Sophia Palaiologina

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Zoe Palaiologina
S.paleolog reconstruction03.JPG
Reconstruction by Sergey Nikitin, 1994.
Grand Princess consort of Moscow
Tenure12 November 1472 – 7 April 1503
Borncirca 1449
Died7 April 1503
SpouseIvan III of Russia
FatherThomas Palaiologos
MotherCatherine Zaccaria
ReligionRoman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox

Zoe Palaiologina (Medieval Greek: Ζωή Παλαιολογίνα), who later changed her name to Sophia Palaiologina (Russian: София Фоминична Палеолог; ca. 1449 – 7 April 1503), was a Byzantine princess, member of the Imperial Palaiologos family, Grand Princess of Moscow as the second wife of Grand Prince Ivan III. Through her eldest son Vasili III, she was also the grandmother of Ivan the Terrible, the first Tsar of All Russia.


Zoe was born in the Morea in 1449 to Thomas Palaiologos, Despot of the Morea and younger brother of the last Byzantine Emperor, Constantine XI Palaiologos (r. 1449–1453).[1] Her mother was Catherine, the only legitimate daughter and heiress of Centurione II Zaccaria, the last independent Prince of Achaea and Baron of Arcadia.

The marriage between Thomas Palaiologos and Catherine Zaccaria produced four children: Helena (later wife of Lazar Branković, Despot of Serbia); Zoe; Andreas; and Manuel.

In Italy[edit]

The fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453 was a turning point in Zoe's fate. Seven years later, in 1460, the Ottoman army attacked Morea and quickly breached the Hexamilion wall across the Isthmus of Corinth, which was too long to be effectively manned and defended by Thomas' forces. Thomas and his family escaped to Corfu, and, then to Rome, where (already recognized as the legitimate heir to the Byzantine Empire by the Pope) he made a ceremonial entrance as Byzantine Emperor on 7 March 1461. Catherine, who remained in Corfu with her children, died there on 16 August 1462.

Zoe and her brothers remained in Petriti, a fishing port on the southeast coast of Corfu, until 1465, when their dying father recalled them to Rome. Thomas Palaiologos died on 12 May 1465.[2]

Adopted by the Papacy after her father's death together with her brothers, her name Zoe was changed to Sophia. Born into the Orthodox religion, it's possible that she was raised as a Catholic in Rome.[3] She spent the next years in the court of Pope Sixtus IV.

The care of the Imperial children was assigned to a famous scientist, Greek Cardinal Basilios Bessarion. Surviving letters of the Cardinal show the Pope followed the evolution and welfare of Sophia and her brothers: they received the amount of 3,600 crowns (in payments of 200 crowns per month for their clothes, horses and servants, and an additional 100 crowns for the maintenance of a modest household, which included a doctor, a Latin teacher, a Greek teacher, a translator, and one or two priests).

After the death of Thomas Palaeologus, his eldest son Andreas claimed the Imperial title, but sold his rights to several European monarchs and finally died in poverty. During the reign of Bayezid II, Manuel returned to Constantinople (now Istanbul) and remained at the mercy of the Sultan; according to some sources, he converted to Islam, raised a family and served in the Turkish Navy.

In 1466 the Venetian Republic invited King James II of Cyprus to ask for the hand of Sophia in marriage, but he refused. Around 1467, Pope Paul II offered Sophia's hand to a Prince Caracciolo. They were solemnly betrothed, but the marriage never took place.

Grand Princess consort of Moscow[edit]

Maria of Tver, the first wife of Grand Prince Ivan III of Moscow, died in 1467. This marriage only produced a son, Ivan the Young, born in 1458.

The marriage between Sophia and Ivan III was proposed by Pope Paul II in 1469, probably with the hope of strengthening the influence of the Catholic Church in Russia, or the unification of the Orthodox and Catholic as was stipulated in the Council of Florence. Ivan III's motives for pursuing this union were probably connected with the status and rights of the Greek princess over Constantinople. The idea of this marriage perhaps was born in the mind of Cardinal Bessarion.

