The history of Cantacuzene family


HIH Prince Vladimir A. Gorshkov-Cantacuzene of Byzantium,

titular Basileus of the Romans & All-Ecumene




The history of my family is inextricably linked with the fall of the Eastern part of the Roman or, as it is customary in European literature, the Byzantine Empire. In 1453, after the fall of Constantinople, actually being the Government in exile, the Imperial Household aims at preserving the cultural traditions of the Roman Empire and uniting the Romans (Byzantines) forced to exist outside the homeland.

          Unlike most Dynasties whose history begins directly with the coming to power, the Cantacuzene family has a long history both before the ascent to the Throne of Basileus John VI, and after the Constantinople's fall.

          According to the Greek scholar K. Amantos, the name Cantacuzene comes from the Greek κουζηνᾶν or κουζηνόν, the names of the southern slope of  Mount Sipylus that is near the ancient city of Smyrna, and κατὰ that means to go down. Historian D. Nicol confirms this theory[1]. Perhaps, coming from somewhere the first Cantacuzenes descended from the mountain; we do not know it for certain. However, two lions holding a torn tree in their paws - the symbol of the family - probably prove this theory, because the torn tree is the symbol of those who were pulled away from the homeland of their ancestors. Anyway, this symbol, as well as the family motto (Quae Nocent - Docent) is relevant to this day: we are deprived of our Motherland, away from the land of our ancestors, but we strongly protect our history and are proud of it.

          The first mention of the Cantacuzenes is found in the historical chronicle of ''The Alexiad 1137-1141", written by Anna Comnena. It is said that Cantacuzene was a military leader sent to fight Tancred in the Asian war after a clash in 1094. In his Chronicles[2] the Prince M. Cantacuzin-Speransky mentions that his first name and the origin are unknown. However, this fact allows us to conclude that this battle master, described in the chronicles as "brave," was not the progenitor of the Dynasty. As a consequence, one can say with certainty that the family existed before the XI century.

          Another representative of the family, Sevast John (sevast from Greek σεβαστός - "venerable", in the 12th century the title was given to a representative of an aristocratic family, who became related to Basileus per marriage with his relatives), is mentioned in 1176 as a participant of Battle of Myriokephalon. It is known that his wife was Maria Comnena, the great-granddaughter of Basileus John II Comnenus and the niece of Basileus Manuel I Comnenus (according to Prince Mikhail Cantacuzine-Speransky). The son of Sevast John, Caesar John (as we see, the name John dominates among other names in the family) was the son-in-law of Basileus Isaac II Angelus. Another son Constantine is mentioned in 1189 as a military leader, and daughter Irene was married to Grand Duke (Lord High Admiral) Alexios Palaiologos- the grandfather of the first Basileus from the Palaiologos family, Michael VII who conquered Constantinople from the Crusaders and revived the Byzantine Empire. The Emperor Michael VII was also the father of Irene Palaiologos, who became the wife of the Bulgarian Tsar Ivan III Asen, whose granddaughter Irene was the wife of the first Basileus of the Cantacuzene family, John VI Cantacuzene.

          Among the Cantacuzenes mentioned in the chronicles before John VI, it is difficult to understand family ties. Thus, as a family representative, it was still mentioned Theodore who was killed in 1184: a servant of  Basileus Andronikos I Comnenus beheaded his head when he fell off the horse, after which he triumphantly carried it at the point of the spear in the Constantinople streets. Another family representative, sebastocrator John Angelos (in Byzantium, children whose mother had a noble lineage, could use her name as an additional to the father's surname, then their children could also use it, but do not consider such use a double surname, since unlike the latter, additional surnames were not always used), the husband of Anna Palaiologos, according to G. Rodolphe[3] was the nephew of The Emperor John VI, who was adopted (for unknown reasons) by the protovestiarios Andronikos Palaiologos. The first mention dates back to 1328[4], when John governed the city of Kastoria. In 1335 the king of Epirus John II Orsini died and Basileus Andronikos III Palaiologus seized his possessions in Thessaly, as well as Epirus and Albania[5]. In 1336 or 1337, John the Angelos received the post of Ioannina's kephale (governor) with the title of Pinkernes. On October 26, 1341, he supported the election of uncle Basileus, who appointed him the governor of Thessaly and Sevastokrator by a special Hrysovul. There is no information about children; however, from the point of view of N. McGilivray[6], his descendants were the brothers "Pinkernaioi". 

