Anna Porphyrogenita – A Byzantine Princess in Kyiv

Anna Porphyrogenita
(public domain)

Saint Olga was the first Christian ruler of the Kyivan Rus. She could therefore be considered the first Christian Princess of Kyiv.  But when she converted, she was already the mother of the reigning Prince, no longer a consort. Also, the Rus remained mostly pagan for the rest of her life. Therefore, the first Christian Grand Princess consort of Kyiv and the first Princess of a Christian Rus would be Anna Porphryrogenita of the Byzantine. Anna became the wife of Vladimir the Great at the time of the Christianization of the Rus, and she is considered a key figure of this turning point in history.

Early Life

Anna was born on 13 March 963 in the Purple Chamber of the Byzantine Emperor’s palace in Constantinople. The term “porphyrogenita”, which means “born in the purple”, was used to describe children born to reigning Byzantine emperors. Anna’s parents were Byzantine Emperor Romanos II and Theophano. Unfortunately, her father died just two days after Anna’s birth. There were rumours that her mother poisoned him, but these were likely false.

On her father’s death, Anna’s brothers, Basil and Constantine, were only five and three years old, respectively. To secure her and her son’s position, Theophano quickly remarried Nikephoros II Phokas, who became the new Emperor.  Nikephoros, Theophano, and Basil ruled together until Nikephoros was assassinated by his nephew, John I Tzimiskes, in December 969. John then became the new Emperor and exiled Theophano to the island of Prinkipo.  Theophano took Anna with her in exile. John died in 976, and Anna’s brother, Basil, fully became the Emperor. Right away, he allowed Theophano and Anna to return to court.

Marriage proposals

As the sister of the Byzantine Emperor and as a princess born in the purple, Anna was a highly desirable bride. In 972, the Holy Roman Emperor, Otto II, married Theophano, a relative of the Byzantine Emperor, after requesting an imperial princess. Sometimes Theophanu is thought to have been a sister of Anna, but she was probably related to her more distantly. It is possible that Otto may have wanted to marry Anna instead. In 986, a Bulgarian prince appears to have asked Basil for his sister’s hand in marriage, but this was rejected.

In 988, the new French king, Hugh Capet, sent a letter to Basil, asking him to find a bride for his son, the future Robert II, of equal rank. It was likely Anna, who he was asking for. This arrangement did not go through either. It is believed that all of these proposals were turned down because, at the time, Byzantine princesses born in the purple were considered too important to marry foreigners, even if they were kings or emperors. The Byzantines at this time were also said to have still considered the Western Europeans as barbarians.

Everything changed in 988 when Vladimir, Grand Prince of Kyiv, wished to marry Anna.

Marriage to Vladimir and the Christianization of the Rus

In 988, Vladimir of Kyiv captured the city of Korsun on the Black Sea from the Byzantine Empire. He then agreed that he would withdraw his army from the city in exchange for marrying Anna. He threatened to lay siege to Constantinople if he were not given Anna. Since Vladimir was still a pagan, Anna and her brothers refused this marriage.

Vladimir was baptised that year. There are multiple stories about the circumstances leading up to his baptism. The most common story says that Vladimir, looking for a common religion to unite his kingdom under, sent ambassadors to other countries to learn about the different monotheistic religions. Not impressed by Islam, Judaism, or Latin Christianity, he chose Greek Christianity, hearing about the Byzantine’s impressive churches. However, it is likely that Vladimir specifically chose Eastern Christianity just so he could marry Anna and forge a stronger alliance with the Byzantine.

With Vladimir baptised, Anna’s brothers agreed to the marriage. However, Anna was still reluctant to marry Vladimir. She is reported to have said, “I am being sent as nothing other than a hostage.”  She also expressed that she thought it would be better to die rather than marry Vladimir.

Anna is said to have encouraged Vladimir to accept baptism when they first met. Vladimir was baptised in 988 and married Anna immediately afterwards in Korsun. At the time of his baptism, Vladimir was believed to have had between five and seven wives and 800 concubines. When he married Anna, he set aside all of his previous wives and concubines and appears to have been faithful to her.

Soon after the wedding, Vladimir returned to Kyiv with Anna. They immediately started the process of Christianizing the Rus. Anna actively participated in the baptism of the Rus alongside her husband. In addition, she acted as his spiritual advisor and founded churches and convents.

Grand Princess of Kyiv

Unlike Vladimir’s previous wives, Anna seems to have been regarded as more than the wife of the Prince. Instead of being referred to as Princess of Kyiv, she was styled as Queen or Czarina, possibly because of her origin from the imperial Byzantine dynasty. In Kyiv, Anna managed her own lands and had a large retinue. She also received foreign ambassadors in Kyiv. In addition, Anna helped Vladimir establish the two main churches in Kyiv – the Church of the Tithes and Saint Sophia Cathedral.

It is debated whether Anna had any children. She is sometimes thought to have been the mother of Boris and Gleb, both of whom would later become saints. However, they are thought to have been born before Vladimir’s conversion, and The Primary Chronicle says that their mother was Bulgarian. She is also suggested to have been the mother of Yaroslav the Wise, who eventually became Grand Prince of Kyiv.  This is suggested by Yarolslav’s involvement in Byzantine affairs in 1043 and the fact that he named one of his daughters Anna. However, the oldest sources mention Rogneda of Polotsk as his mother, and this is the version that is mostly agreed upon.

It is still quite possible that Anna could have had some daughters. There are two daughters of Vladimir of who Anna was likely the mother. Theophana, who married Ostromir (a grandson of Vladimir’s uncle Dobrynya), is thought to have been Anna’s daughter. However, it is uncertain if she even came from Vladimir’s family. Maria Dobroniega, who married Casimir I of Poland, is also thought to have been Anna’s daughter. Based on the dates of her life, Maria would have to have been born late in Vladimir’s life. It is sometimes thought that she may have been his granddaughter rather than a daughter. Maria was married in 1040, had her youngest child around 1048, and died in 1087, so she would have to have been born late in Anna’s life too. It’s thought unlikely for Anna to have been her mother, for she would have been well into her forties when Maria was likely born. It is also thought that Maria could have been the daughter of Vladimir’s last wife, whom he married after Anna’s death.

The Primary Chronicle dates Anna’s death between 1008 and 1011. It is thought that she most likely died in 1011 or early 1012, aged around 48. She was buried in a marble tomb in the Church of the Tithes in Kyiv. After her death, Vladimir married an unnamed granddaughter of Holy Roman Emperor Otto I, but he died in 1015. He was buried next to Anna.

Vladimir was canonised as a saint in the 14th century. Anna was also considered a candidate for sainthood, but the canonisation never happened. However, she is regarded as a saint in Ukraine and Russia for her role in the conversion of the Rus. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church is apparently currently considering canonising Anna.


The Russian Primary Chronicle, Laurentian Text

“Anna Porphyrogenita-the wife and companion of Volodymyr the Great: frescoes of Sophia testify.”

Kimball, Alan; “Two Women: Olga and Anna and the Christianization of Rus’”

About CaraBeth 59 Articles
I love reading and writing about the royals of medieval Europe- especially the women. My interest was first started by the Plantagenet dynasty, but I decided to dive deeper, and discovered that there were many more fascinating royal dynasties in medieval Europe. Other dynasties I like reading and writing about are; the Capets, and their Angevin branch in Naples and Hungary, the Luxembourgs, the early Hapsburgs, the Arpads, the Piasts, the Premyslids and many more!

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