pillaged and raped their way through the city; they then turned against Smyrna, which had been in Latin hands - principally those of the Knights of St John — since 1344. The Knights fought valiantly, but the walls finally gave way and in December 1402 the last Christian enclave in Asia Minor was left a smouldering, deserted ruin. Meanwhile all the non-Ottoman Emirs - of Aydin, Karaman, Saruchan and the rest — who had been driven out by Orhan and Murad and many of whom had taken refuge with the Mongols - were returned to their former territories. Tamburlaine was now well on the way to achieving his long-term object, the total elimination of Ottoman power in Anatolia. The four sons of Bayezit admittedly constituted something of an obstacle; but they were already at loggerheads over the succession, and by judiciously encouraging one against the other he was able to ensure that none became a serious threat.
Had he lingered in the region for very much longer, he might well
1And what wouldst thou have done to me (said Tamerlane) had it been my fortune to have fallen into thy Hands, as thou art now in mine? I would (said Bajazet) have inclosed thee in a Cage of Iron, and so in triumph have carried thee up and down my Kingdom. Even so (said Tamerlane) shalt thou be served.' (Richard Knolles, Turkish History,London, 1687-1700.)
2Christopher Marlowe, in Tamburlaine the Great, has him dash out his brains against the bars of the cage.
have dealt a fatal blow to the house of Othman. But Tamburlaine, like all his race, was a nomad: he could never stay in the same place for long. In the spring of 1403, looking once again for new worlds to conquer, he left Asia Minor and led his horde back to Samarkand. Two years later he set off across the steppe to attack China, but fortunately for the Chinese he died on the journey - the victim, so Gibbon informs us, of a fever accelerated by 'the indiscreet use of iced water'. He left behind him no Empire, no properly constituted system of government; nothing but devastation and chaos. It would be some years before the sons of Bayezit were able to re-establish themselves in their Anatolian heartland.
In Europe, however, it was a very different story. Tamburlaine never crossed the straits, and Rumelia - the Sultan's European dominions -remained as firmly as ever in the Ottoman grip. To make matters worse, the vast numbers of Turkish soldiers already there were now joined by many thousands more, fleeing from the Mongol menace. For the first few months, these refugees were not unwelcome, even to the Byzantines. Since the battle of Ancyra it was the Mongols, not the Turks, before whom Europe trembled; if, as seemed more than likely, they were suddenly to stream across the Hellespont, then the more men available to resist them the better. Only when it became clear that there would be no such invasion did the Christian peoples of eastern Europe look around them and wonder whether they were not, if anything, worse off than before.
In fact, as they soon realized, the great battle had altered the situation very much for the better. First, it had divided the Ottoman Empire into two; no longer was there any regular communication between the European and the Asiatic provinces. Secondly - and of far greater immediate importance to the average Byzantine — the blockade of Constantinople was lifted: after eight years, normal food supplies were restored and the people could go about their lawful occasions without wondering where they might find their next meal. Finally there was the effect on the national morale. Byzantium might still be in desperate danger; but the Sultan had shown that he too was human, and by no means invincible. His army had been beaten once. It could be beaten again.
Even after the news of Bayezit's defeat had been brought to him in France, Manuel Palaeologus seemed to be in no particular hurry to return to Constantinople. He did not leave Paris until 21 November. Then, with an escort of two hundred men under Chateaumorand, he travelled by easy stages to Genoa - where his old friend Marshal Boucicault awaited him and, on 22 January 1403, gave a magnificent banquet in his honour. Having left the city on 10 February, he reached Venice only on 14 March. Where he was in the interval is not recorded; we know, however, that while in Genoa he had tried - albeit unsuccessfully - to arrange for tripartite talks with the Genoese and the Venetians, and it seems likely that he had decided to take advantage of his passage through Italy to hold discussions with as many as possible of the Italian states on the subject of assistance against the Turks. His attempts to date had been admittedly disappointing; but the defeat of Bayezit had convinced him that there would never be a more appropriate time for a concerted onslaught by the European powers, and he had no intention of giving up his efforts to bring this about.
Venice also gave Manuel a warm welcome, tempered only by her eagerness to get him back to Constantinople as soon as possible. The changed situation in the East would obviously have important diplomatic consequences, in which the Serenissima was determined to play her full part; and she greatly preferred to negotiate with Manuel than with John VII, who made no secret of his pro-Genoese sympathies. She therefore fitted out three warships for the Emperor and his suite of forty, and eventually persuaded him to sail on 5April. Even then he insisted on stopping in the Morea, to pick up his wife and family and to hold discussions with his brother Theodore.1 Only on 9 June 1403 did he finally step ashore in his capital, accompanied by John VII, who had ridden out to Gallipoli to meet him. He had been absent almost exactly three and a half years.
There was more good news awaiting him. In August of the previous year Prince Suleyman, Bayezit's eldest surviving son, had appeared in Gallipoli with the intention of taking over the European provinces. His was a character very different from that of his father. Tolerant and easy-going, his instinct was always towards compromise; he preferred the conference table to the battlefield, and a life of luxurious self-indulgence to either of them. After some weeks of preliminary discussions, formal negotiations had been opened towards the end of the year, attended by Suleyman himself and a Christian League represented by envoys from
1 Theodore had sold Corinth to the Knights of St John in i 396, after which the Knights had made a determined attempt to establish themselves throughout the Peloponnese. This had however aroused the fury of the local inhabitants, and the Despotate was rapidly relapsing into chaos. The hard-pressed Despot was now engaged in negotiations to buy the Knights out again - which in 1404 he finally managed to do.
