Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
W. B. Yeats, Sailing to Byzantium (1928)
On the morning of 29th May 1453, the last remnant of the greatest power of the ancient world was on its deathbed. Constantinople, for a thousand years the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, the City to the peoples of Europe, a wonder of the world, now had less than a twentieth of its former population. Much of the land within its great walls had been given over to agriculture, rather than the majestic urban landscape, unique in Europe, that had once left travellers agape with awe. Only a vestige was left to it of the vast lands it had once governed, and all around it had been conquered by the Ottoman Turks, who now had the city itself under siege.
The Emperor, Constantine XI, just four years on his throne, had spent his reign desperately trying to scrape together allies and stave off the doom all could see coming. But the powers of Christian Europe were too far away, too preoccupied with their own quarrels, to send more than token aid. What was to come was that Constantinople would fall, and the Sultan take his seat where for so long the Emperors had ruled and the marvellous mechanical birds once sang upon boughs of gold. The Roman Empire was ended at last, and for the next two centuries the Ottoman Empire would loom over Europe like an impending avalanche, until in 1683 its forces were smashed at the gates of Vienna and its own long decline began.
At the other end of the Mediterranean, the Iberian realms were nearing the end of a centuries-long process of recovery from their own subjugation by Muslim conquerors. The Emirate of Granada remained, a substantial presence in the south-east of the peninsula, but was now tributary to Castile. In that realm Juan II dreamed away his days, preoccupied with hunting and jousting and other such courtly amusements while the country around him edged towards anarchy, his lax rule doing nothing to restrain the ever-growing power of the nobility.
Alfonso V of Aragón, known as the Magnanimous, was a very different kind of man to his cousin, energetic and charismatic. His time however was spent mostly in his conquered kingdom of Naples, the rule of the Iberian territories left in the hands of his childless and neglected Queen, Maria of Castile, sister of Juan II. His brother and heir presumptive, the future Chuan II, a man seemingly devoid of scruple (the Faithless was his sobriquet) but plentifully endowed with guile, had stolen the rule of Navarre from his own son, whom at this date he held in prison, but despite the resulting civil war still found time to meddle in the affairs of Aragón and Castile alike.
That son was Carlos, the hated (by his father; he was otherwise a popular and generally admired prince) issue of his first marriage, to Blanca I, Queen of Navarre, not the adored Ferrando, fruit of his second marriage, to the Castilian noblewoman Juana Enriquez. As scheming and treacherous as her husband, Juana’s dream was that Ferrando, just a year old at this date, would one day marry Juan II of Castile’s daughter Isabella (Juan II’s son, the future Enrique IV, had already gained his sobriquet, the Impotent) and thus unite the realms.
In the west of Iberia Afonso V of Portugal had succeeded his father aged just six. His minority had been spent under the regency of his uncle Pedro, Duke of Coimbra, one of the most admired of the remarkable sons of João I, called in Portugal ‘the illustrious generation’. Wise and far-sighted, Pedro guided the realm well, but there was a cuckoo in the nest.
His illegitimate half-brother Afonso, Count of Barcelos, was jealous of Pedro’s royal rank and greater standing, and became ever more influential with the young king as he grew, ever seeking to sow discord between his nephew and his brother. Even marriage between Pedro’s daughter Isabella and his ward did nothing to stem the whispered tide of accusations. Nor had the earlier placatory elevation of the Count of Barcelos to Duke of Bragança, first of the illustrious line which eventually acceded to the Portuguese throne.
Afonso V came of age in 1448. In the following year the elder Afonso convinced him that Pedro was plotting treason, a charge utterly without foundation. Civil war ensued, and the blameless Pedro, seeking only to defend himself, was killed in battle. An adult reign so ill begun did not continue especially fruitfully, either. Afonso’s crusades against the Moors of Morocco resulted in much slaughter and some acquisition of territory, gaining him also the sobriquet of ‘the African’, but when he eventually turned his attention back to Iberia it was not to Portugal but to neighbouring Castile, which he spent years trying to conquer in the name of his second wife (and niece) Joanna, putatively the daughter of Enrique IV but actually of one of the many lovers of his wife, Afonso’s sister Joan.
