Alexander Nevsky

Alexander Nevsky
Александр Невский
Alexander Nevsky, Russian School 19th-20th century.jpg
Portrait of Alexander Nevsky
Prince of Novgorod
PredecessorYaroslav V
SuccessorAndrey I
Reign1241-1256 (second time)
PredecessorAndrey I
SuccessorVasily I
Reign1258-1259 (third time)
PredecessorVasily I
SuccessorDmitry I
Grand Prince of Vladimir
Reign1252-14 November 1263
PredecessorAndrey II
SuccessorYaroslav III
Grand Prince of Kiev
PredecessorYaroslav III
SuccessorYaroslav IV
Born13 May 1221
Pereslavl-Zalessky, Vladimir-Suzdal
(present-day Russia)
Died14 November 1263(1263-11-14) (aged 42)
Gorodets, Vladimir-Suzdal, Golden Horde, Mongol Empire
(present-day Russia)
SpouseParaskeviya (Alexandra) of Polotsk
Vasilisa (Vassa)
IssueVasily Alexandrovich
Eudoxia Alexandrovna
Dmitry Alexandrovich
Andrey Alexandrovich
Daniil Alexandrovich
FatherYaroslav II of Vladimir
MotherFeodosia Igorevna of Ryazan.
ReligionEastern Orthodoxy

St. Alexander Yaroslavich Nevsky (Russian: Алекса́ндр Яросла́вич Не́вский; pronounced [ɐlʲɪˈksandr jɪrɐˈsɫavʲɪtɕ ˈnʲɛfskʲɪj] (About this soundlisten); 13 May 1221[1] – 14 November 1263) served as Prince of Novgorod (1236–40 and 1240–56 and 1258-1259), Grand Prince of Kiev (1236–52) and Grand Prince of Vladimir (1252–63) during some of the most difficult times in Kievan Rus' history.

Commonly regarded as a key figure of medieval Rus', St. Alexander – the grandson of Vsevolod the Big Nest – rose to legendary status on account of his military victories over German and Swedish invaders while agreeing to pay tribute to the powerful Golden Horde. He was canonized as a saint of the Russian Orthodox Church by Metropolite Macarius in 1547.[2]

Childhood and youth

From Tales of the Life and Courage of the Pious and Great Prince Alexander found in the Second Pskovian Chronicle, circa 1260–1280, comes one of the first known references to the Great Prince:

"By the will of God, prince Alexander was born from the charitable, people-loving, and meek the Great Prince Yaroslav, and his mother was Theodosia. As it was told by the prophet Isaiah: 'Thus sayeth the Lord: I appoint the princes because they are sacred and I direct them.'

"... He was taller than others and his voice reached the people as a trumpet, and his face was like the face of Joseph, whom the Egyptian Pharaoh placed as next to the king after him of Egypt. His power was a part of the power of Samson and God gave him the wisdom of Solomon ... this Prince Alexander: he used to defeat but was never defeated ..."[3]

Born in Pereslavl-Zalessky, St. Alexander was the second son of Prince Yaroslav Vsevolodovich and Feodosia Igorevna of Ryazan. His maternal grandfather was Igor Glebovich, the second son of Gleb Rostislavich, Prince of Ryazan (d. 1178). His maternal grandmother was Agrafena of Kiev, daughter of Rostislav I of Kiev. Alexander seemed to have no chance of claiming the throne of Vladimir. In 1236, however, the Novgorodians summoned him to become knyaz (or prince) of Novgorod and, as their military leader, to defend their northwest lands from Swedish and German invaders.

According to the Novgorod Chronicle written in the 14th century (more than a century after the events it recorded), the Swedish army had landed at the confluence of the rivers Izhora and Neva, Alexander and his small army suddenly attacked the Swedes on 15 July 1240 and defeated them. The Neva battle of 1240 saved Novgorod from a full-scale invasion from the West. Because of this battle, 19-year-old Alexander gained the sobriquet "Nevsky" (which means of Neva). This victory, coming just three years after the disastrous Mongol invasion of the Rus' lands of the North West, strengthened Alexander's political influence, but at the same time it worsened his relations with the boyars. He would soon have to leave Novgorod because of this conflict.

No non-Russian contemporary source mentions this supposed battle. The Chronicle identifies the alleged Swedish commander as "Spiridon" – while names after Saint Spyridon appear in both West and East, it is by far much more common in Orthodox lands than Scandinavia. Furthermore, Sweden had stood on the brink of war with Norway ever since the Norwegians' infamous Värmland expedition in 1225.[4] Relations improved only after the Treaty of Lödöse in 1249, which was forged by the new Swedish strongman Birger Jarl.[5] Before the treaty, Norway remained an ally of the Folkungs, giving them refuge and providing men and arms. In this situation, it seems unlikely that Sweden could have been able to organize a major expedition against Novgorod. Swedes are not known to have carried out any other military campaigns between 1222 and 1249, making the claims about their forceful appearance at the Neva with Norwegians as their allies in 1240 seem questionable.

After the Germans and Estonians invaded Pskov, the Novgorod authorities sent for Alexander. In spring of 1241 he returned from exile, gathered an army, and drove out the invaders. Alexander and his men faced the Livonian heavy cavalry led by the bishop of Dorpat (Hermann, brother of Albert of Buxhoeveden). The Rus' force met the enemy on the ice of Lake Peipus and defeated the German knights and the Estonian infantry during the Battle of the Ice on 5 April 1242.

Alexander's victory marked a significant event in the history of Russia. Foot soldiers of Novgorod had surrounded and defeated an army of knights, mounted on horseback and clad in thick armour. Nevsky's great victory against the Livonian Order apparently involved only a few knights killed rather than the hundreds claimed by the Russian chroniclers; decisive medieval and early-modern battles were won and lost by smaller margins than those seen in contemporary mass conflicts.