Venice, Genoa and the Knights of Rhodes, Stephen Lazarevich and the Latin Duke of Naxos. These had soon led to a treaty, which had been signed early in 1403.
When the terms of this treaty were reported to Manuel on his arrival in Venice, he was scarcely able to believe what he heard. The Byzantines were released alike from their vassalage to the Sultan and from all obligation of paying him tribute. Instead, Suleyman had freely undertaken to accept the Byzantine Emperor as his suzerain. In token of his good faith he had returned to the Empire the city of Thessalonica and its surrounding district, including the Thracian Chalcidice with Mount Athos; a considerable length of the Black Sea coast, from the mouth of the Bosphorus up as far as Mesembria or even Varna; and the Aegean islands of Skyros, Skiathos and Skopelos. All Byzantine prisoners, and those of the other signatories, were to be released. Finally - and still more incredibly - Suleyman undertook that Turkish vessels would not enter either the Hellespont or the Bosphorus without prior permission of the Emperor and the rest of the League. In return he asked only that he should be allowed to rule over Thrace from the palace at Adrianople.
Manuel's first action on his return to the capital was to confirm the treaty with his own signature. Almost immediately, however, his old antipathy to his nephew flared up again: he banished him to Lemnos and quite possibly - though we cannot be sure - also deprived him of the appanage of Thessalonica, which he had formally promised him before his departure. Whatever its reason, John VII did not take kindly to his new exile. Within a few weeks of his arrival in Lemnos he made contact with his Genoese father-in-law Francesco II Gattilusio, lord of the neighbouring island of Lesbos, some fifty miles away to the north-west; and in mid-September the two set out with a small flotilla of seven ships with the apparent intention of seizing Thessalonica by force. Whether they ever reached the city we do not know; perhaps the news of their departure was alone enough to bring Manuel to his senses. Some time in October agreement was reached between the two Emperors, and John was installed in Thessalonica with the tide of 'Basileus of all Thessaly'.
What were Manuel's motives in exiling his nephew? Throughout his absence in the West, John VII's behaviour had been exemplary. He had ruled conscientiously and well without, so far as we know, the slightest attempt to assert his own claims at the expense of his uncle's; he had concluded an extraordinarily favourable treaty with Suleyman which had immeasurably strengthened the imperial position; and on Manuel's return he had surrendered the supreme power unhesitatingly and with good grace. Yet Manuel was by nature neither unjust nor vindictive; he would surely not have acted as he did without good cause. Was it just a clash of personalities? Did he simply find his nephew unbearable and decide that Constantinople was not big enough for them both? Was he perhaps angry with John for having agreed to surrender the city to Bayezit - assuming that he had indeed done so - after the Sultan had dealt successfully with Tamburlaine? Or was he, even after his experience in the West, still bent on military action against the Turks and frankly disgusted by the terms of the recent agreement, however favourable it might in the short term have appeared? But if so, why had he himself signed it immediately on his return?
Several other theories have been put forward, none of them entirely convincing. One suggests that John's exile was a mere pretence -nothing more than an attempt by the Emperor to appease Tamburlaine, who was angry about what he considered the pro-Turkish policy of Byzantium after the battle of Ancyra. Another adduces two little-known contemporary texts referring to the death, at the age of seven, of the young Emperor ('basileus') Andronicus Palaeologus, presumably the son of John VII and his wife Irene Gattilusio. (Until recently, the existence of this small and shadowy figure was not even suspected; nowadays, however, it is more or less generally agreed.1) If, the theory goes, little Andronicus was born after Manuel's departure to the West - and it seems unlikely that, had John already produced an heir, the Empire would have been entrusted to him for so long - and if his father had had him crowned co-Emperor before Manuel's return, it is hardly surprising that the latter acted as he did. The principal objection to all this is that although the texts refer to Andronicus as basileus they give no indication of when he received his coronation. If such a ceremony had indeed occurred during the senior Emperor's absence it is hard to believe that it would not have been mentioned by any other source; it is thus a good deal more likely that John had crowned his son not in Constantinople at all but as 'basileus of Thessaly' during his later years in Thessalonica - in which case the entire theory falls to the ground.
The truth will never be known. Fortunately, John seems to have settled with every appearance of contentment in Thessalonica, showing no regrets for his days of power in the capital, causing his uncle no
1One other piece of evidence for the existence of Andronicus V is an ivory at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington DC, almost certainly depicting John and Andronicus together at Thessalonica in 1403/4.
further trouble and spending much of his time in establishing and endowing various religious and charitable foundations for the salvation of his soul. He died in September 1408, having first donned the monastic habit and adopted - like his great-grandfather John Cantacuzenus - the monkish name of Joasaph. His presumed heir, the basileus Andronicus V, having predeceased him, the senior line of the Palaeologus was now extinct.
Manuel once again took up the reins of government in Constantinople, to find that there had occurred an extraordinary reversal of roles. Only a few years before, rival Byzantine Emperors had been contending for power, while the Turkish Sultan had amused himself by playing one off against the other to his own considerable advantage. Now it was the Turkish lands that were in chaos, for the Turks had no law of primogeniture and no less than four of the sons of Bayezit were fighting for the Ottoman crown; and the Emperor, who after the recent treaty was compelled to show at least a degree of friendship to his erstwhile enemies, found himself ineluctably drawn into the struggle.
