Godunova, Irene (d. 1603)

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Godunova, Irene (d. 1603)

Empress of Russia who was wife of Theodore I and sister of Boris Godunov, both tsars of Russia. Name variations: Irina or Irine Godunov. Pronunciation: Good-un-OV-a. Born Irina Fedorovna Godunova in the 1550s, probably in Moscow; died near Moscow, probably of tuberculosis, in 1603; daughter of Fedor Ivanovich Godunov (a landowner); sister of Boris Godunov, tsar of Russia (r. 1598–1605); had no formal education; married Fedor I also known as Theodore I, tsar of Russia (r. 1584–1598), in 1574 or 1575; children: Theodosia of Russia (1592–1594).

Irene Godunova's place in Russian history has rested primarily on the fact that she failed to produce a male heir for her husband, Tsar Theodore I, and thus contributed to the termination of the Riurik dynasty and indirectly to the beginning of Russia's terrible civil war, the Time of Troubles. Very little is known about Irene's early years. She was born sometime in the 1550s, the daughter of a minor landowner Fedor Ivanovich Godunov who later joined Ivan IV's security police, the Oprichnina. In 1565 or 1566, he died of unknown causes with the result that Irene and her more famous older brother Boris Godunov became the wards of one of the leaders of the Oprichnina and informally were considered part of Ivan's extended household. One of her childhood playmates was Ivan's younger son Theodore who she married in 1574 or 1575. The death of Ivan's older son in 1581 meant that Theodore unexpectedly became tsar of Russia and his wife tsarina when his father died three years later.

Theodore had no interest in his new job. He was gentle, considerate, physically frail and obsessed with religious observances, especially the ringing of church bells. Irene, who one contemporary described as a "beautiful young lady," shared her husband's piety but not his lethargic nature. She exercised considerable influence over him and in part because of her position Boris Godunov became the real power behind the throne. The one problem in an otherwise happy marriage was Irene's inability to produce a son and heir. After more than a decade of marriage and several miscarriages or stillbirths, enemies of Boris sought to solve the problem and also reduce Godunov power by suggesting that Irene be put into a nunnery so that Theodore could remarry. The tsar as well as Boris refused to go along with the scheme. In May 1592, Irene finally had a child, a girl they named Theodosia, but Theodosia died 18 months later. In January 1598, Theodore followed his infant daughter to his grave.

Prior to his death, Theodore had named his wife his co-ruler and had included her in discussions of state matters, an honor rarely bestowed on women in medieval Russia. It appeared to many in the court that it was his intention (or perhaps Boris') that Irene should succeed to the throne and in this way keep power in the Godunovs' hands. It is also possible that had she done so and then remarried and produced a male heir, a new dynasty would have begun and a succession crisis avoided at Boris' expense. Immediately after Theodore's death, the clergy and many of the Muscovite nobility swore allegiance to the popular tsarina. She reigned by default until Theodore's burial ten days later at which time she renounced any interest in ruling, entered the Novodevichy Monastery outside Moscow, and took the name of Aleksandra. In 1603, after five years as a nun, she died of tuberculosis. Boris, in the meantime, had taken the title of tsar in 1598 basing his claim in part on a rigged election by the Zemskii Sobor and in part on inheritance through his sister. Many contemporaries contested these claims and accused him of all sorts of crimes, including the deaths of Theodosia and Irene. While the new tsar clearly bears some of the responsibility for the Time of Troubles which accompanied his reign, there is no evidence to support the accusation of murder inside his own family.


Emerson, Caryl. Boris Godunov: Transpositions of a Russian Theme. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.

Grey, Ian. Boris Godunov: The Tragic Tsar. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1973.

Platonov, S.F. Boris Godunov: Tsar of Russia. Translated by L. Rex Pyles. Sea Breeze, FL: Academic International Press, 1973.

R. C. Elwood , Professor of History, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada

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