Marie de Poitiers, Princess of Antioch (1145 - 1182) MP

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Nicknames: "rechristened as "Xena""
Birthplace: Antakya, Hatay, Turkey
Death: Died in Constantinople, strangled by the hetaireiarch Constantine Tripsychos and the eunuch Pterygeonites, Turkey
Managed by: Henn Sarv
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About Marie de Poitiers, Princess of Antioch

Maria of Antioch

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Maria of Antioch (1145 – 1182) was the daughter of Constance of Antioch and her first husband Raymond of Poitiers. She married the Byzantine Emperor Manuel I Komnenos.

In 1160 Maria's stepfather, Constance's second husband Raynald of Chatillon, was taken prisoner by Maj al-Dīn, the ruler of Aleppo and an ally of Nūr al-Dīn. Her mother claimed the Principality of Antioch for herself, but the nobles supported her son, Maria's brother Bohemund III. King Baldwin III of Jerusalem set Bohemund III up as prince and appointed as regent the rich and wordly Aimery of Limoges, Latin Patriarch of Antioch and an old opponent of Raynald. Constance protested this decision in Constantinople at the court of the Byzantine emperor Manuel I Komnenos, the nominal overlord of Antioch.

At the end of 1159, Manuel's wife Empress Eirene (originally named Bertha of Sulzbach) had died, and Manuel wanted to marry a princess from one of the Crusader states. John Kontostephanos, the chief dragoman (interpreter) Theophylact, and the akolouthos of the Varangian Guard Basil Kamateros were sent to Jerusalem to seek a new wife, and the two princesses Maria of Antioch and Melisende of Tripoli, a daughter of Count Raymond II of Tripoli by Hodierna of Jerusalem, were offered as candidates. Both were renowned for their beauty, but according to John Kinnamos Maria was the more beautiful of the two; the tall, blonde-haired princess clearly showed her Norman ancestry. King Baldwin III suggested Melisende, and her brother Count Raymond III of Tripoli set about gathering an enormous dowry, with gifts from Hodierna and from Melisende's namesake, her aunt Queen Melisende. The ambassadors were not satisfied and delayed the marriage for over a year; they had apparently heard rumours concerning Hodierna's infidelity and therefore Melisende's possible legitimacy. Instead, Manuel chose Maria. Count Raymond was insulted and in retaliation attacked Byzantine Cyprus.

Meanwhile, an imperial embassy led by Alexios Bryennios Komnenos and the prefect of Constantinople, John Kamateros, came to Antioch to negotiate the marriage. Maria embarked from the port of St. Simeon for Constantinople in September of 1161, and the marriage took place in Hagia Sophia on December 24. Three patriarchs performed the marriage: Luke Chrysoberges, Patriarch of Constantinople; Sophronios, Patriarch of Alexandria, and Athanasios, Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch. The marriage was celebrated with feasts, gifts to the church, and chariot races in the Hippodrome for the people. This strengthened the connection of Antioch to the Byzantine Empire. The marriage also strengthened the position of Maria's mother Constance, who now held the regency of Antioch. According to Niketas Choniates, Maria

"...was like unto the laughter-loving, golden Aphrodite, the white-armed and ox-eyed Hera, the long-necked and beautiful ankled Laconian, whom the ancients deified for their beauty, and all the rest of the beauties whose good looks have been preserved in distinguished books and histories."

In 1169 Maria gave birth to a son, the future emperor Alexios II Komnenos. She played a role in the political and diplomatic life of Constantinople. French being her mother tongue, she was able to observe the double-dealing of the hypoboleus (court interpreter) Aaron Isaakios, who was quietly advising Westerners not to pay too much for the Emperor's favour. As a result, Manuel had Aaron blinded.[1]

After the death of Manuel in 1180 Maria officially became a nun[citation needed] with the name "Xene", but in reality she acted as regent for their son Alexios II. Despite being a nun she had many ambitious suitors, but she chose another Alexios, the prōtosebastos and prōtovestiarios, a nephew of Manuel and uncle of Maria Komnene, former queen of Jerusalem, as an advisor and lover, causing a scandal among the Greek population. As a Westerner who favoured the Italian merchants, Maria was opposed by the Greeks, and her regency was widely considered incompetent. The leaders of the opposition were her stepdaughter the Porphyrogenita Maria Komnene and her husband, the Caesar Renier of Montferrat, though himself a fellow Latin. The Porphyrogenita Maria may have considered herself the rightful heir, as the elder child of Manuel; she was almost as old as her stepmother Maria. Maria and Renier gained the support of the Patriarch and used Hagia Sophia as a base of operations. Alexios had the patriarch arrested, leading to open warfare on the streets of Constantinople.

