Zoe, Empress of Constantinople

Mosaic of Empress Zoe at the Hagia Sophia

Zoe Porphyrogenita lived most of her life in relative obscurity. She was the second of 3 daughters born to Constantine VIII and his wife, Helena. Zoe was born in Constantinople in about 978. She was the niece of Basil II, the warrior emperor who had co-ruled, as senior emperor, with Constantine for over 60 years. Basil died in January 1025, leaving Constantine to rule alone for a further 3 years before his own death in November 1028. By all accounts, while Basil fought to preserve his empire, Constantine was more in love with the trapping of power, rather than the wielding of it.

Zoe’s father had been emperor since the age of 2, meaning that Zoe was ‘born into the purple’ – born to a reigning emperor. She had an elder sister, Eudokia, who joined a monastery, and a younger sister, Theodora. Zoe’s uncle Basil II refused to arrange marriages for his nieces, as such marriages would give their husbands a claim to the imperial throne. The girls lived in virtual obscurity in the women’s quarters of the palace for many years.

Zoe first appeared on the international stage in 1001, at the age of 23, when her uncle offered her as a bride to German Emperor Otto III (reigned 996-1002). Zoe had set sail from Constantinople, but on arriving at Bari, was met with the news that her prospective groom had died of a fever. Zoe returned home to Constantinople and the continued seclusion of the royal palace.

Following the death of her uncle, and with no legitimate male heir to succeed him, Zoe’s father, Constantine, sought to settle the empire’s future by finally arranging Zoe’s marriage. At the age of 50, in 1028, she was married to her father’s designated successor, probably to add legitimacy to his claim to the imperial throne. Her new husband became Emperor Romanos III, and Zoe empress consort, when he succeeded to the throne just 3 days after the wedding.

Zoe was described by a palace courtier, Michael Psellos, as;

‘a woman of great beauty, most imposing in her manner and commanding respect … a woman of passionate interests, prepared with equal enthusiasm for both alternatives, death or life, I mean. In that she reminded me of sea-waves, now lifting a ship on high and then again plunging it down to the depths … Zoe was openhanded, the sort of woman who could exhaust a sea teaming with gold-dust in one day … [she] confused the trifles of the harem with important matters of state … her eyes were large, set wide apart with imposing eyebrows. Her nose was inclined to be aquiline, and her whole body was radiant with the whiteness of her skin.’

Zoe and Theodora, Chronographia

As empress consort, Zoe asserted herself. Her younger sister, Theodora, was sent to a monastery. Romanos was an unpopular ruler, his economic policies and military defeat in 1030 causing consternation. Neglected by her husband, who took a lover and refused to allow Zoe any say in affairs of state, the empress took a much younger, teenage lover, her chamberlain, Michael. Together they conspired to dispose of Romanos and he was found dead in his bath on 10 April 1034, allegedly poisoned by Zoe or her lover.

Michael IV

Zoe promptly married her young lover and made him Emperor Michael IV. Not surprisingly, their marriage was full of distrust and Zoe was allowed no power or say in government. Michael IV then banished Zoe to a monastery. His reign was no golden age, with the aristocracy opposing the undue influence of the emperor’s brother, John the Orphanostrophos. High taxation sparked a revolt, led by Peter Deljan, who used it as a pretext to end the Byzantine dominance of the Bulgars. The rebellion was quashed within a year, with the aid of Harald Hardrada and his 500 Norwegians, who had joined the Varanagian Guard in 1034. Further losses in Sicily and the emperor’s worsening epilepsy added to the empire’s woes. Not to be forgotten, Zoe began scheming to reclaim her throne. After she was allowed back to court, and unable to bear her own children due to her age, Zoe was persuaded to adopt Michael IV’s nephew, another Michael, and make him her heir.

