Sunday, 28 May 2017

John Grant

Who was John Grant? It was this question that drew me into the history of Constantinople in the first place. Grant - the legend goes - was a Scotsman, far from home in the thick of the action when the Roman Empire fell. It is a legend added to by Dorothy Dunnett and Mika Waltari but it is one of those pieces of historical trivia that balance on precariously little solid evidence.

Two separate eye witness accounts (Leonard of Chios & George Sphrantzes) attest to the presence of a John (or Johannes) Grant among the defenders of Constantinople in 1453. He is identified as being associated to General Giovanni Giustiniani's Genoese contingent. He is also credited with heroics in the counter mining effort in the final weeks of the siege. This is about the sum total of contemporary information we have on the man. How he came to be there and what was his fate are complete mysteries, as is his origin.

The great Byzantine historian, Steven Runciman suggested he might have been Scottish but tantalizingly offers no evidence for this. One might guess Runciman is basing it on the Scottish surname. Sphrantzes identified Grant as German, although it's quite possible he used that term in a sweeping generalisation for northern Europeans - as Byzantine historians were wont to do. 'German' would have been a description applied to any northern European of a particular height and appearance. Germany of course did not exist. Leonard, who also being of the Genoese faction seems the best source - calls him 'grandi', which again could simply be in reference to his size or the size of his deeds at the siege. It's certainly credible that a Scottish (or Germanic) soldier of fortune had found his way into the Lombard Wars and the muster rolls of a Genoese mercenary company.

Whilst Grant was (possibly) the last Briton to defend the walls of Constantinople he was far from the first. A long tradition dating back to the post-Hastings conquest of England in 1066 saw hundreds of Saxons make the trek to the Byzantine court to sell their sword-and-axe-arms. There they joined Danes, Norwegians and various other 'Germanic' mercenaries in the famous Varangian Guard unit, the elite bodyguard of Emperors for centuries. The last Varangian units recorded were still active around 100 years prior to the fall.

Which is to say that absolutely nothing about John Grant is firmly established fact except his involvement in the defenses, in particular in detecting and destroying the mining efforts around the Caligaria Gate on 24th May 1453.

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