The child empress Agnes of France was the spouse of two emperors of Byzantium, the boy emperor Alexius II Comnenus, and subsequently Andronicus I Comnenus, the latter’s first cousin once removed. Agnes was born to King Louis VII of France’s third wife, Adèle (or Alix) of Blois-Champagne, the daughter of Count Theobald II of Blois, in 1172. This made her the younger sister of the future French king Philip II Augustus. The house of Blois-Champagne was the second most powerful magnate house in France (after the house of Plantagenet). The emperor Manuel I Comnenus was looking for allies in the west, since the Peace of Venice in 1177 had effectively allied the Pope (Alexander III), the Holy Roman Empire, Venice, the other Italian communes and Sicily against him. After discussion with the count of Flanders, Philip of Alsace, who visited Constantinople in early 1178 on his way back from the Holy Land, Manuel sent an embassy, including Philip, to the French court over the winter of 1178-1179 to secure a match between his son Alexius (born in 1169) and the princess Agnes.[] This match may have been opposed by the members of the house of Blois-Champagne, who were pro-German.[]
According to William of Tyre, Agnes was only eight on her arrival at Constantinople, while Alexius was thirteen; in fact Alexius was born on 14 September 1169.[] Child brides, whether Byzantines or foreign princesses, were the norm rather than the exception, especially from the late twelfth century. Irene Ducaena, wife of Alexius I Comnenus, was twelve at her marriage, and empress before she was fifteen; the Byzantine princess Theodora, Manuel’s niece, was in her thirteenth year when she married Baldwin III of Jerusalem; and Margaret-Maria of Hungary married Isaac II Angelus at the age of nine. Agnes’s age, then, was not unusual, especially as it was customary for young engaged couples in Constantinople to be brought up together in the house of the socially superior partner.[]
Agnes boarded a ship in Genoa under the captaincy of Baldavino Guercio, and on arrival in Constantinople in the Easter of 1179 was greeted with an oration from the ex-Master of the Rhetors, Eustathius, Archbishop of Thessalonica.[] Robert of Clari describes the rich entourage which accompanied Agnes to Constantinople:
Then the king arrayed his sister [sic] very richly and sent her with the messengers to Constantinople, and many of his people with her… When they were come, the emperor did very great honor to the damsel and made great rejoicing over her and her people’.[]
Agnes was received with great festivities, including a fleet of boats colourfully festooned, and her arrival was heralded in a lengthy production of welcoming verses by an anonymous author, in which the description of her attractions reaches an unusual degree of hyperbole with her ‘lively form’ being compared to air and crystal. The verses record how more than seventy ladies of the imperial house came out to greet her, with one sent ahead to attire her appropriately as an Augusta (empress) for the occasion, while Maria Porphyrogenita is shown as paying homage to her new sister-in-law in a tent outside the walls: the arrival of Agnes in the capital and this adoption of Byzantine court costume is illustrated in the manuscript.[] Agnes is described as outshining even her new sister-in-law, who, with her fiancé Béla of Hungary had been Manuel’s heir before the birth of her brother Alexius II, and who had since been offered as a bride to William II of Sicily, John Lackland, the youngest son of Henry II of England, and Henry, the son of Frederick Barbarossa.[] The fact that Maria, who was to be one of the champions of the anti-Latin faction in the city, is shown as doing obeisance to the western-born empress emphasised the superiority of the new Latin princess over her sister-in-law and publicly demonstrated the success of Manuel’s pro-western policy.[]
Manuel’s two surviving children were to celebrate a double wedding. Maria was to marry Renier, the son of William the Old of Montferrat (in north-western Italy), who was considerably younger than herself, and Renier was granted the title Caesar and assumed the name John.[] At the same time, the young prince Alexius was to marry Agnes, though a further wedding ceremony at a later date may have been envisaged, as Agnes is invariably called Alexius’ bride, not his wife, in the sources. The ceremonies took place in the palace on 2 March 1180, and were conducted by the patriarch Theodosius. Agnes now took the official name of Anna. The wedding banquet was spectacularly conducted in the Hippodrome, and once again, Eustathius produced a speech to celebrate the occasion,[] describing the way in which the starting stalls were converted to kitchens and the poor were able to help themselves to the leftovers.
