Maryna Mniszech

Maryna Mniszech
Born: circa 1588, Laszki Murowane, Poland (now Murovane, Ukraine)
Died: 1614, Kolomna
Reign: 8-17 May 1606

In 1584, Ivan the Terrible died and was succeeded by his elder son, Tsar Feodor I. The new tsar exiled his younger half-brother, Tsarevich Dmitry, to the small town of Uglich, where he died in mysterious circumstances on 15 May 1591.

According to the official version, the young prince fell on a knife during an epileptic fit. But the many contradictions in the investigation contributed to the legend that he was murdered at the command of Boris Godunov, who then ascended the throne himself after the death of the sickly Feodor I in 1598.

Soon after being crowned tsar of Russia in September 1598, Boris Godunov learnt that someone claiming to be Tsarevich Dmitry had surfaced in Poland. The pretender’s real name was Grishka Otrepiev, a renegade monk who had escaped to Poland, where he claimed to be the son of Ivan the Terrible.

King Sigismund III gave the False Dmitry a Polish army with the aim of marching on Moscow and seizing the Russian throne. The army was headed by Jerzy Mniszech, who had a beautiful daughter called Maryna. The False Dmitry fell in love with Maryna and asked her father for her hand in marriage.

Jerzy understood the benefits for his family if the False Dmitry managed to seize the Russian throne. He made the pretender promise to pay him a million zlotych as soon as he was crowned tsar, while his bride would receive the Russian crown jewels and control of Pskov and Novgorod. He was also obliged to convert Russia from Orthodoxy to Roman Catholicism.

The False Dmitry entered the Russian capital on 20 June 1605 and was crowned tsar on 21 July. His wife’s relatives rushed to Moscow, headed by Maryna herself on 2 May 1606. She was crowned empress on 8 May – the first woman ever to be crowned as such, over a hundred years before Catherine I, wife of Peter the Great.

The False Dmitry and Maryna spent the following week in celebrations. They shocked Russians by dancing together and even using forks, which Russians associated with images of the devil torturing victims in hell.

On the night of 16/17 May, the False Dmitry and Maryna were awoken by a ringing of bells, shouts and gunfire. A mob broke into their bedroom in the Kremlin, murdered the False Dmitry and raped Maryna. After burning the pretender’s dead body, the boyars placed the ashes in a cannon and fired them in the direction of Poland.

The deposed empress and her relatives were imprisoned and then marched to the Polish border. Before they reached Poland, however, they were intercepted by the envoys of a second pretender, False Dmitry II, who had set up camp at Tushino near Moscow (earning him the popular title of the “brigand of Tushino”).

He offered to restore Maryna to the throne if she would identify him as False Dmitry I, who had survived the events of 17 May. She agreed to his plan and, when his army arrived, flung her arms around his neck and passionately kissed her “husband”.

The attempt of the False Dmitry II to usurp the Russian throne was equally ill-fated. Before he could march on Moscow, his nerves gave way and he fled to Kaluga, abandoning Maryna and his army. His wife’s letters complaining of physical abuse by his soldiers went unanswered. Dressed in hussar uniform, Maryna went to Kaluga herself in search of her husband.

Sensing that nothing good would come of their attempt to seize the throne, his associates tired of the pretender and decided to get rid of him. On 10 December 1610, when they were out hunting, Peter Urusov beheaded False Dmitry II and hacked his body to pieces.

Maryna learnt of her second husband’s murder when she was in her final month of pregnancy. Gathering up what was left of his body, she brought the remains back to Kaluga in a sledge. His murder was avenged by one of her own commanders, Ivan Zarutsky.

Several days later, Maryna gave birth to a son, whom she called Ivan. She married Ivan Zarutsky and the couple proceeded to ride across the country, robbing Russian towns.

After the election of Michael Romanov as tsar in 1613, Maryna and Ivan fled to Astrakhan. They planned to raise a fresh army to march on Moscow, but were betrayed to the Streltsy guards. Maryna Mniszech’s second entry into the Russian capital, eight years after the first, was less triumphant. Her three-year-old son was hung and her husband was impaled.

Maryna’s own fate is not clear. She was either drowned or strangled in prison in Kolomna in 1614. According to a popular legend in Russia, the Catholic adventuress turned herself into a magpie and, in this way, escaped from prison and flew back to Poland.

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