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Euphrosyne – Byzantine Empress – Part 2

Countless numbers of women served in God’s kingdom throughout church history. Even in the earliest centuries, women evangelized, prayed, taught, preached, went on pilgrimages, reigned over kingdoms, founded monasteries, and took care of the poor. These women contributed greatly to the Kingdom of God, not so they could be remembered, but so they could serve the Lord Jesus by serving others.

For the first few months of our series on women in the Medieval Era we have covered mostly stories about women who lived in the West because we have much more information about them. We do have some historical writings from Byzantium, so in the last several weeks we have taken a trip towards the East to look at the lives of three Byzantine empresses – Irene, Euphrosyne, and Theodora (9th century). The stories of these three empresses would make a good movie!

 

Note on Icons:

The use of icons has a long history and I can only summarize a bit here. Some early church leaders felt that the pictures of saints helped the common folk to learn the story of the gospel. Indeed, Pope Gregory the Great said that religious images were the “Bible of the illiterate”.  Other theologians were against using images in worship. They felt that going all the way back to the Old Testament, images had been forbidden by God. After all, they reasoned, God had given us a written word for a purpose. These objectors to the use of images were also worried that the images would be too easily worshipped in place of God.

Some Byzantine emperors wished to do away with icons (Iconoclasts). Other emperors were sensitive to the people and did not wish to change their worship service and so they allowed icons (Iconophiles). In our stories of three Byzantine empresses (Irene, Euphrosyne, and Theodora) we will see how this played out in the 8thand 9th centuries.

 

Euphrosyne – (793? – 836?)

Let’s review a bit. Irene became the sole ruler of Byzantium as Empress mother/Regent of Byzantium when her husband Leo IV died. She proved that she would be a strong, effective, and popular ruler. Irene is still remembered as a devout empress who loved her people.

In 787 Irene found a bride for her only son, Constantine VI, Mary of Amnia. Mary bore two daughters, Irene (named after her paternal grandmother) and Euphrosyne. The girls would have been born between 789 and 794 but no records exist of actual dates. When Euphrosyne was born Constantine decided he was tired of waiting for a male heir and divorced Mary. Constantine succeeded in trumping up charges of treason against Mary and had her convicted and exiled.

The empress mother Irene and the citizens of Constantinople objected to this sinful divorce. Nevertheless, Constantine forced Mary and their two daughters to leave Constantinople in January 795 to go to a monastery. Only much later would the wrong be righted when Mary was exonerated, and Euphrosyne would return to Constantinople.

Irene and Constantine fought for control of the throne with Irene gaining control. Part of the reason the populace welcomed Irene was because of Constantine’s divorce. Constantine who was exiled in 797. Irene reigned for five more years. In October 802 there was a military supported coup d’etat. Irene was forcibly removed from the throne. The finance minister, Nikephoros assumed the throne, and it seemed to be the end of the dynasty that had begun with Justinian in the sixth century.

Meanwhile, Euphrosyne was growing up in a monastery on Prinkipo. Her mother was forced to join the religious community. Mary and young Irene and Euphrosyne were virtually prisoners there. The girls were taught to read and write by other nuns or tutors. Eventually, Euphrosyne likely took the vows to be a nun. A modern view of Prinkipo shows an island with beautiful trees and sandy shores and many places for young girls to have fun while growing up even though for all they knew they were confined there permanently.

During their stay in the monastery the girls were probably aware of the conflict over icons. Euphrosyne would no doubt have been taught that she was a true daughter of Constantine and therefore a royal princess. Of coursed at this time of her life she could not foresee any other future than taking vows as a nun and spending the rest of her life in the monastery.

After the coup d’etat of 802, when her grandmother Irene as forced off of the throne, Nikephoros I reigned from 802 to 811. He did not succeed in any great accomplishments. He was killed by Bulgars after a battle with them in 811. The throne was fought over, and Michael I became emperor, but reigned only 2 years. Three junior military officers plotted to oust him. Each one wanted to be emperor, but Leo the Armenian prevailed, becoming Leo V. He reigned from 813 – 820.

Leo realized that he was not “royalty”. He also realized that the land was divided over the issue of icons. He believed that his best support to maintain his power for ruling would come from the iconoclasts (those who are against icons). During Irene’s reign, the use of icons in worship had come back. Irene had overturned the laws establishing iconoclasm. Now, Leo reversed this and made a new law in favor of iconoclasm.

