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A couple of centuries before King Henry II uttered the infamous words, “will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” a Byzantine Emperor was facing a similar problem: a Patriarch who was less than enthusiastic about the idea of resigning. Even worse, his heir was no one else but the Emperor’s son. Who was 14 at the time.

A Cunning Plan

But let’s take things from the beginning. As The Historian’s Hut explains, Emperor Romanos I was a brilliant political maneuverer who arose out of obscurity to become, for a time, one of the strongest men in the Mediterranean world. Although he held the title of emperor for decades, Romanos had no genuine claim to the throne—his remarkable rise to power came through the marriage of his daughter, Helen, to the child-emperor Constantine VII on May 4, 919. The very next year, Romanos climbed his way to the top of the child emperor’s regency council by forcing Constantine’s mother into a convent and similarly disposing of other nobles who posed a threat to his ascendance. Romanos at first took the title of ‘caesar,’ but he quickly became a co-emperor, and by 921 he had gained enough power to supersede Constantine VII as First Emperor in the political hierarchy.

A Loving Father

Romanos did not ascend alone up the political ladder; he also brought his children along for the ride. Romanos’ son, Christopher, was similarly named a co-emperor in 921. In 924, Romanos similarly crowned two other sons, named Stephen and Constantine. Romanos further increased his power in 927 by having Christopher named Second Emperor, pushing the original ruler, Constantine VII, down one more rung on the ladder of political hierarchy.

Another of Romanos’ sons, by the name of Theophylact, drew the metaphorical short straw when it came to high office appointments. While his brothers were named caesars and co-emperors, Theophylact was sent to join the church. Of course, for Romanos, only the position of Patriarch of Constantinople would do for his son. Nevertheless, there was a problem—when Theophylact was sent to join the church in 924, he was only seven years old. Although Romanos could not immediately place his young son at the head of the church in Constantinople, he was able to rush the boy through the hierarchy of the clergy. Theophylact was appointed as a cleric and put in the position of synkellos, a lofty title that made the young boy an assistant to the patriarch of Constantinople. It was an important appointment, as the synkellos was often considered the heir to the patriarchal throne.

The newly appointed clergyman was still a child, so he remained in the role of synkellos during the reigns of Patriarch Nicholas (d. 925), Patriarch Stephen (d.927), and Patriarch Tryphon. Emperor Romanos apparently had agreements with these patriarchs that they would step down when Theophylact finally came of age. Although Patriarch Tryphon had supposedly agreed to this plan, he was said to have become hesitant to relinquish power as the young synkellos began to reach his mid-teens.

A Man of Subterfuge

The power struggle between Patriarch Tryphon and Emperor Romanos came to a head around 931. Now, you may wonder why Romanos didn’t simply have the troublesome Patriarch killed. However, this was not his way. Whatever his vices, the Emperor was a man of subterfuge, not brute force.

As the Patriarch had done nothing to merit his resignation from the leadership of the church of Constantinople, Tryphon reportedly tried to delay or break his deal to step down.

Romanos became impatient with the stubborn patriarch and he and his allies soon began to spread a strange rumor about Tryphon: that Tryphon was illiterate and did not know how to write. In 931, the exasperated Patriarch convened a synod to disprove these ridiculous rumors. Before the eyes of his peers, the patriarch wrote down his name and title on a blank document and handed it over to an acquaintance who would bring the proof of Tryphon’s literacy to the Emperor.

Second Ecumenical painted by Vasily Surikov | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books
Second Ecumenical painted by Vasily Surikov, c. 1876, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons

As soon as the canny Romanos had the blank document in his hands, he added a forged letter of resignation to Patriarch Tryphon’s signed document. Before the clergymen of Constantinople had even left the meeting, the tampered document was brought back in and Tryphon’s “resignation” was presented to the Synod. Tryphon was put out of the church, bitterly decrying the deceit which had been practiced on him.

Even though Romanos’ son was the successor to Tryphon’s position, young Theophylact was still not old enough to take up the role as Patriarch of Constantinople until 933, when he reached the age of sixteen. Surprisingly enough, the young lad turned out to be a successful Patriarch and continued to oversee the Church of Constantinople until his death in 956.

Now, why didn’t Henry think of that?