02 May 2021

Righteous Tsar Boris Mihail, Equal-to-the-Apostles, Enlightener of the Bulgarians

Tsar Saint Boris Mihail of Bulgaria

Christ is Risen!

Today is Holy Pascha, the Feast of Feasts, the Resurrection of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Today we celebrate the holy eucatastrophe, the inversion of the logic of the fallen created order – in short, we celebrate the defeat of death. Rejoicing is a difficult thing for me right now, but still I rejoice in this: that human beings and systems will not have the last word, and that human faltering and failure are not the sum total of our existence, and that even death, which seems to be all-powerful and all-consuming in this world, is broken.

It also happens to be – and he would be a shame to ignore now, given just the fact of how fascinating the guy is – the feast day of Tsar Saint Boris Mihail, one of the pivotal figures in mediæval European history. To understand why he was so important to the shape of Europe of the 800s, it’s necessary to understand his historical and political surroundings.

First of all, there was the political crisis of the east-west division of Christendom, which had been a long time in the brewing. Although Empress Eirēnē of the Eastern Roman Empire had upheld the faith that was proclaimed in both West and East and officially ended iconoclasm by convoking the Second Council of Nicæa, in 800 Pope Leo III nevertheless anointed the Frankish king Karl the Big as ‘Roman’ ‘Emperor’ on the rather misogynistic legal pretext that the Roman Empire could not be ruled by a woman. (Ulpia Severina, Augusta of Rome after the death of her husband Aurelian in 274, may well have had a few things to say about that.) This political manœuvre, as well as justly infuriating Empress Eirēnē, further alienated the Church in the West from the Church in the East, and created a long power struggle between the Frankish kingdom and Eastern Rome that would shape many of the subsequent political conflicts in Central Europe.

Second, there was the unification of the Western Slavic tribes to Bulgaria’s northwest under Mojmír, which took place amidst the power vacuum left by the defeat of the Pannonian Avars by the Franks. This confederation was Great Moravia. And although the Moravians were technically a vassal state of the Carolingian kingdom, in practice they turned out to be far more independent than the Franks liked.

And third, there was Bulgaria itself. Upon his accession to the khaganate, Boris had inherited from his prædecessors Krum the Fearsome, Omurtag the Builder and his father Presiyan a sprawling, massive territory that stretched from Ohrid to the Dneister, and from the modern-day site of Budapest to the Black Sea. This territory, as any student of Balkan history can tell you, is difficult at the best of times to keep united and well-defended, and Boris was always going to have an uphill row to hoe when it came to protecting it all from incursions by Eastern Rome, by the Serbs, by the Croats, by the Pannonian Slavs, by the Magyars and by the newly-arrived Moravians. What’s more, under Presiyan – as prophesied by Saint Boyan-Enravota – the various tribes of Slavic peasants ruled by the Turkic Bulghar lordly class had already begun converting to Christianity. The new khaghan needed, as much for political and diplomatic reasons as for spiritual ones, to unite his people around one faith.

So. Enter Boris [Bg. Борис].

Boris, the son of the aforementioned Presiyan, had no sooner come to power in 852 than his rule was tested by numerous border wars with Greeks, Serbs, Croats and Franks… wars in which he tended to come off a bit the worse for wear each time. These wars lasted almost until the end of the 860s. He was first an ally and then a rival of the saintly King Rastislav of Great Moravia. He turned his attention between the Frankish Empire and the Eastern Roman Empire as both of them kept pressuring him along his borders.

Boris, thankfully for the Bulgarians, was no fool. He understood well enough that in order to keep the Slavs he commanded from rebelling against him or being subsumed into the kingdoms around him, he would need to convert to Christianity eventually. He understood quite astutely the nature of the rivalry between the ‘Roman Emperor’ in the West and the Roman Emperor in the East, and managed with remarkable political adroitness to ‘play both sides’… even when he was on the losing end militarily. At first, the khaghan leaned pretty heavily toward Rome rather than Constantinople. Needing to counterbalance against Rastislav’s Moravians combined with Karloman in revolt, Boris asked for an alliance with Louis the German – a provision of which would have brought Frankish missionaries into Bulgaria, and Bulgaria effectively into the Western Roman political-ecclesiastical ambit. However, in 863, the Eastern Roman Emperor Michael III launched a surprise attack into Bulgarian-controlled Thrace, and forced Boris to come to a peace agreement.

Fatefully, Boris decided to adopt the Eastern Liturgical rites of Emperor Michael III as part of this peace agreement. However, there are indications that he was already preparing to set his face eastward. For one thing, Boris’s half-sister Anna had already converted to Christianity in the Constantinopolitan style, having been held hostage in the Eastern Roman court for several years. For another thing, the Christianity of the Slavic peoples he ruled – coming as it did from the mission of Saints Cyril and Methodius – already followed the Constantinopolitan rubrics and used a language, Slavonic, whose status in the West was notably in dispute. Whatever his ultimate motive (or mixture of motives!), the khaghan Boris agreed to be baptised in secret along with his family at his capital at Pliska. The Byzantine Emperor himself was his sponsor, and he took the Emperor’s name in baptism as his own: Mihail.

Boris Mihail’s baptism provoked an immediate and violent response from the Turkic Bulgarian aristocracy. They saw the Christian faith as an affront to their nomadic traditions as well as their legitimacy. In 865 the pagan boyars staged an open revolt against the newly-christened khaghan. Boris managed to crush the revolt. But despite having been recently baptised, he wasn’t all in on the whole peace, love and forgiveness aspect of Christianity yet. Nope: he went full Shang Yang on the behinds of the defeated rebels. Boris ordered the executions of fifty-two boyars, their wives and their children, exterminating their entire families. To complete the turn away from paganism, Boris Mihail abdicated the Turkic title of khaghan and adopted the Slavic title of knyaz ‘prince’, and the Greek-derived title of tsar ‘emperor’.

