Irina Godunova

Irina Feodorovna Godunova later Alexandra (1557–1603) was a Tsaritsa of Russia by marriage to Tsar Feodor I Ivanovich (r. 1584–1598) and the sister of Tsar Boris Godunov (r. 1598–1605). For nine days after the death of her spouse in 1598, she upheld a dubious power position as de facto autocrat.[1]

Irina Godunova
Irina godunova01 reconstruction.jpg
Tsaritsa of Russia
Tenure18 March 1584 – 16/17 January (NS), 1598
SuccessorBoris Godunov
Died27 October 1603(1603-10-27) (aged 45–46)
Novodevichy Monastery
SpouseFeodor I of Russia
FatherFeodor Ivanovich Godunov
MotherStepanida Ivanovna
ReligionEastern Orthodox


The precise dates of some of the events in Irina's life are uncertain. Most sources indicate that she was picked by Ivan the Terrible to be the wife of the tsarevich Feodor in 1580 or 1581, although some sources say this occurred as early as 1574. At 23 or 24 (assuming the latter dates), she would have been considered old for a bride in Muscovy, where the common age for marriage was in the mid-teens, and it is not certain why she married so relatively late in life. Her marriage was arranged by her brother, who successfully managed to secure a place in the Tsar's inner circle and the status of boyar through his sister's marriage.[1]

Irina reportedly surpassed her spouse in intelligence, education and sophistication, and she quickly acquired influence over Feodor, and learned to navigate in court affairs.[1] Feodor was reportedly mentally underdeveloped and physically weak and the marriage was childless, but Tsar Ivan did not interfere in their marriage.[1]

She became tsaritsa upon the coronation of her husband in 1584.


Throughout her husband's reign (and, indeed, ever since her marriage), she was expected to produce a male heir. Feodor was physically and mentally frail and, were he to die without male issue, it was questionable whether his half-brother, Dmitri, would be considered legitimate, as he was the result of Ivan the Terrible's seventh marriage and the Orthodox Church recognized only up to four marriages as legitimate. Indeed, even with Dmitri as a possible successor, Irina was under pressure to produce an heir and in 1585, she traveled to the Trinity-St. Sergei Monastery north of Moscow in hopes of a miraculous cure for her alleged infertility,[2] but still she did not bear a child—a daughter, Feodosia Fedorovna—until 1592, but the girl did not live long and died in January 1594.[3]

The couple's continued infertility led to court intrigue. Thus, in 1585, Metropolitan Dionysius proposed that Feodor divorce Irina, blaming her for being infertile and arguing that, for the good of the state and the dynasty, the Tsar ought to remarry and produce a male heir. The suggestion was seen as an effort on the part of the Shuiskies and other boyar clans to undercut the Godunovs. In response, Boris Godunov had the metropolitan deposed and confined to the Khutyn Monastery just outside Novgorod the Great. In 1587, several leading boyar families advised Feodor to divorce Irina of the same reason, but as a response, Feodor approved of Irina's and Boris' punishment of the boyars, and had the boyar daughters, which had been suggested to replace her, forcibly made nuns.[1]

With the death of Dmitry under strange circumstances in Uglich, north of Moscow, on 15 May 1591, Irina was placed under increasing pressure to produce an heir as the Rurikid dynasty that had ruled Rus and Muscovy since the ninth century would be extinct if Feodor died without a son, and a bloody succession struggle might ensue. The couple remained barren for more than a decade, although whether this was due to Fedor's poor health or to infertility on Irina's part was uncertain.

Tsaritsa Irina had great influence during the reign of Feodor and participated in state affairs: initially doing so discreet and without advertising her influence, Irina soon participated in government more directly, frequently placing her own name on Feodor's decrees.[1] She also became known publicly and abroad, corresponding with queen Elizabeth I of England and Patriarch Meletis Pigasos of Alexandria.[1] Feodor trusted Irina and referred to her, did not wish to exalt himself at her expense and trusted her to handle the affairs of state for him, relying on her advise.[1] The Tsar named a new fortress Tsaritsyn (Volgograd) after her to strengthen her authority.[1]

Later lifeEdit

Upon her husband's death on 7 January 1598, the Rurikids in the male line were extinct. Some days before his death, on 3 January, Feodor had stated that Irina would become a nun after his death and made her promise to honor his wish.[1] However, after his death, Irina, with no other candidate to the throne, announced her intention to "take power for a short time, so as to protect the Tsardom from tumult".[1] No woman had ever before reigned in her own right in Rus' or Russia. The Godunov family convinced the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox church to grant its consent to Irina as an autocrat, and the Boyar Duma to pledge loyalty to her as "Great Sovereign".[1] The legal situation was difficult, however: as Irina had never been crowned, she had no authority to hold or convey power: furthermore, although the church and nobility was willing to accept her rule, the public in Moscow rioted at the suggestion of her succession and called her "shameless".[1] For nine days after the death of Feodor, the situation was unclear and Irina was de facto ruler. Her first act as sovereign was to declare an amnesty of prisoners to win good will of the public, but this act failed as it released dangerous criminals and caused discontent.[1]

Nine days after the death of her spouse, "in order to prevent great revolt", Irina relinquished formal power to the Boyar Duma and de facto power to her brother Boris Godunov.[1] She retired (some historians call it an abdication)[4] to the Novodevichy Monastery (Convent) on the south side of Moscow, where she took monastic vows under the name Aleksandra. In fact, it was at the monastery that Boris Godunov was asked by Patriarch Job of Moscow and the Zemsky Sobor to become tsar.[5] Upon the wish of her brother, her name always preceded any other member of the imperial family in the church prayers until her death.[1]

Irina died on 27 October 1603 (others sources give the date 26 September, still others the year 1604) in the Novodevichy Monastery.


Several embroideries created by Irina are in the collection of the State Historical Museum on Red Square (along with similar work by Sophia Paleologus, the wife of Ivan III, and Anastasia, the first wife of Ivan the Terrible.)


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p Natalia Pushkareva, Women in Russian History: From the Tenth to the Twentieth Century,
  2. ^ See Giles Fletcher, Of the Rus Commonwealth (Ithaca, 1966) 120-121; Isolde Thyret, "'Blessed is the Tsaritsa's Womb': The Myth of Miraculous Birth and Royal Motherhood in Muscovite Russia," Russian Review 53, No. 4 (Oct. 1994): 494.
  3. ^ Thyret, "'Blessed is the Tsaritsa's Womb'," 495.
  4. ^ A. M. Nikolaieff, "Boris Godunov and the Ouglich Tragedy" Russian Review 9, No. 4 (1950), pp. 275-85.
  5. ^ Thyret, "'Blessed is the Tsaritsa's Womb'," 479-96; Idem, Between God and Tsar. Religious Symbolism and the Royal Women of Muscovite Russia. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2001.
Russian royalty
Title last held by
Maria Nagaya
Tsaritsa of Russia
Title next held by
Maria Grigorievna