Michael IV’s life would have probably ended in the same way as his predecessor, Romanos III, drowned in the bath or with a knife in his back, had he not died of natural causes in 1041, after retiring to a monastery. His nephew, Zoe’s adopted son, ascended the throne as Michael V; Michael was the son of the sister of Michael IV. Michael V was crowned in 1041 but immediately turned against those who had raised him to the throne. His uncle, John the Orphanotrophos, was exiled from court and Zoe was again banished to a monastery, an act which caused an uprising in Constantinople.

The people of Constantinople and the church wanted to see the crown returned to Zoe and the legitimate dynastic line. The mob ransacked the royal palace and deposed Michael V in April 1042. The young emperor was deposed after only 4 months of disastrous rule. He was exiled to a monastery, but complaints about such lenient treatment meant that Zoe issued orders for his mutilation. He was blinded, an act symbolically rendering him incapable of ruling, supposedly by Harald Hadrada, the future king of Norway, himself.

Zoe and Theodora

Now 64 years old, Zoe was empress once again.

Zoe’s sister, Theodora, was retrieved from her monastery to rule beside her. As the elder sister, Zoe’s throne was placed slightly forward of her Theodora’s at the joint coronation ceremony, as an obvious indication of which of the sisters was in charge!

The sisters sought to reform Byzantine imperial policies, making new court appointments, ending corrupt practices, such as selling titles, and instigating an investigation into the actions of their predecessor.

In the same year, 1042, Zoe took a third husband, Constantine Monomachos, who ruled as Emperor Constantine IX. Long-admired by the empress, Constantine had been exiled to Lesbos but was recalled to become Zoe’s third husband. Constantine was rich and elegant, with a reputation as a ladies man, but with experience of Byzantine government as a senior civil administrator. He co-ruled the empire with the 2 imperial sisters.

Domestic arrangements, however, were frowned upon when Constantine moved his long-time lover, Sclerina, into the imperial palace, apparently with Zoe’s blessing. The public were not so tolerant and called for Sclerina’s removal; the crisis was resolved by Sclerina’s sudden death from a pulmonary disease.

Emperor Constantine IX

Constantine set about reforming the Byzantine administration, exiling John the Orphanotrophos from court for a second time, and surrounding himself with noted intellectuals, among them Michael Psellos. However, his reforms and neglect of the army led to two uprisings, in 1043 and 1047, respectively, and saw the frontiers of the empire crumbling under incursions from the Normans, the Seljuks and the Pechenegs.

Constantine outlived his wife; Zoe died in 1050, aged about 72. And when her sister, Theodora, died in 1056, the Macedonian dynasty founded by Basil I (reigned 867-886) came to an end. Zoe is remembered in the gold and glass mosaic of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (now Istanbul) in which she is portrayed with Constantine IX and Jesus Christ. The inscription reads ‘Zoe, the most pious Augusta’.

Pictures:

Courtesy of Wikipaedia

Sources:

britannica.com; A History of the Vikings by T.D. Kendrick; God’s Viking: Harald Hardrada by Nic Fields; Heimskringla. The Chronicle of the Kings of Norway by Snorre Strurluson; Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest by Sharon Bennett Connolly; Ancient History Encyclopedia.

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My Books

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest

From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Æthelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

Heroines of the Medieval World

Telling the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is available now on kindle and in paperback in the UK from from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon, in the US from Amazon and worldwide from Book Depository.

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You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter and Instagram.

©2019 Sharon Bennett Connolly 

Book Corner: The Two Eleanors of Henry III by Darren Baker

Eleanor of Provence was born in the province of her name in 1223. She has come to England at the age of twelve to marry the king, Henry III. He’s sixteen years older, but was a boy when he ascended the throne. He’s a kind, sensitive sort whose only personal attachments to women so far have been to his three sisters. The youngest of them is called Eleanor too. She was only nine when, for political reasons, her first marriage took place, but she’s already a chaste twenty-year old widow when the new queen arrives in 1236. In a short time, this Eleanor will marry the rising star of her brother’s court, a French parvenu named Simon de Montfort, thus wedding the fates of these four people together in an England about to undergo some of the most profound changes in its history. It’s a tale that covers three decades at its heart, with loyalty to family and principles at stake, in a land where foreigners are subject to intense scrutiny and jealousy. The relationship between these two sisters-in-law, close but ultimately doomed, will reflect not just the turbulence and tragedy of their times, but also the brilliance and splendour.