The first round of that struggle was already over by the time Manuel returned to Constantinople. One of the four warring Princes, Isa, who had managed to establish himself in Brusa after the departure of Tamburlaine, was driven out by his brother Mehmet. He had fled to Constantinople, where he had been given temporary refuge by John VII; but he had soon returned to Anatolia, only to suffer another defeat by Mehmet, who had immediately had him murdered. Then in 1404 another of the princes, Musa, who had shared his father's captivity but had been released after Bayezit's death to escort his body back to his capital for burial, declared war on his brother Suleyman in Adrianople. After three years of inconsequential skirmishing Suleyman, with uncharacteristic spirit, crossed into Asia Minor and, in Mehmet's absence, seized Brusa in the spring of 1407. His supremacy, however, did not last long: Musa, encouraged by Mehmet, invaded Thrace and began whipping up support from the neighbouring Christian states, and in 1409 Suleyman was obliged to hurry back to Europe to save his own territory.
All this merely confirmed Manuel in his view that, whatever the immediate advantages of the 1403 treaty, he could not indefinitely rely on Turkish friendship even in Adrianople, let alone in Anatolia. Still less could he relax his efforts to alert the Christian nations of Europe and to obtain their active assistance. Already in 1404 he had sent new embassies to France and Aragon; two years later he renewed his agreement with Venice, and in 1407 he wrote once again to Doge Steno, imploring him to settle his differences with the Genoese and launch a joint campaign against the Turks. Now after all was the ideal time to act, while the Ottoman Sultanate was torn by fratricidal strife; such a chance might never recur. But the Venetians remained unmoved. In the same year he sent one of his closest friends, the scholar Manuel Chrysoloras who had recently enjoyed such success in Florence and Milan, as his personal ambassador to King Charles VI in Paris. Chrysoloras carried with him, as a present for the King, a priceless manuscript of the works of Dionysius the Areopagite, bound in gold and ivory and containing a superb miniature of the Emperor, his wife and their three eldest sons.1 Charles was delighted with it, but made no further offers of help; nor did the Kings of England and Aragon, to whom Chrysoloras presented himself at later stages of his journey.
The year 1407 saw the death after a long illness of Manuel's brother Theodore, Despot of the Morea. He had been an excellent ruler who, despite constant difficulties with both the Turks and his Frankish neighbours - and more recently with the Knights of St John - had somehow managed to maintain both the integrity of his dominion and the imperial prestige. The Emperor, who had loved and admired him, wrote a long funeral oration in his honour; then in the summer of 1408, he travelled himself to Mistra to pay his respects at his tomb and - since the Despot had left no legitimate male issue - to enthrone his own second son, another Theodore, in his place. He was still there in September, when the news came of the death of John VII. This he was able to receive with rather more equanimity; none the less, John had also left no heir and the succession had to be provided for. The Emperor accordingly hurried to Thessalonica, where he installed his third son, the eight-year-old Andronicus.
It was obviously Manuel's hope, when he returned to Constantinople early in 1409, to bring these two provinces, Thessaly and the Morea, directly under his own control, thereby strengthening both the power and the prestige of the Empire in the Greek peninsula; but before he could do very much more in this direction he found himself swept up once again in the struggle for the Ottoman Sultanate. That autumn a
1 Though now in the Louvre, this manuscript was intended for the library of the Abbey of Saint-Denis - the patron saint of France having been wrongly identified with the Arcopagite throughout the Middle Ages.
desperate Suleyman appeared in Constantinople. He had, it appeared, returned to Adrianople only to find himself under attack by his brother Musa, who had invaded Thrace from beyond the Danube and was even now preparing to march on the city. Addressing the Emperor as his beloved father, he explained that without Byzantine help he could not hope to survive the coming onslaught - doubtless reminding Manuel that Musa, if victorious, would prove an infinitely less agreeable neighbour than himself. As an earnest of his good intentions he offered two young members of his family, a boy and a girl, as hostages, and took a niece of Manuel's - an illegitimate daughter of his late brother the Despot Theodore - as his own bride.
Alas, the marriage was not long to endure. In the first two battles between the brothers, in June and July 1410, Suleyman was victorious; but, though he was never lacking in physical courage, there was a fundamental weakness in his character which somehow deprived him of staying power. The winter following, while Musa concentrated on building up his military strength, Suleyman locked himself up in his palace and surrendered himself to his favourite pastimes of drinking and debauch. Early in 1411 his contemptuous troops deserted him - many were also disgusted by his pro-Christian policy — and Adrianople fell almost without a struggle. Taken prisoner, he was brought on 17 February before his brother, who instantly had him strangled.
For Byzantium, this was serious news indeed. The Emperor, certainly, had no delusions about Musa, who had inherited all the violence and savagery of his father Bayezit, all his energy and efficiency, all his hatred of the Christians. One of his first actions on assuming power in Adrianople was to abrogate the treaty of 1403 and to declare his brother's various concessions null and void. He then sent a number of his regiments down into Thessaly to besiege Thessalonica, while he himself led the main body of the army directly against Constantinople, leaving the usual trail of devastation behind him. By this time, too, he had apparently been able to assemble a small naval squadron, which sailed unimpeded through the Hellespont and the Sea of Marmara to renew the old blockade.
