Conquest Legitimised: The Making of a Byzantine Emperor in Crusader Constantinople 1204-1261

On 13th April 1204 Constantinople fell to the Crusaders of the Fourth Crusade. Five men had tried to rule over Constantinople over the previous twelve months; two were dead and three had fled. As the senior crusaders entered the city, its churches, and royal palaces they would have been confronted by images of Byzantine emperors everywhere they went. Would they, did they, try to destroy these images?

The answer is no. If anything they may have sought to protect them as they embraced the status and ritual of the emperors whilst they attempted to consolidate their power in what must have been a hostile city. The crusaders actively sought to legitimise themselves as heirs of the greatest emperors, seeking to revitalise the glories of previous eras. They argued that the capture of the city, and the overthrow of what they proclaimed as usurpers to the legitimate authority of the line of emperors that extended back to Constantine the Great, was a necessity to re-establish legitimate rule.

Such was the argument put forward by Dr Shawcross in the latest of the series of presentations at the Department of Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies at King’s College London on 8 December.

The crusader emperors ruled over Constantinople from 1204 to 1261. This was a period that within the city was typified by continuity, whilst to the east and west, resistance kingdoms grew in Nicaea and Epirus. Dr Shawcross claimed that the Frankish regime sought continuity with the Comneni. This could be seen right at the start, when in the spring of 1204 Baldwin was crowned emperor in Hagia Sophia. He processed to Justinian’s great church and once there, in a side chamber, he was stripped of his clothes and dressed first of all in a tunic that had golden buttons. A heavy silk Loros or wrap was placed around him. Finally a rich mantle or Chlamys was placed on his shoulders, laden with jewels and pearls. The double headed eagles, embroidered with gold thread were so bright they looked as if they were on fire. Finally, red leather shoes, reserved solely for the Emperor, were placed on his feet.

Once in the church, he was partially disrobed, anointed, re-robed, and then crowned. A chain was placed around his neck, and he sat on the raised throne holding the Laros or staff, similar to a sceptre. After the ceremony he left the church on a white charger and made his way through the cheering crowds to the Palace of Boukoleon, where the Greek nobility performed ritual adoration. The day continued with chariot racing and the recently introduced jousting in the Hippodrome.

To the average  Byzantine sea captain who had been away trading around the Pillars of Hercules, had missed all the fun of the siege and had just arrived back in the city, this coronation would have looked as familiar as any other he might have seen. This event used the same locations (the Great Palace of the Boukoleon, the Hippodrome and Hagia Sophia); the same ritual and regalia, and even the same acclamation of Aegios or sacred. Was this a deliberate act of continuity, or of necessity as there was not time to make new robes and introduce new western ritual?

The choice of regalia identified closely with Baldwin’s Byzantine predecessors; the Chlamys or robe; the Loros, a kind of wrap; and the Laros or staff. Baldwin wore gemstones that belonged to Manuel I Comnenus, and he sat on the symbolically important throne of Constantine the Great. The link with Constantine had already been established. The Franks and the Venetians held a council of twelve to elect an emperor on Sunday 9 May and made a proclamation on 10th of May being the eve of the festival that marked the formal founding of the city by Constantine himself on 11 May 330. The coronation of Baldwin rapidly followed on Sunday 16 May.

So this coronation was not necessarily an exact copy of any previous service, but it sought to emulate those that had gone before in such a way that the Greeks remaining in the city would see the continuity, and perhaps view Baldwin as no different from previous Imperial usurpers of which Byzantium had known many throughout its long history. The Franks may also have been sending a different message to those Greeks who has fled to Nicaea and Epirus, and perhaps a message also the West, that here stood the rightful Emperor of Byzantium, claiming the same rights and tribute as the Comneni who had gone before.

The processional aspect of the coronation and subsequent visits to different parts of the city and empire repeat the pattern established in the past. These processions had two purposes. They gave the people an opportunity to see their Emperor, and to demonstrate their adoration and loyalty. They were also a public and deliberate statement by the Emperor to mark his territory, something that numerous predecessors had done during festivals and feast days, and can perhaps be understood by the English clerical tradition of Beating the Bounds of the parish. It should be noted however, that following the division of the city by the victorious conquerors, the Venetians held a large part of the city which in reality did not come under the day to day effective rule of the Emperor.

The crusaders were a polyglot bunch, coming from all over Europe, but dominated by northern Franks and the Venetian contingent. They would have spoken different languages, but few would have been native Greek speakers. It is therefore interesting to note that the language of government remained Greek. The titles adopted by the crusaders were the former imperial titles with their associated offices. The Venetian Doge, Dandelo, was appointed Despot. These titles were retained, not because they were synonyms to western titles, but because they were discrete Byzantine titles which had a meaning and significance of their own.

The list of retained titles included:

  • Emperor
  • Despot
  • Sevastokrator
  • Caesar
  • Protovestiarios
  • Megas Doux
  • Vestiarios – which by 12/13 C applied to middle ranking Treasury officials

The use of these titles ensured that their Greek subjects would understand who was who and who did what. Importantly they maintained the mystery of the workings of the Eastern Empire to those in the west.