Having just reviewed one of the best fiction books of 2019 in Angus Donald’s Blood’s Campaign, it is a pleasure to review one of the best non-fiction books I’ve read this year. Darren Baker’s The Two Eleanors of Henry III: The Lives of Eleanor of Provence and Eleanor de Montfort is a truly engaging book, delving into the lives of two very different women, friends who were on opposing sides during the Second Baron’s War and the rebellion of Simon de Montfort.

Told chronologically, with their lives running in parallel, Darren Baker recreates the experiences of Eleanor of Provence, queen of Henry III, and Eleanor de Montfort, sister of Henry III and wife of his bitter enemy, Simon de Montfort. Sympathetic but not overly sentimental, Darren Baker recreates the political and personal lives of his two protagonists, both on the national and international stage.

The Two Eleanors of Henry III: The Lives of Eleanor of Provence and Eleanor de Montfort is a wonderful analysis of the years between the issuing of Magna Carta and the death of Simon de Montfort at the Battle of Evesham, clearly demonstrating the roles played by the wives of the two main protagonists in the ongoing battle between crown and barons. Darren Baker examines the conflict, and motivations behind it, from a new and innovative angle.

It cannot have been easy to write a dual biography about two women who shared a Christian name, but Darren Baker has a remarkable skill in always clearly identifying which Eleanor he is talking about at any particular time, negating any possible confusion for the reader.

As the banquet commences, Eleanor [of Provence] notices a man standing in close proximity to them, holding a basin of water for the king to clean his hands in before, during and after the meal. But e is clearly no servant. Besides wearing stately robes, he walks with Henry with a familiarity that suggests they are friends. More intriguing, his accent is very close to hers. Someone in the party whispers that it is Simon de Montfort, the son of the crusader who set most of their region ablaze three decades earlier. Simon too grew up in the south of France until his father was felled in the conflict. When the crusade was over, he ventured to England to claim the earldom of Leicester through his grandmother’s noble lineage. The earldom came with the office of steward, which is what this tall and handsome knight, then in his late twenties, is doing in attending the king at the feast.

Simon looks at the party from Provence with equal suspicion. He survived a purge of foreign courtiers only a few years before and is worried this new crowd from abroad might re-ignite that peculiar English obsession with aliens. His position seems safe because he is one of Henry’s most trusted confidants. He has recently shown his loyalty to him by proposing marriage to two widowed countesses on the Continent, presumably at the king’s urging. Henry has grand ideas about creating alliances across the Channel as a means of recovering the lands seized by the French from his father. ‘Do that,’ he intimated, ‘and I’ll find you a suitable bride if it doesn’t work out.’ Simon returned empty-handed.

Widows abound in this feudal society and the king gets to decide who marries the rich and powerful ones. None is more desirable than his own sister, who is also named Eleanor. She was younger than her new sister-in-law when she was betrothed to William Marshal II, son of her brother’s first regent. Because of her extreme youth at the time, it was years before she and William began cohabiting. Their marriage waas successfull but childless.

Don’t be fooled by the flowing narrative, The Two Eleanors of Henry III: The Lives of Eleanor of Provence and Eleanor de Montfort is an in-depth analysis, not only of the lives of the two women, but of the events which shaped their world and threatened the very stability of England and the monarchy. Darren Baker delves into the motivations of both women, their loyalty to their husbands and family and examines the lengths that each went to in order to protect their own interests.

The Two Eleanors of Henry III: The Lives of Eleanor of Provence and Eleanor de Montfort is a pleasure to read. It provides great insight into the lives of Eleanor of Provence, Eleanor de Montfort, their husbands and children and the impact that their family feuding had, not only on England, but also on the European stage. The author does not run to judgement and provides a balanced analysis of both sides of the conflict of the Second Barons’ War. He clearly points out the character strengths and flaws of both Eleanors, using chronicles and letters to build clear images of their characters and personalities.