The dismay of the people of Constantinople, finding themselves facing a siege by land and sea for the second time in ten years, can well be imagined. Fortunately, however, they were not called upon to undergo the tribuladons that they had suffered in the days of Bayezit. The Byzantine navy, weak as it was, proved sufficient to drive the Turkish ships back into the Mediterranean, allowing supplies to be brought in; meanwhile, despite everything that the Turks could hurl against them, the Land Walls proved as impregnable as ever. But Musa, powerless as he was to take the city by storm, showed no inclination to depart; and there is no telling how long the stalemate might have continued had the Emperor not resorted to the undercover diplomacy that he so well understood. There was, he knew, one chance only of eliminating Musa from the political scene: his brother Mehmet. Early in 1412 he dispatched a secret embassy to Mehmet's court at Brusa.
The fight for power among the sons of Bayezit had now polarized: two contenders only were left, Musa and Mehmet. To Mehmet, a far more sensible and balanced character than his brother, a Byzantine alliance seemed a small price to pay for the undisputed throne of the Ottomans. He rode at once to Chrysopolis, where Manuel met him and escorted him over to Constantinople. There he entertained him lavishly for three days while a Turkish army of fifteen thousand was being ferried across the Bosphorus. On the fourth day Mehmet led his men against his brother, still encamped beneath the walls of the city. The first attack was unsuccessful, though not disastrous; seeing that Musa's army was stronger than he had expected, Mehmet retired before much damage was done and returned to Asia Minor for reinforcements. His second attack, in which he was supported by Byzantine troops and a small army provided by Stephen Lazarevich, also ended in failure; but Mehmet was not easily discouraged. On 15 June 1413 a whole new army was transported on Byzantine vessels across the straits for a third attempt. By now Musa in his turn had alienated many of his men - not, like Suleyman, by his fecklessness, but by his cruelty and brutality - and had suffered many desertions; one look at the size of Mehmet's force was enough for him to order an immediate retreat. He and his men were driven back to Adrianople and beyond, and were finally defeated in pitched battle at Camurlu in Serbia on 5 July. He himself fought to the end, when he too was brought before his brother and strangled.
Go and say to my father the Emperor of the Romans that, with the help of God and the support of my father the Emperor, I have recovered my hereditary dominions. From this day forth I am and shall be his subject, as a son to his father. He will find me neither unheeding nor ungrateful. Let him but command me to do his bidding, and I shall with the greatest of pleasure execute his wishes as his servant.
This, according to the historian Michael Ducas, was the message that
Mehmet, now undisputed Sultan of Rumelia and Rum,1 sent to Manuel Palaeologus after his victory. Mehmet was well aware — and freely admitted - that he owed that victory largely to the Emperor, and lost no time in confirming all the concessions made by Suleyman and abrogated by Musa. He knew too that after a decade of civil war the Sultanate desperately needed peace - an opportunity to restore law and order and to re-establish the machinery of government; and that the best way to ensure that peace was to maintain cordial relations, not only with Byzantium but with all the other Christian states, however tenuously constituted they might be, of the Balkan peninsula: Serbia, Bulgaria, Wallachia and Greece. Manuel for his part obviously asked nothing better. He had no delusions about long-term Turkish intentions, but there could be no doubt that the situation was better now than at any moment in the twenty-two years since his accession; moreover, for the first time in history, an Emperor of the Romans had established a close personal relationship with an intelligent and peace-loving Sultan. The future was still in God's hands; but perhaps there might be some hope for Byzantium after all.
Manuel Palaeologus was now sixty-three: an old man by the standards of the time, but still healthy and energetic, and determined to leave to his son John an Empire which, though plainly crumbling, remained as firmly based as he could make it. Its frontiers, admittedly, no longer extended much beyond the suburbs of Constantinople; but there remained Thessalonica and the Morea, at that time in the hands of his sons Andronicus and Theodore respectively. To the preservation of these two outposts of the Empire he had always attached supreme importance, knowing them to represent possible sources of succour for Constantinople in its hour of need and even - at the worst - places of refuge from which, were the capital to fall, the struggle could be continued; and he was anxious to visit them both once again before he died.
Leaving his son John to act as Regent in Constantinople, Manuel set sail for Thessalonica on 25 July 1414 with a fleet consisting of four galleys and two other vessels carrying contingents of infantry and cavalry. The purpose of this force soon became clear when he made an unannounced stop at Thasos, a normally inconsequential island
1 Rumelia was the name normally applied to all the European territory held by the Turks. Rum - i.e. Rome - was that which had originally been given to the Seljuk Sultanate after the battle of Manzikert, and was still used to describe Turkish Anatolia.
which was then under threat from Giorgio, a bastard son of Francesco Gattilusio of Lesbos. It took Manuel some three months to reassert his authority; only then did he continue his journey to Thessalonica, where he was warmly received by young Andronicus, now about fourteen, and where he spent some time attending to the affairs of Mount Athos. In the spring of 1415, his work done, he and his escort left by way of Euboea for the Peloponnese, arriving at the little port of Kenchreai - a mile or two from Isthmia on the Saronic Gulf- on Good Friday, 29 March.
