The Imperial Constantinian

Military Order of Saint George



In 306 A.D. Constantine, the son of Emperor Constantius Chlorus and Saint Helena was proclaimed Emperor by his armies in the city of York in Britain on his father’s death. The site of the Imperial Palace and military camp of the future Constantine the Great is to be found beneath the mediaeval splendours of York Minster, whose majestic towers soar above his city. A solitary Roman column from the Palace site stands before the West Portal of the Minster, commemorating its links with the first Christian Emperor.


In 312 A.D., Constantine fought the battle of Milvian Bridge. His adversary, the pagan Emperor Maxentius, had already deposed his own father, who died in mysterious circumstances supposedly suicide. Before the battle, Constantine was favoured with a vision: a Cross of light blazing before the sun was accompanied with the words “IN HOC SIGNO VINCE,” (“In This Sign Conquer”). The vision inspired Constantine to use the sign of the Sacred Labarum as his battle standard, and his decisive victory changed history. Christianity won tolerance, and its progress in the Empire was given a great impetus by the reinstatement of Saint Helena, a devout Christian, by her son the Emperor, to her due rank, honour, and dignity.


There are several anecdotes concerning Saint Helena and her Imperial son. One such claims that Constantine’s decision to create his new Christian capital at Byzantium was guided by the direction taken by a flight of eagles; a bird long associated with imperial augury. When the Emperor, Lance in hand, rode his charger to mark the boundaries of the proposed city, his companions were alarmed at the vast area demarcated. Constantine’s reply amazed them:  “I shall advance to where he who goes before me stops.”
The city outlined by the angelic messenger was to be named Constantinople. It was dedicated with Christian rites and Roman tradition on the eleventh of May, 330 A.D. Saint Helena had made pilgrimage to the Holy Land where it is averred that she found the True Cross. The Saint gave a fillet of iron to Rome made from one of the nails used at the Crucifixion. In the sixth century, Pope Gregory the Great gave this holy relic to the courageous Christian queen of the Lombards, Queen Theodolinda, for her efforts in converting many, including her second husband, Agilulf, Duke of Turin. This filet was later set inside a gold Byzantine diadem and became the famed Iron Crown of Lombardy, later used at the coronations of the Kings of Italy.


Although Constantine was only baptised on his deathbed, something not at all unusual in his day, he had by then refounded Byzantium as Constantinople, the new Christian Capital of the Roman Empire, and had presided over the first Oecumenical Council at Nicaea, which promulgated the original version of the Nicene Creed. He had also established what was to become recognised as the first Christian Order of Chivalry.


By tradition, the Orders origin lies in the Roman custom of honouring those who had shown outstanding heroism in battle with a golden neck-chain. After his victory at the Milvian Bridge, Emperor Constantine, whom Orthodox honour as Isapostolos, “Equal of the Apostles,” created a new honour, a golden chain from which was suspended the Sacred Labarum, a symbol with a deep religious significance for Christians. There is also a tradition that during his career as a young officer in Palestine Constantine had met a fellow soldier, Saint George of Lydda, the Great Martyr, in whose memory the first Christian Order of Chivalry was to be named.


Constantine’s Imperial successors continued the tradition of bestowing honours on the heroic. The tradition of Knighthood and Chivalry had deep roots in Roman life. The Christian Emperors who followed Constantine the Great were building on a secure foundation that recognized valour and service, but gave a new significance to Imperial institutions by suffusing them with Christian ethical ideals.


It was the destiny of the Order that its history should be intimately interwoven with that of the Byzantine Emperors. In 1258 Michael VIII Palaeologos, founder of the last Byzantine dynasty, ascended to the Imperial throne in exile in Nicaea. In 1259 in the Battle of Pelagonia, (Monastir,) his armies led by his brother, John, defeated Michael II Angelos, Despot of Epirus and his Latin allies. Tradition records Michael VIII Palaiologos as forcing the wayward Despot to recognize his as his sovereign, but permitting him the right to maintain an independent Grand Mastership of the Order within his own Despotate.


Between 1540 and 1565, a number of Popes issued Papal Bulls supporting the pretensions of the Angeli to the Imperial Throne, (amongst them the Farnese Pope, Paul III, famous as the patron who commissioned Michelangelo to complete the fresco of the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel). These Popes ignored Pius II’s Bull of February 2nd 1461, which recognised the Despot Thomas “Porphyrogenitus” Palaiologos as “Emperor in exile” of Constantinople. (“Porphyrogentius” means purple-born and refers to the purple marble lined accouchements chambers used by the reigning Empress”).


