Above: The royal wedding of Alexios I Comnenus and Irene Ducaena.
Irene Ducaena was the wife and empress of Alexios I Comnenus, marrying him shortly after he seized the throne on April 1, 1081. Her daughter, the erudite Anna Comnena, wrote glowingly of her mother in her history, The Alexiad – extolling her beauty, wisdom, and care for her family. Women were not often discussed in histories of that period, so Irene was fortunate to be remembered this way. However, the real Irene Ducaena was perhaps a more nuanced woman than the way her daughter portrayer her.
Irene was born in 1066, the daughter of Andronikos Ducas and Marie of Bulgaria. Andronikos was the son of John Ducas, younger brother of Emperor Constantine X Ducas, and Irene Pegonitissa, after whom Irene was likely named and who died the year she was born. Marie of Bulgaria was the granddaughter of a former ruler of Bulgaria and a wealthy heiress, as well as being the niece of Isaac I Comnenus’s wife, Catherine. Marie would have been about 16 when her daughter Irene was born.
When Irene was about 5, her father Andronikos played an infamous and devastatingly pivotal role at the Battle of Manzikert when he refused to send the soldiers under his command to back up the Emperor Romanos IV Diogenes against the Turks led by Alp Arslan, resulting in the emperor’s defeat and the entrance of the Turks into Anatolia. In a short time, Romanos had lost his throne, his family, his sight and his life (for more on this unfortunate man, see my blog: The Unlucky Diogenes Family), while the Byzantines lost control of much of Anatolia.
Some years after that, Andronikos was captured by rebel mercenaries under the leadership of the Norman, Roussel de Ballieul (ironically, Roussel had been under his command at Manzikert). He was released, possibly due to ill health, and returned to Constantinople with the help of the young soldier, Alexios Comnenus, in 1074.
What did eight-year old Irene think of this young man who returned her father to her? Nowhere is that recorded, but sometime in the next four years, a betrothal was arranged between Irene and Alexios. One has to wonder how this could have occurred given the animosity of Alexios’s mother, Anna Dalassena, and the Ducas family – especially after Manzikert since Romanos IV Diogenes was a distant cousin of hers, and the father-in-law of one of her daughters. Had Irene conceived an infatuation for the handsome young soldier and persistently begged her mother to arrange it? Whatever the reason was for the betrothal, my guess is that Marie of Bulgaria was the one to convince Anna Dalassena to permit it since her father had died and her grandfather, John Ducas, would have had no leverage with that matriarch, without whose approval it would not have occurred. The two women likely knew each other well from their connection with Isaac Comnenus’s wife (Anna Dalassena’s sister-in-law), and so Marie may have been the one to convince Anna to allow it.
In any event, the two were betrothed. A betrothal in medieval times was more than a modern engagement, but less than a marriage. It was a commitment by both parties to a marriage, and as binding as wedding vows, but without the sex. Betrothals were rarely broken and only for the most dire of circumstances.
However, by 1081 when Irene was 15, no marriage had yet occurred. Alexios had been busy, on campaign, and early in that year he began a rebellion against the almost senile emperor, Nikephoros III Botaneiates, aided by Nikephoros’ beautiful wife, Marie of Alan. Something appears to have happened between Alexios and the lovely Marie of Alan (considered the most beautiful woman of her time). There are hints in Anna Comnena’s Alexiad indicating that there was a mutual attraction between them, despite Marie being five years older than Alexios. Marie of Alan became a key supporter in Alexios’s successful attempt at the throne.
Anna Dalassena would probably not have objected to her son’s ending the betrothal with Irene Ducaena and his marriage to Marie, given her animosity to the Ducas family. The biggest impediment, though, was the objection of the Patriarch Cosmas who felt that Irene should have been crowned with Alexios. On the other hand, Anna Dalassena wanted Cosmas to retire so that her choice for Patriarch could be named, but Cosmas refused to until after he had seen Irene and Alexios married, and Irene crowned.
Alexios had little choice but to abandon any hopes of marriage to Marie, and to finally wed Irene. Opposing the patriarch’s wishes in this matter would have been supremely foolish given the importance of the patriarch’s support at such a crucial period of regime change. In addition, it cemented the Ducas family’s support of Alexios – John Ducas would not conspire against the man married to his granddaughter!
Alexios and Irene went on to have nine children. But of most note is that during the first fifteen years of his reign, when he was on campaign in the warmer months (as he almost always was), Alexios left control of civil matters to his mother, Anna Dalassena, never to his wife. Irene may have found herself empress and wife of the most powerful man in her world, but her mother-in-law most definitely ruled the Great Palace, as well as civilian affairs, in her husband’s absence.
You might wonder how Irene felt, with the title of power but subservient to her mother-in-law who likely bore her very little good will. The answer is: not warmly. During her husband’s reign, Irene founded the Kecharitomene Monastery in Constantinople. The typikon, the founding document establishing the rules and requirements of the monastery, contains a long list of who the nuns were to pray for. This list included her husband, children, grandchildren, parents, other family relations, including her father-in-law, John Comnenus who died when she was a baby and probably never met – all of them specifically by name. She also asks for prayers for her husband’s mother, but Anna Dalassena’s name is not actually listed.
Later, after Anna Dalassena had retired from the Great Palace in her 70’s, Alexios never left Irene with that same level of authority he had left his mother with during his absences from the city. In fact, rather than leave her behind, he insisted she accompany him on campaign to help care for his gout. It is easy to surmise what Alexios thought of his wife’s ability to manage the civil affairs of the empire.
The account of Alexios’s death as recounted in the Alexiad by his daughter, Anna Comnena, reports on her mother’s great grief at her husband’s death. The story of this change in power from Alexios to his son, John, has an interesting twist to it.
Irene supposedly wanted her daughter, Anna Comnena and her husband, Nikephoros Bryennios, to rule after Alexios’s death. So far as I have read, Irene was the only medieval empress/queen to seek to have her daughter take the throne rather than her son. I suspect that rather than having proto-feminist reasons, Irene’s motivations may have been more self-serving in that she hoped to have the same influence and power over Anna and Nikephoros as Anna Dalassena had had over Alexios, perhaps thinking John would not be as amenable. Unfortunately for her and Anna, Bryennios had sworn an oath of loyalty to John and refused to be a party to his wife’s rebellion. Irene and Anna were soon bundled off to the Kecharitomene Monastery, more or less for the rest of their lives.
John, the son of Alexios and Irene, was an outstanding emperor – successful in battle and a popular ruler who apparently never executed anyone. Anna Comnena, an educated woman confined to the monastery, instead used her considerable energies to write The Alexiad, thus becoming Europe’s first female historian (I’ve written about this event in Tales of Byzantium). Perhaps we should be grateful for Irene’s fruitless quest for power since without it we might never have had the benefit of Anna Comnena’s fine history.