The negotiations lasted for three years. Russian chronicles related the events as follows:

Ivan Fryazin showed to Ivan III the portrait of Sophia Palaiologina, by Viktor Muizhel.
  • On 11 February 1469, a delegation led by Cardinal Bessarion arrived in Moscow with the formal proposal of marriage between Sophia and the Grand Prince. Ivan III consulted his mother, Maria of Borovsk, the Metropolitan Philip and his boyars, and received a positive response.
  • In 1469 Ivan Fryazin (Gian-Battista della Volpe) was sent to the Roman court to engage in the proper negotiations for the match. According to the chronicles, he was sent back to Moscow with a portrait of the princess that "caused an extreme surprise in the court". (This portrait was not preserved, which is very unfortunate, because it was probably painted by one of the painters at the papal court at that time: Pietro Perugino, Melozzo da Forlì or Pedro Berruguete). The Pope received the Russian Ambassador with great honors.
  • On 16 January 1472, Fryazin was sent again to Rome, this time to bring home his master's bride. He arrived there on 23 May, after a journey of more than four months.
  • On 1 June 1472, at St. Peter's Basilica, the marriage took place. Grand Prince Ivan III was not present: Fryazin was his proxy. Among the guests at the ceremony were Clarice Orsini (wife of Lorenzo the Magnificent, ruler of Florence) and Queen Catherine of Bosnia.[4] As a dowry, Sophia received 6,000 ducats.
  • On 24 June 1472, Sophia and Fryazin, left Rome with a grand entourage. The bride was accompanied by Cardinal Bessarion, who was probably able to act as an agent at the Moscow court. Legend says that Sophia's dowry included books that became the basis of the famous library of Ivan the Terrible. Their itinerary took them to the north of Italy through Germany to the port of Lübeck, where they arrived on 1 September. The voyage across the Baltic Sea took 11 days. The ship landed in Reval (now Tallinn) in October 1472, and she continued the trip through Dorpat (now Tartu), Pskov, and Novgorod. (She was officially acclaimed in Pskov, and impressed onlookers by the way she thanked the public herself for the celebrations.)[3] On 12 November 1472, Sophia finally arrived in Moscow.

Even before traveling to Russian lands, it became apparent that the Vatican's plans to make Sophia represent Catholicism had failed: Immediately after her wedding, she returned to the faith of her ancestors. Papal Legate Anthony was not permitted to enter Moscow carrying in front of him the Latin cross.[5] (The Korsun cross is on view in the collections of the Moscow Kremlin Museums . )

The formal wedding between Ivan III and Sophia took place at the Dormition Cathedral in Moscow on 12 November 1472. Some sources say that the ceremony was performed by Metropolitan Philip, others state that Hosea, Abbot of Kolomna, was the officiant.[6][7]

Special mansions and gardens were built for Sophia in Moscow, but they were burned in the great Moscow fire of 1493, and much of the treasure of the Grand Princess was lost. In 1472, she was affected by the formal tributary gesture by which her spouse greeted the Mongolian representatives, and is believed to have convinced him to abandon the tributary relationship to the Mongols, which was completed in 1480.[3]

Sophia was apparently not obliged to follow the traditional custom of isolation that was expected of other Russian noblewomen at the time. It was noted that she was not confined to the women's quarters, but greeted foreign representatives from Europe as the queens of Western Europe did.[3]

Before the invasion of Akhmad in 1480, Sophia, her children, household and treasury were sent away, first to Dmitrov and then on to Belozersk. For fear Akhmad would finally take Moscow, she was advised to flee farther north, to the sea. These precautions led Vissarion, Bishop of Rostov, to warn the Grand Duke that his excessive attachment to his wife and children would be his destruction.[8]

The family returned to Moscow only in the winter. The Venetian ambassador Ambrogio Contarini writes that in 1476 he had an audience with the Grand Duchess, who received him politely and kindly, and respectfully asked about the Doge.