The choice of landfall was deliberate, for the primary purpose of the Emperor's visit was not to confer with his son Theodore but to realize a project which had been in his mind ever since his previous visit in 1408: the creation of a strong defensive fortification running six miles across the Isthmus of Corinth - roughly along the route of the present Corinth Canal. This was in no sense a new idea: the first such bulwark had been erected in 480 BC, against the Persian Xerxes; and a second had followed in 369. In AD 253 the Roman Emperor Valerian had been responsible for another, and early in the sixth century yet another - far stronger and more impressive than its predecessors, with 153 towers and a great fortress at each end - had been built, predictably enough, by Justinian. The task facing Manuel was therefore essentially one of restoration rather than of original construction; nevertheless it says much for his workers — presumably those same soldiers who had accompanied him from Constantinople - that the entire work was completed in twenty-five days.1 The result was known, from its length, as the Hexamilion, or 'Six-miler'; henceforth, in theory at any rate, the Peloponnese - which was by now largely in Greek hands - would be in effect a huge Byzantine island, impregnable by land and, it was hoped, with its own permanent navy to defend it from the sea. The work was financed by a special tax levied on the local populations, which caused such opposition that many came out in armed rebellion; but once again Manuel was prepared. His little army sprang into action, and the rebels were defeated near Kalamata in July. Then and only then did the Emperor travel on to Mistra, where his son Theodore awaited him. Not until March 1416 did he return to Constantinople.
The Hexamilion had been constructed as a defence against the Turks: a clear indication that, despite his friendship with Mehmet, Manuel
1 The remains can still be seen, to the south-west of the modern canal. Though its course is very roughly parallel, owing to the irregularities of the land the distance between the two varies from some 500 yards to a mile and a half.
remained fully alive to the long-term threat. For the time being, however, the Empire was safe. Mehmet was still restoring order in Anatolia, where he was having trouble with the Emirs of Aydin and Karaman, and in 1416 he had to face a new crisis: a rebellion in the name of a pretender claiming to be Bayezit's eldest son Mustafa, who had not been seen since his presumed death at the battle of Ancyra. The rising itself was quickly dealt with but the pretender's cause had been taken up - most 111-advisedly - by the Venetians, who engineered his escape to Europe. He eventually reached Thessalonica, where he flung himself upon the mercy of the young Despot Andronicus and was somewhat surprisingly offered refuge. The news was reported to Mehmet, who immediately appealed to the Emperor over so flagrant a breach of his treaty obligations; but Manuel prevaricated. The laws of asylum, he pointed out, did not permit him to surrender Mustafa; he was however perfectly prepared to hold him prisoner for the rest of his natural life, provided only that the Sultan undertook responsibility for his maintenance. To this Mehmet readily agreed, and the pretender was confined on the island of Lemnos. Both sides professing themselves satisfied with this arrangement, relations between Emperor and Sultan were scarcely ruffled; but Manuel had in fact achieved something of a coup, and Mehmet knew it. Whether Mustafa were genuine or not — and he almost certainly was not - the Byzantines now had in their hands a claimant to the Ottoman throne. If properly handled, he might prove extremely useful in the future.
Towards the end of the year 1414, a great council was called in the city of Constance to settle the schism that, for nearly forty years, had racked the Roman Church. It had begun in 1377, when Pope Gregory XI had brought the Papacy back to Rome from Avignon. Gregory had died a year later, and the ensuing election had been tumultuous in the extreme. The Roman populace was well aware that if the French cardinals and their supporters had their way, they and their successful candidate would return to Avignon, probably for good. In their determination to prevent such a disaster — from which their city might never have recovered -they had invaded the conclave itself. Its terrified members, in fear of their lives, had elected an Italian, Urban VI, who had announced his intention of remaining in Rome; unfortunately, within weeks of his coronation, he had so antagonized the cardinals of both the French and Italian parties that in desperation they had declared his election null and void and had elected a rival Pope, Clement VII, in his place. Urban, firmly entrenched in Rome, had refused to yield; and so the dispute had dragged on, with new Popes being elected on both sides as necessary. It was still as acrimonious as ever when on 19 December 1406 Urban's third successor, an eighty-year-old Venetian named Angelo Correr, assumed the throne of St Peter as Gregory XII.
Less than a week later Gregory wrote to the anti-Pope, Clement's successor Benedict XIII, in Marseille, proposing a meeting. If Benedict would resign, he added, he would be glad to do the same. The cardinals could then proceed to a single, undisputed election. Benedict accepted, and proposed a meeting at Savona. Almost immediately, however, difficulties began to arise. Savona was in French territory, and thus within Benedict's sphere of obedience. The journey there from Rome would be long, costly, and for an octogenarian distinctly dangerous. King Ladislas of Naples, who had reasons of his own for wishing the schism to continue, tried to seize Rome and forcibly prevent the Pope from leaving; though the attempt failed, it persuaded Gregory that the Holy City would not be safe in his absence. Finally, the strains of office were rapidly telling on the old man's strength and, as he drifted towards senility, he grew less and less able to resist pressures from his family - in particular two of his nephews, who were already digging deep into the papal coffers — which was doing everything in its power to prevent his resignation.
For all these reasons, the meeting at Savona never took place. In August 1407 Gregory did at last leave on his journey north, but by 1 November, the day appointed, he had got no further than Siena. The following April, when he had advanced as far as Lucca, his earlier fears were realized: Ladislas marched on Rome. The city, leaderless, impoverished and demoralized, surrendered with scarcely a struggle. The situation was now worse than ever. Both papal contenders were in exile, each was accusing the other of bad faith and, as the stalemate continued, the chances of conciliation seemed to be fast diminishing. Clearly there was nothing further to be hoped from either of the protagonists. On 25 March 1409 a General Council of the Church some five hundred strong met at Pisa, and on 5 June it repudiated both Gregory and Benedict as contumacious heretical and schismatics. Christians throughout the world were absolved from obedience to either, and ordered to observe a universal holiday; the council then went on to elect their single successor. Its choice fell on the Cardinal Archbishop of Milan, a certain Peter Philarges who, having started life as an orphaned beggar-boy in Crete, was to end it as Pope Alexander V.
