In the early decades of the 13th century, the great tectonic plates of Eurasian geopolitics shifted rapidly. Under the leadership of Genghis Khan (also known as Chinggis Khan), the Mongol Empire was expanding on almost every frontier—into China, the Middle East and the Central Asian steppe country. Soon, regions as remote as Western Christendom would come to fear the empire’s seemingly unstoppable armies.
One of the many individuals caught up in this tumult was an Englishman. Historians know very little about him—not even his name—except that for reasons unknown, he was sent into exile in his 20s. According to the Chronica Majora, a medieval history that briefly sketches out his colorful career, the man’s search for a new home led him eastward, across the Mediterranean to the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem and then to the Mongol Empire, where he served as a translator for Genghis’ grandson Batu Khan during the latter’s invasion of Hungary in 1241 and 1242.
News of the Englishman’s exploits eventually reached the land of his birth, apparently via a letter written by a cleric called Ivo of Narbonne around 1243. Matthew Paris, a monk based in St. Albans, just north of London, later read and reproduced the letter in his Chronica Majora, a wide-ranging history that ends in 1259, the year of his death. Whether Paris or Ivo took any liberties in retelling the Englishman’s story is difficult to say, as no other surviving contemporary sources mention him. But his life speaks to the interconnected nature of the medieval world, demonstrating how the rise of the Mongol Empire set travelers in motion, compelling them to cover great distances and explore lands and cultures beyond Europe’s borders.
As Antony Eastmond, author of Tamta’s World: The Life and Encounters of a Medieval Noblewoman From the Middle East to Mongolia, says, “People undertook enormous journeys across the Mongol Empire—as ambassadors, as warriors and as slaves—and returned to their homes with remarkable stories that mixed fact and fiction to create a semi-legendary account of the empire and its peoples.”
When the Englishman was cast into exile, he set out to make a new life for himself in the Middle East. At first glance, this was perhaps a surprising choice. In the 1210s and 1220s, when the Englishman likely arrived in the region, the Middle East was riven by war and upheaval, with many powers locked in a struggle for supremacy. Crusading armies from Western Europe sought to conquer Jerusalem, then under Muslim control, and rival claimants vied for authority over the vast Ayyubid Empire, established by the Muslim leader Saladin in 1171. Most significantly, the Mongol Empire was expanding aggressively into the area, just as it was across Eurasia.
Beyond the fact that the Englishman was banished “for certain crimes,” according to an 1852 translation of Ivo’s letter, as quoted in an abridged version of the Chronica Majora titled Historia Anglorum, historians don’t know exactly why or when he chose to head east. Perhaps he attached himself to a band of Crusaders or set out in search of spiritual renewal in a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. It’s also possible he sensed opportunities for the ambitious and the adventurous amid the chaos engulfing the region. Whatever his motives, he wasn’t the first exile to embark on the long voyage across the Mediterranean.
Consider, for instance, the Norman knight Hugh Bonel (also spelled Bunel), who fled his home in the late 11th century after hacking “off the head of the Countess Mabel [of Bellême], because she had taken away his paternal inheritance by force,” according to the English chronicler Orderic Vitalis. In 1099, when the Christian armies of the First Crusade were besieging Jerusalem, they encountered Bonel, who had spent many years in the Middle East. He provided the Crusaders with valuable information on their Muslim opponents’ strategies and traditions.
The Englishman ended up in the great port city of Acre, then capital of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, shortly after his exile. At the time, Jerusalem was one of the Crusader states, four Christian territories established in the Middle East around the turn of the 12th century, during the First Crusade. The Crusader states had once been major powers in the region, but after Saladin’s victory over their armies at the Battle of Hattin in 1187, they were confined to a narrow strip of territory along the Levantine coast.
Acre itself was a vast, diverse metropolis; in the mid-13th century, the Muslim author Abu Shama dubbed it the “Constantinople of the Franks,” or people from Western Christendom. The city attracted merchants from across Africa and Eurasia, and many languages were spoken in its narrow streets. In its markets, buyers could purchase goods as varied as linen from Egypt, ceramics and silk from China, and locally produced crystallized sugar. Great ships arrived from across the Mediterranean Sea daily, bringing religious pilgrims, merchants and Crusaders to this bustling hive of humanity. Refugees fleeing from the Mongols also sought shelter within the city’s ramparts.
The compression of so many people in such a narrow space meant Acre’s harbor was slick with grime. The city was a haven for criminals, mercenaries and exiles—the Englishman included. As the city’s bishop, James of Vitry (also known as Jacques of Vitry), complained, for many, Acre was a den of vice. “In the city, there were drug and poison traffickers, trust between people was virtually nonexistent, and a man’s foes [were] those of his own household,” James wrote in a 1216 or 1217 letter.
But the Englishman didn’t settle in Acre. After gambling away what little remained of his money, he fell into poverty and struck out beyond the borders of the Crusader states in search of employment with neighboring rulers.
This was a well-trodden path. During the medieval period, thousands of travelers crisscrossed between the Crusader states and neighboring Christian and Muslim territories. To the north, the powerful Seljuk Sultanate of Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) hired Christian mercenaries, while the Muslim rulers of the great city of Aleppo in Syria maintained strong commercial ties with Venetian merchants. Muslim artisans and merchants could likewise be found in the Crusader states. Now, one more wanderer joined this throng. He did, however, have an advantage: a remarkable facility with languages that he used to bring about a change in his fortunes. As the 1852 translation of the letter states:
Being somewhat acquainted with letters, he began to put down in writing the words which were there spoken, and afterward pronounced them so correctly that he was taken for a native, and he learnt several languages with the same facility. The [Mongols] heard of him through their spies and drew him over to their interests: When they had got an answer about their claim of subjugating the whole world, they bound him to be loyal in their service by bestowing on him many gifts, for they were in much need of persons to be their interpreters.
