The Rise of the Frank Villehardouin Family

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The 13th century Byzantine church of Odigitraea, known localy as “Agitria” set in a dramatic location In The Deep Mani, near Stavri, in the middle distance is the Tigani peninsula, with the Taygetos mountains in the background. Southern Peloponnese, Greece. ©PETE EASTLAND

This French family were prominent in the Morea  (the Peloponnese) for several decades having been diverted from their original quest, the Fourth Crusade.   The last of his dynasty, William II was the builder of two castles associated with the Mani, the fort at Mystras and the Megali Maini believed to be the ruined castle found at Cape Tigani from which,  it is reputed, the area derived its name.  Earlier Jean de Neuilly built a castle between the pass linking Areopoli with Gytheio.

Geoffrey of Villehardouin was a layman and historian later made Marshal of Champagne and appointed as an ambassador notably to negotiate with the Venetians transportation of the armies of the Fourth Crusade to Egypt where it was planned the attack would start.    Italian and French knights, known to the Greeks as Franks, set off on the crusade around 1201.  As there were insufficient funds to pay the Venetians who built the ships to transport the army, the Venetians made a bargain with the crusaders to capture and sack Zara on the Dalmatian Coast.  Around that time, Geoffrey and the leading knights including William of Champlitte, entered into an agreement with Alexios VI Angelos, a Byzantine prince whose father had been deposed as emperor, that on the basis of reinstating Alexios, he agreed to pay the Franks 200,000 pieces of silver and recognise the supremacy of the Pope.  The crusaders therefore diverted from their crusade to Constantinople successfully defeating  the existing emperor putting Alexios on the throne. As Alexios renegade on his side of the bargain, the crusaders breached the walls of Constantinople on 13th April 1204 followed by five days of looting, brutality and destruction.  So outrageous were the crimes committed against the church, clergy and nuns that the Pope condemned the crusaders although later was content to accept tributes of looted treasure.  A Latin Emperor was enthroned and he and his successors ruled the Latin Empire of Constantinople until Michael VIII Palagaiologos recaptured Constantinople in 1261.

Geoffrey did not continue to the Holy Land and died shortly afterwards but not before completing his chronicle,  On the conquest of Constantinople, detailing the sack of the city.   New opportunities led to his nephew Geoffrey, part of the crusade, setting about acquiring lands in Greece and the Balkans with compatriot, William of Champlitte.  They annexed the Morea except for Arcadia and Laconia that included the Mani.   Around 1218/20 part of Mani (some accounts say the entire Mani) was given  to Baron Jean de Neuilly who built a castle on the ancient site of Las to guard the pass from Gythio to Areopolis.  This formed the centre of the Barony of Passavant given its strategic position protecting the plains of Laconia from the Maniots and Slavic tribes of the Taygatus Mountains.

15th century miniature of conquest of Constantinople by the Crusaders in 1204.

William became Prince of Achaea (1205-1209) and Geoffrey was granted several cities including Kalamata.  During William’s absence on a trip to France he left the administration of the Principality of Achaea to Geoffrey but William died followed shortly afterwards by the death of his son providing Geoffrey with an opportunity to expand his influence. In May 1209 the Latin Emperor Henry I confirmed Geoffrey I as Prince of Achaea leading to Geoffrey ruthlessly setting about securing his his position in the Morea.  He built several  castles including one at Sparta but his barbaric and brutal tactics came under intense criticism because of his treatment of the clergy and confiscation of church property and lands –   the Latin Patriarch of Constantinople excommunicated Geoffrey I  twice  declaring him “the enemy of God”.

Upon his death (1228-1230) Geoffrey I was succeeded by his eldest son Geoffrey II who prospered  and became an influential nobleman supporting the Latin emperors by keeping the Greek emperor and allies at bay. Geoffrey II died in 1246 succeeded by his younger brother William II who set about conquering remaining territory, including lands in Laconia.  William  built the fortresses of Mystras and Megali Maini (Grand Magne) to contain the Maniots and Melingoi tribes of the Taygatus Mountains and throughout his reign he continued the battle against the Byzantine emperor.  In 1259 he was captured by the Byzantine army and held to ransom until his release in 1261 when he  handed over lands including the fortresses of Mystras and Megali Maini.  The Mani reverted to Byzantine government under the Despotate of Mystras until Ottoman occupation from 1460.  True to character the Maniots continued to retain considerable independence throughout both eras.

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