          Another member of the family, from whom we may trace all family ties, was Mikhail Cantacuzene, called a man of "unrestrained and impermanent temperament" when in 1195 he proclaimed Alexios III Angelos Basileus, although he overthrew his younger brother from the Throne. He was killed during the Fourth Crusade (i.e., about the year of 1204) "before he could defend himself or escape after his horse stumbled and fell into a ditch." "What an unworthy death for such a glorious warrior," the historian will write later. His son, whose name is unknown, lived from 1265 to 1294 and was appointed the despot of Morea (the modern Peloponnese) by the decree of Basileus Andronikos II of Palaiologos. He was married to Theodore Palaiologus Angelos (died in 1344), who, according to contemporaries, was "very experienced in managing affairs and possessed by no means a woman's strength of spirit." It was this nature that enabled her to make a fortune, thanks to which her only son John was very rich and possessed vast tracts of land in Byzantium and Macedonia, Albania, the island of Lemnos.

          John VI, named in portraits John Flavius Comnenus Angelos Palaiologos Cantacuzene (that indicates a kinship with all these Dynasties), was the closest friend of Basileus Andronikos III the Younger and rendered him great support in the struggle against his grandfather Basileus Andronikos II the Elder. Andronikos III proposed John to become a co-ruler, but he refused, having received the title of Megas Domestikos (Commander-in-Chief of the Army). During the reign of Andronikos III, he administered all the affairs of the Emperor (since 1339 - the despot of Morea), initiated a large construction of ships in order to reduce the dependence of Byzantium on the Genoeses and Venetians, led military operations against the Serbs, annexed the Epirus Despotate to the Empire. The church activity of John deserves a special attention. Being a devoted Hesychast, he organizes the Council of Constantinople of 1341-1351 against Varlaam and Akindin, the enemies of the Hesychast. The purpose of the Council was to confirm the doctrine of St. Gregory Palamas on the Divine energies. The first session of the Council was opened on June 10, 1341, and on June 15 the Emperor Andronikos died. His possible successor was John V, who at that time was only 9 years old, so, John Cantacuzene became co-regent in 1347 and presided all subsequent sessions of the Council. According to the testimony of contemporaries, the Council gave preference to Varlaam, but driven by the Holy Spirit, John forced the participants of the Council to accept the doctrine of Hesychasts. As history showed, it was a risky, but the right step; the subsequent Councils confirmed the correctness of the doctrine. However, resentful of Basileus' apparent interference in the affairs of the Church, the Council excluded his name from the Acts of the Council. Thus, the paragraph 9 of the Act of 1351 states: "Commemorable and the Blessed Basileus, our Andronikos Palaiologos ... eternal commemoration." The very fact that John Cantacuzene did not require the inclusion of his name in the Acts (he could achieve it) indicates him as a humble person who honors the memory of his friend.

          So, after the death of the Basileus Andronikos III, the Throne goes to his son John, who should be only 9 years old in just a few days. The deceased Basileus ordered Cantacuzene to become a regent, but the mother of the minor successor Anna of Savoy removed him from power, which plunged the country into a civil war that lasted 6 years. The history of these years is described in the memoirs of John Cantacuzene, and his biography is extensively studied by many historians. The main event will be his proclamation of Basileus and the coronation in 1347. It is from this moment the Cantacuzene family becomes the ruling Dynasty.

On June 15, 1383, Basileus John VI dies leaving behind several theological and historical works. His merits to the Motherland and the Dynasty are above price. Many historians consider him the most outstanding Emperor of the last period in the Empire’s history. Until now he remains the most famous representative of the family. Approximately at the same time, his son and co-regent Basileus Matthew dies.

We only know that the son of Basileus Matthew, the Despot of Morea and Sevastokrator Dimitry I, transferred the power over the despotate to his nephew Theodore Palaiologos. Much more we know about his children, since the tragic events of 1453 are connected with them. His daughter Irene married the Serbian despot Georgy Brankovich. Their daughter Mara was the wife of Sultan Murad II and the stepmother of Mehmed II, the same one who would triumphantly enter Constantinople. Toma (Thomas) will go with his sister to Serbia, where he will become famous as a defender of the Smederevo Fortress (1439). Elena was the second wife of David the Great Comnene, the last Emperor of Trebizond.

          The eldest son Andronikos, the last Megas Domestikos, conducted defense of Constantinople. His name is found in the treaty between Byzantium and Venice, concluded in April 1448. He had at least three sons. The Byzantine historian Dukas reports that after the fall of Constantinople, Andronikos' youngest son was put to death along with his father-in-law, Grand Duke Loukas Notaras. The two elder sons, Dimitry and John were on the list of passengers of the Genoese ship, rescued in 1453 under the command of Admiral Zorzi Doria[7].

          As for the succession to the throne, the last Byzantine Emperor Constantine Dragases was a childless widower. He died during the combat assault of Constantinople and, accordingly, did not capitulate. According to tradition, his the most likely successor had to be his cousin, the megas domestikos Andronikos (known as Andronikos Palaiologos-Cantacuzene, although his descendants do not use the surname "Palaiologos").

