Cretan history: The origins of Crete’s nobles

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Whether hard fact or part legend, the tale of the 12 Young Rulers, is an integral part of Cretan history, continuing to inform locals’ mores and beliefs up to nowadays.

With aeons of intriguing, more often than not tumultuous, Cretan history inscribed in their local traditions and way of life, Cretans come across as fierce, proud and imposing. Not unlike true nobles, that is. In fact, while travelling around Crete, it is not uncommon to hear ageing villagers asserting that they are from blue blood: The descendants of aristocracy that once existed in Crete. Before dismissing their claims as old peoples’ ramblings, read on below for one of the most fascinating chapters of Cretan historyThe tale of the 12 Young Rulers, though it is in some bits rather loosely documented, it demonstrates that nobility did exist in Crete from the 11th century and even beyond the Venetian era.

Cretan history: The tale of the 12 Young Rulers

The Byzantine General Nikiforos Phokas, who was later to become Emperor himself, frees Crete from the Arabs in 961. After a century and a half of Saracen rule, however, the moral standing and religious beliefs of the populace are quite low. There is social unrest and upheaval as the locals are rebelling against the new Byzantine administration. This carries on for quite some time, so Fokas’ successor Emperor Alexios I Comninos decides to intervene by dispatching several prominent Byzantine families from Constantinople to settle in Crete at the end of the 11th century. His aim is to enhance the control over the local population and to raise the morale and religious standards in the island. Alas, his mission is not particularly effective. A century later, Emperor Alexios Comninos II, the great-grandson of Alexios I, issues an imperial document (chrysoboullo), mandating that another group of 12 Byzantine high brow families are to arrive in Crete. Among them is Alexios’ son, Isaakion, who is to serve as king and trustee. It is a quite complex and elaborate affair: Allegedly it took 850 ships to transport these 12 families, along with their soldiers, supplies and horses. The story of their arrival has passed into Cretan history and legend as the tale of the 12 Archondopoula or young rulers.

In effect, the island was divided between the 12 families into 12 districts. With the Phokas and Skordilis families in charge, the 12 archondes were entrusted with the duties of fostering strong links between Constantinople and Crete, increasing the Christian population, defending the island from Arabs and pirates, and collecting taxes. They became Crete’s new elite and played a prominent part throughout Cretan history; their coats-of-arms adorning churches and monuments across the island and their names, as recorded in Komninos’ imperial charter, christening whole areas in Crete: Kallergiana in Kissamos, Skordilo in Sitia and Gavalochori, a village on Cape Drapanos, among many others.

Under Venetian rule the families of the Byzantine nobles were referred to as “Archondoromeoi” -the Byzantines were known as Romeoi from the Eastern Roman Empire- and archon, the ruler. Along with the priests and the Sfakians (who were all considered as descendants of the Archon Marinos Skordilis), they were part of the “privilegiati” or privileged class. Their prominence continued well into the centuries. Nowadays, the descendants of Ioannis Phokas (the family’s name changed during the Venetian era to Kallergis), Marinos Skordilis, nephew of the Emperor, Philipos Gavalas, Thomas Archoleos, Eustathios Chortatzis, Leon Mousouros, Constantine Varouchas, Andreas Melissinos, Loukas Lithios, Nikiforos Argyropoulos, Dimitios Vlastos, and Matheos Kalafatis, are found in every walk of life, their names featuring on streets, shopfronts and plaques on doctors, lawyers or architects practices. A lot of them, what’s more, have a host of old family stories to regale you with. If you happen to come across a chatty local claiming to come from royal blood, just sit back and enjoy their narration!

At the Oscar Suites and Village, our family-friendly, elegant yet unpretentious seaside hotel and apartments in Crete, on vibrant Agia Marina Platanias, just 9 km from the historic town of Chania, we aim to showcase the fascinating Cretan history and the enchanting traditions, customs and attractions of the place we are lucky to call home. That is why we are more than happy to share our stories and insights through our blog or in person. Don’t hesitate to contact us for ideas and insights on how to make the most out of your stay in the delightful island of Crete.

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