Anglo-Saxons in Byzantium – a snippet of history (2)


Today I continue the snippets of history ‘series’,with the presence of Anglo-Saxons in Byzantium.

This is related to the Varangian Guard, and the ‘Swedes going South’, a previous post.

‘The formal date for the introduction of the Varangian Guard to the Byzantine military establishment is widely considered to be the year 988 . In that year, the Emperor Basil II was faced with the one of the most challenging tasks of his reign which was the suppression of a rebellion led by two of the most powerful families of Asia Minor, the Phokades and the Skleroi . With the rebel armies marching against him and in a desperate need for troops he turned to Prince Vladimir of Kiev, who agreed to send him 6,000 elite troops in exchange for the hand of a πορφυρογέννητη princess, Basil’s sister Anna.'(3, p.128)

Vasiliev Alexander Alexandrovich
Vasiliev Alexander Alexandrovich

Inevitably, behind every snippet there is a book. In today’s snippet it is the “History of the Byzantine Empire”, written by the Russian historian Alexander Vasiliev.

Until the middle of the 11th century the Varangian Guard comprised almost exclusively Swedes and Scandinavians. This started changing after the conquest of England by the Normans under William the Conqueror in 1066.Many Anglo-Saxons, in despair, abandoned their fatherland. In the eighties of the eleventh century, at the beginning of the rule of Alexius Comnenus, as the English historian Freeman emphasized in his very well known work on the conquest of England by the Normans, some convincing indications of the Anglo-Saxon emigration into the Greek Empire were already evident.

The Anglo-Norman monk Orderic Vitalis, a western chronicler of the first half of the twelfth century wrote (5):

“And so the English groaned aloud for their lost liberty and plotted ceaselessly to find some way of shaking off a yoke that was so intolerable and unaccustomed. Some sent to Swegn, King of Denmark, and urged him to lay claim to the kingdom of England which his ancestors Swegn and Cnut had won by the sword. Others fled into voluntary exile so they might either find in banishment freedom from the Normans or secure foreign help and come back to fight a war of vengeance. Some of them who were still in the flower of youth travelled into remote lands and bravely offered their arms to Alexius, Emperor of Constantinople, a man of great wisdom and nobility.”

Alexius I Comnenus, Emperor of Byzantium (1081 - 1118)
Alexius I Comnenus, Emperor of Byzantium (1081 – 1118)

This was the beginning of the “Varangian-English” bodyguard which, in the history of Byzantium of the twelfth century, played an important part.

It is quite interesting that the young warriors went all the way from England to Constantinople, instead of settling of much nearer destinations like Denmark, or elsewhere in Western Europe. But the emigration has been confirmed by the Chronicon Laudunense, a 13th century world chronicle, written in Laon, France. It must have been common knowledge that the Byzantine army was in need of mercenaries.The English mercenaries were called “Εγκλινοβάραγγοι”, which is a combination of the words “English” and ‘Varangian”. (4)

Byzantine Coins  - Period of Alexius I Comnenus
Byzantine Coins – Period of Alexius I Comnenus

Alexius I Comnenus, also spelled Alexios I Komnenos, was crowned on April 4, 1081. After more than 50 years of ineffective or short-lived rulers, Alexius, in the words of Anna Comnena, his daughter and biographer, found the empire “at its last gasp,” but his military ability and diplomatic gifts enabled him to retrieve the situation. He drove back the south Italian Normans, headed by Robert Guiscard, who were invading western Greece (1081–82). This victory was achieved with the help of the “English-Varangian” Guard and with Venetian naval help, bought at the cost of granting Venice extensive trading privileges in the Byzantine Empire.(6)


1  Alexander Vasiliev, History of the Byzantine Empire, 324–1453, p.484.

2  Georgios Theotokis, The Norman Campaigns in the Balkans, 1081-1108, pp. 85-86.

3  Georgios Theotokis, Rus, Varangian and Frankish Mercenaries in the Service of the Byzantine Emperors (9th-11th C.), BYZANTINA ΣΥΜΜΕΙΚΤΑ 22 (2012) 125-156.

4. Krijna Nelly Ciggaar, Western Travellers to Constantinople: The West and Byzantium, 962-1204, p.140.

5. Seeking Revenge – The English Varangian Guard at the Battle of Dyrrhachium in 1081

6. Alexius I Comnenus, Britannica