Now, one is tempted to reflect, would have been the time for the two rivals to retire gracefully from the scene. Yet they did not do so, and for that the council itself was largely to blame. It had been summoned by neither of them, and by calling them to appear before it - and declaring them contumacious when they refused - it implied its superiority over the Papacy, a principle which neither could have been expected to endorse. A little more diplomacy, a little more tact and understanding for two old men who, in their very different ways, were both honest and upright and had neither of them asked to occupy their impossible positions, and the schism could have been healed. In the circumstances they had no choice but to declare the council's proceedings uncanonical and fight on. Before long it became clear that the only real effect of the Council of Pisa had been to saddle Christendom with three Popes instead of two. But the cardinals were unrepentant; and when Pope Alexander - the only contender unable, apparently, to stand the strain -died suddenly in May 141 o they lost no time in electing another.
Baldassare Cossa, who now joined the papal throng under the name of John XXIII,1 was widely believed at the time to have poisoned his predecessor. Whether he actually did so is open to doubt. He had, however, unquestionably begun life as a pirate; and a pirate, essentially, he remained. Able, energetic and utterly without scruple, he owed his meteoric rise through the hierarchy to a genius for intrigue and extortion; morally and spiritually, he reduced the Papacy to a level of depravity unknown since the days of the 'pornocracy' in the tenth century.2 A contemporary chronicler, Theodoric of Niem, records in shocked amazement the rumour current in Bologna - where Cossa had been Papal Governor - that during the first year of his pontificate he had debauched no fewer than two hundred matrons, widows and virgins, to say nothing of a prodigious number of nuns. His score over the three following years is regrettably not recorded; he seems, however, to have maintained a high average, for on 29 May 1415 he was arraigned before another General Council, which had been in session since the previous November at Constance. As Gibbon summed up: 'The most scandalous charges were suppressed: the Vicar of Christ on earth was only accused of piracy, murder, rape, sodomy and incest.' Predictably, he was found guilty on all counts - the council, benefiting from the lesson learnt at Pisa, requiring him to ratify the sentence himself.
1 The circumstances of his election and subsequent deposition have denied him a place on the canonical list of Popes. It was none the less somewhat surprising that Cardinal Angelo Roncalli should have adopted the same name on his election to the Papacy in 1958.
2 See Byzantium: The Apogee, p. 168.
Next, in early July, Gregory XII was prevailed upon to abdicate with honour, and with the promise that he would rank second in the hierarchy, immediately after the future Pope - a privilege that was accorded the more easily in view of the fact that, since he was by now approaching ninety and looked a good deal older, it was not thought likely that he would enjoy it for long. Indeed, two years later he was dead. By then, the anti-Pope Benedict had been deposed in his turn; and with the election of the new, legitimate Pope Martin V in 1417, the schism was effectively at an end.
Manuel Palaeologus, dreaming as always of the great Crusade that would for ever deliver Byzantium from the Ottoman menace, had followed these developments with interest. For the past few years there had obviously been no possibility of a major papal initiative; at the same time the Council of Constance - which had been instigated by Manuel's old ally King Sigismund of Hungary (since 1410 Emperor of the West) and which, at Sigismund's insistence, had been thrown open to representatives of both the Eastern and the Western Churches - seemed to present an ideal opportunity of making known his anxiety. It was unfortunate that his roving ambassador Manuel Chrysoloras - who had played a major part in the organization of the council - had died at Constance in April1415, just six weeks before John's deposition; but Manuel had immediately sent new envoys to the council to raise, once again, the old question of Church union and to propose, as a gesture of good will, that Catholic princesses should be found for his two eldest sons, John and Theodore.
The new discussions on union proved as inconclusive as their predecessors; but the marriages of the two Princes came about just as their father had intended. In 1420 Theodore, Despot of the Morea - at the age of twenty-five still a bachelor - took as his bride Cleope Malatesta, daughter of the Count of Rimini;1 and on 19 January 1421 Manuel's eldest son John married - with extreme reluctance - Sophia of Montferrat. John's first wife Anna, daughter of the Grand Duke Basil I of Moscow, had died of the plague just three years before, after four years of marriage and at the age of only fifteen; his second attempt at matrimony was even more ill-starred. The unfortunate Sophia was, according to Michael
1 The betrothal was celebrated by the twenty-year-old Guillaume Dufay - one of the greatest composers of the fifteenth century - with a motet ' Vasilissa ergo gaude'. Despite the beauty of the bride and (we are told) her exemplary moral qualities, the marriage was not a success. Theodore developed a deep dislike for her, to the point that at one moment he seriously considered abdicating and entering a monastery in order to be rid of her once and for all.
Ducas, quite shatteringly plain: her figure, it was unkindly said, looked like Lent in front and Easter behind. John quite literally could not bear the sight of her. Respect for his father's wishes prevented him from sending the poor girl straight home again, but he relegated her to a remote corner of the palace and made, we are told, no attempt to consummate the marriage. She eventually escaped in 1426 - with the aid of the Genoese colony in Galata - and returned to her parents, entering a nunnery soon afterwards.
