Did Russia Nearly Have A Protestant Tsar?

For my summer holiday reading, I try to lose myself in something utterly unrelated to anything else I’ve been looking at. This year, I plucked a book off my wife’s history shelf which has caught my eye ever since she bought it back in 2016: The Romanovs: 1613–1918 by Simon Sebag Montefiore. As the title suggests, it’s a comprehensive history of the Romanov dynasty, from 1613–1918. Yet, despite trying to get away from anything work related whilst on holiday, for a brief moment Montefiore’s book had me imagining a magisterial Protestant Russia, and considering a tantalising, AdFontes-y question: did Russia nearly have a Protestant tsar?

The first Romanov ruler, Tsar Michael I, came to the throne after a period of war and unrest known as The Time of Troubles, which stretched from 1598 until Michael’s coronation in 1613. The Troubles partly incorporated the little-known Ingrian War (1610–1617) between Sweden and Russia, in which a burgeoning Sweden tried to take advantage of Russia’s internal strife to extend its own borders.

By late 1610, Russia was in dire straits. Sweden had invaded to the north, which in turn dragged Poland into invading (as they were keen to curb Swedish expansion). The precarious state of the nation led to Tsar Vasily IV being overthrown in a coup, and a new tsar had to be elected–and there was no shortage of contenders.

First, the Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow, Filaret, advocated for the eventually successful candidate, his son Michael Romanov (given pedigree by his relation to Ivan the Terrible). Perhaps this suggestion would have worked at the time, but there then came distressing news from the south about False Dmitri II (or “The Brigand”), the second of three men who claimed to be the son whom Ivan the Terrible had murdered in 1591. Having fled south after the Swedish and Polish invasions, The Brigand had gathered a sizable army of Cossacks, and was ready to maraud his way back to the throne under the veneer of legitimacy leant to him by having married the wife of False Dmitri I (yes, really).

The nobles who had deposed Tsar Vasily IV wanted a tsar with enough military might to resist The Brigand, and so, rejecting Filaret’s suggestion of Michael, elected Wladyslaw, son of the Polish King Sigismund III. Filaret was sent to the Poles to negotiate. Unfortunately, however, Wladyslaw was a Catholic, and the Poles refused the suggestions that he convert Orthodoxy in order to become tsar, and imprisoned Patriarch Filaret.

It was at this stage that the Swedes–who had advanced into Russia and occupied Novgorod in the north–threw their hat into the ring to counter the Polish claim. The Swedish king at the time was Charles IX, who was soon succeeded in 1611 by his son Gustavus II Adolphus. Sweden, and its ruling family, were staunchly Lutheran at this point, and so there was essentially a three-way Protestant-Catholic-Orthodox war going on between Sweden, Poland, and Russia respectively (and Charles IX had ousted the aforementioned Sigismund III of Poland, his nephew, from the Swedish crown in 1604 in order to keep Sweden Protestant). A famous picture of Gustavus Adolphus prior to his death at the Battle of Lutzen adorns the front cover of our Davenant Press book A Protestant Christendom? (also pictured above), which is why I thought this story might be of interest to readers of Ad Fontes.

Jacob De la Gardie, the leader of the Swedish occupation of Novgorod, suggested that Charles Philip, Duke of Sodermanland, son of Charles IX and brother of Gustavus Adolphus, become tsar. Charles Philip was only ten years old at the time, and his mother apparently refused to let him go to Russia for negotiations. But the idea was alive as late as 1613–Charles Philip headed for Viborg in Denmark to discuss the tsardom that year. However, the Russians then elected Michael Romanov, and that was that.

So, did Russia, for a moment, almost have a Protestant tsar? In reality, probably not. Despite De la Gardie’s enthusiasm for the idea, Gustavus Adolphus never had great enthusiasm for it. If the negotiations had ever actually happened, the Swedes would likely have been met with the same demand for conversion to Orthodoxy that Filaret made of the Catholic Pole, Prince Wladyslaw. Perhaps the Swedes would have done the same as the Poles, and imprisoned whichever poor patriarch bore the message.

Historians sometimes talk of a “Lutheran Moment” in the early English Reformation, when an English delegation sent off by Henry VIII in 1536 returned from meeting Lutherans on the continent, coming up with the Ten Articles of the Church of England and smuggling in what Lutheran theology they could before Henry watered it down. Sadly, for those few of us who’d be interested in such a thing, there was no real Lutheran moment for Russia. But we can dream.


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