Dynastic Marriages in the Middle Ages


The royal marriages, beginning from the foundation of the Bulgarian state in 681 till its conversion to Christianity in 864, were buried in almost full oblivion. We know very well, however, that the pagan princes were polygamous.

In later periods, in conformity with the spirit of the times they lived in, the Bulgarian monarchs became related by marriage mainly with their neighbours from Byzantium, Serbia, Wallachia, Hungary, the Latin Empire, etc. Thus, for example, in the period of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1393) when the capital was situated in Turnovo,  5 Bulgarian women, 8 Greek, 3 Serbian, 2 Russian, 2 Wallachian, 1 Hungarian, 1 Scythian (most probably Koumanian), 1 French and 1 ... Jewish became tzaritzas. For the same period Bulgarian women became wives of 4 Serbian kings Stephen Vladislav, Stephen Uros II, Stephen Uros III and Stephen Dushan, the greatest ruler of Serbia. A still larger number of Bulgarian princesses were married to Byzantines.

Actually, until the conquest of the Balkans by the Turks, the pedigrees of the native dynasties, as well as of the aristocracy, were so intertwined, that their association with one nationality or another is quite arbitrary.

The royal marriages depended on the interests of the respective dynasty and  state, that is why, as a rule, the negotiations preceding them looked very much like bargains concerning the policy, the gifts, the dowry given in the form of huge piles of money, luxurious goods and territorial concessions. Say, for the marriage of the Bulgarian Princess Maria with the Latin Emperor Henry, the jewellery, garments, fineries and other luxuries belonging to the bride, were carried to Constantinople on 60 pack animals covered with red velvet long enough to sweep up the dusty roads between the two capitals (1214). The ceremonies were magnificent and, in the medieval tradition, unending the feasts and rituals at the wedding of the crown prince Michael with the daughter of the Byzantine Emperor Andronicus III lasted for eight whole days (1337).

It was believed that princes reached maturity at the age of 15, and princesses at 13, but  agreements on alliances by marriage of even small children were not an exception. Actually, the in-laws to be respected their word as much "as the snows of yester years" they used to renounce their signatures and vows as soon as the political wind changed. Tzar Michael III Shishman (1323-1330) just sent his wife Anna-Neda away, and paid with his head for this in the battle at Kyustendil, where he fought her brother, the Serbian King Stephen Dechanski. A century or so earlier Ivan Asen II, generally a broad-minded person, stole away in secret his daughter, married to the Byzantine Emperor Theodore Lascaris (even slapping her on the face when the Empress declared she wanted to go back to her husband). Ivan Asen II (1218-1241) himself married three times, becoming a son-in-law of the Hungarian King Andras II by his second matrimonial sacrament, and of the Byzantine Emperor Theodore Comnenus -by the third.

Of course, there were quite a lot of heart-breaking romances between the palace walls the royalties had not only crowns, but hearts too. The successor to the throne Gavril Radomir (Tzar of Bulgaria in 1014-1015) after a short-lived marriage, sent away his pregnant wife, daughter of the Magyar King Geyza II, risking to provoke European crisis. He did this because he had fallen in love with, and later married, a captive Greek woman, who was not of a noble descent at all. His sister Theodora Kosara, in turn, fell in love with the Serbian prince Ivan Vladimir, a disgraced vassal of her father, and wheedled out not only his release from prison, but the restoration of the property he had been deprived of (this marriage provided a rewarding subject for the Southern-Slavic folklore, and later - for some literary works too).

Under difficult political circumstances and lacking money to achieve his ambitious goals, tzar Theodore Svetoslav (1300-1321) disregarded his dynastic prejudice and married the daughter of the rich Levantine merchant  Pantoleon. And Ivan Alexander (1331-1371) was able even to overcome his religious prejudice confining his first wife in a convent, he married a Jewish woman converted to Christianity. Two Bulgarian princesses were sacrificed to the benefit of the state interests - in 1285 an anonymous daughter of tzar George I Terter married Chaka, son of Nogai (to prevent Tartar invasions); for similar reasons Kera Tamara, one of Ivan Alexander's daughters left to join Sultan Murad's I harem.

The most usual way in which the Bulgarian monarchs got rid of their "pious tzaritzas" (as called by the chroniclers),  was to cloister them. Most of the tzars during the 13th-14th centuries used to marry twice, some of them even three times. There is a recorded case of a tzar whom the comparatively liberal Orthodox Church compelled to take "the right road" only after an anathema had been pronounced against him. Maybe this peculiarity of the Bulgarian Orthodox  Church was the main reason why in Bulgaria's history there were no monsters of the kind of the English Henry VIII, or the Russian Ivan the Terrible, who arranged their divorces on this earth by sending their ex-wives to the other world. The institution of concubinage was also very popular,  the illegitimate children, too, having their chances to stay at the top of the social pyramid.

The "pious tzaritzas", however,  were in no way inferior to their spouses. As was the custom in medieval Europe, some of them went to the altar twice or even three times, as was the case of the Greek Maria Paleologena. In order to keep her crown and secure the throne for her son, she married (about 1278) the peasant Ivailo, leader of a successful popular insurrection, who had killed her second husband, tzar Constantine Asen. To stick to the truth - the Turnovo empresses used to marry for a second time for the sake of keeping the state's tranquillity in this way they made the elected tzars legitimate, when the line of the previous dynasty had been discontinued. Not infrequently, however, they were energetically plotting,  and their own husbands often became victims of their intrigues. Most active in this respect were the several Marias and Irinas - the Byzantine princesses, coming from Constantinople with their noses held up, with their perverted refinement and their manners recognizable everywhere in Europe at that time.

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