Afonso’s failures in Castile eventually led to his retirement to a monastery, the rule entrusted to his heir, the future João II. He died there four years later, a more peaceful end than that which awaited his cousin to the north, the king of England. Henry VI, son of a mighty father, had succeeded unchallenged to the English throne when less than a year old. He was king of France also, and was crowned as such aged eight. But by the time he reached his majority much of France had been wrested away, and by this date Calais and the Pale around it were all that was left, plus a foothold in Gascony which would shortly (at the battle of Castillon, July 17) be dislodged. Henry became catatonic on hearing this news, a state from which he did not emerge for over a year.
After sixteen years of his adult reign, law and order had collapsed and anarchy prevailed throughout the land. The treasury was empty, Henry unable to afford even to feed the members of his household, and the war in France had become a litany of defeats. It cannot be proved, of course, but my belief is that he did not inherit the insanity of his grandfather Charles VI of France, his undoubted mental illness appearing to me likely to have been stress-related rather than genetic.
Unfitted by either character or capability for the high position to which he was born, ill-served by those around him and dominated by a wife whose own judgement was not of the best, he realised that everything was going disastrously wrong, could see no way ever to put it right and just shut down. That, at any rate, is my guess. Nor did matters improve; his eventual recovery and resumption of power caused the Wars of the Roses to begin, in the course of which Henry was deposed, restored, deposed again, and eventually killed.
In contrast to his cousin of England, James II was proving to be one of the stronger Scottish kings. His reign, which began with his father’s murder when James was aged just six, had been marked until now by struggle with the Douglases, the wealthiest magnates in the land, rivalling and even surpassing the king in their resources of lands and men. When James was nine years old he had watched as the 16-year-old William, Earl of Douglas, and his 11-year-old brother David were beheaded in the Edinburgh Castle yard, having been invited ostensibly to dine but in fact to die.
The young king pleaded piteously and unsuccessfully for their lives, but in 1452, twelve years later, he would himself invite the 8th Earl, another William Douglas, for talks to resolve their differences, offering a safe conduct, then stab the Earl reportedly over 20 times before having his body contemptuously flung out of the window. It was an infamous deed, but it led to the breaking of the Douglas power, and though no Scottish king could ever be said to have really mastered the nobility until James VI inherited the enormously greater resources of England, at least there was never again a single family of such power, able by itself to challenge that of the king.
In Henry VI’s former realm of France, his uncle Charles VII was now well-established as king, a reign that had begun with years of skulking south of the Loire ending with him in control of all France. But not of one particular Frenchman, his son the Dauphin hating him with a bitter passion and refusing even to come to his father’s deathbed (it was then fifteen years since they had met) when begged to do so. That son then came to overshadow his father in historical memory; Louis XI, the Spider, who seemed at times to have all Europe wound up in his plots and intrigues. But Charles must be accounted a successful king; his reign began with his kingdom fragmented and half-overrun, and ended with it whole and free. It seems to me that he did more for France than his son ever would, for all the latter’s schemes and wiles and cold-hearted cleverness.
We now head away from the west of Europe, to Austria, and the interwoven stories of the Emperor Friedrich III and Ladislaus V of Hungary. Both Habsburgs, Friedrich was head of the junior Leopoldine and Ladislaus of the senior Albertine branch. In addition to Hungary, to which throne he had been elected aged four, Ladislaus was the hereditary ruler of Austria, and later in 1453 would be elected king of Bohemia. But despite all these lands and titles he was at this date only thirteen years old, and under tutelage.
From not long after birth until the previous year that tutelage had been the Emperor’s, who had kept the boy close and administered his Austrian lands as if they were his own, though Hungary was under the regency of the famous János Hunyadi. However, in 1452 Ulrich II of Celje, a relation of Ladislaus on his mother’s side, managed to obtain possession of him and control over his lands, Hungary included.
