An Elizabethan Assassin: Theodore Paleologus: Seducer, Spy and Killer

An Elizabethan Assassin: Theodore Paleologus: Seducer, Spy and Killer

by John Hall


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The first biography of a mercurial character from the Elizabethan underworld – a seducer, spy and assassin
Claiming to be heir to the emperors of Byzantium, an exotic but elusive figure named Theodore Paleologus surfaced in mysterious circumstances in the Elizabethan underworld. This first biography of an extraordinary character presents new documentary evidence which supports his imperial pretensions—long dismissed by historians—but also exposes him as a seducer, a spy, and, most intriguingly of all, a ruthless assassin in the pay of the wicked Earl of Lincoln. In this remarkable account, award-winning author John Hall plots the real lives of Theodore Paleologus and his three sons—from contract killings to fighting in the Civil War and pioneering days in the Caribbean slave trade—and sets their story against parallel careers on the wilder shores of literature, ranging from dainty Regency verses to Magic Realism, along with crime thrillers, fantastic tales of reincarnation, the bloodline of Christ, and a claim to the throne of England.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780750962612
Publisher: The History Press
Publication date: 11/01/2015
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

John Hall is a former journalist and the author of That Bloody Woman: The Turbulent Life of Emily Hobhouse. 

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An Elizabethan Assassin: Theodore Paleologus

Seducer, Spy and Killer

By John Hall

The History Press

Copyright © 2015 John Hall
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7509-6470-8


Talk to me, my lords, Of sepulchres and mighty emperors' bones.

Thomas Middleton, The Revenger's Tragedy.

For most of us Byzantium is a hazy concept. Anyone of my own post-war generation might easily envisage an Egyptian or Roman of ancient times, if only by courtesy of Cecil B. De Mille, but the Byzantine was a figure shrouded in mystery. Many must have heard the name of his empire's great capital for the first time when taxed with the simple playground riddle:

Constantinople is a very long word – if you can't spell it you're the biggest dunce in the world.

The Byzantines were absent from history lessons at my grammar school; John Julius Norwich, best-known of the modern historians of Byzantium, has made the same point about his schooling at Eton. For a teenager, a next fleeting brush with the civilisation might have come on reading Sailing to Byzantium, with Yeats's sensuous lines offering an illusory moment of empathy where history had failed, in images of hammered gold and gold enamelling, a drowsing emperor, and an artificial bird singing on a golden bough:

To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

Our present use of the word byzantine as a synonym for the excessively complex, tortuous or duplicitous serves to distance us further from a proud Christian empire that lasted over 1,000 years. It may not be too fanciful to discern the origin of this detachment in a collective Western guilt over the conquest of Constantinople by Islam.

Constantinople was founded in the year 330 by Constantine the Great, the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity. For the site of his New Rome he chose an established Greek settlement called Byzantion, located on the Bosphorus where east meets west. Like Old Rome, his city was built on seven hills. Drawing on legacies of the classical world, it became the centre of an empire which at its zenith was by far the greatest power on earth, ruling over present-day Greece, North Africa, Egypt, the Holy Land, the islands of the Mediterranean, much of Italy, the Balkans and Asia Minor – in all, the empire encompassed the territories of thirty-four of today's nation states. Constantinople was renowned for its fabulous wealth, sublime art and unrivalled tradition of learning; above all, from the seventh century to the fifteenth, it was Christendom's bulwark against an ever-expanding Islam. The city survived repeated sieges by the Arabs and the empire's most formidable foes of latter centuries, the Ottoman Turks.

Constantine ruled both Old and New Rome, but in 395 the empire was divided between his descendants. Less than a century later, Rome was overrun by barbarians. The emperor in Constantinople was sole ruler of what remained, and during the next golden age, the reign of Justinian the Great, many lost territories of Old Rome were regained. But the empire was constantly assailed by enemies on all fronts – not only Ottomans, but Persians, Slavs, Normans, Huns, Bulgars, Venetians and a host of others – and repeatedly fragmented by civil wars. In the meantime the empire's character changed from essentially Latin to Greek, though to the end its subjects persisted in calling themselves Romans.

