Coronation of Ivan the Terrible

Ivan the Terrible, the heir to the principality of Moscow, had himself crowned czar of Russia, formally recognizing the expanded territory and power wielded by the Rurik Dynasty in the wake of Muscovy’s expansion.

Summary of Event

The coronation of Ivan the Terrible as Czar Ivan IV of Russia on January 16, 1547, marked a major change in the ideology of rulership in Russia. The term czar (emperor) was a Russian translation of the Byzantine title of emperor (basileus), meant to evoke the ancient Roman title of caesar. Up to this time, the rulers of Russia had been called grand princes, a designation that meant authority over a particular principality within Russia. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, there were several grand princes ruling over different principalities at once. When the grand princes of Moscow assumed the princedom of Vladimir as well, however, they effectively became the titular heads of all the Russian principalities. During the centuries of Mongol rule in Russia (1237-1480), all grand princes were required to have their titles recognized by the Mongol khans of the Golden Horde. Moscow
Ivan the Terrible
Ivan the Great
Vasily III
Palaeologus, Sophia
Vasily II
Joseph of Volokolamsk, Saint
Ivan the Terrible

Ivan the Terrible.

(Library of Congress)

The Russian principalities were brought under Muscovite control during the reigns of Ivan the Great (r. 1462-1505) and Vasily III (r. 1505-1533). Moreover, by the beginning of the sixteenth century, Moscow had emerged as the leading center of Eastern Orthodoxy, becoming both the religious and the political center of Russia. Orthodox Church, Russian Ivan the Great, though officially called grand prince of Moscow and Russia, frequently used the title czar and, in an effort to imitate the Habsburgs, adopted from the Byzantine emperors the double-headed eagle on his state seals. He also married Sophia Palaeologus, niece to the last emperor of Byzantium.

An important tenet in Eastern Orthodoxy was the belief that true Christianity had moved from the West to the East, but the fall of Constantinople in 1453 raised the possibility of yet another transfer of empire and Orthodoxy. Constantinople, fall of (1453) Simeon of Suzdal believed Vasily II, grand prince of Moscow (r. 1425-1462), already represented the true Orthodox ruler. Zosima, the metropolitan (spiritual head) of the Russian Orthodox Church Orthodox Church, Russian , thought Ivan the Great to be the new Emperor Constantine. In his transcription of the traditional “Tale of the White Cowl,” “Povest’ o Belom Klobuke” (late fifteenth century), the archbishop of Novgorod, Gennadius, declared Russia the “Third Rome” (after “Second Rome” Constantinople), and this theme was elaborated upon by Filofei of Pskov in 1523. In the Skazanie o Kniaz’iakh Vladimirskikh (c. 1530; tale of the princes of Vladimir), the ancestry of Ivan the Terrible was actually traced back to the Roman emperor Augustus. Ivan’s coronation was in keeping with the emerging belief in Russia as the new center of Orthodoxy, ruled by the new emperor of a Third Rome Third Rome doctrine , the czar.

In 1498, Ivan the Great crowned his son, Dmitry, in a ceremony intentionally reminiscent of the Byzantine practice of selecting a caesar—usually the emperor’s son or relative—to succeed the emperor. It is not clear whether Ivan made use of tenth century Byzantine practice, as found in the Book of Ceremonies, or instead used later imperial rites from a time when the office of caesar had diminished in importance. In any case, unlike the coronation of Ivan the Terrible, the 1498 ceremony did not have direct imperial implications for the ruler. Ivan the Terrible’s coronation, on the other hand, was largely based on fourteenth century Byzantine ritual and clearly constituted an assertion of imperial power.

The coronation ceremony of Ivan IV as czar of Russia was the inspiration of Metropolitan Macarius. He was a strong supporter of the Josephites Josephites , a religious group that espoused the teachings of Saint Joseph of Volokolamsk (Ivan Sanin; 1439-1515). The Josephites stressed the importance of monastic discipline and Orthodox ritual for worship. Monasticism;Josephites Monastic property and wealth were justified on the grounds of dispensing charity and visibly demonstrating God’s glory. The Josephites supported state power as necessary for eradicating heresies. Macarius, then, was simultaneously attempting to legitimate state power with religious and nationalist ideology and to yoke state power to the religious institutions of Russia. In other words, he sought to make Ivan an emperor while making the emperor an instrument of the Church. The coronation ceremony was emblematic of these dual goals.

Ivan was crowned at age seventeen in the Kremlin Cathedral of the Dormition, the traditional site for anointing Russian rulers. At the palace, Ivan assembled the imperial regalia, consisting of a cross, the imperial crown, sword, and shoulder cape (barmy), and handed them to an archpriest of the Cathedral of the Dormition and to the state treasurer (kaznachei). As the procession arrived at the cathedral to ringing church bells, the regalia were placed on a table before the central or Holy Door (the Royal Door) of the iconostasis—the wall of icons separating the congregation from the altar. The table sat on a dais of twelve steps, symbolizing the twelve apostles, surrounded on both sides by the thrones of Ivan and Macarius.

With the metropolitan seated, Ivan proclaimed that he wished to be crowned as grand prince of Moscow, Vladimir, Novgorod, and all Russia, as had his ancestors before him. Macarius recognized him as such, blessed him with the Cross, and sat him on his throne. Then Ivan again spoke, declaring that he wished to be anointed czar. Macarius recognized the claim, blessed Ivan with the “life-giving Cross” (believed to be made of the wood that held the crucified Jesus), placed the crown and cape of office upon Ivan, and presented him with the imperial sword. In his prayers, Macarius likened Ivan to King David of Israel and declared him czar of a holy people.

