Maria Nagaia (d. 1612)

views updated

Maria Nagaia (d. 1612)

Empress of Russia . Name variations: Maria Nagoy; Martha. Died on July 20, 1612; daughter of Theodor Nagaia (a minor landowner); became the seventh wife of Ivan IV the Terrible (1530–1584), tsar of Russia (r.1533–1584), in September 1580; children: Demetrius also known as Dmitri (b. 1583, killed in 1591). Ivan IV had previously married Anastasia Romanova (d. 1560) in February 1547; Maria of Circassia (d. 1369) in August 1561; Marta Sobakin (d. 1571) in October 1571; Anna Koltoskaia (d. 1626) in April 1572 (divorced 1574); Anna Vassiltschikov around 1574 (divorced in 1576); and Vassilissa Malentieva around 1576 (divorced 1577).

The marriage of Maria Nagaia to Russian tsar Ivan IV in September 1581 was one of the most ill-fated unions in history. The bridegroom had already been married six times and was at the end of his "reign of terror," which had left the country in ruins. It was with the death of his first wife Anastasia Romanova , in 1560, that Ivan began to run "along the broad highway that leads to Hell," as one chronicler put it. Certain that Anastasia had been killed in a plot by the boyars, whom he was convinced also had murdered his mother Elena Glinski and his uncles, he now feared for his sons and heirs Ivan and Theodore (I).

Ivan IV's paranoia only increased with the death of his second wife Maria of Circassia , at which time he began executing his advisors and destroying whole cities, believing that the citizens therein were part of an enormous plot against him. By the time Maria Nagaia entered the picture, the third of Ivan's wives had died, and he had made three more hasty marriages, all of which ended in divorce. (Canon law only recognized three of Ivan's marriages.) His wedding with Maria Nagaia was a double ceremony at which Ivan's son Theodore (I) married Irene Godunova , the sister of Boris Godunov.

Ivan apparently turned a blind eye to his wife, and to the increasing military threat from Poland. However, when his son, Ivan Ivanovich, demanded to take over the imperial troops, Ivan grew enraged and struck the young man with the royal scepter, mortally wounding him. When Ivan Ivanovich died several days later, Ivan IV realized the enormity of his actions and sank into a deep despair from which he never recovered. Even Maria Nagaia's gift of another son, Dmitri, in 1582, did not revive him. Ivan seemed only to await death, which claimed him on March 18, 1584, during a game of chess with an aide. His son Theodore succeeded as him as tsar, although Ivan IV, knowing his son's shortcomings, had appointed a Regency Council headed by Boris Godunov and Nikita Romanovich Yuriev, the two men also serving as joint guardians to Theodore. Upon Nikita Yuriev's death later in 1584, Boris Godunov became the most powerful man in Russia.

Meanwhile, when word of Ivan's death reached Maria Nagaia's family, they planned a coup to place her son Dmitri on the throne. The Regency Council, however, learned of the plot and arrested the entire family, exiling them to Uglich where they were permitted a small court overseen by council-appointed administrators. But the Nagaia family was not out of the picture for long. In May 1591, young Dmitri, an epileptic, was killed while playing the game tychka (similar to mumbletypeg), during which he collapsed and fell onto a knife which lodged in his throat. Dmitri's uncle Mikhail, believing the boy's death was the result of a plot executed by agents of Boris Godunov, immediately had the government agents hunted down and murdered. Later, when a church council determined that the death was "an act of God," Mikhail was charged with the murder of government officials and exiled, while Maria Nagaia was forced to a nunnery, where she took the name Martha.

Over the course of the next seven years, a series of events brought Boris Godunov into full power. Crowned tsar on September 1, 1598, he reigned over a two-year period of peace and prosperity. In the midst of this tranquil period, however, a rumor surfaced that Maria Nagaia's son Dmitri had not died and was being hidden by the Romanovs. Rumors of Dmitri's escape persisted over several years and in early summer of 1603, a servant claiming to be Dmitri turned up in Poland and quickly advanced to a position of considerable power.

When Godunov learned of this, he had Maria Nagaia—now Martha—brought to Moscow for questioning. When she refused to declare whether her son was dead or alive, the Russian Church declared that "Dmitri" was in fact the defrocked monk Grishka Otrepev, and had him excommunicated. Still, the man known as Dmitri invaded Russia in 1604, and Godunov, now ill following a stroke in the spring of 1603, was powerless against him as he continued to draw peasants, landowners, and Cossacks into his ranks. Following Godunov's death on April 13, 1605, and the succession to the throne of his son Theodore II, "Dmitri" managed to win over the Russian imperial generals. On June 2, it was announced that the 1591 report was indeed a lie and Dmitri had not died. Tsar Theodore I was murdered a week later, and "Dmitri" entered Moscow, where on July 18 he was reunited with his mother.

But there was yet another surprising turn of events. Within a year, Maria Nagaia recanted, stating that her son Dmitri had indeed been killed on Boris Godunov's orders. Upon her pronouncement, the man claiming to be Dmitri was murdered, and the body of the real Dmitri was brought to Moscow for canonization. Maria Nagaia died in 1612, taking whatever she knew about her son's death to her grave.


Fletcher, Giles. Of the Russe Commonwealthe. Edited by Richard Pipes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 1966.

Graham, Stephen. Boris Godunof. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1933.

Grey, Ian. Boris Godunov. The Tragic Tsar. NY: Scribner, 1973.

Margeret, Jacques. The Russian Empire and Grand Duchy of Muscovy. Edited and translated by C.S.L. Dunning. PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1983.

Massa, Isaac. A Short History of the Muscovite Wars. Edited and translated by G.E. Orchard. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1982.

Platonov, S.F. Boris Godunov. Translated by L.R. Pyles. Academic International Press, 1973.

Skrynnikov, R.G. Boris Godunov. Translated by H.F. Graham. Academic International Press, 1982.

About this article

Maria Nagaia (d. 1612)

Updated About content Print Article


Maria Nagaia (d. 1612)