The Two Eleanors of Henry III: The Lives of Eleanor of Provence and Eleanor de Montfort firmly places Eleanor of Provence and Eleanor de Montfort within the thirteenth century world in which they lived. Darren Baker brings their stories to life, with his passion for his subjects clearly visible in the elegant narrative. This book is a must for anyone interested in medieval women or in the conflict between Henry III and Simon de Montfort. Placing the focus on the two women who saw their husbands and sons drawn into the Second Barons’ War shines a whole new light on the period.

It is an enjoyable and fascinating read!

To buy the Book:

The Two Eleanors of Henry III: The Lives of Eleanor of Provence and Eleanor de Montfort is now available from Amazon UK and is available for pre-order from Amazon US and direct from Pen & Sword.

About the author:

Darren Baker is a translator and historian who took his degree at the University of Connecticut. He currently lives in the Czech Republic.

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My Books

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest

From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Æthelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

Heroines of the Medieval World

Telling the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is available now on kindle and in paperback in the UK from from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon, in the US from Amazon and worldwide from Book Depository.

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You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter and Instagram.

©2019 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Book Corner: Blood’s Campaign by Angus Donald

ONE OF THE MOST TURBULENT REIGNS IN HISTORY PAVED THE WAY FOR THE FIRST MODERN REVOLUTION.

AFTER THE TUDORS CAME THE STUARTS . . .

If you enjoy S. J. Parris and Andrew Taylor, then this is the series you need to read next.

August 25, 1689

The English Army is besieging Carrickfergus in Ireland. Brilliant but unusual gunner Holcroft Blood of the Royal Train of Artillery is ready to unleash his cannons on the rebellious forces of deposed Catholic monarch James II. But this is more than war for Captain Blood, a lust for private vengeance burns within him.

French intelligence agent Henri d’Erloncourt has come across the seas to foment rebellion against William of Orange, the newly installed Dutch ruler of England, Scotland and Ireland. But Henri’s true mission is not to aid the suffering of the Irish but to serve the interests of his master, Louis le Grand.

Michael ‘Galloping’ Hogan, brigand, boozer and despoiler of Protestant farms, strives to defend his native land – and make a little profit on the side. But when he takes the Frenchman’s gold, he suspects deep in his freedom-loving heart, that he has merely swapped one foreign overlord for another.

July 1, 1690

On the banks of the River Boyne, on a fateful, scorching hot day, two armies clash in bloody battle – Protestant against Catholic – in an epic struggle for mastery of Ireland. And, when the slaughter is over and the smoke finally clears, for these three men, nothing will ever be the same again . . .

The sign of a really good book is always that you find yourself absorbed in it, desperate to finish it but bereft when you do. Blood’s Campaign is a really, really, really good book!

I was extremely excited to be offered this book to review by NetGalley. The first 2 books in the series, Blood’s Game and Blood’s Revolution, were both fantastic and refreshingly unique stories, introducing a hero who was sympathetic and quirky in a very distinct way.

Blood’s Campaign, the third in the series following the exploits of Holcroft Blood, it takes us to Ireland and the campaign that led to the Battle of the Boyne and the end of James VII and II’s hopes to regain the throne from his daughter and her husband, the joint monarchs, William III and Mary II. Angus Donald combines the story of the campaign with Blood’s own personal mission to find and destroy the French spy, codenamed Narrey – Holcroft’s one-time friend, Henri d’Erloncourt.

In today’s society, Holcroft Blood would be on the Autistic Spectrum. In the 17th Century, there was no such diagnosis. He was simply seen as a peculiar character. Holcroft is well aware of his failings, of his inability to understand jokes and to read some people; this, and his black-and-white outlook on life can lead to distractions which in themselves could lead him into trouble, especially with women. He feels more comfortable when order is enforced, which makes the army the ideal home for Holcroft.

