This month’s ancestor (Reminiscing?) feature highlights one of the most interesting people to turn up in the family tree–St. Olga of Kiev. Seems odd to have a saint in the ancestral closet, doesn’t it? Literally millions of people today are descended from saints, usually the royal ones. When Christianity was first gaining a foothold in Europe, the bar for sainthood was pretty low…as you’ll see in Olga’s case. She is a direct ancestor of mine through the second wife of King Edward I–Margaret of France.
The chronicles are murky on Olga’s date of birth as is often the case with women and with figures born in the tenth century. She was born in Pskov anywhere from 879-903. (The 879 date is suspect since it puts her in her sixties when her only son was born.) She married Igor of Kiev, the ruler of Kievan Rus, a confederation of East Slavic tribes. Founded by the Vikings, Kievan Rus stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea, a substantial stretch of land populated by warring factions and ruled over by princes with a tenuous hold on power. When Igor went to collect tribute from one of these tribes–the Drevlians–they decided to kill him instead in a rather nasty way. They bent down a pair of birch trees and tied his legs–one to a tree. Then they let the trees go, and well…things got messy and Olga was widowed with a three-year old son who was now the ruler of Kiev.
According to the chronicles, Olga was rather masterful at holding a grudge. The unwary Drevlians sent a delegation of twenty men to ask for her hand in marriage to their prince. By way of response, she had them buried alive. She then sent word to the prince that she would marry him, but only if he sent an escort of his most distinguished and powerful men to accompany her. Not knowing the fate of his first delegates, the prince agreed, dispatching his most accomplished men to escort the princess to him. Upon their arrival, Olga welcomed them cordially and had them shown to the bathhouse so they might wash. Once they were inside, Olga ordered the bathhouse sealed and torched–thus exterminating the second Drevlian delegation as swiftly as the first.
Olga then set out to finish what she had started. She journeyed to the Drevlian capital to pay her respects to her husband’s burial mound. Unaware of what had become of the two delegations, the Drevlians were pleased to join her in a lavish funeral feast during which she ensured they became wildly intoxicated while her own Kievan troops remained stone-cold sober. More than 5,000 Drevlians were slaughtered at the feast, but Olga was STILL not finished.
After besieging their city, Olga was offered tribute in the form of honey and furs. She rejected this and claimed she wanted nothing but three pigeons and three sparrows from each household. Delighted at being let off so easily, the Drevlians complied. When the birds were delivered, Olga had her troops attach rags to each bird–rags that had been dipped in sulphur. The birds were released and flew directly back to the city, returning to the eaves and nests and dovecotes and setting fire to every house. As the surviving citizens fled, she had them taken into captivity and kept them as slaves.
In her old age, Olga was converted to Christianity, and so fervently did she try to introduce this religion to Kievans that she was known as St. Olga, Equal to the Apostles. She never converted her son, Sviatoslav the Brave, but her grandson, Vladimir the Great, became St. Vladimir of Kiev.
St. Olga’s feast day is July 11. She was also known as Olga the Beauty, and if you scroll down on this link, you can see an icon of her that was owned by a daughter of Tsar Alexander III.
(While Olga’s actions may well have been exaggerated to make her conversion to Christianity more impressive, she was certainly a dynamic and forceful presence in Kievan Rus. And as I like to say, even if I’m having a bad day, at least I didn’t burn down a bathhouse.)