English refugees were the most prominent element in the Eastern Roman (‘Byzantine’) Varangian Guard from the late 11th to the 13th century

One of the most interesting episodes in Byzantine military history and in medieval English history is the Anglo-Saxon participation and service in the Varangian Guards regiment from the late 11th to the early 13th century. In the 11th century, as a result of crises suffered by the Byzantine state (feudalization of the armed forces, civil-military conflict in the government, the loss of Asia Minor to the Seljuk Turks, the loss of Southern Italy to the Normans, etc.) the Byzantine army became increasingly dependent upon mercenary forces.


Among the troops recruited into service of the Byzantine Emperor were Anglo-Saxons, who eventually made up the main component of the traditional foreign mercenary force that guarded the person of the Emperor. The crisis in Anglo-Saxon state and society brought on by the Norman Conquest created an Anglo-Saxon emigration, part of which found refuge and employment in Byzantium. Up until the Norman conquest of England, the Varangian guards consisted chiefly of Scandinavian and Kievan Rus’ warriors.

The Varangian Guard’s origin is veiled with some ambiguity, as is the case with many of the military institutions of the Byzantine state. Traditonally, the emperors in Constantinople employed foreign mercenaries for the Imperial guard since Constantine I transferred the Roman Empire’s capitol to Byzantium. Indeed, earlier Roman Emperors had used foreign troops as personal retainers, notably the Germanic troops under the Principate starting with Augustus.

The foreign troops of the later Roman Empire were known as foederati (Gr. Foideratoi) and came mostly from Germanic and Turkic peoples who were migrating into the territory of the Roman empire–Goths, Franks, Heruls, Lombards, Huns and others. The term foederati was used to denote foreign troops until about the ninth century. From the ninth century at the latest, foreign troops in the imperial guard were known as the Etaireiai (Lt. Hetaireiae, companion companies). The Book of Ceremonies of Constantine Porphyrogenitus described the Hetaireiai as being divided into three units, the Megale Hetaireia (Great company), the Mese Hetaireia (Middle Company), and the Mikre Hetaireia (Little Company). According to some scholars, the Great, Middle and Little Companies consisted of the Christian subjects, Christian foreigners, and non-Christian foreigners respectively. Positions in the Hetaireia guards were venal; recruits had to pay a bounty of 16, 10 and 7 pounds of gold respectively for entrance into the Great, Middle and Little Companies. Perhaps the payments were for the cost of regular and ceremonial uniforms and accoutrements of recruits, hence real “investments.”

The first Varangians in Byzantine Service were Christianized Russians (Rōs, for both Scandinavians and Slavs), who served with Dalmatians in the Great Company as marines in the time of Constantine Porphyrogenitus (ca. 930-950). Rōs served in naval expeditions against Crete in 902 and 949, and land campaigns in Syria in 955. It was no doubt this service that brought them into the Imperial guards.

Under Basil II (976-1025), the troops from the land of Kievan Rus’ were organized into a separate unit that became known as the Varangian guard. Whether these initial troops were Scandinavian or Slavonic in ethnicity has been open to dispute, as part of the general “Normanist Controversy” in the historiography of early medieval Russia. Suffice it to say that the initial troops of the guard came from the lower terminus of the Great Eastern or Varangian route between the Baltic and the Black Sea, which became known as the Kievan Rus’ Principality. These troops were initially from Kievan Rus’ Lands, be they of Scandinavian or Slavonic origin. From the founding of the Varangian Guard to the last decade of the 11th century, the major component of the unit was Scandinavian. The troops initially were recruited from the lands of the Rus’ principalities and later came from further regions–Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Denmark and England.

While legendary and conflicting accounts have led to differences of opinions among scholars, nonetheless corroboration of disparate sources have led virtually all scholars to agree on one point. A sizable contingent of Anglo-Saxons and Danes, who were not reconciled to Norman Rule in England, immigrated to Byzantium in the 1070’s. Their emigration was by sea through the Mediterranean. Some of the refugees did not accept imperial service and were allowed to settle in some area along the Black Sea coast. Others took on imperial service and became an important component in the Varangian Guard.

A fascinating aspect of the account of migration pieced together by historians from Ordericus Vitalis, the Jarvardar saga and the Chronicon laudunsienses are indications of an Anglo-Saxon ethnic consciousness. According to Ordericus Vitalis, “The English groaned aloud for their lost liberty and plotted ceaselessly to find some way of shaking off that what was so intolerable and unaccustomed.” After some of the English opponents of Norman rule attempted to offer the English throne to the King of Denmark…

“Others fled into voluntary exile so that they might either find in banishment freedom from the power of 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 traveled into remote lands and bravely offered their arms to Alexius, emperor of Constantinople, a man of great wisdom and nobility. Robert Guiscard, the duke of Apulia, had taken up arms against him in support of Michael, whom the Greeks, resenting the power of the senate, had driven from the imperial throne. Consequently the English exiles were warmly welcomed by the Greeks and were sent into battle against the Norman forces, which were too powerful for the Greeks alone…This is the reason for the English exodus to Ionia; the emigrants and their heir faithfully served the holy empire, and are still honored among the Greeks by Emperor, nobility and people alike.”