Not surprisingly, Leo’s rule was challenged by Michael of Amorion. Leo had Michael imprisoned and would have executed him, but empress Theodosia persuaded him against it. It seems it was a holy day, the Feast of the Nativity. This gave Michael’s co-conspirators a chance to carry out an assassination attempt against Leo. They disguised themselves as members of the chapel choir and struck Leo down while he was singing the Christmas liturgy. The conspirators rushed to free Michael and changing his prison garb for royal purple had him crowned Michael II.

Michael began his reign in 820. He knew that he was not royalty. One wonders if he was worried about plots against him since he was now the fourth emperor in a row who attained the throne through military might rather than legal hereditary descent. Anyway, he decided to fix the problem by marrying someone who was royalty. Enter – Euphrosyne.

Michael was about forty years old in 820, and Euphrosyne between twenty-six and thirty. Though she was raised as an iconophile, Michael overlooked it in order to gain this royal bride for himself. Since Euphrosyne’s vows as a nun were supposed to be permanent, he also had to get a special dispensation for her to leave the convent. We don’t have records of Euphrosyne’s feelings in these matters, but she must have been happy to be restored to her rightful place in court. She and Michael married in 820.

Mary returned to the palace with her daughter. She was fully exonerated.

We have very few records of Euphrosyne’s activities during her reign with Michael from 820 – 829. We can assume that she would have fulfilled all of the duties of an empress, diplomatic meetings, caring for the poor, and trying to get an heir. She had no children but got along well with her stepson, Theophilos who would eventually become the emperor.

Euphrosyne founded a monastery near the city of Constantinople. It would become a family shrine. When her mother Mary died Euphrosyne had her buried there. Later Euphrosyne would bring the remains of her father Constantine, and her sister Irene and have them buried there. This was really important to Euphrosyne. She had no children, so her shrine commemorated the last few generations of the Syrian dynasty.

Michael II died in 829 and Theophilos ascended to the throne. Euphrosyne arranged a marriage for him with Theodora who will be the subject of our next post. Eventually Euphrosyne retired out of the Great Palace. She went to live in another palace. Here she began her somewhat covert activities in restoring the iconophile position in the land. Theophilos had adopted the iconoclastic laws of his father. But his and Theodora’s children, Euphrosyne’s step-grandchildren, would visit her in her palace. There she taught them as well as Theodora about icons. Theophilos had no idea that Euphrosyne was undermining Theophilos’ policy of iconoclasm. It would be after his death that Theodora would restore Icons to worship in the Church. That will be discussed in the next post.

There is no record of the date of Euphrosyne’s death. The nuns at the monastery probably performed the burial rituals. A marble tomb was built for her and she was laid to rest near her father, mother, and sister Irene.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Euphrosyne – Byzantine Empress – Part 1

Countless numbers of women served in God’s kingdom throughout history. Even in the earliest centuries, women evangelized, prayed, taught, preached, went on pilgrimages, reigned over kingdoms, founded monasteries, and took care of the poor. These women contributed greatly to the Kingdom of God, not so they could be remembered, but so they could serve the Lord Jesus by serving others.

Our stories over the last few months have mainly been about women in the western part of the world because more of their writings have survived the ravages of time. We do have some historical writings from Byzantium, so in the last several weeks we have taken a trip towards the East to look at the lives of three Byzantine empresses – Irene, Euphrosyne, and Theodora (9th century). We needed two posts to cover the amazing life if Irene! The stories of these three empresses would make a good movie! Before we talk about the second of the three, Euphrosyne, let’s review a bit about icons. Icons are still very popular in some Eastern Orthodox churches. It is an important part of their history and understanding the issues helps to understand the changes in leadership in the Byzantine empire.

Note on Icons:

The use of icons has a long history. Some early church leaders in the Western and Eastern churches felt that the pictures of saints helped the common folk to learn the story of the gospel. Indeed, Pope Gregory the Great said that religious images were the “Bible of the illiterate”. Other theologians were against using images in worship. They believed that in the Old Testament images had been forbidden by God. After all, they reasoned, God had given us a written word and it should be sufficient. These objectors to the use of images were also worried that the images would be too easily worshipped in place of God. These two views remain with us today.

