November 01, 2013

The Death of Vasily III

The Death of Vasily III

In late November 1533, Grand Prince Vasily III of Muscovy fell ill due to an infected scratch. He was 54, an old man by the standards of the time. But Vasily was a hardy fellow. Just a few days earlier he had been hunting in the forests near his “hunting lodge” – the palace at Alexandrova Sloboda.

Seven years earlier, Vasily had sent his wife of many years, Solomoniya Saburova, off to a convent and immediately wed Yelena Glinskaya, a young woman of relatively unimpressive lineage. Evidently, the fact that his first wife had not been able to bear him an heir was not the only reason the Grand Prince embarked on this heartless divorce and scandalous marriage. He seems to have been very much taken by Yelena Glinskaya and, as his contemporaries remarked reproachfully, started dressing up to please her. As if that were not enough, he trimmed his beard, to the great consternation of his courtiers. Of course Vasily III could not go so far as to shave off his facial hair. In medieval Russia, going about with a clean-shaven face was the rough equivalent of appearing naked in public today, but even trimming a beard was seen as a radical move. The man was clearly head over heels in love, or at least in the grip of a consuming passion.

As much as Vasily may have admired certain of Yelena’s qualities, he did not, apparently, feel she would be a suitable ruler for Muscovy. When he came down with symptoms of blood poisoning, he understood that his three-year-old son and heir to the throne would need help and guidance. The dying prince appointed a council of boyars to govern the principality until young Ivan Vasilyevich came of age.

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