Mongol-Papal Encounter: Letter Exchange between Pope Innocent IV and Güyük Khan in 1245-1246

By the late 1230s, Mongol armies had begun raiding parts of Russia and eastern Europe. Between 1236 and 1242, these military campaigns–commanded by Subutai (d. 1248), Batu Khan (d. 1255), and Berke (d. 1266), among others–had wrought major devastation across Russia, Poland, Hungary and the Balkans. The cities of Kiev, Pereyaslavl, Chernihiv, Lublin, and other major population centers in eastern and central Europe were sacked and their populations massacred. The defeats of the Polish forces at the Battle of Liegnitz/Legnica (April 9th 1241) and the Hungarian military at the Battle of Mohi (April 11th 1241) opened up most of the Balkans and Central Europe to Mongol raids, leading to even more destruction, displacement and massacres. These alarming developments shook the foundations of Latin Christendom. Although the Mongols withdrew from most of the Balkans and east-central Europe soon after (as a result of internal dynamics in their empire), the shock of their invasions and conquests remained.

Seeking to gauge the intentions of the conquerors and convince them to cease their invasions of Latin Christendom, Pope Innocent IV (r. 1243-1254) sent an embassy with two letters to the Mongol Khan Güyük. The leading papal legate to the Mongols was the Italian Franciscan Giovanni da Pian del Carpine (d. 1252) who departed Lyon in April 1245 & arrived at the court of Güyük Khan near Karakorum in July 1246. He returned to Lyon by the end of 1247. Carpine composed the Ystoria Mongalorum, a detailed account of the mission & his extensive travels (more here). The Latin text & English translation of Carpine’s travel account and history of the Mongols can be found here (along with the writings of William of Rubruck). Innocent IV sends Dominicans and Franciscans out to the Mongols. Vincent of Beauvais, Le Miroir Historial Vol. IV, Paris, c. 1400-1410.

Both Latin letters from Innocent IV can be found in the Epistolae Saeculi xiii e regestis Pontificarum Romananim selectae, t. ii, Nos. 102 and 105, Monumenta Germaniae Historica. The following is the Latin text of the first letter, inviting Güyük to embrace Christianity, followed by a translation:



God the Father, of His graciousness regarding with unutterable loving-kindness the unhappy lot of the human race, brought low by the guilt of the first man, and desiring of His exceeding great charity mercifully to restore him whom the devil’s envy overthrew by a crafty suggestion, sent from the lofty throne of heaven down to the lowly region of the world His only-begotten Son, consubstantial with Himself, who was conceived by the operation of the Holy Ghost in the womb of a fore-chosen virgin and there clothed in the garb of human flesh, and afterwards proceeding thence by the closed door of His mother’s virginity, He showed Himself in a form visible to all men. For human nature, being endowed with reason, was meet to be nourished on eternal truth as its choicest food, but, held in mortal chains as a punishment for sin, its powers were thus far reduced that it had to strive to understand the invisible things of reason’s food by means of inferences drawn from visible things.

The Creator of that creature became visible, clothed in our flesh, not without change in His nature, in order that, having become visible. He might call back to Himself, the Invisible, those pursuing after visible things, moulding men by His salutary instructions and pointing out to them by means of His teaching the way of perfection: following the pattern of His holy way of life and His words of evangelical instruction, He deigned to suffer death by the torture of the cruel cross, that, by a penal end to His present life, He might make an end of the penalty of eternal death, which the succeeding generations had incurred by the transgression of their first parent, and that man might drink of the sweetness of the life of eternity from the bitter chalice ofHis death in time. For it behooved the Mediator between us and God to possess both transient mortality and everlasting beatitude, in order that by means of the transient He might be like those doomed to die and might transfer us from among the dead to that which lasts forever.

He therefore offered Himself as a victim for the redemption of mankind and, overthrowing the enemy of its salvation, He snatched it from the shame of servitude to the glory of liberty, and unbarred for it the gate of the heavenly fatherland. Then, rising from the dead and ascending into heaven, He left His vicar on earth, and to him, after he had borne witness to the constancy of his love by the proof of a threefold profession, He committed the care of souls, that he should with watchfulness pay heed to and with heed watch over their salvation, for which He had humbled His high dignity; and He handed to him the keys of the kingdom of heaven by which he and, through him, his successors, were to possess the power of opening and of closing the gate of that kingdom to all. Wherefore we, though unworthy, having become, by the Lord’s disposition, the successor of this vicar, do turn our keen attention, before all else incumbent on us in virtue of our office, to your salvation and that of other men, and on this matter especially do we fix our mind, sedulously keeping watch over it with diligent zeal and zealous diligence, so that we may be able, with the help of God’s grace, to lead those in error into the way of truth and gain all men for Him.