Without the means of television to project their image into every home, and email to ensure up to the minute communication, one of the methods used by mediaeval rulers to stamp themselves upon events was the use of their writ ie formal written communication. The Frankish emperors chose to use Greek as the means of communication (think about this for a moment; Baldwin I was illiterate in all languages even French!). They used the accepted and traditional form of salutation:

“Baldwin, by the Grace of God, most faithful Emperor in Christ, crowned by God, ruler of the Romans, and always Augustus”

Acts and charters were signed and dated as follows:

“In our palace of Boukoleon, in the so and so month, of the year of our Lord etc etc.” Using the Greek calendar and signed in purple kinnabaris ink. Baldwin, like Justin I (518–527) before him probably used a golden stencil to sign his name. These subscripts were always signed and dated personally by the Emperor in the Byzantine style. By the end of the period of the crusader emperors, Baldwin II was signing his subscripts in a comfortable Greek style. His first language was probably Greek, and during his one and only visit to France, a relation, a princess, described his French as ‘childlike’ meaning it was undeveloped and immature; surely these descendents of Viking-Norman-Frankish knights had been seduced and absorbed by the warm and colourful culture that surrounded them?

So how else did these warrior knights project their image to demonstrate continuity and control their subjects?

Use of Seals

Of the few identifiable symbols to have survived to this day, the seals used by the Crusader Emperors are amongst the most revealing. They epitomise the dichotomy of their position, both within Byzantium, but also in their dealings with the West: they literally had to face both east and west and their seals are a vivid representation of this.

Often made just of lead, but sometimes of gold, the seals that have survived have generally been found with documents sent to the West in diplomatic correspondence. The obverse typically showed a seated emperor, on a Carolingian style throne, holding a sceptre and also perhaps an orb (not a typical Byzantine symbol but one common in the West). On the reverse there were typically images of mailed knights. No seals remain from documents issued in the Empire so it is not known whether or not the same seals were used for internal consumption. However, the styles chosen on the seals from the west use standard Byzantine titles “Baldwin [ I ] Despot” and even better for Baldwin II he takes the purple “Baldwin Despot Porphyrogenitus”.


Dr Shawcross told us that the Latin Emperors continued to use the existing coinage system. There appears to be very little difference between 12C and 13C coins. Baldwin I seemed to have used the same dyes as his Byzantine predecessors, with his coins even including the image of Manuel Comnenus! The subsequent emperors copied the styles and iconography.


How can this continuity be explained? Was there pressure from officials, or the people? Perhaps it comes down to legitimising these emperors from the west in the eyes of the people.

Records show that as Baldwin I entered cities in Greece and Macedonia there was a full imperial procession, led by icons and ‘the cymbals, drums and trumpets as the Emperor entered Thebes made such a noise that the ground seemed to shake.’

It is possible that Baldwin used what was available due to time constraints. Production of heavily bejewelled coronation robes would have been too time consuming and money was probably short. However, these things continued for decades when they could have been changed. It is much more likely that the Latins wished to inherit the past and demonstrate to the people the continuity. The emperor Henry (1206 to 1216) wore a purple robe, even when mounted. He ate sitting on a throne and he expressed outrage when the Bulgars started to use the title of Emperor.

There was probably a ‘deliberate and sustained policy’ to continue with the policies and style of the past. Baldwin actively sought a public display of ‘approval by the Greeks’ at his coronation. It was important to maintain this public image to placate the Greeks. There was always the threat of revolt as shown by a contemporary Greek document from rebellious Greeks “without us the threshing floor will not be filled with grain or the vats full of wine”. The crusaders were being pragmatic, seeking support and active cooperation, or maybe we could call it collaboration. Those Greeks who did serve the Franks were well rewarded but none are mentioned by name in surviving contemporary documents; was this a deliberate policy or does it show that the names of these people were expunged from the record once the Empire returned to Byzantine control?

Perhaps it is no surprise that the crusader emperors sought to legitimise their rule through the use of symbols and customs most familiar to the Greeks. There was a pragmatic side to this; time and money, but perhaps they were dazzled by the finery of Byzantine art and wealth? History is full of conquerors who went native; Alexander the Great, the Merovigians, the Goths and even Mehmet II himself, Turkish conqueror of the city – “No one doubts that you are the Emperor of the Romans. Whoever is legally master of the capital of the Empire is the Emperor, and Constantinople is the capital of the Roman Empire.” It is even said that when proclaimed Emperor, Baldwin was raised on the shield just like many of his predecessors. How Roman is that?

The orginal presentation was made by Dr Teresa Shawcross, Trinity Hall, Cambridge University

About proverbs6to10

Interested in Byzantium and Patrick Leigh Fermor
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2 Responses to Conquest Legitimised: The Making of a Byzantine Emperor in Crusader Constantinople 1204-1261

  1. Pingback: Centre for Hellenic Studies King’s College London: a new future? « Byzantine Blog

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