Ferdinando Paleologus: Last Byzantine Emperor in Western Hemisphere

CHICAGO- Of all the Hellenes to arrive along the shores of the Western Hemisphere, Ferdinando Paleologus remains one of the most intriguing. Born on October 8, 1655, Paleologus was the nephew of the last Byzantine Emperor, Constantine XI. Very few documents remain that attest to this mans life so we have only the barest of outlines. Certainly little interest would exist in his life were it not for the inscription on his tombstone. Paleologus tombstone now rests in the St. John graveyard on the Easternmost side of island of Barbados. The present day St. Johns Church, which dates from 1836, with its frangipani trees in the yard, its double staircase of cedar leading to the organ gallery and the high-backed pews, harkens back to Colonial times. The circumstances around Ferdinando Paleologus life and his ultimate arrival in Barbados, even in outline, offer a vivid account of Greeks in the New World.
{53497}Theodore Paleologus, second brother of Constantine XI, was Ferdinandos father. The date of Theodores birth appears to be unknown, but we do know that on July 6, 1593, he married, Eudoxia Commena. Theodore journeyed to Great Britain sometime in 1596, not long after his first wifes death.
He first went to Lincolnshire, then to Plymouth, ending up in the small rural village of Landulph in Cornwall which is located on the River Tamar which forms the county boundary between Cornwall and Devon. By 1600, documents report Theodore was Rider to Henry Earl of Lincolne at Tattershall Castle. In the same year, May 1, 1600, he married his second wife Mary Balls at Cottingham, Yorkshire. For the next twenty-five years nothing more is known of him, but he was probably fighting as a soldier of fortune on the Continent. Over the next quarter century marriages were arranged and various members of the Paleologus family still have descendants in England and Italy.
Curiously, Landulph, is most known today for Theodore Paleologus epitaph, inscribed on a brass tablet near the vestry door of the St. Leonard and St. Dilpe Church. As with the tombstone of his son, Theodore Paleologus memorial plaque remains a much visited site. Bearing the coat of arms of the Paleologi this inscription reads:
Here lyeth the Body of Theodoro
Paleologi of Pesaro in Italy descended
from ye Imperial lyne of ye last Christ-
ian Emperors of Greece, being the sonne
of Prosper, the sonne of Theodoro, the
sonne of John, the sonne of Thomas, se-
cond brother of Constantine Paleologus,
the 8th of that name and last of the lyne
yt raygned in Constantinople untill sub-
dewed by the Turkes, who married with
Mary ye daughter of William Balls of
Hadlye in Souffolke, Gent., and had issue
5 children, Theodoro, John, Ferdinando,
Maria, and Dorothy, and departed this life
at Clyfton ye 21st of January 1636.”
Ferdinando Paleologus arrived in Barbados, sometime after the 1645 Battle of Naseby, in England. It is most often said that Ferdinand, retired, to property his mothers family owned on Barbados in the West Indies. Paleologus lived on his 197-acre plantation for 20 years, which he managed from 1649 to 1670. He soon became one of the most prominent men on the island. Paleologus was deeply involved with the St. John Church. In 1649, his name occurs as vestryman of the parish of St. John, and thereafter he held a number of parochial offices, including that of churchwarden for the years 1655 and 1657.
On October 3, 1678, Paleologus died on his plantation and was immediately buried in the St John’s Parish Church. Paleologus was not buried according to the usual custom – head to east and feet to west, but according to Greek Orthodox tradition with his head to the west (pointing to Constantinople) and feet to the east. It was said that he was buried “backways.” Rumors about how “the Greek Prince of Cornwall,” was buried persisted until nearly 200 years later. A hurricane in 1831, destroyed the original church of St. John and Paleologus coffin was discovered under the organ loft in the vault. On May 4, 1844, given the persistent rumors about the Greek princes burial, a curious church official ordered the vault opened.
It was noted at the time that Paleologus skeleton was of extraordinary size and like his fathers embedded in quicklime. He had been buried according to Greek Orthodox traditions, which amongst other things, demanded that the dead person’s head should point to the west and their feet to the east. These are critical distinctions since Paleologus must have accommodated himself to the circumstances of his social position he had died in the faith of his own church. The coffin was carefully deposited in another vault, and in 1909 a tablet was erected over it with an inscription partly borrowed from his father brass tablet in Landulph. Ferdinando Paleologus tombstone memorial, wrought in Portland stone portrays a Greek temple with Doric columns surrounding the cross of Constantine carved in the center. The following inscription may still be read:
“Here lyeth ye body of
Ferdinando Paleologus
Descended from ye imperial lyne
Of ye last Christian
Emperors of Greece
Churchwarden of this Parish
Vestryman, Twentye years
Died Oct. 3 1678”
Ferdinando Paleologus will, dated September 26, 1670, is preserved. By his will Ferdinand divided his property between his widow Rebecca and his son Theodorus, the widow to be trustee until he should attain the age of fourteen years. In 1680, Theodorus died and was buried in the cathedral parish of St. Michael on Barbados. Public documents exist reporting that Theodorus died at sea in 1693, and that while his property was bequeathed to his mother, his wife Martha and her children are also mentioned in this will.
But should you think this man was nothing more than a lost figure in modern Greek history be aware that as Theodore N. Constant noted in his account of Ferdinando Paleologus that during and after the Greek War of Independence, the provisional government of Greece is said to have addressed an official inquiry to the authorities of Barbados inquiring whether or not a male branch of the Paleologi was living in the island and requested that in case that was so, that such person should be provided with proper means of returning to Greece and that the Greek government would pay all expenses, if required.

It is the sheer natural beauty of Ferdinando Paleologus tombstone that strikes so many visitors, as we hear: No other Paleologus, even during the two centuries that the family occupied the imperial throne, was interred in a more striking site. On a cliff eight hundred feet high, Ferdinands sepulcher overlooks the Atlantic, whose soundless breakers form a pristine white border for the fresh verdure of the windward coast. Graceful palms wave gently in the breeze. Delicate pink petals fall on the grave from a frangipani tree. And when the zephyrs become stronger, there begins the chatter of the hardened pods of an overhanging tree, somewhat ungraciously known as the Womans Tongue Tree.
Without question there was much more to the life and death of Ferdinando Paleologus. We can only imagine today what the Hellenes of the future will ultimately know of the actions and experiences of the Greek Prince Barbados.