The vast all-powerful Byzantine Empire was a distant memory by the time of Michael Paleologus, founder of the last imperial line and claimed ancestor of the man buried in Landulph Church. In 1204, twenty years before Michael's birth, Constantinople had been captured and sacked, not by Turks but by so-called crusaders – Latins, as the Byzantines called everyone from Western Europe. Dazzled by the enormous wealth they saw en route to the Holy Land, which like so much of the former empire was now in Muslim hands, they realised that Constantinople offered easier pickings. With the great city in ruins and its treasures plundered, a Latin usurper was proclaimed emperor; much of the Greek mainland was carved up between rapacious followers who proceeded to call themselves counts, dukes and princes.

With their empire on the verge of total collapse, the Byzantine emperors-in-exile retreated to the ancient city of Nicaea across the Straits of the Bosphorus, forty miles from the old imperial capital. The short-lived dynasty of that period, the Lascaris, was soon supplanted by the Paleologi. And it must be said that all our negative and sensational associations with Byzantine history – assassinations, plots, arcane ceremony, unbridled greed, cruelty, treachery, hypocrisy and love of ostentatious display – may justly be linked with the Paleologan era.

Though a usurper, Michael Paleologus was no upstart. The Paleologi were among the empire's great aristocratic families, counting among their ancestors no fewer than eleven emperors of earlier times. The theoretical succession from the Caesars was maintained. Paleologus – the Greek name means ancient word – was the most talented general serving the Lascaris, but their relationship was always fragile.

Emperor John III, an epileptic, managed to recapture considerable territory from the Latins, but grew jealous of Michael's prowess as a soldier. John's son and successor, Theodore II, was even more suspicious of the general. At one time Paleologus was so convinced he was in mortal danger from the emperor that he defected to the Turks, then busily mopping up yet more sorry remnants of the empire. But again the quarrel between emperor and general was patched up.

When Theodore II died leaving an eight-year-old successor, John IV, the looming thundercloud burst. During a memorial service for the dead ruler, the child emperor's appointed regent was hacked to pieces at the high altar. The outrage was almost certainly on the orders of Michael Paleologus, who soon afterwards proclaimed himself co-emperor. The fate of a child monarch was rarely a happy one and on Christmas Day 1261 the wretched boy's eyes were put out – along with castration, blinding was a favourite Byzantine method of dealing with rivals – and he was locked up for the rest of his life. As Michael VIII, the first Paleologus ruler assumed the sonorous title of his predecessors, Basileus Basileon Basilieuon Basileonton, King of Kings ruling over Kings, and signed his name in royal red ink: 'in Christ, true Emperor and Autocrat of the Romans, Vice- Gerent of God on earth, Equal of the Apostles'. He is known to history as Michael the Crafty. The first emperor to adopt the emblem of the double-headed eagle which looks east and west, he was by far the ablest of his line and is best remembered for recapturing Constantinople.

In 1261, following a series of victories against the Latins, Michael entered the Queen of Cities by the Golden Gate. With a display of piety calculated to impress the citizens, he is recorded as appearing humbly on foot behind Byzantium's holiest icon. However, it is axiomatic that any Byzantine source is contradicted by the next, and another account has him entering in triumph on a magnificent white horse. Either way, Michael's popularity was short-lived. Taxes rose steeply to finance a lavish rebuilding of the city and an imperial navy. Disgusted by the fate of the boy emperor, the patriarch of Constantinople excommunicated Michael, who responded by deposing the patriarch. But it was a more radical act which turned the majority of Byzantines against their ruler.

The schism between Orthodoxy and the Roman Catholic Church dated back to 1054. The mutual hatred between the Eastern and Western traditions intensified during the Latin reign in Constantinople, where many of the emperor's subjects regarded the rival Christian faith as a worse enemy than Islam. Once in power, Michael schemed for a reunion of the two churches – not through religious conviction, but as the means of winning papal support against his Catholic foes. Michael's promised submission to Rome enraged the powerful Orthodox clergy, but protest in Constantinople was crushed without mercy. Michael was not a man to cross and opponents escaping death faced exile, imprisonment, torture or mutilation. The simmering resentment of the Orthodox hierarchy was to dog the emperor for the rest of his reign, and in the end all his machinations came to nothing. Negotiations with Rome dragged on for twenty years with one pope after another until a newly elected pontiff, Martin IV, finally lost patience. He pronounced a sentence of excommunication on Michael, to add to that issued by the patriarch. 'The usurper Paleologus' was now fair game to any Catholic rival who wanted the Byzantine crown for himself.

