Varangian Guardsmen, an illumination from the Skylitzis Chronicle, 11th century

When we were refugees: Anglo-Saxons on the Black Sea

Refugees dominate the headlines. Whether fleeing civil war in Syria, or political oppression in Africa, the right-wing media has met them with scorn. This attitude is coloured by our failure to confront a past of English people both welcoming and being refugees.

We see a lot of opinion pieces – chiefly in The Guardian – celebrating an idealised history of refugees being drawn to the welcoming bosom of generous mother Britannia, from Huguenots fleeing religious oppression in sixteenth-century France, to the Kindertransport of the 1930s. None of that is missing from the current narrative. Instead, what we seem to have forgotten is that the English, too, have been refugees. Many in this country fail to understand that the way we interact with the past informs the way we understand the present to a great degree. Even a cursory appreciation of history helps to put current events into context, letting us approach the issues of the day from a broader, more nuanced perspective. The story pushed by the right-leaning press is that all refugees are spongers and scroungers. Our distant detachment from the English refugee experience has left us unable to understand the severity and desperation of the present crisis.

There is a possibly apocryphal instance of English refugees settling in a most unexpected corner of Europe in the aftermath of the Norman Conquest of 1066. According to sources including the Játvarðar Saga – a fourteenth-century Icelandic account of the life of Edward the Confessor – and the Chronicon Universale Anonymi Laudunensis, a group of English lords opposed to their political marginalisation at the hands of William the Conqueror fled in 350 ships to Constantinople, the seat of the Eastern Roman Emperor. Arriving during the reign of Michael VII Doukas, many proved their worth as fierce warriors during the ongoing war with the Seljuk Turks; already accustomed to recruiting the unlanded sons of Nordic lords, a number of these exiles were drafted into the ranks of the elite Varangian Guard. Over the following two centuries, Anglo-Saxon mercenaries looking for refuge and employment became the largest contingent of foreign soldiers in the service of the Emperor. Perhaps the English saw an echo of their resistance to the Norman rule of their homeland in the Byzantine struggled against the marauding Seljuks.\

The English lords made Crimea their home, named it Nova Anglia, and established settlements called York and London.

By the 1080s, the Játvarðar Saga tells us that others among the English were not content to live out their days in privilege in Constantinople, and instead sought ‘some towns or cities which they might own and their heirs after them.’ The Emperor – at this time Alexios Komnenos – was in no mood to strip Greek landowners of their territory, but saw in this request an opportunity to extend his authority and improve the fortunes of the ailing Empire by installing friendly lords in territory that had already been lost to heathen powers. The Játvarðar Saga describes the chosen land as being ‘six days’ and nights’ sail across the sea in the east and north-east from Micklegarth [Constantinople],’ which corresponds to the Crimean peninsula; it is said that the English lords made it their home, named it Nova Anglia, and established settlements called York and London. Indeed, maps made as recently as the 16th century show Londina and Susaco (thought to derive from Saxon or Sussex) still extant on the Black Sea coast of Crimea, although by this time long devoid of Englishmen. This small community, a refuge preserving a disappearing Anglo-Saxon culture, maintained its independent identity for at least 200 years. It was perhaps bolstered by the further Anglicisation of the Varangian Guard, which continued to receive exiles from the Norman dominated England.

The Empire remained the destination of choice for English exiles fleeing the oppression of the Norman regime.

The presence of an English colony on the Black Sea, championed by the Byzantine Emperor is contentious, although most scholars agree there is a kernel of truth to the story. At the very least, the Empire remained the destination of choice for English exiles fleeing the oppression of the Norman regime. Even in the 13th century was the Varangian Guard regarded as an institution dominated by English soldiers: a court official named George Kodinos (who may not have existed) wrote that ‘the Varangians come and wish the Emperor many years in the language of their country, that is, English,’ and an earlier historian, Niketas Choniates, wrote of them as ‘axe-bearing Britons, now called English.’ It is ultimately unclear whether this English identity was inherited by subsequent generations of guardsmen as an internal regimental culture, or due to a continued migration of English warriors who may in the 11th and 12th centuries have arrived in exile from their occupied homeland.

In the 13th century, a group of Franciscan friars were sent on a mission to the Mongols by Pope Innocent IV. In their accounts they consistently reference a Christian people known as the Saxi dwelling in the land around the Sea of Azov. It is impossible know to verify whether or not these Saxi are to identified with Anglo-Saxons, but the friars remark that they possess their own identity (most tellingly as Christians despite being surrounded by Muslims), their ferocity as warriors, and their successful resistance to the invading Mongols. The implication is that these Saxi were the still identifiable remnants of the English refugees. Although it would be nice to imagine a quaint coastal community of Anglo-Saxons upholding their old traditions in spite of great upheaval in the lands around them, it can’t be forgotten that, if this was truly a surviving Nova Anglia, that it was a refuge born out of a desperate exile from the political oppression in their homeland. It is something worth remembering in the face of the stream of refugees making their way into Europe from the Middle East. Today, we reject them. A long time ago, someone else accepted us.

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