Manuel's cousin Andronikos Komnenos, who had been exiled during Manuel's reign, was invited back by the Porphyrogenita Maria, and marched on Constantinople in 1182. He provoked the citizens into a massacre of the Latin inhabitants, mostly Venetian and Genoese merchants. After gaining control of the city, he had the Porphyrogenita and Renier poisoned, and then had Empress Maria arrested and imprisoned in the monastery of St. Diomedes or in a prison nearby. The empress tried to seek help from her brother-in-law King Béla III of Hungary, to no avail. Andronikos had Alexios II sign the order for his mother's execution, and appointed his own son Manuel and the sebastos George to execute her, but they refused. Instead, according to Niketas, Maria was strangled by the hetaireiarch Constantine Tripsychos and the eunuch Pterygeonites, and buried in an unmarked grave on a nearby beach.[2] Presumably owing to the secrecy surrounding her death, alternative versions of her death circulated, such as that she was tied up in a sack and drowned.[3] Andronikos had himself crowned co-emperor, but Alexios II was soon murdered as well, and Andronikos took full control of the empire. Sometime later Andronikos also defaced or destroyed most images of Maria in Constantinople. --------------------------- The history of the twenty months between the death of the Emperor Manuel I in September 1180 and the seizure of power by Andronicus Comnenus in April 1182 are largely the story of the rivalry between Manuel’s widow and second wife, the Empress-Regent Maria of Antioch, and Maria porphyrogenita (also known as the porphyrogennete), Manuel’s daughter by his deceased first wife, Bertha of Sulzbach. Maria porphyrogenita’s hatred for her stepmother and the Empress’s paramour, the protosebastos Alexius Comnenus, ultimately led her to encourage Andronicus Comnenus to march on Constantinople and seize power. The porphyrogenita’s invitation ironically proved to have fatal consequences for both Marias, as well as for Maria porphyrogenita’s young husband, the Caesar Ranier of Montferrat, and the boy-Emperor Alexius II.

Maria of Antioch was the third child (and second daughter) of Constance of Antioch, the heiress of Bohemond II of Antioch, and Raymond of Poitiers, a handsome, charming and strongly-built adventurer who was selected to marry Constance when he was 37 and she was a mere girl of nine. Maria was probably born in the mid-to-late 1140's, because her father met his death in battle against the Arabs in the summer of 1149 (it is said that Raymond's skull was made into a silver drinking chalice by Nur-ed-Din and sent as a gift to the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad). On Christmas Day 1161, Maria became the Emperor Manuel’s second wife. He was around 42, while she was still in her early teenage years – probably between 13 and 16 years old. After many years of infertility, she gave birth to their only child Alexius II on September 14, 1169.

Maria’s mature beauty was legendary. The contemporary historian Nicetas Choniates, who served as a court bureaucrat and thus had the opportunity to observe her at close range, describes her as “fair of form and exceedingly beautiful.” She was blonde and fair, making a striking contrast with her olive-skinned, dark-haired husband. Choniates also says that “she pulled in everyone as though on a line by the radiance of her appearance, her pearly countenance, her even disposition, candor, and charm of speech.” If Hollywood were to make a movie about her life, it sounds like Charlize Theron would be perfect for the part. Princess Diana is another obvious analogue.

Manuel fell deeply in love with her, and she with him. When Manuel assumed a monk’s robes just before he died, she matched him by putting on a nun’s habit. But although her gesture may have reflected a sincere impulse, it was one she could not sustain. Still in her early-to-mid-thirties when her husband died, she seems to have possessed a genuinely sensual nature; the worldly Archbishop Eustathius of Thessalonica described her as “ripe for love.” Alternatively, it may have simply been that Maria felt that she needed a powerful male ally, and for a beautiful woman in the Middle Ages, that usually meant taking the man into your bed.

