On the 18th of October 1081, a ‘great multitude’ of English warriors found themselves approaching the Byzantine town of Dyrrhachium (often called Durazzo) in present-day Albania. They were mercenaries and constituted the main part of the elite personal bodyguard of the Byzantine emperor Alexis 1 Comnenus. They were the famous Varangian Guard. This was a day when they were fired up to wreak some vengeance on the hated Normans who had conquered, decimated and raped their country and dispossessed the majority of their kinsmen. The Normans they were about to fight weren’t those of William the Bastard but those of another Norman, Robert Guiscard.
As the Anglo-Norman monk Orderic Vitalis wrote in the early twelfth century:
And so the English groaned aloud for their lost liberty and plotted ceaselessly to find some way of shaking off a yoke that was so intolerable and unaccustomed. Some sent to Swegn, King of Denmark, and urged him to lay claim to the kingdom of England which his ancestors Swegn and Cnut had won by the sword. Others fled into voluntary exile so they might either find in banishment freedom from 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 travelled into remote lands and bravely offered their arms to Alexius, Emperor of Constantinople, a man of great wisdom and nobility.
In fact most historical sources and most historians suggest that the first wave of English refugees from the Norman yoke left England after the defeat of Hereward’s resistance in Ely in 1072, and arrived in Byzantium in about 1074 in time to help a previous emperor, Michael Doukas, repel a barbarian siege. The earliest Byzantine mention of their presence in the Varangian Guard (which hitherto had comprised Scandinavians and Kiev Rus) is in 1080 when ‘Angli’ were listed as forming a part of the Guard. It is quite possible that in 1080/1 English ‘reinforcements’ had joined the earlier refugees.
Following the Norman conquest of Byzantine Italy and Saracen Sicily, the Byzantine emperor, Michael Doukas (r. 1071–1078), betrothed his son to Robert Guiscard’s daughter. When Michael was deposed, Robert took this as an excuse to invade the Byzantine Empire in 1081. His army laid siege to Dyrrhachium….
The emperor Alexis had come with his army to raise the siege. Vitalis continued:
Robert Guiscard, the duke of Apulia, had taken up arms against him (Alexis) 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 heirs faithfully served the holy empire, and are still honoured among the Greeks by Emperor, nobility and people alike.
When Alexis arrived at the besieged town he asked his commanders ‘whether it would be well for him to venture on a battle with Robert’. This information like much else about the battle to come we know from the Alexiad, written by Alexis’ own daughter Anna Comnena.
Palaeologus disagreed with this proposal. And others too who had gained military experience by long service opposed it strongly. They counselled endurance and embarrassing Robert by skirmishes and not allowing any of his men to come out from their quarters to forage; they suggested he should send orders to Bodinus and the Dalmatians and the other chiefs of the adjacent provinces to do the same, and assured him that in this way Robert could easily be worsted.
But, Anna tells us, ‘the majority of the younger officers preferred a battle, and most vehement among them were Constantine Porphyrogenitus, Nicephorus Synadenus, Nabites, leader of the Varangians, and even the two sons of the late Emperor Romanus Diogenes, Leo and Nicephorus.
The English Varangians under their leader Nabites were keen to fight the Normans.
It is not my intention to retell the story of the Battle of Dyrrhachium; there are many accessible accounts which readers can easily consult if they have a mind to. But some of Anna Comnena’s report is, I think, of great interest, if only for the fact that it is not easily available to the non specialist. Anna writes:
At this moment the envoys sent to Robert returned and brought the latter’s verbal message to the Emperor which ran, “It was certainly not against Your Majesty that I took the field, but simply in order to avenge the injustice done to my kinsman by marriage. But if you desire peace with me, I too shall gladly welcome it, though only on condition that you are ready to fulfil the conditions signified to you by my ambassadors.” However his requests were absolutely impossible and injurious, moreover, to the Roman Empire, although he promised that if the Emperor granted him his requests, he would consider that he held Lombardy too from his hand, and that he would give military assistance, whenever required. But his real plan was clear from the fact that he made requests as if he himself desired peace, but by making impossible ones and not obtaining them he would have recourse to arms, and thus attribute the blame for the war to the Roman Emperor.