Things didn’t look so good for Friedrich. But he was patient in adversity, and had a simple method of overcoming his enemies; he outlived them. When Ladislaus’s father Albrecht II had died, four months before Ladislaus was born, as temporarily senior Habsburg male he had obtained election as German king in succession to Albrecht, later becoming Emperor, and when Ladislaus died still a teenager (poison was suspected, but a 20th-century forensic examination of the remains discovered that leukaemia was the cause) Friedrich was now again most senior Habsburg male, Ladislaus having been the last Albertine, and Austria was his. He continued his policy of outliving foes until aged 77 he finally had to concede the struggle, but was still the only sovereign in these charts to live long enough to appear in the 1492 chart also.
Continuing east we go to Moscow, where Vasily II’s long and troubled reign was in its final decade. It had begun in 1425 with him aged just ten, and had done so despite the protests of his uncle Yuri, who believed that the throne was rightfully his under the hitherto prevailing system of agnatic seniority, straightforward hereditary succession from father to son being a new thing in Russia. War began five years later, when death removed the powerful protection of Vasily’s maternal grandfather Vytautas the Great of Lithuania, and raged on for many years more. Yuri succeeded in taking Moscow and becoming Grand Prince, then when he died Vasily regained his throne. Yuri’s sons carried on the fight, though, and seven years earlier when a prisoner of his cousin Dmitry Shemyaka, the younger of Yuri’s sons, Vasily had been blinded.
He nevertheless managed to again regain his throne, though Dmitry was at this date still alive and at large. Not for much longer, though; Vasily’s agents managed to bribe Dmitry’s cook, who on 17th July fed his master a dish of poisoned chicken, from which he died. Free at last from civil strife and rivalry for the throne, Vasily continued the centralising policies he had pursued whenever in power, laying a sure foundation for his son Ivan III’s achievement of unifying all the Russian lands under one rule. The beginning of what was to become the Russian Empire can thus in many ways be dated to Vasily’s reign, full of turmoil though it was.
And the beginning of the independent Russian Orthodox Church definitively can. In 1448, outraged by what he saw as the apostasy of the Greek church in agreeing to submit to Rome (in a failed bid to win Western aid against the Turkish threat), Vasily appointed a Metropolitan of Moscow, a position which had been unfilled for seven years, without first obtaining the permission of the Ecumenical Patriarch; effectively a unilateral declaration of independence, and one that stuck.
Still in the east but far to the south, the Kingdom of Cyprus was the last remaining vestige of the Crusader era. It still had a few decades left to cling to life, but was a shadowy realm at best, in vassalage to the Mameluks of Egypt and its king exercising little control outside the cities, unable to curb either the pirates that operated from the coasts or the robbers that ravaged the countryside. Such was Jean II’s unfortunate heritage from his father Janus (who had been born in captivity in Genoa, the rapacious Genoese merchant republic having dominated the kingdom prior to the Mameluks). Jean was in full King of Cyprus, Jerusalem and Armenia, but never ruled any part of the second kingdom, of the third held only one island fortress, lost during his reign, and, as we have seen, could never be said to be fully in control of even the first.
Our Cook’s tour of Europe in 1453 still has a few stops to make, the next being in Poland, where Kazimierz IV, third of the Jagiellon dynasty, was six years on his throne. His father Władysław II Jagiełło had been the first of them: Jogaila, last pagan Grand Prince of Lithuania, who converted to Catholicism and married the future St Jadwiga, heiress of Poland, founding the union between the realms.
