Most of the Grand Princess consorts of Kyiv have had very little about them written down. One of them who we have more biographical details about is Rogneda of Polotsk, the main pagan wife of Vladimir the Great.
Early Life and Background
Rogneda was probably born in the early 960s. Her father was Rogvolod, the first documented Prince of Polotsk (present-day Belarus). Her mother’s name is unknown. Previously, Polotsk was mentioned as part of the Kievan Rus, but sometimes it appears that it was completely independent of the Princes of Kyiv. Rogvolod is described as having come “from overseas” in The Primary Chronicle. He is thought to be of Scandinavian origin. It is possible that Rogvolod could have been native to the Polotsk area but was of Varangian extraction. Sometimes he is thought to have belonged to the Yngling family – a semi-legendary family that ruled early Sweden.
The Forced Marriage
By 977, Rogneda was betrothed to Yaropolk, the Grand Prince of Kyiv. Around 978, Vladimir, Yaropolk’s brother, sent word to Rogvolod that he wished to marry his daughter. When Rogneda was told that Vladimir wanted to marry her, she said, “I will not draw off the boots of a slave’s son, but I want Yaropolk instead.” This was a reference to Malusha, Vladimir’s mother, who is believed to have been a slave. The bride taking off the boots of her husband was apparently a wedding custom in the Rus at the time. Vladimir’s messengers returned to him and told him everything that Rogneda had said. Vladimir was furious at this insult, and he gathered up a large army and attacked Polotsk. Vladimir’s army successfully took the city.
Soon after taking Polotsk, Vladimir raped Rogneda in front of her parents. He then had Rogneda’s parents and two brothers killed and had Rogneda forcibly wed to him. He was said to have done all of this in retaliation for Rogneda’s insult against him, on the advice of his maternal uncle, Dobrynya. One legend says that soon after the wedding, Rogneda was renamed Gorislava.
Princess of Kyiv
Rogneda was not the only wife of Vladimir. As a pagan ruler, he could have more than one wife at a time. By the time he wed Rogneda, he had another wife known as Allogia or Olava, who is believed to have been of Scandinavian or Czech origin, and she bore him a son, Vysheslav. In June 978 or 980, Yaropolk was killed on Vladimir’s orders. Vladimir then became the new Grand Prince of Kyiv, and he took Yaropolk’s widow as another wife or concubine. She soon afterwards bore a son named Svyatopolk, who could have been Yaropolk’s as well as Vladimir’s. During Vladimir’s pagan rule, he is believed to have had between five and seven wives and a harem of 800 women. Rogneda seems to have been his main or highest-ranking wife. The Primary Chronicle refers to her as Vladimir’s lawful wife.
Soon after the marriage, Vladimir set up a residence for Rogneda that was on the bank of the river Lybid near Kyiv. This area is now known as Predslavine and is believed to have been named after one of Rogneda’s daughters. Rogneda seems to have spent most of her time here. Vladimir and Rogneda appear to have mainly lived separately, but they would have continued to see each other a lot, and she was the wife who would give him the most children. Over the next ten years, Rogneda and Vladimir had six or seven children:
- Izyaslav, Prince of Polotsk (c.979-1001) He inherited his mother’s lands.
- Mstislav, probably died in childhood. Vladimir had a son with the same name who survived to adulthood, but he was probably from another wife.
- Yaroslav, Grand Prince of Kyiv (c.980-1054) Became Grand Prince of Kyiv in 1019.
- Vsevolod, Prince of Volhynia (c.984-1013)
- Predislava (c.983-after 1013/1040) Became a concubine but not a wife of Boleslaw I of Poland.
- Premislava, believed to have married the Hungarian Prince, Ladislaus the Bald, Duke of Nyitra.
- Mstislava, another possible daughter. She was captured with some of her sisters by Boleslaw of Poland in 1018, released in 1025.
Around 987, Rogneda decided to avenge her family on one of the nights that Vladimir was staying at her residence. According to legend, one night, when Vladimir was asleep, Rogneda tried to stab him with a dagger, but the commotion caused Vladimir to wake up and deflect the blow at the last minute. Because of this act, Vladimir considered executing Rogneda.
Vladimir had Rogneda dress her best and made her wait in a room. He then entered the room, and Rogneda shouted. Hearing her cries, their young son, Izyaslav, ran to the room with a sword in his hand and pointed at Vladimir. The Prince could not kill Rogneda in front of their son. He instead called for a council of his boyers to decide Rogneda’s fate. They told Vladimir not to kill her for the sake of their children but instead to send her back to Polotsk.
Some time afterwards, Rogneda moved back to Polotsk with Izyaslav. The exact year of Rogneda and Vladimir’s separation is unclear. Some believe it happened soon after this; others believe that it happened in 988 or 989, soon after Vladimir converted to Christianity, remarried, and renounced all of his previous wives.
One legend says that after Rogneda and Vladimir’s divorce, he offered to find her a new husband. He told her that she could choose any man from among his boyers. Rogneda, however, replied that after being married to a prince, she did not want a man of lower rank but prefered to be a nun instead.
Rogneda converted to Christianity around this same time. Also, around this time, her oldest son, Izyaslav, was named Prince of Polotsk. Rogneda lived in Polotsk with him and ruled as his regent. According to legend, Rogneda eventually changed her name to Anastasia and became a nun. Some believe this happened soon after her divorce; others believe that it did not happen until around 997 when Izyaslav came of age and Rogneda retired from the regency.
Rogneda is believed to have founded one of the first monasteries in the Rus lands, around Polotsk. After becoming a nun, she is believed to have spent the last years of her life in her monastery. Rogneda is credited with helping to spread Christianity in the Belarus region. According to the Primary Chronicle, Rogneda died in 1000. The place of her burial is not known, but it is believed to have been her monastery. Izyaslav outlived his mother by only about a year. The descendants of Izyaslav would go on to rule the area that would become Belarus for the next three centuries.
The Russian Primary Chronicle: Laurentian Text
“Rogneda Rogvolodovna-Grand Duchess of Kyiv” on oboznik.ru
“Mother of Yaroslav the Wise- Princess Rogneda Rogvolodvna” on inform.tk
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