I recently returned from a wonderful trip to the beautiful country of Turkey. I knew Turkey was filled with ancient history—the ruins of Ephesus, Troy, etc.—but I have always been most fascinated with the Byzantines, or the Greeks or Romans, as they called themselves. I am also struck by the similarities between Camelot and Constantinople, and particularly between King Arthur and Constantine XI, the last Byzantine Emperor. Just as Camelot was the brief shining moment before Britain was conquered by the Saxons, so Constantinople was the last remnant of the great Roman Empire which had once ruled most of the known world, including Britain. The city’s fall to the Turks in 1453 marked the end of the Roman Empire, which had stretched on for over 2,000 years.
Constantine XI, the last emperor, had a tragic ending that inspired great myths similar to those of King Arthur, so while the two were not necessarily related, although Constantine XI was named for Constantine the Great, and Arthur is often believed to be a relative or descendant of Constantine the Great, Constantine XI may be deemed a mythical or literary descendant of King Arthur in how they are both depicted as leaders who may come again.
Constantine’s tragedy lies not only in the Fall of Constantinople, but that he was the last emperor, without even an heir. He had two wives but no children, his second wife dying in childbirth. Similarly, Arthur had no children who survived him. His end is more tragic in that his son, Mordred, and he slew each other, but nevertheless, both leaders’ endings spelled the end of an era.
The people of Constantinople, the city being all that was left of an empire, held out under siege by Mehmet II for fifty-three days before the city finally fell. In the city’s last hours, Constantine would have prayed inside Hagia Sophia before going to fight with his people as the city walls were beaten down.
What happened to the emperor once the city fell has become the stuff of legend. The emperor’s body was never found, or if it were, it was not recorded. One source states that Constantine’s last words were, “The city is fallen and I am still alive,” and then he tore off his imperial ornaments so he could not be distinguished from the other soldiers and made a final charge at the enemy. According to Roger Crowley in his wonderful book about the Fall of Constantinople, 1453, Constantine was very aware that he would go down in history as the emperor who let the city fall, so he may not have wanted to be identified because of the shame he felt, and he also would not have wanted to be taken alive and forced into shameful positions of submission before the conqueror, Mehmet II.
One story claims that Constantine was identified by his purple boots, and that his body was decapitated and his head sent around Asia Minor as proof of Mehmet II’s victory, but more likely, his body was never identified and he died in a mass grave with the rest of his soldiers.
The inability to locate the emperor’s body led to myths that he had not died. Just as King Arthur is taken to Avalon before he can die so he can be healed of his wound and allowed to return again, so Constantine is preserved from death so he can return. In one such legend, an angel rescues the emperor as the Ottomans enter the city. The angel turns Constantine into marble and places him under the earth in a cave near the Golden Gate where he waits to be brought back to life to re-conquer the city for the Christians.
Just as the British have hoped for Arthur to return in their hour of greatest need—during World War II, the myth was especially prevalent—the Greeks have held onto the dream of Constantine’s return.
During the Balkan Wars and Greco-Turkish War in the early twentieth century, the name of the then Greek King, Constantine, was used to see him as part of a prophetic myth that Constantine had returned. Although Constantine XII failed to return Constantinople to Christian hands, similar British efforts have been made to recreate King Arthur through another monarch of the same name, such as King John’s nephew in the thirteenth century being named Prince Arthur, to the brother of Henry VIII who was also Prince Arthur, and even the speculation that current Prince William will use his middle name Arthur when he someday ascends the throne of Britain.
Constantine’s return seems very unlikely to me, especially when Istanbul is a thriving busy city of nearly 20 million today, and a largely Westernized if Turkish city. Had Constantine not been the last emperor, doubtless one soon after him would have been, but his myth speaks to the affection his people had for him, that they did not wish him ill or blame him for the loss of Constantinople, but rather they see him as a tragic hero, just as Arthur lives affectionately in the British people’s bosoms.
Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, available at www.ChildrenofArthur.com