However, their only child, a daughter, died a few weeks after birth, swiftly followed by her mother. Another lady of Polish royal blood, Anna of Celje, married Władysław, buttressing his claim to continued occupation of the throne, but their marriage also only produced a daughter. She lived, but when Anna died Władysław married yet again, seeking sons, but with no fruit of the brief marriage. Fourth time lucky, his next union, with Lithuanian noblewoman Sophia of Halcany, produced two sons, Władysław and Kazimierz. By the time the latter was born, the elder Władysław (whose exact year of birth is not known to us) must have been at least in his sixties, and possibly his seventies, explaining the large generational disparities seen between Kazimierz and his descendants and other descendants of Władysław II’s father Algirdas, or grandfather Gediminas. Starting with Kazimierz and his wife Elizabeth of Austria (Ladislaus V’s sister); he was a great-grandson of Gediminas, she a 4 x great-granddaughter.
We don’t know who Gediminas’s great-grandfather was, or grandfather, or father. We have guesses, but that is all. His three predecessors as Grand Prince of Lithuania were Vytenis, his father Butvydas, and his father’s brother Butigeidis. We don’t know the antecedents of the brothers Butvydas and Butigeidis, though again there are guesses, which include their being of the line of Traidenis, the earliest Lithuanian ruler from whom there is known descent; for example, to Friedrich III above. As Gediminas appears to have succeeded Vytenis instantly and without opposition, and was too similar in age to be his son, it is theorised that he was his brother, another son of Butvydas. But we don’t know. He could have been a cousin, he could have been entirely unrelated.
We don’t know how many wives he had, either; several are suggested, but only one, Jewna of Polatsk, seems generally accepted. It’s hard to see why, the evidence for her existence is as flimsy as is that for the others you will see listed. But whether he had one wife or a harem-full, and whoever she or they were, there is no debate about his having at least twelve children, from whom the descent of this pagan ruler of unknown origin spread far and wide through Europe’s royal houses.
Though happy enough to marry a Christian, at least according to the scanty and unreliable sources we have, or possibly several Christians, and to forge alliances through marrying his daughters (who would necessarily convert) and his sons (who might or might not) to the same, Gediminas never converted himself. His son Algirdas followed the same policy, and it was a policy. Their subjects were almost all either pagan or Orthodox. The former would have been unhappy at any conversion, though Orthodoxy would have been preferable to Catholicism. The latter would have been delighted no doubt with an Orthodox ruler, but preferred a pagan to a Catholic, as less likely to forcibly meddle with their own religion.
Yet only in Catholicism lay the chance of peace with Lithuania’s neighbours to the west, far stronger at that date than the gaggle of Russian princedoms and republics and Tatar khanates to the east, and in particular with the Teutonic Knights, vowed to crusade for so long as Lithuania remained pagan (Orthodoxy would have been little better than paganism to them, if not worse). Peace with the neighbours, or peace at home? Both Gediminas and Algirdas chose both, dangling the carrot of conversion to appease the Christian powers while never actually converting.
That was not an option Jogaila had if he were to marry the Polish heiress and become Władysław II, King of Poland as well as Grand Prince of Lithuania. So he did convert, and pagan Lithuania, reluctantly or otherwise, converted with him at last. And when, Władysław II having died and Władysław III succeeded, the thirteen-year-old Kazimierz visited Lithuania to show the family flag and was promptly elected Grand Prince, much to the dismay of the Polish court, he was that land’s first ever ruler to be a cradle Christian. In 1444 Władysław III, who had been elected king of Hungary as well as Poland, died at the Battle of Varna, defending his second kingdom from the Ottomans, and after a three-year interregnum Kazimierz became the second person to jointly rule Lithuania and Poland.
His long reign saw the final defeat of the Teutonic Knights (it had been only a pious hope that they would cease ‘crusading’ for any such unimportant reason as their foes now being fellow Catholics) and the subjection of Prussia to Poland, and his happy marriage brought him thirteen children, including four kings and a saint. Not only is Kazimierz himself a universal ancestor of European royalty today, so are no fewer than five of those children.
Another who, like Gediminas, rose from obscurity to have his blood spread like wildfire was Christian I of Denmark. Although the Jagiellons are long extinct in the male line the Gediminids continue, many of the great noble houses of Poland and Russia having their root in Algirdas or another of the sons of Gediminas. The male line of Christian I also continues, reigning in Denmark (though the present generation will be the last) and Norway, and in the next generation in Britain, having in the past reigned in Sweden, Russia and Greece also.
