The Holy Prince Michael

The Holy Prince Michael was born in 1179 to the family of the Prince of Chernigov, one of the most influential and energetic princes of the time. In 1223, after his uncle, Prince Mstislav Svyatoslavich, was killed in action during the famous Battle of the Kalka River, Michael occupied the throne of Chernigov. Besides, he occasionally reigned over Pereyaslavl Yuzhny, Novgorod, Kiev and Galich. He was continuously engaged in wars, often changing his allies.

It was the time of fratricidal strife among princes in Old Russia. Though Rus’ was already Christian, princes often waged wars with one another despite the Christian commandments of love and eradication of enmity and hatred among brothers.

Prince Michael fought against Prince Yaroslav Vsevolodovich, the father of the Holy Prince Alexander Nevsky, for the Novgorod throne, but was banished together with his son Rostislav. For some time he lived in Hungary and Poland. Later, after his son married the daughter of the Hungarian King Bela IV, Michael returned to his native Chernigov.

By that time the Tatars had already looted and burnt down Kiev to leave behind a wasteland in what used to be a large and glorious city. The princes of Kievan Rus’ had to come to the Horde to be granted a Khan’s letter of permit for reign. Michael went to the Horde too to obtain the letter.

We learn about subsequent events which happened in the Horde to Prince Michael from “A Tale of the Murder of Prince Michael and His Boyar Theodore”, which appeared almost immediately after the martyrdom of the prince in the Horde.

According to the Tatars’ custom, when Russian princes came to Khan Batyi, they were first taken between two fires for purification and then demanded to bow before “the bush and the fire and their idols”. A part of the gifts brought by princes were also first thrown into a fire. Only after that princes were taken to the khan. Many princes with their boyars went through the fire in the hope to receive from Khan Batyi’s hands the cities they reigned. And the khan used to give them the city they asked for.

According to the tale, Prince Michael, before going to the Horde, visited his father confessor who warned him against the rejection of Christ by going through heathen rites. And the prince promised to his father confessor that he would firmly preserve the faith of Christ and asked for his prayers.

Upon this arrival to the Horde, Michael was asked to perform the rite of going through two fires and bowing south to Dengiskhan. But he refused, saying he was a Christian and would not honour heathen idols. The prince’s answer provoked the khan’s wrath and he ordered that Michael be persuaded to fulfil the Tatar traditional rites. But the prince remained adamant. The prince’s armed force began persuading him to bow before the khan, with Boyar Theodor alone trying to persuade the prince to yield to no persuasion reminding him of the promise he gave his father confessor before departure for the Horde.

So, the Prince and his faithful boyar began to sing funeral dirges over themselves and partook of the Holy Gifts of Christ which the father confessor gave them before they left for the Horde. After their torment, the Tatars beheaded both Prince Michael and his faithful Boyar Theodore.

The bodies of Martyr Michael and Theodore were taken to Rus’, first to Vladimir and later to Chernigov. Soon after their death, they began to be venerated as saints. The church commemoration of the martyrs was first established in Rostov, where Prince Michael’s daughter Maria lived. She built the first church to be dedicated to St. Michael of Chernigov. In the 16th century, under Tsar Ivan the Terrible, the relics of the two saints were brought to Moscow and placed in the Church of the Wonderworkers of Chernigov in the Kremlin, next to the Tainitsky (secret) Gates. Later, by the order of Empress Catherine the Great, the relics were moved to the Cathedral of the Archangel Michael in which they are kept to this day.

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