In 1697 at Brianna near Venice the young Duke of Parma and Piacenza, Francesco II, bought from Gian Andrea Angelo Flavio Comneno, Duke of Drivasto, the last of the Angeli line, the Angeli Grand Magistry of the Order. Thirty years later the title was inherited by the Duke of Parma’s brother, Antonio, but after a brief rule of only four years he died without issue. Antonio was the last in the direct male Farnese line. There was, however, an heiress: Elizabetta, daughter of Duke Antonio’s younger brother Oluardo. In 1714, Elizabetta had married Philip of Spain, and a special decree of the Hapsburg Holy Roman Emperor granted her son, Don Carlos, the title of Duke of Parma and Piacenza with all rights thereof, including the Grand Mastership of the Latin Order bought from the Angeli by his mother’s Farnese uncle. In 1734, he established the Royal House of Naples and reorganised the Latin Order under the name of “Constantinian Saint George,” before finally attaining the Spanish throne in 1759 as King Carlos III. His Catholic Order was to become subdivided, and the Grand Mastership disputed by rival Bourbon Factions; the Ducal houses of Noto and Calabria.


The original Orthodox Order, the principal order from which the Latin Order is derivative, was retained by the Emperors of the Palaiologen dynasty, which was the last Imperial dynasty to rule in Constantinople. In December 1400, Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos visited England, though surprisingly few people seem aware of this. He was touring the West in search of support in his struggle against the militant Islamic threat from the Ottoman Turks. His visit gave the English Royal Court a glimpse of the ways of Orthodox Christians and their devotion to Christian ideals as expressed in the Divine Liturgy, of their Chivalry and their ancient culture, stretching back without break to the Classical Era of Roman and Ancient Greek Civilization.


Manual II’s Sons carried on the valiant but vain attempt to alert the West to the dangers of militant Islam. John VIII Palaiologos took part in the ill-fated Council of Florence in 1438. His attempt to heal the schism between the Orthodox and the Papacy met with scant enthusiasm in Constantinople, and in Italy, his milliner’s creative handiwork drew more interest than his military statistics. (It is an undisputed fact that the fashion conscious Italians were fascinated by the Emperor’s hat and several artists depicted it in their works. Pisanello struck a medal showing the Emperor’s profile with the famous hat, and a bust in the Vatican offers excellent portrayal of the same.) Ten years later, after many fine flown words from the West, but little positive action, the Emperor John VIII died without issue. Sadly, his treacherous younger brother Demetrios, (who was later to surrender to the Turks and retire to a monastery, leaving his daughter imprisoned in a Turkish harem,) tired to seize power for himself after arranging a hasty burial for the late Emperor. This scandalised many, not least his own mother, the Empress Helena Dragases Palaeologina. Elderly she might be, but the Empress was not senile: using her constitutional authority, she took swift action. The elder of her surviving sons was a far more able and fitting candidate for the throne; Empress Helena sent two trusted officials to him, bearing the Imperial Diadem. On June 6th, 1449, in an unprecedented ceremony, the new Emperor was crowned at Mistra in the Peloponnese by the Metropolitan of Lacademonia and acclaimed as Constantine XI Palaiologos. Constantine XI was to the last of his line to rule in Constantinople, where he died fighting valiantly against the overwhelming might of the Ottoman Sultan, Mehmet II, known in Turkish history as Faith, the Conqueror. On Tuesday, May 29th 1453, Constantinople, the Queen of Cities, Capital of the Christian Roman Empire of the East, fell to the armies of Islam.


With his brother, the discredited Despot Demetrios soon to be captive, the last surviving brother, Despot Thomas, inherited the mantle of Imperial succession. For seven years more, Thomas fought on in the Peloponnese, but in 1460, he was forced to flee into exile, first to Corfu, where his wife, the Empress Katherina remained, dying there in 1462. Thomas himself entered Rome on 16th November 1460, where he presented the Pope with the head of the Apostle Andrew, thus saving this sacred relic from the Turks. Thomas and his family, which included two sons and an unmarried daughter, took up residence at Viterbo, the Pope agreeing to allot them a pension. The Emperor Thomas Palaiologos died in Rome in 1465. Thomas’s eldest son, Andreas I Palaiologos, converted to Catholicism and married a woman of the streets. Their son became a commander in the Papal Guard and died in 1502.