There is a legend associated with the birth of Sophia's eldest son, the future Vasily III: During one of her pious trips to Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius, the Grand Princess had a vision of the Venerable Sergius of Radonezh, who "presented her the long-waited son between his arms."

Dynastic problems and rivalry[edit]

Over time, the second marriage of the Grand Prince was one of the main sources of tension in the court, thanks to the "shrewd" character of the new Grand Princess[3] and the spreading rumours that her husband let himself be directed by her suggestions.[3] It is believed that Sophia introduced grand Byzantine ceremonies and meticulous court etiquette into the Kremlin, pleased with the idea of Moscow as a Third Rome.

Soon, the court nobility divided into two parties. One supported the heir to the throne, Ivan the Young, and the other sided with Sophia. In 1476, the Venetian Ambrogio Contarini noted that the heir to the throne had lost his father's favor, thanks to the intrigues of the Despoina. (This Byzantine court title for an empress, "Lady" was given to Sophia as her father's heir. ) However, if any tension existed between father and son, it did not interfere with his rights: From 1477 Ivan the Young was officially referred to as the co-ruler of Ivan III.

The princely family increased significantly: between 1474 and 1490, as the Grand Princess gave birth to eleven children, five sons and six daughters.

Another source of tension appeared in the Russian court in January 1483, when Ivan the Young married Elena, daughter of Stephen III the Great, Prince of Moldavia. The heir's new wife soon became involved in court intrigues, especially after 10 October 1483, when she gave birth to a son, Dmitry. After the annexation of Tver in 1485, the Grand Duke named Ivan the Young Grand Prince of this domain. During the 1480s, Ivan's position as the rightful heir was quite secure.

Sophia's supporters were less secure at that time. In particular, the Grand Princess was unable to obtain government posts for her relatives: Her brother, Andreas, departed from Moscow with nothing, and her niece Maria (wife of Vasily Mikhailovich, Hereditary Prince of Verey-Belozersky) was forced to flee to Lithuania with her husband, an event which further undermined Sophia's position at court. According to sources, Sophia arranged her niece's marriage to Prince Vasily in 1480, and in 1483 she gave her some jewelry that belonged to Ivan III's first wife. When Ivan the Young asked for these jewels (he wanted to give them to his wife, Elena, as a gift), he discovered them missing; outraged, he ordered a search. Prince Vasily did not wait for retribution to be carried out against him, but fled to Lithuania with his wife. One direct consequence of this episode was that Prince Michael of Verey-Belozersky, Vasily's father, bequeathed his domains to the Grand Prince, effectively disinheriting his son.[9][10] In 1493, Sophia was able to obtain a pardon for her niece and her husband, but for unknown reasons they never returned.

By 1490, new factors had come into play. Ivan the Young became ill with gout. Sophia wrote to a Venetian doctor called Leon, who arrogantly promised Ivan III that he could cure the heir to the throne. All efforts failed, and on 7 March 1490, Ivan the Young died. The doctor was executed,[11] and in Moscow, rumors spread about Sophia, alleging that she had poisoned the heir. Andrey Kurbsky, who wrote about these events almost 100 years later, said that these rumors were indisputable facts. Modern historians, however, consider the theory that Sophia poisoned Ivan the Young to be unverifiable, due to lack of sources.

In 1497, Sophia and her eldest son, Vasili, were allegedly involved in a plot to kill Prince Dmitry, son of Ivan the Young. Both were disgraced and probably banished from court.[12]

On 4 February 1498, in the Dormition Cathedral in an atmosphere of great splendor, Prince Dmitry was crowned Grand Prince and co-ruler with his grandfather. Sophia and her son Vasili were not invited to the coronation. They were restored to favor in mid-1499 and allowed to return to court.

