29 May 2023
The last day of Constantinople
This year marks the 570th anniversary of the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire, on 29 May 1453. The city at the Bosporus, on the border between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, bridging Europe, Asia Minor and the Balkans, was originally called Byzantium. The exact date of its foundation is unknown, but according to legend it was founded in 667 BC.
Constantine the Great from the Synopsis of Histories (Eastern Mediterranean, 1574): Harley MS 5632, f. 2v
The city was already an important trading and military centre, but its significance rose when, on 11 May, AD 324, Emperor Constantine the Great selected it to be the new capital of the reunited Roman Empire, and called it the New Rome. Six years later, to honour the emperor, it was renamed Constantinople after him. From the 5th century onwards, Constantinople was enriched with enormous fortifications, churches and monasteries, and the world-renowned imperial library.
A view of Constantinople from Mandeville’s Travels (Bohemia; 1st quarter of the 15th century): Add MS 24189, f. 9v
Despite the tumult after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in AD 476, Constantinople remained the seat of the Emperor of the East and the centre of the political, religious and intellectual life of the Byzantine Empire for many centuries. Admired and envied by the West, it was visited by travellers, kings and pilgrims. In 1204, the Crusader army, originally destined for Palestine, turned against the city, occupied and sacked it, and made it the capital of the Western Emperor of Constantinople for the next half century.
A golden bulla of Baldwin II, the last Western Emperor of Constantinople (Biervliet, 1269): Add Ch 14365, obverse
Although it was retaken by the Palaeologan dynasty in 1261, Constantinople never regained its previous status. From the 14th century, it faced the rising Ottoman Empire in an ever-weakening state. Sultan Mehmed II arrived at the gates of the city in April 1453 and started besieging the city.
The Emperor Constantine XI tried to secure help from the West, but the timing was very unfortunate. Europe was riven by warfare: the Hundred Year War was consuming France and England, Spain was involved in the last phase of the Reconquista, and the Holy Roman Empire was divided by internal wars. Apart from some volunteers and assistance from Venice, Genoa and the Pope, the Emperor was left on his own against the formidable army of the Sultan. The British Library holds eye-witness accounts of what happened next, one of which is inserted in a 16th-century chronicle now attributed to Macarius of Melissa.
A page from the chronicle of Macarius of Melissa preserving the final speech of Emperor Constantine XI (Venice, 16th century: Add MS 36539, f. 79r
This manuscript records the Emperor's final speech to his army on the night of the fateful battle. According to the author, who was present, Constantine declared:
‘My noble peers, illustrious generals, noble fellow-soldiers, you know well that the hour has come and that the enemy of our faith wishes to hem us in more cruelly with every means … Into your hands I give this most illustrious and renowned city, the Queen of Cities and your homeland … There is no time to say more to you. I only entrust my humble sceptre to your hands. Brothers and fellow-soldiers, be prepared for battle in the morning with grace and courage …'
The battle started around midnight on 29 May. The defenders were able to hold the walls for a while but when the general of the Genoan troops was wounded by an arrow, its defence was shaken. Parts of the army started to flee and the emperor was apparently left on his own. Chronicles from both East and West all agree that Constantine fought hard in the battle.
A page from the chronicle of Macarius of Melissa preserving the last words of the Venetian soldiers witnessing the fall of Constantinople (Venice, 16th century): Add MS 36539, f. 85r
Some hours later the defence collapsed completely. Macarius noted the last words of the Venetian soldiers upon seeing the fall of the city: ‘Shudder Sun and groan Earth, the city is taken’. The Sultan then entered the city and a desperate search to find the emperor began. Eventually Constantine who identified under a heap of corpses by the imperial eagle embroidered on his shoes.
Detail of a grant by Sultan Mehmed II to the Genoese inhabitants of Galata, with the sultan’s monogram and the beginning of the Greek text (1 June 1435): Egerton MS 2817
A few days later, Sultan Mehmed II was in Constantinople when he issued one of his first edicts from his new capital, ensuring the trading rights of the Genoa merchants of Galata. The siege put an end to a long period in the history of this great city. No longer Byzantium or Constantinople, it started a new life as Istanbul.
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