The lavishness of the entertainment was obviously intended not only to win the approval of the inhabitants of the city, but also to dazzle westerners with Byzantine magnificence and sophistication:
‘any attempt to describe in detail all the wonders of those days would be utterly futile … the games of the circus which the inhabitants of Constantinople call hippodromes, and the glorious spectacles of varied nature shown to the people with great pomp during the days of the celebration; the imperial magnificence of the vestments and the royal robes adorned with a profusion of precious stones and pearls of great weight; the vast amount of massive gold and silver furniture in the palace, of untold value … the valuable draperies adorning the royal abode … the numerous servants and members of the court, the magnificence of the nuptial splendour, and the generous gifts which the emperor lavished on both his own people and on strangers.’[]
We hear little of Agnes during Alexius’ reign (24 September 1180 to prior to 24 September 1183). It is highly unlikely that the match was consummated, as it was customary to import imperial brides from overseas at a young age to enable them to become acquainted with Greek and with their future ceremonial duties; certainly it was unusual under normal circumstances for Byzantine girls to marry before the age of twelve. However, shortly before Alexius completed three years as emperor, Manuel’s first cousin Andronicus made himself co-emperor and then usurped Alexius’s position altogether, putting him out of the way by having him throttled. Nicetas Choniates then, with morbid relish, claims that Andronicus (who was born c. 1118 and was thus about 65 years of age) sexually exploited the eleven-year old princess.[] Despite the fact that his marriage to Anna, some fifty years his junior, may well have been made for political reasons — and Andronicus had portraits of Mary of Antioch in the capital replaced with ones of himself either alone or accompanied by his child-bride[]— Choniates makes the most of the opportunity to ridicule Andronicus, his age and the incongruity of the alliance (‘the overripe suitor embracing the unripe maiden, the dotard the damsel with pointed breasts, the shriveled and languid old man the rosy-fingered girl dripping with the dew of love’).[] According to Eustathius of Thessalonica as well, the match was repugnant to her, as she regretted Alexius’ death and loathed Andronicus:[] She was the young daughter of the king of France, and as everybody knew hated the union because she was full of intelligence; and after having experienced a different kind of gentle loving, she loathed the roughness of Andronicus. Sometimes, they say, she would imagine in her dreams that she saw the young Alexius, and would cry out his name, and she alone knew what she suffered.
Andronicus had previously indulged in many amorous and romantic adventures (with Manuel’s niece, Eudocia, daughter of Manuel’s brother Andronicus; with another niece, Theodora, daughter of Manuel’s brother Isaac and widow of Baldwin III of Jerusalem; and with Philippa of Antioch, Manuel’s sister-in-law). As emperor, despite his young bride, he openly consorted with prostitutes and concubines, both in and out of doors, and Choniates informs us that Andronicus sought to attain both ‘the sexual prowess of the cuttlefish’, and that of Heracles with the fifty-one daughters of Thyestes, resorting to ointments and other aphrodisiac aids, such as regularly eating an (extremely repugnant) animal similar to the crocodile, for this purpose.[]
Nevertheless, Agnes’ attitude towards Andronicus may have changed over the following two years. When he was in turn ousted by Isaac II Angelus (12 September 1185), and fled for his life in a boat towards the direction of Russia, he took both Agnes, and the prostitute Maraptike of whom he was rapturously enamoured, with him, along with a few attendants.[] However, contrary winds thwarted his plans to escape, and he was brought back with Agnes and Maraptike to Constantinople. In an attempt to persuade his captors on board ship to release him, he sang a pathetic lament about his past life and present calamity, in which the women joined, cleverly responding in song to his lamentations.[] However, his efforts were in vain and he suffered a particularly horrible death in the Hippodrome.