A number of modern scholars believe that among the first military operations in which the Anglo-Saxons of the Varangian guard were involved was the Byzantine campaign in the Balkans against the Italo-Norman forces of Robert Guiscard. The Alexiad of Anna Comnena mentions their participation and elsewhere reports that these troops came from “Thule”. While this evidence has been open to dispute, revenge against the Normans may have been a factor in Anglo-Saxon service.

Another hint of ethnic consciousness appears in the account of the Jarvardar saga, which tells the story of the emigration of a large body of Anglo-Saxons, in 350 ships, which arrived in Constantinople in time to save the city from a naval attack by “heathens”. Following this engagement:

“They stayed a while in Micklegarth [Constantinople], and set the realm of the Greekking free from strife. King Kirjalax [Alexius] offered them to abide there and guard his body as was wont of the Varangians who went into his pay, but it seemed to earl Sigurd and the other chiefs that it was too small a career to grow old there in that fashion, that they had not a realm to rule over; and they begged the king to give them some towns or cities which they might own and their heirs after them…king Kirjalax told them that he knew of a land lying north in the sea, which had lain of old under the emperor of Micklegarth, but in later days the heathen had won it and abode in it. And when the Englishmen heard that, they took a title from king Kirjalax that the land should be their own and their heirs after them if they could get it won under them from the heathen men free from tax and toll. The king granted them this. After that the Englishmen fared away out of Micklegarth and north into the sea, but some chiefs stayed behind in Micklegarth, and went into service there. Earl Sigurd and his men came to this land and had many battles there and got the land won, but drove away all the folk that abode there before. After that they took that land into possession and gave it a name, and called it England. To the towns that were in the land and to those which they built they gave the names of the towns of England. They called them both London and York, and by the names of other great towns in England…This land lies six days’ and six nights’ sail across the sea to the east and northeast of Micklegarth; and there is the best land there; and that folk has abode there ever since.”

According to the recently discovered Chronicon universale anonymi Laudunensis, a group of English notables immigrated to Byzantium in 235 ships, reaching Constantinople in 1075. Some 4350 of the emigrants and their families remained in Constantinople in imperial service, while a majority of the refugees sailed to a place called Domapia, six days’ journey from Byzantium, conquered it and renamed it Nova Anglia (New England).

Hints of ethnic consciousness among the English in the Varangian Guard include the legend of the founding of an English church in Constantinople:

“While the first king from the Normans, William, was reigning over England, an honorable man, educated in the chapter of the Blessed Augustine, along with many other noble exiles from the fatherland (patrie profugis), migrated to Constantinople; he obtained such favor with the emperor and empress as well as with other powerful men as to receive command over prominent troops and over a great number of companions; no newcomer for very many years had obtained such an honor. He married a noble and wealthy woman, and remembering the gifts of God, built, close to his own home, a basilica in honor of the Blessed Nicholas and Saint Augustine.”

Another example of the English identity in Byzantium is an account of a pilgrim-monk Joseph, who, while in Constantinople, “found a number of men there who came from his own fatherland (patria) and were from the imperial household (family).” These men, probably Varangian guardsmen, were able to get Joseph permission to view the imperial treasury of relics, of which he reputedly lifted a piece of a relic of Saint Andrew.

The English were the most prominent element in the Varangian Guard from the late 11th to the 13th century. Although there were probably few Englishmen serving in the guard by the time of its writing, the 14th-century Book of Offices of Georgios Kodinos or Pseudo-Kodinos mentions the Christmas custom of the Guard. “Then the Varangians come and wish the Emperor many years in the language of their country, that is, English, and beating their battle-axes with load noise.” An earlier Byzantine source called them “the axe-bearing Britons, now called English.” Nonetheless, the guard was not wholly English, a number of sources mention Danes in the guard. This seems natural in that Anglo-Danes and Danes played such an important role in the Anglo-Saxon military, particularly in the huscarls.

The Varangians served as the personal life guard of the emperor and swore an oath of loyalty to him. They had formal duties within the imperial ritual, both as ceremonial retainers and acclaimers of the Emperor. They had police duties as personal guards of the emperor similar to a secret service; they could defend against plots and punish conspirators. They were avengers and/or executioners of persons threatening sedition, rebellion or treason against imperial authority. They also had extensive military duties, either when the emperor was on campaign, or on detached service with imperial armies.

What is important is that the duties of the Varangians were similar to the Kievan Rus’ druzhina, the vikinge-lag of Sweden, Norway and Denmark and the huscarls (Housecarls) of Denmark and England. All of these institutions were mercenary companies that served rulers personally as a bodyguards and elite units. The organization, discipline and of the Varangian Guard was based upon the same customs as the abovementioned units.

Inviolability of the oath, personal loyalty, and the use of the battle-axe were hallmarks of service in all of these mercenary institutions. Thus institutionally there was a continuity that encompassed all Varangians, be they of Russian, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, or English background. Not only were there institutional and ethnic links that tied the English to Varangians of other backgrounds, but also personal associations. The fact that Harald Hardrada, one of the rival claimants to the English throne in 1066, had served prominently in the Varangian Guard no doubt was well known and was an influence for English entry into the guard. The links of the English Varangians to the Scandinavian and even Russian Varangians may be closer than one thinks.

(Source: “English Refugees in the Byzantine Armed Forces: The Varangian Guard and Anglo-Saxon Ethnic Consciousness”, by Nicholas C.J. Pappas)


Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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