Dear Khan,

In the 1230s and 1240s, the Mongol armies were raiding Russian towns and cities. These armies even made their way into modern-day Poland and Hungary. They did more raiding than occupying territory—they would come and take what they could and leave a lot of death and carnage in their wake, and then they’d move on. It left Eastern Europe and Russia unsettled and it started a panic through the rest of Europe and the Holy Roman Empire. And that is when the pope got involved.

Innocent IV was pope from 1243 to 1254. Right after he became pope, he called a church council. The council was held at the town of Lyon, France, in 1244. The main issue of the council was reining in the Holy Roman Emperor. At the time, it was Frederick II, and he had overstepped his bounds as far as the church was concerned. So, the pope and all the bishops and the cardinals gathered in Lyon to move against Frederick, and ended up ordering him deposed and excommunicated.

That was the domestic issue at the time, and Innocent, perhaps emboldened by his success there, thought he could then engage in foreign affairs. So, he sent off a letter with some emissaries to the Great Khan, leader of the Mongols. The Khan at the time was Güyük Khan. He was the grandson of Genghis Khan and he was the one responsible for the raids into Poland and Hungary. The pope wanted to put an end to this. He sent some Benedictine monks with the letter. They traveled more than three thousand miles, and it took them more than eighteen months to get to the Mongol camp. And when they finally did get there, they were kept waiting for another few months before they finally had their audience with the Great Khan.

In his letter, Innocent said, “It is not without cause that we are driven to express in strong terms our amazement that you, as we have heard, have invaded many countries belonging both to Christians and others and are laying them waste in a horrible desolation.” He went on to say, “We, therefore, following the example of the King of Peace and desiring that all men should live united in concord in the fear of God, do admonish, beg, and earnestly beseech all of you that for the future you desist entirely from assaults of this kind and especially from the persecution of Christians and that after so many and such grievous offenses you conciliate by a fitting penance the wrath of divine majesty.” Innocent continued by saying that God is a just God, that God is an avenging God, and that the Great Khan should be careful because he is putting himself at the risk of the judgment of God.

The Great Khan sent a letter back to the pope, wherein he said, “If you should act up to your word then you, the great pope, should come with the monarchs to pay us homage and we should thereupon instruct you.” He went on to inform the pope that he was not subject to the pope, but rather it was the other way around. I guess we could file that under “agreeing to disagree.” So, the success that Pope Innocent saw in domestic affairs didn’t quite translate to foreign affairs. This set off a few more decades of hostility between the Mongol raiders and the people on the Eastern European borders.

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