According to Choniates, as soon as the mourning period for Manuel was over, all of the young swells of the imperial court paid court to his widow Maria, dressing in fine clothing and elaborates necklaces, “rubb[ing] themselves with sweet oils as though they were infants,” and styling and curling their hair in an effort to catch her eye. However, Maria instead took as her lover her husband’s first cousin once removed, the protosebastos Alexius Comnenus, and made him her Chancellor and Prime Minister. Comnenus seems to have had little to recommend him other than his position in the imperial family; Choniates describes him as unmanly, “an effeminate dullard” who wasted most of the day sleeping. Even worse, he was corrupt, self-indulgent, and ineffectual. Yet the Empress seems to have been honestly enamored of him. As for Alexius, Choniates says that he used Maria’s beauty and charm “as an advance fortification . . . or an irresistible mollification” against those who sought to complain about his actions. Perhaps carried away by her affair with the protosebastos, the Empress Maria neglected Alexius II’s education and allowed her young teenage son to spend all his time hunting and attending chariot races.

Maria’s passion for Alexius Comnenus proved her downfall. Her stepdaughter, the Caesarissa Maria, hated both the Empress and Alexius. The tensions that can normally be expected to mark relations between daughters and stepmothers were only the starting point in Maria the porphyrogennete’s lengthy list of reasons to resent Maria of Antioch. To begin with, the two of them were only a few years apart in age – for the porphyrogennete was no more than six years, and perhaps as little as three years, younger than her new stepmother. And while the Latin Maria grew into one of the great beauties of her age, the Greek Maria seems to have inherited the big-boned frame of her Swabian mother, for she was said to be “as strong as a man.”

In addition, when the Latin Maria failed for many years to produce an heir, the Greek Maria and her betrothed, Prince Bela of Hungary, were designated to succeed her father on the imperial throne – a status they enjoyed until the Latin Maria safely delivered Alexius II (in September 1169) and he grew into a thriving toddler. Even then, the Greek Maria was able to console herself with the prospect of reigning as Hungary’s Queen beside the handsome and intelligent Bela – until Manuel decided to have the porphyrogennete put aside as Bela’s bride in favor of his wife’s half-sister, Agnes of Antioch.

The Greek Maria then endured six frustrating and humiliating years in which her father consistently rejected any of the Byzantine aristocrats who sought her hand while he mulled over various foreign suitors. For an extended period, it appeared that the porphyrogennete would be wedded to the wealthy and powerful King William I of Sicily, who ruled one of the most advanced and prosperous kingdoms in the late twelfth-century Mediterranean world. But her father ultimately rejected that union as well. Finally, in February 1180, only seven months before his own death, Manuel married off the now-thirty-year-old Maria to the far younger Ranier of Montferrat, one of several sons of a family of north Italian Counts who ruled a wealthy principality between the Po and the Appenines. Although Ranier was handsome and amiable enough and would prove to be brave as well, he was without question a far less imposing match than Bela of Hungary or William of Sicily.

If all this were not already more than adequate grounds for the Greek Maria to hate and resent her Latin stepmother, the Empress’s conduct during Manuel’s final illness and after his death soon supplied additional cause for the porphyogennete to despise her. By first assuming a nun’s habit to proclaim her eternal fidelity to her dying husband, and then taking the unprepossessing protosebastos Alexius into her bed with unseemly haste once Manuel was gone, the Empress simultaneously dishonored the memory of her late lord and demonstrated that her own personal and political judgment was sorely lacking. For once Maria chose a mate, she ensured that the resentments of all of her disappointed suitors would focus themselves on the protosebastos. Had her nature permitted it, the wiser course would have been for the Empress to dextrously play off her competing suitors against one another while keeping all of their hopes alive, as Elizabeth I was later to do so skillfully.

Like her ancestor Anna Comnena a century earlier, Maria Comnena apparently felt she had what it took to rule effectively, and she resented being pushed aside by a lazy wastrel like Alexius and a foolish beauty like the Empress. She had, moreover, good cause for concern about the Empress’s and protosebastos’s government. Once Manuel’s strong and respected hand was no longer steering the Empire, ambitious neighbors and restless vassals were quick to test the resolution of his successors. Bela III, the King of Hungary, seized northern Dalmatia, Bosnia, and Zara from the Empire, while Stephen Nemanja, lord of the Serbs, announced that he was throwing off Byzantine suzerainty. Yet as these provinces fell away from the Empire, the Empress and the protosebastos gave no sign of mounting an effective response.

