Wednesday, 15 February 2012

From Pirate to Prince

Molyvos and its castle

Once upon a time there was a pirate, named Francesco Gattilusio. He originated from a Genoan patrician family. He crossed the seas with his bandits and arrived at the island of Telendos in the North Aegean where he met John V Palaiologos, once the emperor of Byzantium, but overthrown by his father in law. Palaiologos was plotting his return to power, so who better to meet than the pirate Gattilusio. The two entered an alliance. Gattilusio sailed to Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire and by bribing the military watchmen was able to enter the city and instill a revolt in favour of John V. John V regained the throne of Byzantium and Francesco got to marry his sister. As a wedding present he got the island of Lesvos (1355). And this is how the dynasty of the Gattilusio’s of Lesvos kicked off.

Those were turbulent times: the Turkish already fighting for the Byzantine Empire and within that mighty empire there were plenty of conspiracies against the throne. And then there were those pirates, like Francesco once was, but now he was officially called Francesco I Gattilusio, Lord of Lesvos.

The Gattilusio rule was not so bad on the Lesviot people. The castles were made stronger and the people faced a century of relative peace and prosperity.

Francesco himself was not that lucky: he died with his wife and his two eldest sons in the earthquake of 1384. His third son Jacopo became his successor as Francesco II. Nor did he rule for long: in 1404 he was bitten by a scorpion. He could have survived this bite, but his death was even more bizarre. Having been bitten, he called out for help; lots of people hearing him, rushed to his rescue and flooded his room. The wooden floor not up to the crowd, collapsed taking down the crowd, including Francesco II, who did not survive.

His eldest son Jacopo then became the new Gattilusio in power: Jacopo of Lesvos. I don’t know how he died, but I know that in 1428 his younger brother Dorino reigned as Dorino of Lesvos. He died in 1455 and was succeeded by his son Domenico, who did not last long because after three years his younger brother Niccolo had him strangled and took over power. Niccolo however was also not lucky because three years later – in 1462 – the Turks conquered Lesvos and Niccolo and his family were captured and brought to Constantinople (by then under Turkish rule). Niccolo converted to Islam, called himself Prince and gathered a retinue, However Sultan Mehmed II ordered him killed because of a dispute over a ‘favoured’ page.

However, the Gattilusios, by then an extended family, were impossible to erase: many of the children having married people in power all over Europe. When I look up the genealogical tree of the Gattilusio, some of the descendants did very well and were famous. Prince Rainer of Monaco, the archduke Otto von Habsburg (the last Crown Prince of the once so mighty Austrian-Hungarian Empire), Brooke Shields and the famous French writer the Marquis de Sade: they all had Gattilusio ancestors.. (

What remains of the Gattilusios on the island now are the castles that they had rebuilt, like the castle of Molyvos. This used to be the stronghold of Mythimna (the more ancient name of Molyvos), a city state that became famous in Greek history as the only Lesviot ally of the powerful city state of Athens during the Peloponnesian war (431 - 404 BC). The castle of Molyvos, a ruin after so many other wars following the Peloponnessian, was rebuilt and enlarged by The Gattilusios. Today we still can visit it.

Some years ago the castle was restored and when the scaffoldings went down people could visit it again. However recently, visitors have often been met with a closed door. I do not know if this was because of mismanagement or the crisis. However, now whilst roads cannot be restored and when more than one household no longer has money for heating or electricity, the municipality of Lesvos has decided that the castle should remain open all year long. This is good for employment because they have hired people to ensure that this cradle of many a Gattilusio can still be visited. So people can dream about this dynasty that started as pirates but ended up in more than one European Royal family.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2012

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