|The Teutonic Knights Force the People of Pskov to Convert, 1240|
Alexander Nevsky (1938)
This picture is in the public domain.
In last week’s post, The Kremlin Beauty Pageant, I mentioned that in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Russian rulers did not marry foreign princesses. I promised to explain why.
In brief, it was because of the Great Schism of 1054. Yes, I know, that happened long before the sixteenth century, but it had created two churches, each of which believed that it had a lock on the means of salvation. When the Eastern and Western churches split, their leaders excommunicated one another. That tends to leave a bad taste in people’s mouths. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the Catholic Church actually mounted a crusade in the east, converting Orthodox Christians as well as Lithuanian pagans at the point of a sword, wielded by the chivalric orders of the Livonian Knights and the Teutonic Knights. (The film Alexander Nevsky, directed by Sergei Eisenstein, is about one stage in this crusade.) The Russian Church did not forget.
So tensions ran high. Although today we have many Christian denominations and moving from one to another is not that big a deal, medieval and early modern Europeans took a much more serious view of the matter. A convert risked imperiling his mortal soul in the eyes of the denomination he left (while saving it in the view of the denomination he joined). In 1505, the Catholic Church was still a single entity in the West, but that would soon change. The resulting struggle at first raised the stakes even more, imbuing every individual choice with global significance—especially if made by a ruler. The religion of a prince or king still determined the religion of the realm. (Think Henry VIII.)
In the East, Byzantium had fallen to the Turks in 1453, leaving Russia as the last sovereign Orthodox power. Moreover, the Russians, to put it bluntly, were feeling their oats. They were just finishing up a successful campaign to reunite their disparate principalities under a single administration. They had launched a series of challenges against the Tatars, who had ruled their lands for two centuries—some of which succeeded, if not always for long. And they had begun to claim the role of heir to Byzantium, itself the last remnant of the ancient Roman empire. Although the dating is murky and the provenance unclear, the phrase “Two Romes have fallen, a third [Moscow] stands, and a fourth there shall not be” nicely captures the attitude of the Russian government in this period.
The Russians wanted recognition, and they wanted respect. That included respect for their religion—which, like pretty much everyone else in the sixteenth century, they saw as the one true path to Heaven. If they sent princesses abroad, they did their best to guarantee that those princesses need not convert to Catholicism. If their rulers—or even the ruler’s family members—married princes or princesses from abroad, the church required those prince(sse)s to be re-baptized as Orthodox Christians.
But most foreign royal families felt just as attached to their own branch of Christianity as the Russians did to theirs. They didn’t mind marrying their sons to Russian princesses or their daughters to Russian tsars, but they wanted their rites respected as well. When the Russians demurred, the foreigners refused to cooperate; and the few who toyed with the idea had a tendency to renege on the deal.
As a result, from 1505 until 1698, Russian grand princes (later tsars) married young women raised at home. No foreign customs getting in the way, no worries about re-baptizing and secret pressures to convert, no troublesome squabbles between diplomats hell-bent on securing this or that alliance and clergymen worried about the state of the ruler’s soul. How this system worked is the subject of Russell Martin’s book and summarized in my last post.
But wait, I can hear you asking if you have read The Golden Lynx, what about Elena Glinskaya? Wasn’t she Lithuanian? Yes, she was. But first, many Lithuanians were Orthodox, including the Glinsky clan. And second, Elena’s immediate family had brought her to Russia when she was little more than a baby. So she was still, more or less, a home-town girl, picked through a bride show—although perhaps a tad more cosmopolitan than most.
The last question I’ll tackle today is: what changed in 1698? That’s an easy one: Peter the Great. Russia’s first self-proclaimed emperor had little use for the Orthodox Church and none whatsoever for Muscovite customs. He had married his first wife, Evdokia, in a bride show to please his mother, but they never got along. She believed in the old ways; he couldn’t wait to see Russia become a spiffed-up version of Sweden. When he returned from his Grand Tour of Europe in 1698, he barely let the mud dry on his boots before repudiating Evdokia and sending her to a nunnery. A dozen years later, he married his long-time mistress, scandalizing the court, and changed the laws of succession so she would rule after his death (as Catherine I, not to be confused with Catherine II, another “the Great”). Before and afterward, he arranged marriages to a foreign aristocrat for every royal personage he could get his hands on, basing his choices purely on his diplomatic aims and not worrying about the religion of either party, never mind the wishes of the bride and groom. Thus the Kremlin beauty pageant ceased to play a role in politics.
I had a great interview today with Virginia Pye about her new novel, River of Dust. That should be live on the New Books in Historical Fiction site early next week. So make sure you check back here next Friday to find out more. I’ll have the live link by then.
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