In the common consciousness of the Greeks, Byzantium and its last ruling dynasty the Palaeologus family came to an end on 29 May 1453 when the last Emperor, Constantine Palaeologus, fell in battle, fighting Mehmet the Conqueror and his marauding hordes.
Constantine’s body was never found, giving rise to the popular legend that an angel had taken him and entombed him in marble. There he lies until such time as we need him most, whereupon he will once more arise and re-establish his empire.
Considering that his profligate nephew Andreas sold the rights to the Byzantine crown to Charles VIII of France in 1494, a dispute as to the legitimacy of the title of Emperor seems more than likely, considering that said Andreas also sold the title to King Ferdinand of Spain.
Meanwhile, in far off Cornwall, a monument in the Landulph parish church commemorates the most unlikely of parishioners, members of the Palaeologus family who, after remaining in Chios, then under Genoese control, gradually made their way, via Italy, where many Byzantine refugees and a considerable number of members of the Palaeologus family had settled, marrying into the ruling family of the marquisate of Mantua, to England, settled and died there, having played an interesting role in key events in English history.
In particular, a brass near the vestry door of the church commemorates a certain Theodore Palaeologus, who on 6 July 1593 married Eudoxia Commena, descended from the previous imperial Comnenus dynasty. The couple had a daughter, Theodora, who in October 1614 married Prince Demetrius Rhodocanakis in Naples. One of their children, Dr Constantine Rhodocanakis, born in 1653, became a well-known physician, scholar and friend of King Charles II, whom he met during his European exile.
The patriarch of the family, Theodore Palaeologus, not long after his wife’s death in 1596 came to England, and in 1600 was named ‘Rider to Henry Earl of Lincolne’ at Tattershall Castle.
There he met the celebrated Captain John Smith, who had recently returned from service in Europe and at the age of only 21, “being glutted with too much company wherein he took small delight”, had retired into seclusion at Tattershall. Apparently, his friends “perswaded one Seignor Theadora Polalga … a noble Italian Gentleman, to insinuate into his woodish acquaintances” and gradually drew him back into normal society. In the same year, Palaeologus married his second wife, Mary Balls, in Yorkshire.
The next we hear of him is few decades later, in 1627, when at Plymouth, he wrote a letter to the Duke of Buckingham, begging to be taken into the King’s service. The response is unknown and we next learn that Palaeologus owned a small property in Plymouth, as his name appears among the monthly assessments for the relief of the poor in Old Town Ward for the year 1628, being rated at one halfpenny per week. At some time, presumably after this date, Palaeologus and his daughters from his second wife settled in Landulph, and apparently lived with Sir Nicholas and Lady Lower at Clifton, both classical scholars who enjoyed the company of Palaeologus and studied classics with him.
According to the church brass, Theodore Palaeologus died on 21 January 1636. He was laid to rest in the parish church of Landulph and in 1795 the vault containing the body of Palaeologus was accidentally broken into, revealing an oak coffin, which was opened. The body was well-preserved, “in stature much above the common height, his countenance oval in form, much lengthened, and marked by an aquiline nose, and a very white beard, reaching low on the breast”.
Theodore Palaeologus’ sons also have an interesting history. The first, John, is said to have fought for King Charles I in the English Civil War, and was probably killed at Naseby. The second, Theodore, is recorded as being among the lieutenants in the army sent against the Scots in 1640. When the Civil War broke out, he sided with Parliament, and his name occurs again as a lieutenant in the Earl of Essex’s army in 1642. In 1644 he died or was killed, and was buried in Westminster Abbey near Lady St John’s tomb in the north transept, possibly the only Greek ever to have been buried there, probably owing to his service in Lord St John’s regiment. There even exists in the House of Lords, a draft order dated 3 May 1644, for payment of £50 to Sir Philip Stapledon, being part arrears of pay due to Captain Palaeologus.
The last brother, Ferdinand, who also fought for the King in the Civil War, migrated to Barbados in the West Indies, where his mother’s family owned property. In 1649, his name occurs as vestryman of the parish of St John, and thereafter he held a number of parochial offices, including that of churchwarden. He died in 1678 and his will, dated 26 September 1670, is still preserved. A hurricane in 1831 destroyed the church of St John, where he was buried and his coffin was discovered under the organ loft. Some years later it was opened, and revealed a skeleton of an extremely large size. The coffin was carefully deposited in another vault and in 1909 a tablet was erected over it, with an inscription identifying Ferdinand as a descendant of the Byzantine Emperor. In his will, Ferdinand divided his property between his widow Rebecca and his son ‘Theodorious’, the widow to be trustee till he should attain the age of fourteen years.
In 1693, Theodorious, who had returned to England and had a son and a daughter, died in Corunna, Spain. A sailor signing his will Theodore Paleologey died at sea in 1693, and has been variously described as a son of Ferdinand or of his elder brother Theodore, but his relationship to the family cannot be established.
Whether the Palaeologoi of Cornwall and Barbados will, like King Arthur, who according to some legends is also buried in Cornwall and is awaiting the appropriate time to make a special guest star appearance to rid the British people of their ills once and for all, ever return to lead their people to greatness is unknown. Such was the lasting appeal of the family in the hearts of the Greeks that in the nineteenth century, the provisional government of newly-liberated Greece sent a delegation to England to determine whether there were any living descendants of the Palaeologoi who could assume the Greek throne. They visited Landulph and noted the grave of Theodore, but strangely could not locate any living descendants.
Nonetheless as late as 1862, when the Bavarian Otto was ousted from Greece, a Theodore Palaeologo of West Norwood in South London and originally an immigrant from Malta, pressed his hereditary claim to the Greek throne and was duly ignored.
We cannot help but admire, however, these doughty exiles of noble lineage, who make lasting contributions in diverse and unexpected ways, to the countries they chose to call home.
* Dean Kalymniou is a Melbourne solicitor and freelance journalist.