And yet he was a nonentity, an obscure minor nobleman of northern Germany. But it so happened that he possessed distant descents from various kings of Denmark, Norway and Sweden and, no one being able to claim any descent from more recent monarchs following the death of Christopher III, was offered the thrones of first Denmark then Norway, later briefly acquiring that of Sweden also. He married Dorothea of Brandenburg, widow of his predecessor Christopher III (and a Gediminas descendant). Three of their children lived to adulthood, Hans of Denmark, Norway and Sweden, Frederik I of Denmark and Norway only, and Margaret, Queen of Scotland as wife of James III. Each is a universal ancestor of royalty today, and Frederik is the male-line ancestor of two present and five future monarchs, and of very many in the past.
In Sweden, Karl VIII had no such dynastic success. His was a familiar pattern in Sweden, a powerful noble who managed to obtain the throne for himself, though he was nearly the last such; the very last, Gustaf I, did establish a dynasty, and re-ordered and stabilised the Swedish realm to the extent that after him it was at least only members of the royal house that could dream of taking the throne.
But not only did Karl (who was in reality Karl II and so styled himself; the VIII is a back-formation from Erik XIV and his successors on the throne being numbered in accordance with a wholly fictitious history of early Sweden that Erik and his brother Karl IX believed to be truthful) fail to establish a continuing dynasty, he didn't even manage a continuing reign, being deposed twice and restored twice. A posterity he did accomplish, though it was not until the 19th century that he could claim a descendant on any throne, and for the Swedish he had to wait until the 20th; see part 2 of the note on posterities for more on this.
And so the tour ends, genealogical excursions and all. The Eastern Roman Empire was gone forever, but the successor states of its Western twin, and the realms which had grown up in the formerly barbarian lands beyond, were trembling on the verge of a new era, an age of discovery and literally of world conquest, a transformation of science and art and civil life. I will conclude with some lines from another master poet, T. S. Eliot, in Little Gidding (1942):
What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.
What follows is three charts; having dodged the bullet in 1660, 1558, 1517 and 1492 I finally had to break one of these early charts up. I tried taking out Karl VIII of Sweden as, being very remote (actually the remotest in any of the charts), his relationships are naturally classed as examples, no dice. I tried taking out Vasily II and the Eastern Emperor Constantine XI as they were Orthodox and the rest Catholic, still no dice. So finally, there being no other religious divide than Catholic/Orthodox at this date, I split the chart on the basis of accession date.
The first chart shows the seven most senior monarchs with each other, the second the seven most junior with each other and the third has the first set with the second set. There is I suppose some kind of validity to the split; the first seven acceded over the period 1406 to 1437, and the second seven between 1438 and 1449, and one can compare the relationships of the first set with the second and see if there are any trends and marked differences. Anyway, two tables of combined statistics come after the charts and keys (interestingly, they show that there are no nearest ancestors in common between the first and second chart), and finally there is a three-part note on posterities.
Two further points on the charts. Firstly, although Navarre is discussed above it does not appear in them, as I do not regard Chuan of Aragón as its valid monarch (nor did the Navarrese, or many of the other realms of the day) and neither his son Carlos nor his daughter Blanca, who ought to have succeeded in turn, ever reigned there. Considering Navarre’s throne as vacant was not to save me toil, as the relationships would have been exactly those of Chuan’s brother Alfonso V, but because I believe this is the most correct approach.
Secondly, if people look at Christian I’s ancestry they will see that one of his paternal great-grandmothers is not shown. This is because his great-grandfather Dietrich V, Count of Honstein had two wives, and we don’t know which of them was the mother of his children. Adelheid of Holstein would make no difference to the relationships, Sophia of Brunswick would make one or two of them a little nearer. If I could trace through her, which since we don’t know I can’t.
That said, there is an explanation of how to read the charts here.