But since we are unable to be present in person in different places at one and the same time for the nature of our human condition does not allow this in order that we may not appear to neglect in any way those absent from us we send to them in our stead prudent and discreet men by whose ministry we carry out the obligation of our apostolic mission to them. It is for this reason that we have thought fit to send to you our beloved son Friar Laurence of Portugal and his companions of the Order of Friars Minor, the bearers of this letter, men remarkable for their religious spirit, comely in their virtue and gifted with a knowledge of Holy Scripture, so that following their salutary instructions you may acknowledge Jesus Christ the very Son of God and worship His glorious name by practicing the Christian religion. We therefore admonish you all, beg and earnestly entreat you to receive these Friars kindly and to treat them in considerate fashion out of reverence for God and for us, indeed as if receiving us in their persons, and to employ unfeigned honesty towards them in respect of those matters of which they will speak to you on our behalf; we also ask that, having treated with them concerning the aforesaid matters to your profit, you will furnish them with a safe-conduct and other necessities on both their outward and return journey, so that they can safely make their way back to our presence when they wish. We have thought fit to send to you the above-mentioned Friars, whom we specially chose out from among others as being men proved by years of regular observance and well versed in Holy Scripture, for we believed they would be of greater help to you, seeing that they follow the humility of our Savior: if we had thought that ecclesiastical prelates or other powerful men would be more profitable and more acceptable to you we would have sent them.

Lyons, 5th March 1245

[Translation from Christopher Dawson ed., The Mongol Mission: Narratives and Letters of the Franciscan Missionaries in Mongolia and China in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries (New York, 1955), pp. 73-75]

The following is the Latin text of the second letter, urging the Mongol Khan to desist from attacking Christians, followed by a translation:

(Letter of Pope Innocent IV to Guyuk Khan, Vatican Secret Archives, Vatican City, Inv. no. Reg. Vat., 21, ff. 107 v. – 108 r.)


Seeing that not only men but even irrational animals, nay, the very elements which go to make up the world machine, are united by a certain innate law after the manner of the celestial spirits, all of which God the Creator has divided into choirs in the enduring stability of peaceful order, 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 to others and are laying them waste in a horrible desolation, and with a fury still unabated you do not cease from stretching out your destroying hand to more distant lands, but, breaking the bond of natural ties, sparing neither sex nor age, you rage against all indiscriminately with the sword of chastisement.

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, which without doubt you have seriously aroused by such provocation; nor should you be emboldened to commit further savagery by the fact that when the sword of your might has raged against other men Almighty God has up to the present allowed various nations to fall before your face; for sometimes He refrains from chastising the proud in this world for the moment, for this reason, that if they neglect to humble themselves of their own accord He may not only no longer put off the punishment of their wickedness in this life but may also take greater vengeance in the world to come.

On this account we have thought fit to send to you our beloved son [Giovanni DiPlano Carpini] and his companions the bearers of this letter, men remarkable for their religious spirit, comely in their virtue and gifted with a knowledge of Holy Scripture; receive them kindly and treat them with honor out of reverence for God, indeed as if receiving us in their persons, and deal honestly with them in those matters of which they will speak to you on our behalf, and when you have had profitable discussions with them concerning the aforesaid affairs, especially those pertaining to peace, make fully known to us through these same Friars what moved you to destroy other nations and what your intentions are for the future, furnishing them with a safe-conduct and other necessities on both their outward and return journey, so that they can safely make their way back to our presence when they wish.

[Translation from Christopher Dawson ed., The Mongol Mission: Narratives and Letters of the Franciscan Missionaries in Mongolia and China in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries (New York, 1955), pp. 75-76]

The following is the Güyük’s reply (in Persian) with English translation below. In his response, which demonstrates perfectly Mongol imperial political theory, the Khan demands that the Pope and European rulers should come to his court and swear allegiance to him, and emphasizes his own superior position.

این مثالیست بنزدیک پاپاء کلان فرستاده شد، بداند و معلوم کند ما نبشت دو زفان. ولایتهاء کرل کنکاش کردست، اوتکِ ایلی بندگی فرستاده، از ایلچیان شما شنوده آمد. و اگر سخن خویش برسید، تو، کی پاپاء کلان، با کرل‌لان، جمله بنفسِ خویش بخدمت ما بیایید؛ هر فرمان یاساء کی باشد آن‌وقت بشنوانیم.

دیگر گفته‌اید کی مرا در شیلم درآی، نیکو باشد؛ خویشتن مرا دانا کردی؛ اوتک فرستادی، این اوتک ترا معلوم نکردیم.

دیگر سخن فرستادی «ماجر و کرستان را جمله گرفتیت مرا عجب می‌آید ایشان را گناه چیست ما را بگوید» این سخنِ ترا هم معلوم نکردیم. فرمان خدای را چنگیز خان و قاآن هر دو شنوانیدن را فرستاد. فرمان خدای را اعتماد نکرده‌اند هم‌چنان کی سخونِ تو. ایشان نیز دل کلان داشته‌اند، گردن‌کشی کرده‌اند، رسولان ایلچیان ما را کوشتند.