The most serious challenge came from the French king's brother, Charles of Anjou. A huge French army was assembled in Sicily, formerly Byzantine territory but now one of the many possessions that Charles ruled with a rod of iron, along with the armada needed to carry it to Constantinople. The army was on the point of sailing when, on the evening of Easter Monday, 1282, outside the church of the Holy Spirit in Palermo, a tipsy French soldier molested a local girl. As the bells tolled for vespers, an infuriated crowd fell upon the soldier and his companions and killed them all. It was a strike of lightning that set the entire island on fire. Soon every Frenchman in Sicily had been slaughtered by the vengeful Sicilians, excepting a handful who managed to scramble on board Charles's ships. The greatest threat to Michael's reign was wiped out overnight.

How far Michael was responsible for the extraordinary incident known as the War of Sicilian Vespers is disputed, but he was not slow to claim the credit: 'If I dare to say that God did it by my own hands,' he wrote, 'I would only be telling the truth.' For months his secret agents had been diligently at work among dissidents in Sicily, freely dispensing Byzantine gold.

But within a year Michael VIII was dead. Exhausted by a life of campaigning, excoriated as a heretic by both churches, he left a near-bankrupt empire. Doubly damned, denied Christian burial, he was laid in a shallow grave at dead of night by his son and successor, Andronicus II. Only years later did Andronicus dare to give his father a quiet burial in holy ground, and when the body was dug up it was found in a perfect state of preservation. The scene strangely foreshadows the discovery of the body of Theodore Paleologus some 500 years later in Cornwall. In popular belief – though a paradox – it was only the most saintly and most evil whose bodies were incorruptible. After Michael's exhumation, the legend arose that the earth itself had refused to take back a man so wicked.

The reign of Michael the Crafty set the tone for generations to come and would find echoes in the lives of Theodore Paleologus and his English brood. Recurring motifs in the family's history are conspiracy, murder, treachery, apostasy, enforced abdication, denied burial, perjury, seduction, forgery and extortion. And, almost constantly, there was war between the generations – father against son, grandfather against grandson, brother against brother.

The strife between Michael's successor Andronicus II and his grandson serves as an illustration. Andronicus II was the longest-reigning of the Paleologi and perhaps the unhappiest. No soldier like his father, he would have made a better monk, and during his forty-six years as emperor most of Asia Minor was lost forever. But it was the family that proved the curse of his life. When his grandson and heir, the eventual Andronicus III, suspected his mistress of infidelity, he decided to trap his rival by stationing thugs in an unlit passage near her door. Unfortunately the man they pounced on and beat to death in the dark was Andronicus's younger brother, Prince Manuel, the emperor's favourite, whereupon Emperor Andronicus disinherited his namesake. Years of costly civil war ensued until the humiliated emperor, at the age of seventy, was forced to abdicate and beg his grandson for his life.

Family hostilities resumed when Andronicus III died in 1341 leaving an eight-year-old heir, John V. A bitter six-year power struggle was waged between the regent, Andronicus's widow Anne, and the dead ruler's bosom friend and cousin, John Paleologus Cantacuzenus, who declared himself 'spiritual successor' of Andronicus and therefore rightful co-emperor as John VI. Aided by the empire's wily enemies, the Turks and the Serbs, Cantacuzenus eventually proved victorious. To consolidate his claim he agreed to share the throne with the legitimate heir, now fourteen, who was married off to one of Cantacuzenus's daughters. In the meantime thousands had died in clashes between the contending Byzantine armies or at the hands of foreign mercenaries. Part of the price Cantacuzenus paid for Turkish aid was the despatch of another daughter to the sultan's harem.

On entering Constantinople the conqueror discovered the imperial treasury contained 'nothing but air and dust'. Desperate for funds, Empress Anne had pawned the crown jewels and imperial plate to the Venetians. So at their solemn joint coronation as Johns V and VI in 1347, the co-emperors' crowns were of gold-painted leather studded with bits of coloured glass. The ceremony could not be held as tradition demanded at the Church of the Divine Wisdom, Haghia Sophia, because the great dome had collapsed during a recent earthquake. That same year, as a crowning misery, the Black Death made its European debut in Constantinople, wiping out half the population.