We hear nothing of Agnes’ life subsequent to the death of Andronicus in Byzantine sources. However, nearly twenty years later, in 1203, Robert of Clari states that the leaders of the Fourth Crusade found her living in a palace married to a ‘high man of the city’, Theodore Branas, who is first heard of in 1189 as commander of the Alans (Georgian mercenaries) against Frederick Barbarossa’s Germans.[] The Branas family was related to the Comneni and Angeli, and had produced prominent military commanders from the eleventh century. Theodore’s mother was one of the daughters of Manuel’s sister Eudocia and Theodore Vatatzes, and thus a cousin of Alexius II. Theodore’s father, Alexius Branas, who had prevented the Normans from moving against Constantinople in 1185, had revolted against Isaac II Angelus shortly afterwards, perhaps in 1187. Alexius’ head was cut off and brought to Isaac in triumph, and Choniates praises the restraint of the widow when shown the severed head and remarks that Manuel had praised her as the ‘flower of his family’. Theodore thereupon inherited his father’s opposition to Isaac II and was to support Alexius III Angelus’ successful rebellion against his brother Isaac in 1195.[] Theodore was then to be employed by Alexius III against the Turks and in 1199 was governor of Kouperion.[]
It is unclear when Agnes married Branas, but a dowager empress was a valuable prize and presumably the match took place at the instigation of Isaac II to attempt to ensure the loyalty of the Branas family to the current regime. Agnes received the barons of the Fourth Crusade as befitted a Byzantine empress — with bad grace, according to Robert, and would talk only through an interpreter, pretending that she knew no French.[] She was now over thirty years of age and had, after all, spent most of her life in the Byzantine capital and at the Byzantine court. During the sack of the city she was to shelter in the palace of Boucoleon along with the ex-empress Margaret-Maria of Hungary and several other imperial women.[] According to Geoffrey of Villehardouin, however, Agnes’ husband was the ‘only’ Greek who sided with the crusaders, and he was well repaid by them for his support. As a vassal of the Latin Empire, he was made lord of Didymoteichon and Adrianople in Thrace, where Agnes apparently accompanied him.[] According to Aubry de Trois-Fontaines (s.v. AD 1205), she had a daughter who married Narjand de Toucy, cousin of Guy de Dampierre. Agnes thereupon disappears from history but the Branas family, including several notable Theodores, continued to accumulate vast estates and intermarry with other noble families, including the Palaeologue dynasty.
Anna Comnena, Anne Comnène, Alexiade, ed. & tr. B. Leib, 3 vols. (Paris: Budé, 1937-45, repr. 1967); trans. as The Alexiad of Anna Comnena, by E.R.A. Sewter (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979).
Nicetas Choniates, Historia, ed. J.-L. van Dieten, 2 vols., Corpus Fontium Historiae Byzantinae 11, Berlin and New York, 1975; trans. as O City of Byzantium, Annals of Niketas Choniates, by H.J. Magoulias (Detroit, 1984).
Eustathius of Thessalonica, Eustathii Thessalonicensis opera minora, ed. P. Wirth, Corpus Fontium Historiae Byzantinae 32 (Berlin and New York, 2000).
Eustathius of Thessalonica, Eustathii Metropolitanae Thessalonicensis Opuscula, ed. T.L.F. Tafel (Frankfurt am Main, 1832, repr. Amsterdam, 1964).
Eustathius of Thessalonica, The Capture of Thessaloniki, ed. J.R. Melville-Jones (Canberra: Byzantina Australiensia, 1988).
Geoffrey of Villehardouin, La conquête de Constantinople, ed. and trans. Edmond Faral (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2nd. ed., 1961).
I.D. Polemis, ‘Ho logos epi tois theorikois demotelesi trapezomasi tou Eustathiou Thessalonikes,’ Parnassos, 36 (1994), 402-20.
Robert of Clari, La conquête de Constantinople, ed. Philippe Lauer (Paris, 1924); trans. Edgar Holmes McNeal, The Conquest of Constantinople (New York, 1966).
William, Archbishop of Tyre, ‘Historia rerum in partibus transmarinis gestarum,’ in Recueil des historiens des croisades. Historiens occidentaux, I.1 & 2 (Paris, 1844), trans. as A History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea, by Emily Atwater Babcock & A.C. Krey, 2 vols. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1943).
M. Angold, The Byzantine Empire, 1025-1204: a political history, 2nd ed. (London and New York: Longman, 1997).
M. Angold, Church and Society in Byzantium under the Comneni (Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 1995).
H.-G. Beck, ‘Byzanz und der Westen im 12. Jahrhundert’, Vorträge und Forschungen, 12 (1969), 227-41.
C.M. Brand, Byzantium Confronts the West 1180-1204 (Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1968).
F. Chalandon, Jean II Comnène (1118-1143) et Manuel I Comnène (1143-1180) (Paris: Picard, 1912; repr. New York: Burt Franklin, 1971).
F. Dölger, Regesten der Kaiserkunden des oströmischen Reiches, vol. 1.2 (Munich & Berlin: Oldenbourg, 1925).
W. Georgi, Friedrich Barbarossa und die auswärtigen Mächte (Frankfurt am Main, 1990).
Cecily Hinsdale, “Constructing a Byzantine Augusta: A Greek Book for a French Bride, ” Art Bulletin. 87 (2005), 458-483.
