The Kyivan queens of medieval Europe

Ukraine has been part of European history since before the Norman Conquest. Indeed, in the middle of the 11th century, the queens of Norway, Hungary, France and Poland were all Kievan Rus’ princesses. The first three were daughters of Yaroslav, grand prince of Kyiv and Ingegerd Olofsdotter of Sweden. The fourth was Yaroslav’s sister, Maria.

Too little is known about these remarkable women, although Elisabeth, sometime queen to Harald Hardrada of Norway – the Norwegians called her Ellisif – makes fleeting appearances in some of the saga literature. Hardrada encountered her during his many years of exile in the service of Yaroslav, whose bodyguard he captained. Two sagas record Harald asking for Elisabeth’s hand in this period. His offer was rejected; Harald lacked wealth and fame, Jaroslav said. Harald left the service of the Rus’ and joined the Varangian Guard in Constantinople, from whence he sent back his accumulated wealth to Kyiv for safe keeping. And also, presumably, as a kind of marker.

What Elisabeth thought of all this, we don’t know. According to Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla, Hardrada wrote a sixteen-verse poem about her as he sailed from Byzantium for the last time: each verse ends with a lament at how she – the ‘goddess of the gold rings’ – kept aloof from him, but that may simply be a literary formula. Later, when they were married, the Norwegian court poet, Stuf the Blind, listed what Harald felt he had gained from the alliance. In order, they were; kinship with the powerful Rus’; great quantities of gold; and last, a princess.

It would be hard to call the marriage a success. Harald seems to have taken a second wife in 1048 – the evidence isn’t clear – and where that leaves Elisabeth is similarly uncertain. Some sources say that she and their two daughters accompanied Harald on his ill-fated invasion of England in 1066 – he died at the Battle of Stamford Bridge – but remained in the Orkneys while he went on ahead. It is also said that one of their daughters, Maria, died in the Orkneys soon after hearing of her father’s death.

The best documented of Yaroslav’s daughters is Anne of Kyiv, queen to Henry I, king of the Franks. Henry had been married before – probably twice – but had failed to produce an heir. In 1049 he sent some bishops to Kyivan Rus’ to arrange a marriage. Yaroslav had hoped to marry one his daughters – perhaps Anne – to the German emperor Henry III, so he may have taken some persuading to accept the Frankish offer. Certainly, negotiations seem to have been protracted; Henry I’s representatives spent spent a year at Yaroslav’s court and didn’t return to France until 1051, when they brought Anne with them.

Henry and Anne married on 19 May 1051. Their son, Philip I, was born the following year. It has been argued that Anne introduced the Greek name Philip to the west; hitherto it is little attested, but it was a significant name in the Eastern church with particular resonance for the people of Rus’. Anne would have at least three other children with Henry before his death in 1060.

Then, during the minority of their son, Philip I, who was eight when his father died, Anne became an exceptionally powerful figure, certainly acting as a de facto guardian to the young king in the first two years and possibly sharing the crown with him. She and Philip seem to have been more-or-less inseparable: she travelled widely with him and their two signatures appear on a significant proportion of surviving official documents.

In 1062 she remarried, taking Count Ralph of Valois as her husband. The count left his first wife in order to take Anne, which earned him excommunication from the church.

Little is known about Jaroslav’s daughter Anastasia, queen to Andrew I of Hungary. It has been argued that another daughter, Agatha, was the wife of Edward Ætheling, heir to the English throne but exiled under Cnut.

Anne founded the Abbey of St. Vincent in Senlis in 1065, but little is known of her later life, including the date of her death. Like her sisters and aunt, Anne would die a long way from her homeland, part of an extraordinary generation of royal Kyivan women who established bonds of blood and kinship across the breadth of Europe.

This is an extended version of a piece that first appeared in the May 2022 issue of History Today. The image is from an 11th-century fresco representing the daughters of Jaroslav the Wise in Kyiv’s Cathedral of St Sophia.

Like this? You can read more of Mathew’s History Today Months Past pieces here.

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