The Englishman probably found himself in the employ of the Mongol Empire by some point in the 1230s. During this decade, the Mongols were expanding rapidly into the Middle East under the leadership of Genghis’ third son, Ögedei Khan. (Genghis, the empire’s founder, had died in 1227 while on campaign in Western Xia, in what is now China.) Their first foray into the region took place in 1220, when a reconnaissance force traveled around the circumference of the Caspian Sea. Then, in 1230, forces commanded by Mongol general Chormaqan launched a full-scale invasion, eventually overthrowing all who stood in their way and seizing territories that today encompass Iran, parts of Iraq and the Caucasus.
The Mongols were among the most effective conquerors of this—or any—era, and they were aware that languages represented a major obstacle in their ambitions to rule the entire planet. They needed interpreters who could convey both their ambitions and their ultimatums to the few leaders who still defied their demands for submission. It was in just such a capacity that an English exile might find his niche.
Beginning in the mid-1230s, Mongol armies led by Genghis’ grandson Batu began expanding westward past Central Asia. They conquered the city of Kyiv, in modern-day Ukraine, in 1240; the following year, Batu initiated the next phase of his invasion, launching assaults on Hungary and Poland, Western Christendom’s eastern borderlands. The Mongols rapidly crushed every army sent out to meet them, and for a time, fears abounded that the invaders might press further west.
A few decades earlier, some Western commentators had speculated that Genghis was either the legendary Christian king Prester John, who was reputed to live in Asia and would one day come to Christendom’s aid against its enemies, or a direct descendant of him. But such rumors were long gone by the 1240s, when victims of the Mongol conquest feared that the apocalypse was playing out before their very eyes.
The Mongols complemented their military advances with diplomacy, sending envoys to Christian leaders. The Englishman was among these representatives, meeting with Béla IV of Hungary twice. The demands he conveyed were simple: Either submit or face a brutal invasion. The interpreter “plainly threatened and warned [Béla] of the evils which afterward happened, unless he should give up himself and his kingdom,” according to the 1852 translation.
Despite their earlier victories in the region, the Mongols failed to complete their conquest of Hungary and Poland, withdrawing their forces after just a few months. Historians have long speculated about the reasons for this unexpected retreat. One possibility is that Batu learned of Ögedei’s death in December 1241 and decided to return home. Or perhaps the campaign was only ever intended to be a reconnaissance mission for a later invasion that never took place. Another potential explanation is the Mongols found the thick deciduous forests of Central Europe unsuitable for their nomadic way of life. A 2016 study published in the journal Scientific Reports drew on tree ring data to argue that an unusually cold, snowy winter transformed Hungary’s grasslands into a marsh, slowing the Mongols’ advance and depriving their horses of grazing fields.
The Mongol retreat marked another turning point in the Englishman’s eventful life. He was captured by Christendom’s advancing armies and pressed to provide information on the Mongols and their intentions. It was during his time in captivity that the Englishman apparently crossed paths with Ivo, a shadowy figure who mentioned the exile-turned-envoy in a letter to the archbishop of Bordeaux. Though Ivo viewed the Englishman as a traitor and feared the tidings he brought, which vividly described the incredible power of the Mongol Empire, he was clearly fascinated enough to include the tale in his missive.
Ivo’s letter—and, by extension, the Chronica Majora—fail to mention the Englishman’s fate. In the 1978 book The Tartar Khan’s Englishman, Gabriel Ronay suggests he was executed as a traitor to Christendom. But Ronay’s account is highly speculative and has been criticized by scholars for presenting fanciful interpretations as fact; as historian D.O. Morgan put it in a 1981 review, the book is “a work of imaginative fiction dressed up as history.”
The Englishman’s life was remarkable but not unprecedented. Whether by compulsion, force of circumstance or free will, the Mongol Empire drew many people from many lands. By the mid-13th century, its borders covered much of Eurasia. Enriched by the plunder of fallen civilizations, from the territories of northern China to the Khwarazmian Empire in Persia, foreign merchants, artisans and diplomats flocked to Mongol courts. As Michael Hope, author of Power, Politics and Tradition in the Mongol Empire and the Ilkhanate of Iran, says:
The Mongol khans were among the wealthiest rulers in Eurasia, and they expressed their power through the production of artistic, culinary and technological masterpieces. Their patronage made the Mongol court a hive of intellectual activity, where scholars and craftsmen competed to hone their skills and build a reputation for themselves.
Visitors to the Mongol capital of Qaraqorum (also known as Karakorum), or to the Mongols’ vast nomadic wagon cities, were astonished at the assortment of people they encountered, including Buddhist monks, Chinese siege engineers and Muslim merchants. Among the many artisans brought to Qaraqorum, whether by choice or coercion, was William of Paris, who created a magnificent silver tree for the Mongol court that was proudly displayed by the Great Khan Möngke in 1254. It had four silver lions at its base, all of which poured forth milk, and four serpent-adorned pipes at its top, each of which produced a different type of drink. Mongol leaders also took an interest in scientific research. In what is now Iran in the mid-13th century, the local ruler Hülegü, brother of Möngke, established a research institute at Maragha, assembling intellectuals from near and far.
For all the Mongol Empire’s brutality, its sheer scale left Eurasia a more connected place, with civilizations at every point of the compass acquiring a better understanding of the world around them. The blank spaces on the map, those zones of myth and fable, were driven back by the return of travelers who now tantalized their former neighbors with tales of wonder, majesty and inspiration, alongside those of horror, atrocity and terror.
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