Here’s the story of how an Byzantine Empress had her political enemies ordained priests so keep them out of political office…and how she later proposed marriage to Charlemagne…and was denied.
Here’s a quick backstory to the plot.
Saint Irene was the wife and empress of the Byzantine Emperor Leo IV. She was not a princess. Historians believe she was chosen to marry the emperor’s son through an imperial Miss Byzantine Beauty Pageant known as a Bride Show.
Basically, the Byzantine emperor would line up the most gorgeous women of the empire for a beauty contest, and the emperor’s son would choose his favorite.
(“Wow dad, that girl over there would make for a really hot empress. Can I marry her?”
“If she’s the one you like.”
“Gee, thanks dad!”
“You’re welcome, son. Happy birthday Leo!”)
Although she won out as “Miss Constantinople AD 768,” she soon learned that her young husband Leo IV espoused the heresy of iconoclasm.
Iconoclasm wrongly taught that images of of Christ, Mary, and the saints should not only be removed from churches and homes, but that they should be destroyed as being contrary to the commandment “Thou shalt not make unto thyself any graven image.”
Saint Irene’s husband Leo IV died and left the throne to their nine year old son Constantine VI. She served as Regent until the prince reached the age of majority.
Irene unveiled a plot enthrone throne Caesar Nikephoros, a half-brother of her deceased husband Leo IV. To overcome this conspiracy, she had Nikephoros and his co-conspirators ordained as priests, an act that disqualified them from political office. Check mate!
“So you want to usurp my nine-year-old son’s rightful claim on the Byzantine throne, do you? Too bad. I’ve arranged for you to receive Holy Orders tomorrow before breakfast. Toodles!”
Saint Irene got busy. She arranged for her son Constantine VI to marry Rotrude the daughter of Charlemagne, but the wedding fell through. (Maybe the young Constantine VI also wanted to choose his own Miss Constantinople rather than risk it with the daughter of a Frankish warlord.)
Irene also worked with the Pope in Rome for the Second Ecumenical Council of Nicea in AD 787 to doctrinally ratify the use of Christian images of Christ and the saints.
Saint Irene refused to allow the rule to pass from her regency to her son Constantine VI. Like Queen Elizabeth I of England, she employed the male title of “king” (basileus) instead of “queen” (basilissa). She was King Irene!
By the way, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne as a substitute Roman Emperor because of the irregularity of Irene’s rule in the New Rome of Byzantium!
The widowed Irene later proposed marriage to Charlemagne to reestablish the glory of Constantinople! Charlemagne declined…even though she had once been Miss Constantinople.
Saint Irene’s feast day is August 9.
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