 

The picture on the left is of a very famous icon from the Byzantine era. Icons of Christ are the most revered. This icon was at the Hagia Sophia. The Hagia Sophia was built in the sixth century by Justinian[1] as an Orthodox cathedral. It remained a Christian cathedral until 1453 when Constantinople was captured by the Ottomans. Constantinople was renamed Istanbul and the church was converted to a Muslim mosque. Today it is a museum that you can visit. (See picture on the right.)

 

Euphrosyne – (793? – 836?)

Let’s review a bit. We learned from our last two posts that Irene became the sole ruler as Empress mother/Regent of Byzantium when her husband Leo IV died. She proved that she would be a strong, effective, and popular ruler as she protected her son’s throne, accumulated support, won military battles, lowered taxes, and spent time and money caring for the poor. Irene is still remembered as a devout empress who loved her people.

In 787 Irene found a bride for her only son, Constantine VI, Mary of Amnia. Mary bore two daughters, Irene (named after her paternal grandmother) and Euphrosyne. The girls would have been born between 789 and 794 but no records exist of actual dates. When Euphrosyne was born Constantine decided he was tired of waiting for a male heir and divorced Mary. He could only put her away on charges of treason, so he spread the lie that Mary was trying to poison him. Many, including the Patriarch found the accusation untrue and shameful. Nevertheless, Constantine succeeded in getting Mary convicted and exiled.

The empress mother Irene objected to this. The patriarch tried to talk Constantine out of it. Divorce was not allowed in the Orthodox religion. Actually, even the citizens of Constantinople felt that Constantine VI was sinning and most refused to recognize the divorce. Nevertheless, Constantine forced Mary and their two daughters to leave Constantinople in January 795 to go to a monastery. Only much later would the wrong be righted when Mary was exonerated, and Euphrosyne would return to Constantinople.

After this Irene and Constantine fought for control of the throne. The people and the leaders favored Irene. Constantine had not been an effective ruler. He lost battles, raised taxes, alienated top government officials, and the people were still angry about his divorce. Irene prevailed over Constantine and had him exiled in 797. Irene reigned for five more years. In October 802 there was a military supported coup d’etat. Irene was forcibly removed from the throne. The finance minister, Nikephoros assumed the throne. He was not a member of the royal family and it seemed to be the end of the Syrian dynasty.

Meanwhile, the exiled Euphrosyne was growing up in a monastery on a large island in the Princes Isles, Prinkipo. Her mother was forced to join the religious community. Mary and young Irene and Euphrosyne were virtually prisoners there. As royalty their housing was probably better than most. Prinkipo is a beautiful island with forests and rocks and beaches where the girls probably enjoyed playing. Mary and the girls no doubt had a nice apartment and maybe even some servants. The girls were taught to read and write by other nuns or tutors. Eventually, Euphrosyne likely took the vows to be a nun. At this stage in her life she probably thought she would be in a monastery until she died.

During their stay in the monastery, Mary kept in touch with what was going on in court through letters. The girls were probably aware of the conflict over icons. Euphrosyne would no doubt have been taught that she was a true daughter of Constantine and therefore a royal princess. Of coursed at this time of her life she could not foresee any other future than taking vows as a nun and spending the rest of her life in the monastery. When her sister Irene died, Euphrosyne became the only living descendant of Leo III, the last of the legitimate ruling dynasty. This fact will later play a significant part in her life.

After the coup d’etat of 802, when Euphrosyne’s grandmother Irene was forced off of the throne, Nikephoros I assumed control and he reigned from 802 to 811. Nikephoros would be the first of the next four emperors who succeeded to the throne by military might or rebel takeovers. The story of the changes in government over the next eighteen years reads like a good movie plot. While the men were fighting over the throne, Mary and her daughters, Irene and Euphrosyne were living peaceful lives away from the intrigues and bloodshed. We will pick up the story of the Byzantine empire in Part 2 next time with the takeover by Nikephoros in 802. Euphrosyne would be in seclusion for eighteen years during all the drama at court. It will have a happy ending for her.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] You can read about Justinian and Theodora, posted on this blog – September 10, 2019, “Christianity Women in the Medieval Era – Part 4”

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