The importance for John Palaeologus of his second wedding was not that it afforded him a bride whom he would have been far better off without, but that it provided a fitting occasion for his coronation as co-Emperor. Remembering his own early difficulties as the result of a disputed succession, Manuel had left no doubt in anyone's mind that he intended his eldest son to succeed him. He had also given John a relentlessly thorough training in the art of good government, going so far as to compose whole treatises on the qualities, both spiritual and moral, necessary for a ruling prince. In 1414 he had left the regency in his hands and in 1416, to give him further administrative experience, he had sent him to join his brother Theodore in the Morea. When after nearly two years in Greece John had returned to Constantinople at the age of twenty-six, he was as well prepared for the imperial throne as either he or his father could have wished.
From the time of his coronation onward, we find John VIII taking an increasingly prominent part in the conduct of affairs and his influence becoming steadily stronger. Nowhere was this influence more evident than in the Empire's relations with the Ottoman Sultan. Since Mehmet's accession in 1413, both sides had enjoyed a welcome period of peace; there could be little doubt, however, that the Turks had derived far more benefit from this detente - during which Mehmet had done much to repair the damage done by the civil war - than had the Byzantines; and many of the younger generation in Constantinople, including John himself, believed that if the Empire were to have any chance of survival a more aggressive policy would have to be adopted. For as long as Manuel and Mehmet lived, it is unlikely that there would have been much change in the status quo: when in 1421 Mehmet asked leave to cross from Europe to Asia by way of Constantinople, Manuel refused to listen to those of his advisers who recommended that he should be seized and murdered. Not only did he grant the permission instantly but escorted the Sultan personally across the straits and dined with him at Chrysopolis before returning. Shortly afterwards, however — on 21 May 1421 - Mehmet suddenly died. There are conflicting reports as to the cause of his death. One source speaks of a hunting accident; one of dysentery; another, more darkly, of poison. But no serious attempt was made to accuse the Byzantines. For some weeks the death was kept secret, to reduce the inevitable problems of the succession to a minimum; when the announcement was finally made, Mehmet's eldest son and designated heir was already firmly in control as Murad II.1
The war faction in Constantinople was meanwhile becoming ever more vocal, openly blaming Manuel — who had retired to the monastery of the Peribleptos to escape a serious epidemic of plague that was then raging through the city - for not having murdered the Sultan when he had the opportunity. Its leaders, who included the co-Emperor John, now demanded that recognition for Murad should be withheld, and that the pretender Mustafa - still captive on Lemnos - should be played off against him. Manuel seems to have been genuinely horrified by the suggestion; but he was old and tired, and when he saw that John could not be shaken he allowed him to carry the day. All too soon he was proved to have been right. Mustafa was released, and with Byzantine help he soon established himself in most of Rumelia; but he refused to surrender Gallipoli to the Empire as he had promised, citing a Muslim tradition which forbade the restoration of conquests to unbelievers. It was not long before John and his friends understood the mistake they had made in putting their trust in an adventurer.
And that was only the beginning. In January 1422 Mustafa and his supporters crossed the straits on Genoese ships, only to be decisively beaten by Murad and obliged to flee back to Europe. A week or two later Murad arrived from Asia Minor with a huge army, and rapidly put an end to all the pretender's hopes. But Mustafa's capture and immediate execution did little to assuage the Sultan's wrath. He was now bent on war. Refusing to listen to the Byzantine ambassadors who were sent to pacify him, he dispatched a section of his army to blockade Thessalonica; he himself had decided to lead the main body against Constantinople -not as a punitive raid but as a determined effort to take the city by storm.
1 Mehmet's greatest monument is the Green Mosque in Brusa. It was incomplete at the time of his death, and has remained so; but its loveliness is undiminished. The Sultan's tomb, set with turquoise tiles - replacements after the destruction of the originals in the great earthquake of 1855 - stands beside it and is, inside, every bit as beautiful.
The siege of 1422 was of a very different order from that instituted by Bayezit. His had been a war of attrition, intended to reduce the inhabitants to near-starvation; but Murad had none of his grandfather's patience. According to an eye-witness, John Cananus, he built a huge rampart of earth just outside the Land Walls and parallel to them, running all the way from the Marmara to the Golden Horn and enabling his catapults and siege engines to hurl their missiles over the walls on to the defenders within. The defenders, however, men and women working together, showed courage and determination - as the people of Constantinople always did when their city was in peril. John VIII himself was in supreme command and an example to all; he seemed to be everywhere at once, in every section of the walls, working ceaselessly, constantly shouting encouragement to those around him, impressing everyone with his energy and efficiency.
Fortunately for the Byzantines, the Sultan was superstitious. He had with him a holy man, allegedly descended from the Prophet himself, who had foretold that the city would fall on Monday, 24 August; and as that day dawned Murad launched a massive assault on the walls. The fight was long and hard, but somehow the defences held and finally the Turks fell back. They had concentrated all their efforts on that one great onslaught, and it had failed. Less than two weeks later, disappointed and discouraged, the Sultan ordered the siege to be abandoned. The watchers on the walls could hardly believe their eyes as they saw their would-be conquerors striking camp and slowly withdrawing westward across the plain. Few of them were aware that old Manuel, who had been prevented by age and increasing infirmity from taking any active part in the defence, had been secretly intriguing to place the late Sultan's youngest son - the thirteen-year-old Mustafa, of whom Mehmet in his will had designated him the guardian - on the Ottoman throne during his brother's absence; and that Murad, learning of this, had been obliged to leave when he did in order to avoid a new outbreak of civil war. There was, as far as they were concerned, only one explanation: the city's traditional patron and protectress, the Mother of God, had saved it yet again.