Macarius enjoined Ivan to rule with justice and to minister to the poor. He urged Ivan to respect the Church and its monasteries and to remember that his powers derived from God through the Church. The relationship between church and state was that of the harmony of equals (symphonia). After the sermon, Macarius met Ivan in front of the Holy Doors, anointed him with myrrh, and then, after three attempts (symbolic of the Holy Trinity), accorded Ivan the traditional Byzantine imperial privilege to enter into the sanctuary to partake of the Eucharist. With the Mass completed, Ivan proceeded out of the church, and with his younger brother, Yuri, scattering silver three times before him, he went to the Cathedral of the Archangel Michael to render his respect to the tombs of his ancestors. He then continued to the palace for a banquet.

Macarius employed the traditional Russian ceremony for the coronation of Muscovite grand princes, but he added the Byzantine practice of anointing the czar and allowing him to take communion in the sanctuary. The barmy had been used as early as the reign of Ivan I Kalita (Moneybag; r. 1328-1341), and the crown, the Golden Cap of Monomakh—believed to be a twelfth century crown given by the Byzantine emperor Constantine Monomachus to the Kievan prince Vladimir Monomakh—was probably fashioned by Central Asian craftspeople in the late thirteenth century. Yet both were given imperial significance, representing the transfer of imperial power from Constantinople to Moscow.

One of the most serious controversies in Russian historiography is the nature and extent of the Mongol conquest. Scholars have noted that Muscovite rulers depended on the khans of the Golden Horde Golden Horde;Moscow and for their political legitimacy and may have incorporated some aspects of Mongol administration, military organization, and diplomatic practice. Yet the coronation of Ivan the Terrible makes it quite clear that sixteenth century political ideas derived from Byzantine and not Tatar precedents. Like a Byzantine emperor, Ivan wore the imperial robe of purple upon which rested his barmy and a golden chain; in his right hand he held a cross, and in his left hand a sword; and on his head sat the crown of Monomakh, resembling a Byzantine crown, and a diadem, marking Ivan a warrior in the ancient Roman tradition.


Ivan the Terrible’s coronation was designed to legitimize his claim to an imperial title by laying upon him layer after layer of the trappings of power. The sheer weight of the symbolism, as Christian Orthodox, Byzantine, Roman, and traditional Russian signs of power accumulated about him, was overwhelming. It was a significant harbinger of things to come, as Ivan would later commit many extreme acts, on both a global and a local scale, with the impunity of a divinely ordained ruler. The terror of his later reign has been analyzed by modern historians as the campaign of someone who believed that it was his God-given prerogative to create for his enemies a Hell on earth.

Further Reading

  • Benson, Bobrick. Fearful Majesty: The Life and Reign of Ivan the Terrible. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1987. A popular history of Ivan.
  • Maurreu, Pierre. The Image of Ivan the Terrible in Russian Folklore. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987. An analysis of the images of Ivan in folklore.
  • Miller, David. “The Coronation of Ivan IV of Moscow.” Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas 15 (December, 1967): 559-574. The most thorough discussion of the coronation in English.
  • Myerson, Daniel. Blood and Splendor: The Lives of Five Tyrants, from Nero to Saddam Hussein. New York: Perennial, 2000. Short but gripping and fully realized biography of Ivan, in a collection that also portrays Nero, Josef Stalin, Adolf Hitler, and Saddam Hussein.
  • Pavlov, Andrei, and Maureen Perrie. Ivan the Terrible. London: Pearson/Longman, 2003. Major reassessment of Ivan’s reign that seeks to do away with the stereotypes of Cold War-era historians and achieve a balanced and accurate appraisal of Ivan as neither an evil genius nor a wise and benevolent statesman. Argues that Ivan’s campaign of terror was motivated not merely by personal sadism but by a belief in the divine right of the monarch to punish treason on earth in a manner as extreme as the punishments of Hell. Includes maps, genealogical tables, bibliographic references, index.
  • Platonov, Sergei F. Ivan the Terrible. Edited and translated by J. L. Wieczynski. Gulf Breeze, Fla.: Academic International Press, 1974. An excellent translation of a work by a famous Russian historian of the old St. Petersburg school of Russian historiography, which emphasized facts in making historical interpretations.
  • Shulman, Sol. Kings of the Kremlin: Russia and Its Leaders from Ivan the Terrible to Boris Yeltsin. London: Brassey’, 2002. Ivan is the first of the major Russian leaders profiled in this history of the Kremlin. Includes photographic plates, illustrations, bibliographic references, and index.
  • Skrynnikov, Ruslan G. Ivan the Terrible. Edited and translated by Hugh Graham. Gulf Breeze, Fla.: Academic International Press, 1981. A serious and balanced study by a Soviet historian that presents Ivan and his Oprichnina in a nonideological framework. Contains a short bibliography of Russian-language books and articles.

1478: Muscovite Conquest of Novgorod

1480-1502: Destruction of the Golden Horde

After 1480: Ivan the Great Organizes the “Third Rome”

1499-c. 1600: Russo-Polish Wars

Jan.-May, 1551: The Stoglav Convenes

Summer, 1556: Ivan the Terrible Annexes Astrakhan

1581-1597: Cossacks Seize Sibir

July 7, 1585-Dec. 23, 1588: War of the Three Henrys

1589: Russian Patriarchate Is Established