On 11 April 1502, the dynastic struggle came to an end. According to chronicles, Ivan III suddenly changed his mind and imprisoned both Grand Prince Dmitry and his mother, Elena, placing them under house arrest surrounded by guards. Three days later, on 14 April, Vasili was crowned the new Grand Prince and co-ruler; soon Dmitry and his mother were transferred from house arrest to prison. The downfall of Dmitry and Elena also determined the fate of the Moscow-Novgorod Reformation movement in the Orthodox Church:[13] In 1503, a council finally defeated it, and many prominent and progressive leaders of this movement were executed. Elena of Moldavia died in prison on 18 January 1505. Her son Dmitry died a few years later on 14 February 1509, either by hunger and cold, or, as others claim, suffocated by orders of his uncle.[14]


Destruction of Sophia Palaiologina grave in 1929.

The triumph of her son was the last important event in Sophia's life. She died on 7 April 1503, two years before her husband (who died on 27 October 1505).

She was buried in a massive white stone sarcophagus in the crypt of the Ascension Convent in the Kremlin, next to the grave of Maria of Tver, the first wife of Ivan III. The word "Sophia" is etched on the lid of the sarcophagus.

The Ascension Convent was destroyed in 1929, and the remains of Sophia and of other royal women were transferred to the underground chamber in the southern extension of the Cathedral of the Archangel.


Screen representations[edit]

Sophia Palaiologina was the subject of the 2016 Russian television series Sophia, in which she was portrayed by Mariya Andreyeva.[19]



  1. ^ Talbot, Alice-Mary (1991). "Sophia Palaiologina". In Kazhdan, Alexander (ed.). The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. p. 1928. ISBN 0-19-504652-8.
  2. ^ Steven Runciman: The Fall of Constantinople (London: Cambridge, 1969), p. 182.
  3. ^ a b c d e f de Madariaga, Isabel (2008), Ivan den förskräcklige [Ivan the Terrible] (in Swedish).
  4. ^ William Miller: Essays on the Latin Orient, 1921, pp. 508–509. [retrieved 25 February 2015].
  5. ^ C. Nikitin: Portrait of Sophia Palaeologus. "Science and Life" (in Russian) [retrieved 25 February 2015].
  6. ^ Fryazy and Greeks with Princess Sophia of Rome (in Russian) [retrieved 25 February 2015].
  7. ^ Sophia Palaeologus - Greek princess on the Russian throne (in Russian) [retrieved 25 February 2015].
  8. ^ Независимый летописный свод 80-х гг. XV в.
  9. ^ AA Zimin Revived Russia (in Russian) [retrieved 26 February 2015].
  10. ^ Skrynnikov RG Ivan III, p. 192.
  11. ^ J. L. I. Fennell: The Dynastic Crisis 1497-1502, The Slavonic and East European Review, Vol. 39, No. 92 (Dec., 1960).
  12. ^ J. Martin: Medieval Russia 980-1584 (Cambridge University Press), 1999, p. 247.
  13. ^ Oleg Zhigankov: Ahead of their time? The 15th century Reformation in Russia [retrieved 23 June 2019].
  14. ^ Sigismund von Herberstein: Notes on Muscovite Affairs (1549), edition 1986, p. 45.
  15. ^ The offspring of Rurik. A complete list of princes and nobles, the descendants of Rurik - the first Russian prince, founder of the Rurik dynasty and Russian statehood, relatively published to date / Comp.: AN Sokolov, mitrofor. protoyer. - 2nd ed., Rev. and additional - N. Novgorod, 2007 .-- 936 p. - P.206.
  16. ^ Golitsyn, princely family // Brockhaus and Efron Encyclopedic Dictionary  : in 86 volumes (82 volumes and 4 additional). - SPb. , 1890-1907.
  17. ^ All living members of the House of Galitzine are descendants of Sophia Palaiologina and Ivan III, this genealogy is cited on source number 15 and the Russian Wikipedia (page 1 and 2)
  18. ^ "Alexandra Pavlovna "Aleka" Galitzine Armour".
  19. ^ Уроки истории: канал «Россия 1» начинает показ исторического сериала «София» (28 November 2016)

External links[edit]

Sophia Palaiologina
Palaiologos dynasty
Born: c. 1440/49 Died: 7 April 1503
Russian royalty
Title last held by
Maria of Tver
Grand Princess consort of Muscovy
Title next held by
Solomonia Saburova