Thomas’s youngest daughter, Princess Zoe Palaeologina, was hustled off to Russian as wife of Ivan III, Tsar of Muscovy, in the hope she might convert him to Rome. Instead, the Imperial bride changed her name to Sophia, happily reverted to the Orthodox faith of her childhood, much to the chagrin of the Papal Nuncio, who had been her escort from Italy. Not only was she to be the grandmother of Ivan the Terrible, but also the source of the lineage whereby all future sovereigns of Russia claimed the title “Tsar” (Caesar) as well as the use of the Imperial Eagles. Manuel III Palaiologos, the younger son of Thomas, fled back to Constantinople, where the Sultan, who proved tolerant to the Orthodox faith, granted him an allowance. He died in 1508. Manuel’s eldest son, John followed his grandfather’s footsteps, and eventually fled back to Italy. He settled in Viterbo, and died there in 1558. Another crisis loomed when John IX’s eldest son Theodore, converted to Catholicism and married an Italian bride. (His name is inscribed in the Golden Book of Nobility of the City of Pesaro in 1537).


Ricardos Koloneat  Palaiologos, John IX’s youngest son was sent to England to marry the heiress Joanna Dauntsey of West Lavington in 1524. The marriage is recorded in the Visitation of 1634 with the Prince’s name anglicized to “Colnett.” (This often happened to the names of Greek exiles). Through her mother, Lady Anne Somerset, the English bride was descended from Edmund, Duke of Somerset, the great-grandson of Edward the Third, King of England. This English Sovereign is famed as the founder of the Illustrious Chivalric Order known as the Knights of the Garter, whose patron saint is Saint George. Joanna’s brother William Dauntsey was to marry Elisabeth More, a daughter of Sir Thomas More, King Henry VIII’s Chancellor. It was deemed prudent to live on the bride’s lands on the Isle of Wight, where a house was built in the village of Whitwell. The new house was named “Strettle” and bore the arms of Constantinople over the main entrance. (It is now known as Strathwell Park). Until it was ready, Ricardos lived in Combley. He died in 1551, predeceasing his father, and his son William inherited. From this isolated lineage which prudently shunned the turmoil of religious strife so soon to engulf the political life of England, comes the present Order of Chivalry. The lineage of Theodore Palaiologos, the elder brother of Ricardos, was to die out in the Island of Barbados, where a tombstone commemorates the last scion of that line in 1677.


The Imperial Constantinian Military Order of Saint George, as it is today known, was revived and restored in its modern form in the early 1960’s by the son of the Despotesse Robina Palaeologina, Prince Petros. The lineage of the Despotesse Robina was proven and her name inscribed in the Book of the Founder Garter Knights in the Saint George Chapel at Windsor Castle in 1957.  In 1960, the Despotesse abdicated in favour of her son, Prince Petros Palaiologos. Until his death in 1988, Prince Petros strove to develop the ideals of Christian Chivalry in relation to the needs of the Twentieth Century. The task has been inherited by his legal Consort and widow, the Despoina Patricia Palaeologina, (also known as the Princess Patricia Palaeologina). In 1990, the Despoina issued the “International Charter for the Imperial Constantinian Military Order of Saint George,” which contains the new and revised structure of the Order and which is constantly updated as the need arises. The Order is also legally registered and recognized in Portugal whose own patron saint is Saint George.


His Beatitude Parthenios III, Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria and All Africa (Greek Orthodox Patriarchate), is the Spiritual Advisor both to the Sovereign Grand Master and to the Orthodox Order. It was His Beatitude Patriarch Parthenios who suggested the formation of a new “class” within the Order, that of “Companions to the Order.” This reflects not only the Orders roots in Orthodoxy, but also the Ecumenical spirit so upheld by the Order’s legendary Founder, Saint Constantine the Great, who presided so wisely at the council of Nicaea in 325 AD.


The need to make clear the Order’s Orthodox origins resulted in the redesigning of the insignia by the Sovereign Grand Master, (who is a professional artist), which is now based on linear Icon written by her of Saint George the Victorious. This is now the design of the pendant figure on the Grand Cross of the Order and also on the special award for the outstanding Knight or Dame the “Saint George Award,” Which is a medal bearing the above figure. On the insignia the former royal crown was changed to the more accurate and significant Imperial Crown, as consistent with the Order’s history.

In recent years too, the Order has tried to fulfill its Vows in a manner relevant to the present day. Chivalry in both Portugal, the United States of America and elsewhere gives help to charitable concerns and other worthy causes. In founding the “Justinianum Oikoumenikon Research Centre” in Rhode Island, U.S.A., which is to specialize in Byzantine and Orthodox Studies, those knights of the Order who are its co-founders are helping preserve the Orthodox traditions upon which the Order is rooted.


The Chivalry of the Imperial Constantinian Military Order of Saint George can be justifiable proud that they are indeed maintaining the true Christian Chivalric Tradition as enshrined in its Aims and Ideals codified in the International Charter or the Order. It is a heritage that is much needed in this troubled world as we approach the Millennium. It is also a duty to the future to make sure that the ethics of Christian Chivalry are not lost but are carried forward into the new centuries no fast approaching in that Millennium. Chivalry is not dead; Chivalry is now.