The date is 28 May 1452, the place Constantinople. The capital of the Roman Empire for more than a thousand years is surrounded by the Ottoman forces of Sultan Mohammed II. Inside were about 5000 defenders, outside at least fifteen times that times that number – including 30,000 Christians fighting for the Ottomans. That division was reflected even within the doomed city. The Emperor, Constantine XI, summoned his people together for a Liturgy in the greatest Cathedral of Christendom – the Cathedral of Divine Wisdom – Hagia Sophia in Greek. But some clergy would not go. To win the support of the Pope, Constantine was going to have a service which included Catholics and Orthodox; scandalised, some religious stayed away.
The Union of Florence of 1422 had settled the differences between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox, to the satisfaction of the former, but not the latter. Although the Emperor’s representatives had accepted the terms, some of the Orthodox representatives had not, and the reaction back in the city had been so hostile that no Emperor had dared to celebrate the new Liturgy. Constantine had always favoured the union, and with nothing to lose, he decided to go out in style.
The tale of the end has been told many times, but never better than by Sir Steven Runciman in his The Fall of Constantinople. His words deserve full quotation:
‘In contrast to the silence in the Turkish camp, in the city the bells of the churches rang and their wooden gongs sounded as icons and relics were brought out upon the shoulders of the faithful and carried round through the streets and along the length of the walls, pausing only to bless with their holy presence the spots where the damage was greatest and the danger most pressing; and the throng that followed behind them, Greeks and Italians, Orthodox and Catholic, sang hymns and repeated the Kyrie Eleison.
The Emperor himself came to join in the procession; and when it was ended he summoned his notables and commanders, Greek and Italian, and spoke to them. …
Constantine told his hearers that the great assault was about to begin. To his Greek subjects he said that a man should always be ready to die either for his faith or for his country or for his family or for his sovereign. Now his people must be prepared to die for all four causes.
He spoke of the glories and high traditions of the great Imperial city. He spoke of the perfidy of the infidel Sultan who had provoked the war in order to destroy the True Faith and to put his false prophet in the seat of Christ. He urged them to remember that they were the descendents of the heroes of ancient Greece and Rome and to be worthy of their ancestors.
For his part, he said, he was ready to die for his faith, his city and his people. …
All that were present rose to assure the Emperor that they were ready to sacrifice their lives and homes for him. He then walked slowly round the chamber, asking each one of them to forgive him if ever he had caused offence. They followed his example, embracing one another, as men do who expect to die.
The day was nearly over. Already crowds were moving towards the great Church of the Holy Wisdom. … Barely a citizen, except for the soldiers on the walls, stayed away from this desperate service of intercession. … The golden mosaics, studded with images of Christ and His Saints and the Emperors and Empresses of Byzantium, glimmered in the light of a thousand lamps and candles; and beneath then for the last time he priests in their splendid vestments moved in the solemn rhythm of the Liturgy.
Later in the evening the Emperor himself rode on his Arab mare to the great cathedral and made his peace with God. Then he returned through the dark streets to his Palace at Blachernae and summoned his household. Of them, as he had done of his ministers, he asked forgiveness for any unkindness that he might have shown them, and bade them good-bye.’
The following day he died defending his city.