He clambered up the pile of rubble by the corner of the farmhouse and pulled out his telescope. ‘You take over, Enoch,’ he said over his shoulder. ‘Nothing fancy, go for the highest rate of fire. I’ll spot for you from here.’

He trained the telescope on the roof of Joymount House. The twenty-four-pounders were being moved again. No need to aim at the breach any more. Then to his joy he caught a glimpse of Narrey standing alone by the easel, tapping his chin with the wooden end of the paintbrush, on the right-hand roof before he moved out of sight towards the rear.

Please, God, let him stay where he is, please, God, let him remain up there.

He looked behind him to see what stage the reloading process had reached. Nearly there.

‘Tend the match,’ Jackson was saying to the matrosse now holding the linstock. ‘Have a care. Give fire! May the Lord guide our efforts.’

It was a beautiful shot. The mortar coughed, spitting the missile in a high, elegant arc, a parabola, far over the burnt-out farmhouse, soaring over the town walls and dropping down, down until the hollow iron sphere exploded with a colossal bang exactly over the centre of the battery atop Joymount House.

‘Dead on, Enoch,’ shouted Holcroft. ‘Full on target. More of that, please.’At that moment, a musket cracked and a ball pinged from a piece of broken rubble beside his cheek, spattering him painfully with grains of brick dust. The Irish musketeers on the walls had, at last, taken notice of the mortar’s position.

Holcroft Blood’s penchant for mathematics makes him the perfect gunner and he feels at home calculating angles and distances and the flight of a cannonball – the science of gunnery offers him a home in a world that he often finds hard to understand. However, his mathematical mind also means he has a knack for codes – a skill which has drawn him into the world of espionage before, and which he uses again in an attempt to corner his implacable enemy, Narrey.

Holcroft not only has to negotiate the machinations of his enemies, but the enmity of his commanding officer, and his own feelings, in order to track down his enemy and fulfill his duties within the army. The story of the campaign which led to the Battle of the Boyne and beyond is laid out beautifully by Angus Donald – as is the gorgeous Irish landscape.

The author’s research is impeccable and thorough, not only with the battle itself, but also with his knowledge of provisions, troop movements, training and 17th century society in both Ireland and England. His knowledge of the campaign, gunnery and the minutiae of army life help to bring to life the Stuart world in vivid and colourful detail.

Blood’s Campaign is exciting from the first page to the last. A totally absorbing story, it will keep you reading ‘just another chapter’ long into the night. You don’t just read this book – you devour it.

Blood’s Campaign is definitely in my 10 best books of 2019. It takes you on a wonderful adventure and leaves you wanting more!

To buy the Book:

Blood’s Campaign is available from Amazon.

About the author:

Angus Donald was educated at Marlborough College and Edinburgh University. He has worked as a fruit-picker in Greece, a waiter in New York and as an anthropologist studying magic and witchcraft in Indonesia. For many years he was a journalist in Hong Kong, India, Afghanistan and London. He is married to Mary, with whom he has two children, and he now writes full time from a medieval farmhouse in Kent.

He is the author of the bestselling Outlaw Chronicles, a series of eight books set in the 12th/13th centuries and featuring a gangster-ish Robin Hood and his loyal lieutenant Sir Alan Dale. His new Holcroft Blood series stars a mildly autistic artillery officer who was the son of notorious 17th-century Crown Jewel thief Colonel Thomas Blood. The series begins with Blood’s Game, followed by Blood’s Revolution and Blood’s Campaign (out November 2019). The author has also written an epic Asian fantasy novel Gates of Stone under the pseudonym Angus Macallan. He is always happy to chat to readers on Facebook, Twitter and via his website http://www.angusdonaldbooks.com

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My Books

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest

From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Æthelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

Heroines of the Medieval World

Telling the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is available now on kindle and in paperback in the UK from from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon, in the US from Amazon and worldwide from Book Depository.

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You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter and Instagram.

©2019 Sharon Bennett Connolly