There was also the much more delicate matter of ecclesiology, which Boris handled with a much defter and lighter hand. The missionaries which arrived from Constantinople in Bulgaria all served the Liturgy in Greek and commemorated the Patriarch of Constantinople as the head of the Church. But Boris’s ultimate aim was to establish a Slavonic-speaking church that was beholden neither to Constantinople and the Eastern Roman Empire, nor to Rome and the Western ‘Roman’ ‘Empire’. In this aim, he was perfectly happy to keep playing both sides against each other. Despite having had a Constantinopolitan baptism, he sent a very polite envoy to Rome with a list of 115 ecclesiological and legal questions addressed to Pope Nicholas I; he received back a famous reply of 106 answers. The Pope also sent Latin and Frankish missionaries into Bulgaria, headed by Formosus, the ambitious bishop of Porto.

This action produced no small amount of consternation in New Rome, where it was regarded as an encroachment on Constantinopolitan jurisdiction. Archbishop Photios of Constantinople took several steps in answer to the Latin missions in Bulgaria. He produced his own letter to Boris in 866, ‘On the duties of princes’. At the request of Boris’s Moravian neighbours to the northwest, he also sent among them Saints Cyril and Methodius and encouraged the adoption of a Liturgical rite in the Slavonic language. And he began attacking Latin missionaries in general – but Formosus in particular – for adding the filioque clause to the Nicene Creed. Photios’s combative approach to Rome was one decisive factor leading to the ‘Photian schism’ of 867. Boris was able to take deft political strides in the middle of this schism, and by turning his face again to Constantinople in 870 he was able to secure a promise of autocephaly for the Bulgarian Church, with its primate holding the rank of Archbishop.

In Great Moravia, the mission of Saints Cyril and Methodius was meeting both with success and with jealousy. The mission was baptising critical numbers of Slavs, who could now hear the Gospel of Christ spoken in their own tongue. However, this aroused the wrath of the Frankish bishops who sought Moravia as their own jurisdiction. When Rastislav was betrayed to his blinding, confinement and death at the Franks’ hands by his traitorous nephew Svätopluk, the resulting Frankish-controlled Moravian government, at the instigation of the Frankish bishop Wiching, began ruthlessly persecuting the disciples of Methodius, subjecting them to exile, torture, slavery and likely death.

Boris Mihail, never blind to a good opportunity, welcomed the survivors of the mission of Saints Cyril and Methodius into Bulgaria in 886 – in particular Saints Kliment and Naum. He instructed them to build schools and encouraged them to teach native clergy as well as teach any student who wanted the Slavonic letters. They also built up the first major corpus of Liturgical works, hagiographies and other documents in the Slavonic language.

The first Tsar of Bulgaria followed the example in old age of many mediæval princes and kings who had first embraced Christianity in their prime… and here again we see these incidental linkages (as with the eremitical saints in each) between the Church in Britain and the Bulgarian Church. Like Saints Elaeth ‘Frenin’ and Custennin of Strathclyde, Judicaël of Brittany, Ceolwulf of Northumbria, Æþelræd of Mercia and Sigeberht of East Anglia, Tsar Boris Mihail abdicated his throne in favour of his son Vladimir, and entered the monastic life.

Sadly, Vladimir’s faith was not as firm as his father’s. He began destroying the Christian churches, driving out the Christian priests, and proclaiming a revival of paganism. This met with a lukewarm reaction among the boyars (most of whom by now had already converted), and with a much colder reaction from the populace which were already strongly Christian. And it also enraged Boris, who came out of his monastic seclusion in order to raise an army with which to defeat his own son. Boris had Vladimir blinded and thrown into a dungeon, and set up his second son Simeon as Tsar before retiring again to his monastery. Two years later Boris emerged again from his monastery. This time, he helped his son raise an immense army to fend off an invasion of Bulgaria by the pagan Magyars. They defeated them decisively at the Battle of Southern Bug. He then returned to his monastery again, this time permanently, and he reposed in the Lord on the second of May, 907.

As with many of the kingly saints I treat here, Tsar Boris Mihail may not, on first glance, appear very saintly. In particular, his treatment of the pagan boyars after their rebellion and defeat seems unduly harsh. However, the importance of his conversion to the Christian faith of his subjects cannot possibly be overstated. Neither can his insistence on an independent Slavonic-speaking Church, an insistence which the ecclesiology of Constantinople found it could more readily accommodate than that of Rome. And although his conversion to Christianity may have had one or more motives which reek of political advantage, the fact that he forswore all political power after 896 and spent the last decade of his life in solitary contemplative prayer speaks to the influence that the Christian doctrine eventually had upon him. Holy Tsar Boris Mihail, apostolic guide of the Bulgarian people, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!

Apolytikion for Saint Boris Mihail of Bulgaria, Tone 6:

Full of the fear of God, and enlightened by holy baptism,
Thou becamest a habitation of the Holy Spirit, O right-believing King Boris;
And having established the Orthodox Faith in the land of Bulgaria,
And set aside the scepter of kingship,
Thou madest thine abode in the wilderness,
Didst flourish in ascetic struggles,
And found grace before the Lord.
And now, standing before the throne of the Most High,
Pray thou, that He grant unto us who entreat thee salvation for our souls.

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