Then after ineffectually making impossible demands, Robert convoked all the counts and addressed them in these words, “You all know the injustice done to my kinsman by marriage by the Emperor Nicephorus Botaniates, and the dishonour put upon my daughter Helen by her being expelled from the Empire with him. As we could not put up with such things we marched out against Botaniates’ country to avenge these wrongs. He however has been moved from the throne, and we now have to do with a young Emperor, who is a brave soldier and gifted with strategic knowledge far beyond his years, and with such a man we cannot go to war lightly. Now wherever there is division of command, confusion results from the diversity of opinions. Hence it is necessary that all the rest of us should obey one single commander who must consult us all and not act on his own judgment heedlessly and casually; the rest of us should openly express our views, but at the same time be ready to follow the advice of the elected commander. And here am I, one of you all, ready to obey whomsoever ye agree to elect.” All approved of this proposition and declared that Robert had spoken well, and then unanimously awarded him the first place. But he simulated indifference and for some time refused the honour, whereupon they insisted all the more. And finally he yielded, as if overcome by their persuasions, though in reality he had been aching for this all the time; but by piling one argument upon another and skilfully weaving a tissue of excuses, he made it appear to those who did not penetrate his intention, that he had been exalted against his will to the position which really he had coveted. Then he said to them “Listen to me, Counts and all the rest of you. We have left our own countries and are here in a foreign land, and we shall shortly have to fight against an Emperor who is very brave; although he has only recently assumed the reins of government, yet under the previous Emperors he came out conqueror in many wars and brought back to them the fiercest rebels as captives of his spear, therefore we must enter upon this war with our whole heart and soul. And if God should allot us the victory, we shall no longer be in need of money. Consequently we ought to set fire to all our baggage and equipment, scuttle our ships, and then enter into battle with him, as if we had been born in this place and intended to die here.” To this all assented.
Such, you see, were Robert’s plans and intentions. The Emperor’s on the other hand were different, more subtle and more clever. Both the leaders, however, kept their troops in camp whilst meditating upon their strategy and tactics so that they might use their powers scientifically…
(the) Emperor was planning a sudden night-attack from both sides upon Robert’s entrenchments. He commanded the whole native army to march by way of the salt-pits and attack from the rear, and he did not object to their undertaking this longer march as it would add to the unexpectedness of their attack. He himself intended to attack Robert from the front directly he ascertained that his other troops had arrived. Robert, however, left his tents standing empty, and crossing the bridge by night… took possession with his whole army of the chapel built long ago to the Martyr Theodore. And there throughout the night they sought to propitiate the Deity, and also partook of the Immaculate Sacred Mysteries. In the morning he drew up his troops in order of battle and stationed himself in the centre of the line; the wing near the sea he entrusted to Amicetas (one of the illustrious Counts, brave in thought and deed), and the other to his son Bohemund, nicknamed Saniscus.
And so battle commenced. Let us concern ourselves only with the English Varangian Guard. A contemporary Norman monk called Gaufredus (Geoffrey) Malaterra was charged by Robert Guiscard’s brother Roger to write a chronicle of the Norman exploits in Italy in the late eleventh century, it is titled The Deeds of Count Roger of Calabria and Sicily and of Duke Robert Guiscard his brother. It is, like all Norman chronicles, extremely laudatory regarding the Normans. About the battle and the English involvement, Geoffrey Malaterra wrote:
The English (‘Angli’) whom they call Varangians had requested the emperor that they form the vanguard, for these men enjoy being in the forefront. They started the battle by making a fierce attack in two columns, and at first the situation was very unfavourable to our men. But one of our squadrons attacked them on their unprotected flanks and this gallant attack forced them, wounded and terrified by the assault, to flee towards the church of St. Nicholas which was nearby. Looking to save their lives, some of them, indeed as many as could fit in, entered the church, while others from this great multitude clambered onto the roof which collapsed under their weight, thus hurling them on top of those below. In the crush both groups were suffocated. Seeing the Varangians, in who his chief hope of victory lay, totally defeated and our pursuing forces resolutely advancing against him, the emperor was terrified and chose flight rather than battle.