And so, with a resolution and ruthlessness that suggest one of the Borgias, the Caesarissa determined to remove her corrupt and self-indulgent cousin by having him murdered. But the Caesarissa’s plot against the protosebastos was exposed (March 1, 1181), and many of her fellow conspirators were arrested and imprisoned. Before Alexius felt strong enough to act against them, however, the Caesarissa Maria and her husband Ranier of Montferrat took refuge with the Patriarch in the Haghia Sophia (April 5). Not content to trust to the great church’s long tradition of sanctuary, the Caesarissa and her young husband surrounded themselves with a large party of soldiers, many of whom were western adventurers and mercenaries.

Matters remained stalemated for the next month, until it became evident that the protosebastos Alexius was massing troops within the Great Palace complex in order to seize the Caesarissa and her husband by force. The porphyrogennete therefore moved some of her troops out of the Haghia Sophia and had them occupy advance positions in the Milion, an elaborate two-story monument that served as the Empire’s zero milestone; the buildings surrounding the square of the Augustaeum; and the nearby church of St. Alexius to put themselves in a better position to resist the protosebastos’s expected assault.

The protosebastos Alexius’s troops launched their attack at dawn on May 2, 1181. There was fierce, see-saw fighting all day, although thanks to the armor and mail clothing worn by most of the combatants on each side, remarkably few fatalities resulted, although large numbers were injured. At the end of the day, although her troops had been pushed back to the outer court of the Haghia Sophia, the Caesarissa and her husband still remained safe inside the great church. The Patriarch Theodosius, who retained the trust of each of the contending parties, then brokered a settlement whereby the Caesarissa and her husband were granted immunity in connection with the murder plot and returned to live in her own palace (that of St. George of Mangana) within the Great Palace’s expansive grounds. This plainly intolerable situation persisted for another year. The resentments, jealousies and competing ambitions now swirling within the confined space inside the walls of the Palace complex suggest a medieval Greek version of Dallas.

The Caesarissa remained determined to get rid of the protosebastos. She now sent letters to Andronicus Comnenus, who had been established at Oinaion on the Black Sea as Governor of Pontus since his apparent reconciliation with Manuel a year earlier. The Caesarissa implored him to come and remove the protosebastos, perhaps believing that Andronicus was either too old or too deeply compromised a figure to aspire to the throne. If that was her assessment, it was to prove fatally wide of the mark.

After spending much of the fall of 1181 making preparations, sometime in late 1181 or early 1182 Andronicus collected a force of Paphalogonian mercenaries and marched on Constantinople. He brushed aside a larger force sent against him by the protosebastos in a battle near Nicomedia and soon camped upon the heights of Chalcedon across the Bosphorus. A short stalemate then ensued, because Andronicus had no ships to transport his force across the Bosphorus, which was patrolled by the remaining battleships of the Imperial fleet. But with the city population acclaiming Andronicus as the Empire’s savior and nobles and churchmen flocking to his camp to pay their respects, the Empress and the protosebastos found their already limited support rapidly draining away.

The end came when the Grand Duke Andronicus Kontostephanos, commander of the Byzantine navy, went over to the Governor of Pontus. With his ships no longer barring Andronicus’s way to the capital, the protosebastos’s already shaky regime fell quickly. The populace stormed the prisons, where the guards threw open the doors and liberated Andronicus’s sons John and Manuel and the other actual or potential opponents whom the protosebastos had incarcerated. Their places were soon taken by the officials and relatives who were too closely associated with the protosebastos to switch sides. The protosebastos himself was seized by his own German bodyguards and placed in custody inside the Patriarchal Palace, where his captors mocked his reputation for somnolence by refusing to let him sleep. Several days later, he was mounted on a pony, led down to the waterfront, and then thrown aboard a fishing boat to be taken across the Bosphorus and surrendered to Andronicus. When Andronicus decreed that his eyes should be put out, this cruel act was generally applauded by common people and notables alike. The protosebastos was then probably confined to a monastery for whatever remained of his life.

Nor was this the only blood shed in the early days of Andronicus’s regime. Although he had little need to do so to cement his popular support, Andronicus either incited or tacitly accepted a savage pogrom that broke out in April 1182 against the bitterly resented Venetian and other western merchants who had thronged to Constantinople under Manuel’s pro-Western rule. Hundreds of Latins – including a papal emissary – were slaughtered, the Western cantons along the Golden Horn were largely burned to the ground, and nearly 4,000 Latin captives were sold into slavery with the Seljuk Turks. The Empress Maria, still waiting in the palace with her teenage son, undoubtedly knew many of those who were slain or sent into slavery. It was an ominous portent, but there was worse was to come.