          After Andronikos' death on July 3, 1453, his son Dmitry becomes the Head of the Dynasty, whom the Turks will call "Şeytan" (Shaitan). His son Michael, called "Şeytan oğlu" (Shaitan-oglu), will return to Constantinople and will be put to death in 1578. His son Andronikos will also be put to death in 1595. Andronikos' children will forever leave their homeland and settle down in the world. One of them, the great gentleman in waiting Constantine, will become the founder of the Valashian branch, from which the Valash-Russian branch will emerge, the only one that has survived to this day. His son Prince Dragić (Troyan) with his wife, children, servants and all property received the right to live in Transylvaniya, and also to be called Prince and Count of Transylvania and Hungary. This right is confirmed by two letters signed by the ruling Prince of Hungary George Rákóczi and Prince of Transylvania Imre. Dragić's son Prince Matthew was the great governor of Craiova, the lord of Magureni, and his grandson Prince Rodion Radukan moved to Russia in 1770 and founded the Serbian Hussar Regiment. By permission of Empress Catherine II of Russia he was given the right to wear the Byzantine family coat of arms on a cartouche (a box for ammunition). He was also the founder of the Valash-Russian branch. Unfortunately, the government of the Russian Empire did not recognize the Imperial House of Cantacuzenes and its members. The other Households gained the same destiny, so it's impossible to talk about the Imperial House or the Government in exile. The events of 1917 became a powerful blow for the Dynasty, most of which migrated to Sweden, Switzerland, Denmark, the United States and other countries. Many of them have become the lieges of Kings and prefer not to remember their origins. Those who remained in Russia underwent deprivation from the Soviet power. Prince Ivan Pavlovich was executed by shooting in Odessa, unable to get to his father and brothers in Switzerland. His younger brother Prince Matthew, was executed by shooting in Moscow, and his daughter Tatiana, my great-grandmother, managed to escape. As remembered by Prince M. Cantacuzine-Speransky: "In 1918, when our house was burnt, everything was destroyed, there was not a single official document concerning the Valash-Russian branch of our family." Such a cruel time took many lives, maimed destinies, separated families and destroyed historical monuments. Now, we know about many documents only from the memories of people who saw them, some of them have been preserved in copies and few originals.  Princess Tatiana married Peter Gorshkov, a representative of the Polish family Gorzhkovsky. At this time, de jure, the grandson of Prince George Pavlovich, the Bishop Ambrose of Vevey (Russian Orthodox Chirch Outside Russia; in the world - Prince Pierre Cantacuzene of Byzantium) was the Head of the Dynasty. He died on July 20, 2009. As he and his uncles left no children, the dynasty's priority passed to the descendants of Princess Tatiana (in Byzantium there was no law on succession to the throne, but succession to "the Castilian" system became traditional from the 10th century, which was secured by the Tomos (Decree) of the year of 1171 of Patriarch Michael III "of Anchialus" of Constantinople). Since my grandfather and father gave up the title, in 2014 I became the Head of the Dynasty and, as the heir to the throne, I have the title "titular Basileus of the Romans & All Ecumene" and the international status of Fons Honorum. My rights are recognized by the heads of many states, aristocrats, Heads of different Dynasties, knightly Orders and historians, with whom I support communication. Since 2017, my rights have been recognized by the Ecumenical Patriarchate (through the Exarch of the Ecumenical Patriarch), which no candidate for the throne has had since 1453.

My main goal is to preserve the culture of the ancestors and the Orthodox Greek church tradition, so that the great contribution of Byzantium to the world development would not become a footnote in historical books. I believe that someday the words of the Eucharist will sound again in the great walls of Agia Sophia, and the yellow flag with the black eagle on it will again be flying above the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn.

[1] - Nicol, The Byzantine Family of Kantakouzenos (Cantacuzenus), ca. 1100-1460: A Genealogical and Prosopographical Study (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 1968), p. viiif

[2]- The Chronicles of Cantacuzines-Speransky / Written by Prince M. Cantacuzine, Count Speransky; trans. from English By D. Nalepina. - M.: The Russian fund of culture: Russian archive, 2004. - 368 pages.

[3]  - Guilland Rodolphe. Recherches sur les Institutions Byzantines, Tome I. — Berlin, Germany: Akademie-Verlag, 1967.

[4]  - Trapp, Erich (1988), "91038. Ἄγγελος Ἰωάννης", Prosopographisches Lexikon der Palaiologenzeit, vol. Addenda 1-8, Vienna, Austria: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften

[5]  - Fine John Van Antwerp. The Late Medieval Balkans: A Critical Survey from the Late Twelfth Century to the Ottoman Conquest. — Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1994

[6]  - Nicol Donald MacGillivray. The Byzantine family of Kantakouzenos (Cantacuzenus) ca. 1100–1460: A Genealogical and Prosopographical Study. — Washington, District of Columbia: Dumbarton Oaks Center for Byzantine Studies, 1968.]

[7] - Michail Dimitrie Sturza, Grandes familles de Grece, d’Albanie et de Constantinople, Paris, 1983, pag.57