E.M. Jeffreys, ‘Western Infiltration of the Byzantine Aristocracy: Some Suggestions,’ in The Byzantine Aristocracy IX to XII Centuries, ed. M. Angold (Oxford: BAR, 1984), 202-10.
M. Jeffreys, ‘The Vernacular eisiterioi for Agnes of France,’ in E.M. & M.J. Jeffreys & A. Moffatt (ed.), Byzantine Papers. Proceedings of the First Australian Byzantine Studies Conference (Canberra: Byzantina Australiensia, 1981), 101-115.
P. Magdalino, The Empire of Manuel I Komnenos, 1143-1180 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).
D.M. Nicol, ‘Mixed Marriages in Byzantium in the Thirteenth Century,’ in Studies in Church History, ed. C.W. Dugmore and C. Duggan, 2 vols., (London/ Edinburgh, 1964), 1. 160-72 (= Byzantium. Its Ecclesiastical History and Relations with the Western World, London: Variorum, 1972, IV).
D.M. Nicol, ‘Symbiosis and Integration. Some Graeco-Latin Families in Byzantium in the 11th to 13th Centuries,’ Byzantinische Forschungen, 7 (1979), 113-35.
J. Spatharakis, The Portrait in Byzantine Illuminated Manuscripts (Leiden: Brill, 1976).
A.F. Stone, ‘The Oration by Eustathios of Thessaloniki for Agnes of France: a Snapshot of Political Tension between Byzantium and the West,’ Byzantion, 73 (2003), 112-26.
K. Varzos, He Genealogia ton Komnenon, 2 vols. (Thessalonica: Kentron Byzantinon erevnon, 1984).
[] W. Georgi, Friedrich Barbarossa und die auswärtigen Mächte (Frankfurt am Main, 1990), 324; K. Varzos, He Genealogia ton Komnenon (Thessalonica, 1984), 2.457-60; F. Dölger, Regesten der Kaiserkunden des oströmischen Reiches, vol. 1.2 (Munich & Berlin, 1925), no. 1531.
[]One example being Anna Comnena, who was put into the care of her future mother-in-law, the dowager empress Mary of Alania, before she was eight years old so she could be brought up with her fiancé Constantine (Anna Comnena, Alexiad 3.1.4; cf. 2.5.1 for a further example).
[]Eustathius of Thessalonica, Eustathii Thessalonicensis opera minora, ed. P. Wirth, Corpus Fontium Historiae Byzantinae 32 (Berlin and New York, 2000), 250-60, also in V.E. Regel & N.I. Novosadskij, Fontes Rerum Byzantinarum. Rhetorum Saeculi XII Orationes Politicae, I (1-2) (St. Petersburg, 1892; repr. Leipzig, 1982), V, 80-92.
[]M.J. Jeffreys, ‘The Vernacular “Eisiterioi” for Agnes of France,’ in E.M. & M.J. Jeffreys & A. Moffatt (ed.), Byzantine Papers. Proceedings of the First Australian Byzantine Studies Conference (Canberra,1981) 101-2; J. Spatharakis, The Portrait in Byzantine Illuminated Manuscripts (Leiden: Brill, 1976), 213-14, 216-18; P. Magdalino, The Empire of Manuel I Komnenos, 1143-1180 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 245. In the upper left hand corner she faces a group of Byzantine court ladies, who wear wide-sleeved purple robes and large fan-shaped headdresses; behind her are her western court ladies; at this point she is simply dressed with her hair in a plait. In the upper right corner she is clothed in Byzantine costume, a purple robe with rich gold decoration. The lower zone shows her flanked by Byzantine ladies paying her court: see Spatharakis 229.
[]Choniates, Historia, 321-2, 347; Robert of Clari, XX-XXI, ed. Lauer,19-22; cf. L. Garland, ‘How Different, How Very Different from the Home Life of Our Own Dear Queen: Sexual Morality at the Late Byzantine Court, with Especial Reference to the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries,’ Byzantine Studies / Études Byzantines, new series 1-2, (1995-1996), 1-62.
[]Geoffrey of Villehardouin, La conquête de Constantinople, 403, 413 and 423, ed. Faral, 2.214-6, 226 and 236; Choniates, Historia, 637, 629, 642, 646; D.M. Nicol & S. Bendall, ‘Anna of Savoy in Thessalonica: the Numismatic Evidence,’ Revue Numismatique, series 6, 19 (1977), 87-102.