Inevitably, war broke out again between the two emperors, young John V gaining the upper hand with the aid of the Genoese. There now occurs one of the few uplifting episodes in the Paleologus saga. John V allowed his defeated father-in-law to live on condition he took monastic vows, and the former John VI entered the most enriching period of his life. Finding his true vocation in the cloister, he filled a fruitful retirement with meditation and theological studies, though he was frequently called back to court as elder statesman and counsellor to his former rival. He was to die peacefully in his bed aged eighty-eight.

However, there was one hiccup. The three-decade idyll in the monastery was interrupted when the ex-emperor was seized as a hostage by his own grandson, another Andronicus – son of his daughter Helena and John V – and cast into prison. Andronicus was the latest Paleologus to rebel against his father, and with Turkish and Genoese help he took John V prisoner and locked him up. The hapless John had brought about his own downfall by touring Christendom in a fruitless search for allies against Islam. In Rome, he followed his ancestor Michael the Crafty in announcing his conversion to Catholicism, to the horror of Constantinople.

The next emperor of significance was Andronicus's brother, the intellectual Manuel II, who has demonstrated that the name Paleologus can invoke fury across the Islamic world to the present day. As Manuel's reign saw the Turkish conquest of most of his remaining lands, an agonisingly long if unsuccessful siege of Constantinople, and the slaughter, enslavement or forced conversion of countless thousands of his subjects, he might not be expected to take a rosy view of the founder of Islam. 'Show me what Mohammed brought that was new,' he wrote to a Persian scholar, 'and there you will find things only evil and inhuman such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.' Quoted by Pope Benedict XVI in 2006 during a university lecture, the fourteenth-century emperor's musings led to mass street protests and riots, calls for the pope's assassination and a unanimous condemnation by the Pakistani parliament, along with murders of Christians and the firebombing of churches.

Manuel was the first Byzantine emperor since Constantine the Great to visit England, during his own futile begging tour of Europe. In 1400 he met the new king, Henry IV. The chronicler Adam of Usk recorded the spectacle of the dignified but impoverished emperor at King Henry's court: 'I thought within myself, what a grievous thing it was that this great Christian prince from the farther East should perforce be driven by unbelievers to visit the islands of the West, to seek aid against them. My God! What dost thou, ancient glory of Rome? Shorn is the greatness of thine empire this day.'

The scholarly John VIII, Manuel's son and successor, is the only Paleologus emperor of whom we have reliable portraits. A bronze medal by Pisanello shows him in profile, and in Gozzoli's famous fresco in the Medici Chapel at Florence he is one of a trio of contemporary grandees represented as the Magi. Here John is the image of a Renaissance prince, though with a dash of the exotic: astride a magnificent white horse in gold trappings, he wears a sumptuous tunic of gold-embroidered green and the traditional red boots of the Byzantine emperors, while on his head is a fantastic crown of gem-studded gold enclosed by waving feathers. Whether his crown was mere paint and glass we do not know. The fresco dates from around twenty years after John's visit to Italy, but if Gozzoli did not himself set eyes on the emperor he would certainly have cross-examined many who did, and may well have studied portraits then extant. Gozzoli's John is a strikingly handsome man of kingly bearing, his long face framed by thick curly hair and neatly trimmed beard of auburn. Pisanello's profile shows an older, careworn man with the kind of long aquiline nose which would be observed at the opening of Theodore Paleologus's coffin in Cornwall.

Other portraits of Paleologus emperors follow Byzantine tradition, and instead of studies from the life we have icon-like images representing the essence of royalty rather than human beings. One beard may be a little longer or greyer than the next, but otherwise the emperors are a row of solemn look-alikes, each in his stiff bejewelled robes and the elaborate semi-spherical crown which distinguishes a ruler of Byzantium. The late flowering of Byzantine art under the Paleologi did not extend to a new take on portraiture as pioneered in contemporary Italy.


Excerpted from An Elizabethan Assassin: Theodore Paleologus by John Hall. Copyright © 2015 John Hall. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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