Mention the words “New England” and the mind conjures up images of privileged white adolescents being incited by non-compliant with the directives of the Education Department teachers, to rip pages out of poetry books, as they march across paved courtyards, chanting Carpe Diem in unison, before variously, plummeting to their deaths in frustration upon achieving the realisation that others control the modicum of pleasure existing in their lives, or seducing doe-eyed innocent preppies at the behest of drug-addicted vamps, and then dumping them unceremoniously, in acts of intolerable cruelty.
New England, as envisioned by the Puritan fathers who fled the religious intolerance and, according to their point of you, godlessness, of Old England, was supposed to be a remaking of their home country in the image of Jerusalem – a land of the righteousness and godly. The name New England was officially sanctioned on 3 November 1620, when the charter of the Virginia Company of Plymouth was replaced by a royal charter for the Plymouth Council for New England, a joint English stock company established to colonize and govern the region. What the would-be colonizers did not know, is that some six hundred years prior to the founding of American New England, their ancestors had founded a colony also called New England.
Thus, according to the recently discovered Chronicon universale anonymi Laudunensis, a group of English notables emigrated to Byzantium in 235 ships, reaching Constantinople in 1075. According to the Chronicle, 4,350 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).
Such a migration is far from implausible. English, along with Scandinavian soldiers were highly-prized by the Byzantines, who hired them to swell the ranks of their elite Varangian (Viking) guard. Indeed, scholars hold that a significant influx of English mercenaries within Byzantium was occasioned by the Norman conquest of 1066.
Displaced Anglo-Saxon nobles and warriors sought not only safety from the rapacity of the Normans, but also revenge and thus were willing to ally themselves with any state that was their enemy. At that time, the Byzantine Empire was facing a Norman invasion of its own in Epirus, and demand for soldiers to swell the ranks of the Varangian guard were high. According to Ordericus Vitalis, in his Historia Ecclesiastica: “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…. Some of them who were still in the flower of youth travelled 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 honoured among the Greeks by Emperor, nobility and people alike.”
The Alexiad of Anna Comnena, daughter of Byzantine Emperor Alexius I, corroborates the presence of English soldiers in her father’s army, recording that they came from “Thule,” a common name for the island of Britain.
Having fought for the Emperor and acquitted themselves with valour, the English grew restless and sought to settle elsewhere. The Játvarðar Saga, an Icelandic saga about the life of Edward the Confessor, relates that when the Anglo-Saxons, fighting against William the Conqueror, became sure that the Danish king Sveinn Ástríðarson would notprovie them with any further assistance, they agreed to leave England for Constantinople. As opposed to the Chronicon universale’s 235 ships, according to the Saga, the English force consisted of 350 ships, a “great host” and “three earls and eight barons”, all led by one “Siward earl of Gloucester” They sailed past Pointe Saint- Galicia, through the Straits of Gibraltar to Ceuta. Capturing Ceuta, they killed its Muslim defenders and plundered its gold and silver. After Ceuta, they seized Majorca and Minorca, before embarking to Sicily, where they heard that Constantinople was being besieged by “infidels.”
“They stayed a while in Micklegarth [Constantinople], and set the realm of the Greek-king 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.”
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Though these accounts have captured the imagination of historians, it has proven impossible to verify the historicity of the colony of the original New England, with historians seeking it variously in the Crimea (among ruins which reputedly bore the name ‘London’) and the south Pontic coast of the Black Sea. Nonetheless, the English remained an important part of the Byzantine army and Constantinopolitan life. The fourteenth century Book of Offices by Georgios Kodinos, written centuries after the arrival of the English, mentions how their Christmas customs were adopted by the Varangian 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 loud noise.” Nonetheless, the image of a New York, replete with hirsute helmeted, axe-swinging Varangians cajoling each other to have a nice day, centuries before the English captured New Amsterdam and rebranded it is an enduringly attractive one, worthy inspiration, for many a dead poet.