Michael Keroularios was one of the more unusual of Eastern Orthodox Patriarchs. He was thought to have been born around the year 1000 in Constantinople, where he became an Imperial bureaucrat. John Skylitzes’ history first mentioned him as having been tonsured in 1040, along with his brother-in-law, John Makrembolites (the father of another of my Lesser Known 11th Century Byzantines, Eudokia Makrembolitissa) in the wake of an attempted rebellion against Michael IV the Paphlagonian and Michael’s brother, the hated and feared, John the Orphanotrophos. Some sources suggest that Constantine Monomachos (another member of the bureaucracy and later to be Empress Zoe’s third husband) was also part of this conspiracy.
Most of the Eastern Orthodox Patriarchs I’ve read about appear to have been deeply religious men who spent their life in the church. While they may have sought to influence politics on occasion, they were not generally as politically involved as their brothers in Rome were. Keroularios, who had had the tonsure forced on him, was a different kind of monk.
Assuming Monomachos and Keroularios were actually co-conspirators, Keroularios was named Patriarch by his former co-conspirator, now Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos, in 1043. One would think that elevation to such an esteemed position would have satisfied the ambition of any medieval Byzantine man, but this does not appear to be the case with this patriarch.
While he and Monomachos were usually on good terms, Keroularios refused to support the emperor’s efforts to remain friendly with the Roman pope so as to have the pope’s help in maintaining the empire’s Italian holdings. Despite Monomachos’ requests, the patriarch’s arrogant and rude treatment of the pope’s emissary not only contributed to the eventual loss of the Italian territories, but also resulted in the Great Schism between the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches. It appears that (among other things, including a few religious points) Keroularios felt that the pope, head of a church in a poor and almost deserted Rome, had not been sufficiently deferential to the obviously wealthy and powerful patriarch in Constantinople. The pope’s emissary, Cardinal Humbert, made matters worse with his own intolerance and arrogance, so the mistakes were on both sides.
Monomachos died in January 1055 and was succeeded by his sister-in-law, the elderly Theodora who was the last surviving member of the Macedonian dynasty. Keroularios made known that he was not happy about this situation – no woman should be allowed to rule alone. Theodora had lived through worse and ignored the patriarch for the almost two years she ruled.
Theodora’s successor, the bureaucrat Michael VI Bringas, did not make Keroularios any happier. Perhaps there had been some disagreement in the days when both served in the imperial bureaucracy, but nothing made it into the history books. In any event, the new emperor was even more dismissive of Keroularios than Theodora had been. Perhaps not the wisest move the emperor could have made since the patriarch happily joined the conspiracy to remove Michael VI after less than a year on the throne. It was the patriarch’s involvement in the conspiracy that tipped the scales into General Isaac Comnenus’ favor.
Keroularios’ key support of Isaac I Comnenus’ successful overthrow of Michael VI led him to expect that he would easily control and influence Emperor Isaac. Isaac, however, was confronted with an almost empty treasury and attacks on the empire’s borders from Turks, Pechenegs and Normans. He chose to remedy the situation by appropriating gold from the wealthier monasteries, and relations between emperor and patriarch deteriorated.
Matters finally came to a head when Keroularios officiated at the Divine Liturgy in the Hagia Sophia one day and wore the purple shoes that were reserved only for emperors. Needless to say, Isaac was incensed and rumors swirled that Keroularios had designs on the throne for himself, or possibly for Constantine Ducas, the husband of his niece Eudokia Makrembolitissa. Not long after that incident, Keroularios was on his way to a monastery outside the city when Isaac’s soldiers arrested him and shipped him into exile on a distant island.
Isaac demanded that Keroularios resign his position as patriarch, but he refused. He was about to be tried on charges of heresy when he died, thus ending the life of the only patriarch that I know of who ever had designs on the Byzantine throne.
This is an abbreviated version of the complex political situation that existed in 11th century Constantinople. Alliances were fluid, ambitions were guiding principles, and loyalty was scarce. Even so, Michael Keroularios’ story was unique among the patriarchs in Constantinople during the 11 centuries of the Eastern Roman Empire.