The Emperor Needs a Wife

Over the centuries kings and their heirs have usually married on the basis of state or dynastic needs. Given their restricted marital options, they were rarely frowned upon if they took mistresses or concubines for sexual satisfaction. It was rare that a king rejected a bride chosen for political reasons because her appearance displeased him. One exception was Henry VIII, who took speedy steps to rid himself of Anne of Cleves, reputedly described by him as the Mare of Flanders, soon after he first set eyes upon her.

In surviving monarchies in recent years, kings and princes have had more latitude and some have chosen brides for their charms. It did not work very well for Edward VIII, perhaps mainly because he chose a woman already twice married and about to be divorced. The present Duke of York chose entirely for love, but experienced severe marital difficulties. It is very unlikely that Lady Diana Spencer would have become the beloved Princess Di, the People’s Princess, if she had been frowsy-looking or disfigured. It is certain that the heir to the Danish crown would not have chosen Tasmanian Mary had she not been beautiful and charming, nor would Prince William have proposed to Kate Middleton had she been plain.

Some queens and empresses regnant and royal heiresses presumptive have also been influenced by appearance as well as by diplomatic and dynastic concerns. Queen Victoria was captivated by Albert’s good looks and Mary Queen of Scots by Bosworth’s strength. When she was Princess Elizabeth, our queen was not indifferent to the good looks of the suitor she chose.

Princesses Diana and Mary did not, however, catch their future husband’s eye when parading before them, nor did Miss Middleton, but in the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) empire a beauty competition was sometimes organised and the emperor or his heir chose the woman he fancied most—rather like Cinderella and her Prince Charming. Three are noted here.

In 811 Emperor Nicephorus assembled a range of beautiful girls who might be suitable brides for his son Stauracius. Nicephorus drew up a shortlist of three, but gave third-placed Theophano of Athens to Stauracius as his bride. The Emperor kept numbers one and two for himself. Shortly afterwards Nicephorus lost a battle against the Bulgars and was beheaded by them. The Bulgar Khan, Krum, had Nicephorus’s skull mounted in silver and used it as his drinking cup. Stauracius was deposed by Michael Rhangabe and sent off to a monastery where he died soon afterwards. The first three girls in that beauty competition, one a widow and the others ex-mistresses, were all sent off to monasteries and made to take the veil.

In 821 the seventeen-year-old Theophilus was crowned co-Emperor of Byzantium with his father Michael II, formerly Michael Rhangabe. Almost immediately another beauty competition was arranged and Theophilus chose and married a gorgeous aristocratic Paphlagonian named Theodora. For some years all went well for marriage and empire. The one major setback was that for many years the imperial couple had only one son who died in infancy, although they had five healthy daughters. Michael and Theodora must have given up hope of a male successor but then, after nearly twenty years of marriage Theodora gave birth to another boy, who lived to become Michael III on the death of his father.

In 838 Theophilus returned to Constantinople from victory in war over the Saracens, and was welcomed home by Theodora. Thousands of Muslim prisoners were paraded before them. Three years later the fortunes of war changed, the Byzantines were defeated and Theophilus died. Theodora became regent for her two-year-old son. She used her new power to support the Iconodules, who revered icons as symbols of Christ and His Holy Mother, against the Iconoclasts, who destroyed icons as objects of superstitious worship. Theodora was an ardent iconodule and she restored and added new icons in churches throughout the empire. Then Theodora agreed to the persecution of the Paulician Christians, puritanical iconoclasts who had never threatened the secular power. The Paulicians were ordered to accept the main doctrines of the Greek Orthodox Church on pain of death. John Julius Norwich wrote that “100,000 are reported to have perished—by hanging, drowning, the sword, even by crucifixion”. The rest fled eastwards into the Saracen emirate of Melitene. They became dedicated enemies of the Byzantine empire.

Theodora fell from power through family quarrels. At fifteen her son Michael made Eudocia Ingerina, who was half-Swedish, his mistress and wanted to marry her. Theodora objected to a part-Scandinavian daughter-in-law and pressured Michael into marrying another Eudocia, surnamed Decapolitana, for whom he felt no affection at all. In 855 a vengeful Michael plotted against his mother and banished her and his sisters to a monastery where they were forced to take the veil. Twelve years later Michael III was himself murdered by a rival. Theodora and her daughters were allowed to return to Constantinople to mourn over Michael’s mutilated body, but it was an unhappy ending. Perhaps Theodora should have let Michael choose for himself as her husband had done?

In 900 Emperor Leo III (often called Leo the Wise) became, through no fault on his part, a widower for the second time. A bride show was organised in which hundreds of the most beautiful girls in the Byzantine empire competed. Leo chose a luscious girl from Phrygia called Eudocia Baiana. Eudocia did her part and after nine months gave birth to a son. Unfortunately, she died in childbirth and the baby boy died a week later.

So all three marriages resulting from beauty competitions ended in sorrow, but not many Byzantine empresses selected on different grounds died in tranquillity. More emperors died through violence than of natural causes and their widows rarely received kindly treatment afterwards. Still, all of us must die and each of the three enjoyed some time in a position that almost all other women envied. There are no foolproof ways of choosing a spouse. 

Geoffrey Partington is a frequent contributor to Quadrant on education, history and current affairs.

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