Young Folks' History of Russia - Nathan Dole

The Court of Basil


Basil was five-and-twenty before he married, and Herberstein says, "While he was taking counsel about his marriage, it struck him that it would be better to marry the daughter of one of his subjects than a foreigner, because he would thus not only spare himself great expense but also avoid having a wife used to foreign customs and of a different religion."

He ordered the governors of all his towns and provinces to send to Moscow the most beautiful maidens of noble birth whom they could find. Fifteen hundred fair girls came together at this call. The choice was reduced to five hundred, three hundred, two hundred, one hundred, ten; and of these ten, the healthiest and most beautiful, Solomonia, the daughter of a boyar, was the fortunate maid. Basil lived with her twenty-one years, but they had no children, and his love for her passed; and "one day," says the chronicle, "the Grand Prince was making a journey and he saw a bird's nest upon tree, and his eyes overflowed with tears, and began bitterly to mourn his fate:—

"'Woe is me!' he cried; 'what am I like? I am not like the birds of the air, because they increase; and I am not like the beasts of the fields, because they increase; and I am not like the waters, because the waves make them glad, and the are full of fish.' And looking at the earth he cried, 'O Lord I am not even like the earth, because the earth brings forth its fruit in due season, and the harvest gives blessing.' "Then Basil took counsel with his boyars, and he wept before them and said,—

Mount Athos


"Who shall be tsar over the Russian land, and over all my cities and provinces? My brothers? But they are not able to take care of their own cities."

The boyars replied, "The barren fig-tree was cut down and cast out of the vineyard." And all the people counselled Basil to put away his wife. So he put her in a convent at Suzdal.

Basil then married Helena, the daughter of Prince Basil Glinski, and niece of the Lithuanian captain, who had been in prison ever since his attempted flight to King Sigismond. The Metropolitan protested against this second marriage, but Basil had him deposed and banished to a monastery in the far north. Maxim, a Greek monk from Mt. Athos, who had come to arrange the splendid library of the Patriarchs and translate the sacred books into Slavonic, also dared to blame the Grand Prince, and was given over to his enemies, the Metropolitan Daniel and the ignorant priests, who hated him because of his great knowledge. He was accused of heresy and of falsely interpreting the Scriptures, and was banished to Tver.

Basil took less and less occasion to consult his council of boyars. Once a great lord made objection to one of his measures: "Silence, peasant!" was his reply.

His sister's husband was exiled for disobedience. One of his boyars complained loudly that the Grand Prince followed the foreign customs brought by his mother, and that he decided all questions for himself, "shut up alone with two others in his bedroom." His audacity cost him his life.

The Grand Prince held unlimited power over the lives and property of all his subjects. The greatest lords were his slaves and, in addressing their requests to him, signed themselves by servile diminutives, instead of their real names. Herberstein declares "that in the authority which he wields over his subjects, the Grand Prince of Moscow easily surpasses all the monarchs of the known world: what his father began he has perfected."

His power was shown in the magnificence of his court. In his hunting expeditions he went out accompanied by hundreds of horsemen. He rode a richly caparisoned horse, and wore a splendid robe of cloth of gold; his white fur cap was adorned with jewels and golden plate-like feathers. From his girdle hung small knives and a dagger; behind him swung a stick a cubit long, with a thong and a gilded knob. Shig Alei, armed with bow and arrows, and Tartar princes with hatchets and clubs, rode in his train. Hundreds of men, dressed in black and yellow livery, held the Siberian hounds in leash, or bore purple and white falcons. Bear-baiting was a favorite sport, and hunting hares. He was thought to have done the best day's work who killed the greatest number of hares. "In the fields round about the city," says Bishop Paul, "is an incredible number of hares and roebucks, which it is lawful for no man to chase or pursue with dogs or nets, except only certain of the King's familiars and foreign ambassadors, to whom he giveth license by special appointment."

After the Prince had taken several hundred hares, he entered his hunting lodge and sat upon an ivory throne, while confections—coriander, anise-seed, and almonds, sugar and brandy—were served among his guests.

Basil received foreign envoys with great display. When an envoy, on his way to Moscow, readied the frontier, he was met by Basil's officers, who gave him housing, provisions, and equipage, but carefully watched his actions. He was conducted through the richest and most populous districts; in all places inns and shops were closed, and the chief citizens were required to be on the streets dressed in their costliest attire. At Moscow a palace of the Tsar was assigned him, and caterers provided him and his followers with bread, meat, fish, beer, mead, salt, pepper, onions, and all the delicacies of the season.

His first interview took place in the hall of the palace of cut stone, hung with magnificent tapestries. The Prince sat on his throne surrounded by young nobles, dressed in high fur caps, in kaftans of white satin, and armed with silver hatchets. After due salutation the Prince, saying, "Thou wilt eat bread and salt with us," led the stranger to the banqueting hall in another palace. In the middle of the hall stood a table laden with gold and silver plate, made by Asiatic smiths in Eastern forms. All the vessels which held the meat and drink, the salt-cellars and cruets, were of purest gold. The servants wore robes embroidered with pearls and gems. The dinners lasted many hours. Brandy was served round before the meal began. The first dish was usually roast swan, served with sour milk, pickled cucumbers, and stewed prunes. Then came other kinds of meats, served with malmsey and Greek wines.

The Grand Prince drank to the envoy's health, saying,—

"Thou art come from a great sovereign to a great sovereign; thou hast made a long journey. After receiving our favor and seeing the lustre of our eyes, it shall be well with thee. Drink and drink well, and eat well to thy hearty content, and then take thy rest that thou mayest at length return to thy master."

Palace of cut stone


After the toast was drunk, the cup was turned upside down over the head, to show that it was empty. Drinking was carried to excess; it was felt to be a merry jest, "to make the envoy full." When the dinner was over the Prince dismissed his company, saying, "Now depart."

At the leave-taking of an envoy, the Grand Prince gave him a robe of honor trimmed with sable, and sometimes added other gifts. Basil gave Herberstein eighty sables, three hundred ermines, fifteen hundred squirrel-skins, a sledge and a fine horse, with white bearskin trappings, besides a quantity of unsalted fish in copper vessels.

Basil had diplomatic dealings with many countries of Europe and Asia. He made a sixty years' peace with Sweden, which was confirmed by the great Gustavus Vasa. He also made alliances with Livonia and the Hanse cities. Pope Leo X. tried to interest him in the union of the churches and the crusade against the Turks. Basil however kept on friendly terms with Sultan Selim and his successor, Solyman the Magnificent, as well as with Baber, the Great Mogul of India, the descendant of Timur.