The secret backing of Mustafa was Manuel's last great service to Byzantium. The young Prince, having somehow avoided his brother's clutches, arrived in Constantinople on 30 September with a body of adherents to make formal acceptance of the alliance; but on the very next day, before he could even receive him, the old Emperor suffered a severe stroke which left him partially paralyzed. Fortunately his mind was unaffected; but the immediate after-effects were such that his son was obliged to take over all the negotiations with Mustafa - as also with a papal embassy led by Antonio da Massa, Provincial of the Franciscans, which had arrived three weeks before with a nine-point plan for Church union.
As things turned out, neither of these issues was to cause John too much trouble. Early in 1423 young Mustafa was betrayed to his brother and succumbed in his turn to the bowstring; while the papal proposals showed no advance on their countless predecessors, insisting that the Greek Church should 'return' to the Roman fold as the essential preliminary before any military expedition could be considered. In all other fields, however, the situation continued to deteriorate. True, Constantinople had secured a temporary respite; but Thessalonica was still under siege and, although a few supplies continued to come in by sea, trade had virtually ceased. By the approach of spring, serious famine threatened. Manuel's son Andronicus was, at only twenty-three, crippled with elephantiasis1 and manifestly unable to cope. In the early summer he took an extraordinary and utterly unexpected step: with the full knowledge and approval of his father and brother, he sent an envoy to the Venetian authorities in Euboea offering the city to Venice.
Thessalonica was not sold, nor was it surrendered. Andronicus stated his reasons with the greatest possible frankness. The Empire could no longer afford to defend the city as it deserved, he himself was too ill to bear the responsibility for it in its present crisis. If Venice were prepared to assume the burden, he asked one thing only: that she should preserve all its political and religious institutions. The Venetians took their time in coming to a decision, but finally agreed to accept the offer; two representatives of the Doge sailed for Thessalonica, escorted by six transports laden with food and provisions, to take formal possession; and on 14 September the besieging Turks watched, powerless, as the banner of St Mark was proudly raised above the ramparts. After a decent interval, Andronicus left with his wife and young son for the Morea, where he became a monk and died four years later. The Venetians for their part sent emissaries to the Sultan, giving him formal notice of the transfer, but he refused to receive them.
As the year drew to its close and Murad remained implacable, John Palaeologus decided on one last appeal to the West. By now, it seemed
1 According, at least, to Chalcocondylas. Other sources speak of leprosy, or epilepsy. We can take our choice.
to him, everyone in Europe must see the magnitude of the danger. At any moment the Turkish army might return to the siege of Constantinople. In its present state the city could not hold out for ever; and once it had fallen, what was there to stop the Sultan continuing his westward advance? Leaving the regency to his nineteen-year-old brother Constantine - whom he simultaneously honoured with the title of Despot — on 15 November he sailed for Venice. He stayed there for over a month -the Senate having agreed to pay him a daily allowance to cover his expenses — but it was no use. The Venetians were prepared to defend their own interests wherever these existed - in Euboea and Thessalonica, in the Morea and the Greek islands. Where Byzantium was concerned, however, their old attitude remained unchanged: if John were able to persuade other nations of the West to contribute to an expedition, the Most Serene Republic would willingly add its share. Otherwise, not.
Leaving Venice towards the end of January 1424, the Emperor travelled on to Milan and Mantua for conversations with their respective Dukes, Filippo Maria Visconti and Gianfrancesco Gonzaga. The early summer found him in Hungary, but there again he was due for disappointment: as he had feared, Sigismund saw no possibility of effective aid while the Eastern and Western Churches remained in schism. Nor did he take particularly kindly to John's suggestion of mediating between Hungary and its old enemy Venice. It was a sad and bitterly disillusioned Emperor who took ship down the Danube, eventually reaching Constantinople on 1 November.
He found the situation slightly easier than when he had left it almost a year before. Peace had at last been made with the Sultan. The cost had been heavy - a sizeable annual tribute and the return of those parts of the Marmara and Black Sea coasts that had been previously granted by Suleyman and Mehmet - but at least the people of Constantinople could sleep securely in their beds without fearing the imminent reappearance of the Turkish siege engines. It was, perhaps, with some surprise that John found his father still alive. Old Manuel had never properly recovered from his stroke; by now he was permanently bed-ridden and sinking fast. His mind, however, remained clear, and he continued to worry over what he considered his son's excessive ambitions, summoning him to his chamber for long conversations about the dangers of antagonizing the Sultan unnecessarily and of going too far in the direction of Church union. After one of these talks, which had ended with John leaving the room tight-lipped and silent, Manuel turned to his old friend, the historian George Sphrantzes, and said:
At other times in our history, my son might have been a great basileus; but he is not for the present time, for he sees and thinks on a grand scale, in a manner which would have been appropriate in the prosperous days of our forefathers. But today, with our troubles closing in upon us from every side, our Empire needs not a great basileus but a good manager. And I fear that his grandiose schemes and endeavours may bring ruin upon this house.
Soon afterwards, following the time-honoured tradition, the old Emperor took monastic vows and donned a monk's habit, taking the name of Matthew. It was in this guise that he celebrated his seventy-fifth birthday on 27 June 1425. Just twenty-five days later the end came. He was buried the same day in the monastery church of the Pantocrator, the funeral oration being delivered by the twenty-five-year-old monk Bessarion, of whom we shall be hearing more before this story is done. Sphrantzes tells us that he was mourned more deeply and by more people than any of his predecessors. If so, it was no more than he deserved.