آن ولایتها را مردمان را خدای قدیم کوشت و نیست گردانید. جز از فرمان خدای کسی از قوتِ خویش چگونه کوشید، چگونه گیرد؟ مگر تو همچنان می‌گوی که من ترسایم، خدای را می‌پرستم زاری می‌کنم می‌یابم – تو چه دانی که خدای که را می‌آمورزد، در حق که مرحمت می‌فرماید؟ تو چگونه دانی که هم‌چنان سخن می‌گوی؟ بقوتِ خدای، آفتاب بر آمدن و تا فرو رفتن جمله ولایتها را ما را مسلم کرد است می‌داریم. جز از فرمان خدای کسی چگونه تواند کرد.

اکنون شما بدل راستی بگوییت کی ایل شویم کوچ دهیم. تو بنفس خویش، بر سرِ کرل‌لان، همه جمله یک‌جای بخدمت و بندگی ما بیاید؛ ایلیِ شما را آن‌وقت معلوم کنیم. و اگر فرمان خدای نگیرید و فرمان ما را دیگر کند شما را ما یاغی دانیم، هم‌چنان شما را معلوم می‌گردانیم و اگر دیگر کند آنرا ما می‌دانیم خدای داند.

فی اواخر جمادی‌الاخر سنه اربعه اربعین و ستمائه

(Letter of Güyük Khan to Pope Innocent IV, Vatican Secret Archives, Vatican City, Inv. no. A. A., Arm. I-XVIII


We, by the power of the Eternal God, the Oceanic Khan of the great Mongol Ulus—our command.

If this reaches peoples who have made their submission, let them respect and stand in awe of it.

This is a directive in the [Muslim] tongue sent to the great Pope; may he may take note and comprehend it, what has been written. The petition of the assembly convened in the lands of the Emperor [seeking our support], has been heard from your emissaries.

If bearer of this petition reaches you with his own report, you, who are the great Pope, together with all the Princes, must come in person to serve us. At that time, I shall make known all the commands of the Yasa.

Further, you have also said that there would be an advantage for me in accepting baptism. You have imparted this to me, and sent a request to this effect. This your appeal, I have not understood.

Furthermore, you have sent the following message: “You have conquered all the lands of the Hungarians and other Christians. This seems strange to me. Tell me what was their crime” I have also not understood this message of yours. Chinggis Khan and the Great Khan Ögedey have both transmitted the order of the Eternal God that the all the world should be subordinated to the Mongols to be taken note of. But they disregarded God’s order to such an extent that those mentioned by you even held a great council, and they behaved arrogantly in refusing, and they killed our messengers and envoys. Thus the Eternal God Himself has killed and exterminated the people in those countries. How could anybody, without God’s order, merely from his own strength, kill and plunder? And when you go on to say, “I am a Christian, I honor God.” How do you think you know whom God will absolve and in whose favor He will exercise His mercy? How do you think you know that you dare to express such an opinion?

Through the power of God, all empires from the rising of the sun to its setting have been given to us and we own them. How could anyone achieve anything except by God’s order? Now, however, you must say with a sincere heart: “We shall be obedient, we, too, make our strength available. You personally, at the head of the Kings, you shall come, one and all, to pay homage to me and to serve me. Then we shall take note of your submission. If, however, you do not accept God’s order and act against our command, we shall know that you are our enemies.

This is what we make known to you. If you act against it, how then can we know what will happen? Only God knows.

Written at the end of Jumada II 644 of the Hijra/November 1246.

[Translation found online. For an alternate translation, see Christopher Dawson ed., The Mongol Mission: Narratives and Letters of the Franciscan Missionaries in Mongolia and China in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries (New York, 1955), pp. 75-76]



(Representation of Güyük Khan in an illustrated manuscript of ‛Alā al-Dīn ‛Aṭā Malik al-Juvaynī’s Tarīkh-i Jahāngushay digitized by the BnF)


Further Reading

Denise Aigle. “The Letters of Eljigidei, Hülegü, and Abaqa: Mongol Overtures or Christian Ventriloquism?” Inner Asia 7.2 (2005).

A. Boyle. “The Mongols and Europe,” History Today 8 (1959).

Peter Jackson. The Mongols and the West. New York: Routledge, 2005.

Paul Pelliot. “Les Mongols et la Papauté” Revue de l’Orient Chrétien ser. 3, 3 (1922-23).

Antti Ruotsala. Europeans and Mongols in the Middle of the Thirteenth Century: Encountering the Other. Helsinki: Annales Academiae Scientiarum Fennicae, 2001.

J.J. Saunders. The History of the Mongol Conquests. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1971.

2 thoughts on “Mongol-Papal Encounter: Letter Exchange between Pope Innocent IV and Güyük Khan in 1245-1246

  1. Pingback: The Mongol’s Unfair Game | History at Normandale

  2. Pingback: Letters of Note | coop's scoop

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