When Andronicus at last crossed the Bosphorus a few weeks later, the city’s gates were flung open to him, and Maria and Alexius found themselves his prisoners. The otherwise lusty Andronicus proved wholly immune to the Empress’s physical and personal charms. His initial pose was that he had come to Constantinople to remove the young Emperor Alexius II from the unwholesome guidance of his mother and the protosebastos, and he doubtless understood that she was so deeply unpopular in the city that any association with her would erode his own support. Thus, he always treated her with cold disdain.

He first placed her under house arrest in the Philopation Palace, located just outside the northern end of the land walls. Gradually, however, over the last half of 1182, he tightened the Empress’s conditions of confinement. Maria’s apprehensions can only have increased when her arch-enemy the Caesarissa Maria and her husband Ranier of Montferrat both died suddenly within a short time of each other. As both were healthy and strong, it was hardly surprising that rumor reported that Andronicus had procured their deaths by suborning a trusted member of their household – a eunuch named Pterygeonities – to poison them.

In mounting desperation and terror for both her own and her son’s life, the Empress made a final misjudgment that sealed her doom. King Bela III of Hungary had taken advantage of the confusion and disorder in Constantinople that spring and summer to seize Belgrade and Branichevo and had pushed far up the valley of the Morava, ultimately approaching Sardica (Sofia) in western Bulgaria. But thanks to his marriage a decade earlier to Maria’s half-sister Agnes of Antioch, Bela was also Maria’s brother-in-law. Moreover, because Bela himself had lived as a hostage at the Byzantine court as a child and young man, the Empress knew him well. Viewing Bela as her only possible savior, Maria wrote a letter beseeching him to come and rescue her and her son. [For a map showing the states of Southeastern Europe and Asia Minor c. 1180 CE/AD, click here.]

Unfortunately for the Empress, Andronicus had already established an effective and ruthless secret service, and his agents intercepted the Empress’s correspondence. Her desperate invitation to an enemy who was making war on the Empire was just the excuse Andronicus needed to eliminate her. He convened a hand-picked court consisting of his allies and henchmen, which considered the evidence and promptly condemned Maria to death for high treason. The hapless and terrified Alexius II was compelled to sign his own mother’s death warrant.

Maria was imprisoned for a time in a cramped dungeon located near the monastery of St. Diomedes, close to the Golden Gate in Constantinople’s great land walls, where “she was grossly reviled by the guards as the butt of their jokes, and, pining with hunger and thirst, she was haunted by the vision of the executioner standing on her right where his edge would cut her most surely” (Choniates). She won a brief reprieve when Andronicus’s eldest son Manuel and his brother-in-law the sebastos George, whom Andronicus had initially tasked with seeing to her execution, refused to be parties to it. Andronicus then turned to more willing agents, one of whom was the eunuch Pterygeonities, who had made away with the Caesarissa and her husband. Ironically, the Empress Maria therefore met her death (perhaps as early as the end of 1182) by poisoning at the hands of the same agent who had made away with her stepdaughter and bitter enemy, the porphyrogennete Maria. The Empress – whom the historian Choniates, who had known her well, mourned as “the sweet light and a vision of beauty unto men” – was buried in an unmarked grave on the sandy shore of the Sea of Marmara. It was a cruel end for the beautiful but tragic golden girl of Antioch.

If Andronicus had permitted a marker for her grave, Maria’s epitaph could appropriately have been that “she loved not wisely, but too well.” Choosing Alexius Comnenus as her lover and principal adviser was one of the worst choices that Maria could have made. But even a far shrewder and more astute judge of human nature than the Empress Maria proved to be would have found it difficult to steer a course to safety between the enmity and jealousy of her stepdaughter the Caesarissa and the ruthless ambition and cunning of Andronicus Comnenus.

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Marie de Poitiers, Princess of Antioch's Timeline

Antakya, Hatay, Turkey
December 25, 1161
Age 17
Of, Antakya, Hatay, Turkey
Age 23
Of, Constantinople, Byzantine Empire
August 27, 1182
Age 37
Constantinople, strangled by the hetaireiarch Constantine Tripsychos and the eunuch Pterygeonites, Turkey
Constantinople, unmarked grave on a nearby beach, Turkey