While Malaterra is unusually honourable regarding the bravery of the ‘Angli’, his story about their fate in a collapsing church does rather raise a suspicion of a sort of whitewash. The description given by Anna Comnena rings truer:
After dividing his forces, he (Alexis) did not interfere with the barbarians who were starting to make their attack upon Robert’s camp, but detained those of them who carried double-edged axes on their shoulders, and ordered them to discard their horses and with their leader, Nabites, to march in rows at a short distance in front of the regular army; this tribe all carried shields. The rest of the army he divided into phalanxes and himself took the centre of the line, on his right and left he placed respectively the Caesar Nicephorus Melissenus and Pacurianus, called the “Great Domestic.” The space between himself and the barbarians who were walking he filled with a fairly large number of soldiers skilled in archery whom he planned to send on ahead against Robert, and so he told Nabites that when these archers wanted to ride out suddenly against the Franks and retreat again, he must immediately give them passage by withdrawing his men to either side, and then afterwards close up again and march on in close order. Having re-arranged the whole army in this manner, he himself started along the seacoast in order to attack the Frankish army from the front.
The barbarians appointed for the rear attack, after passing through the salt-pits, made an assault upon the Frankish camp in conjunction with the garrison of Dyrrachium, who by the Emperor’s command had opened their gates. As the two leaders were marching against each other, Robert ordered groups of cavalry to harass the Roman troops and thus perhaps draw away some of them. But even in this detail the Emperor did not fail, for he kept on sending large numbers of light-armed troops to oppose them. Then after a little preliminary skirmishing on either side, as Robert was leisurely following his men, and the distance between the armies was by now fairly short, some infantry and cavalry belonging to Amicetas’ phalanx dashed out and attacked the extremities of Nabites’ line. These however, resisted the attack very stoutly, so the others turned their backs (since they were not all picked men), threw themselves into the sea, and up to their necks in water, made their way to the Roman and Venetian ships and begged them for protection, which they did not receive.
And now, as rumour relates, directly Gaïta, Robert’s wife (who was riding at his side and was a second Pallas, if not an Athene) saw these soldiers running away, she looked after them fiercely and in a very powerful voice called out to them in her own language an equivalent to Homer’s words, ” How far will ye flee ? Stand, and quit you like men! “And when she saw they continued to run, she grasped a long spear and at full gallop rushed after the fugitives; and on seeing this they recovered themselves and returned to the fight.
Meanwhile the axe-bearing barbarians and their leader Nabites had in their ignorance and in their ardour of battle advanced too quickly and were now a long way from the Roman lines, burning to engage battle with the equally brave Franks, for of a truth these barbarians are no less mad in battle than the Franks, and not a bit inferior to them. But they were already tired out and breathless, Robert noticed, and naturally so he thought, considering their rapid advance, their distance from their own lines and the weight of their weapons, and he ordered some of the foot to make a sudden attack on them. The barbarians having been previously wearied out, proved themselves inferior to the Franks, and thus the whole corps fell; a few escaped and took refuge in the chapel of Michael, the ‘Captain of the Host,’ as many as could crowded into the chapel itself, and the rest climbed on to the roof, being likely in this way, they imagined, to ensure their safety. But the Latins started a fire and burnt them down, chapel and all.
This it seems was the fate of these English who had fled William the Conqueror’s repression in the ‘flower of youth’, had seen a chance to avenge the slaughter of their countrymen here in the far-distant Balkans, but through over-enthusiasm, and despite much valour and heroism, had finally, yet again, been defeated and burnt alive by the Normans.