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In Valencia, on the trail of Frederick II’s devoted daughter

The Constance reliquary
of the Cross

 La stauroteca di Costanza  DCM-007
02 July 2022

The Cathedral of Valencia museum, which is adjacent to the chapel of the Santo Caliz, presents itself to the visitor as a radiant casket of Christological relics. Amongst these, there is a gilded silver staurotheca [reliquary of the Cross] of neo-Gothic workmanship, jeweled with coeval valuables dating back to the 15th century and containing a fragment of the True Cross that arrived via the hand of a woman of imperial lineage.

Constance of Staufen, the daughter of Frederick II and sister of King Manfred, arrived in Spain after a long meandering journey that had seen her as a protagonist of Mediterranean politics since childhood. For, in spite of herself, her father gave her hand in marriage to the Emperor of Nicaea, John III Ducas Vatatze. Nicaea (today’s Iznik) was an ancient Anatolian city located a short distance from the eastern coast of the Sea of Marmara, a few days’ walk from Constantinople and known for hosting the first Christian ecumenical council. When the capital of the Byzantine Empire fell into the hands of the Latins after the Fourth Crusade (1204), Nicaea became the centre of the residual empire, where Greek refugees following John the “Merciful” gathered.

Constance was born in 1231, the illegitimate daughter of Frederick called was initially considered “the stupor mundi” and Bianca Lancia. She was barely ten years old when she set sail from Apulia for Asia Minor. The circumstances that led the Swabian to use her as a pawn in the complex chess game being played in the Levantine quadrant appear quite clear. John Vatatze continued to bear the title “basileus of the Romans”. After having fought Baldwin II of Constantinople, who was at the head of that Latin empire backed Vatatze -for half a century, by the Church of Rome-, who was laying the foundations for the reconquest of the Straits.

This was when, after the death of his first wife, he found in the Hohenstaufen a perfect ally against their common enemies, personified by Gregory IX and John of Brienne, father-in-law of Frederick himself, who had placed himself at the head of the papal troops with the aim of occupying southern Italy. Frederick, in turn, had broken the bank of his pre-papal agreements by setting off, after much hesitation, for the Crusader Overseas with the aim of occupying the throne of Jerusalem. Frederick’s anti-papist policy had determined the choices. It mattered little that the cobelligerent was a schismatic Byzantine, indeed! The Swabian emperor ended up supporting every Nicene attempt to reconquer the Golden Horn, even if the Vatatze got nothing out of it but the hand of the barely teenage Constance. Seen from the Guelph side, the marriage agreement could only emphasise the contours of the opponent of the Church, willing to come to terms with a “heretic”, an enemy of the Latins in Constantinople.

It was at the wedding, which took place between 1240 and 1241 that the daughter of the puer Apuliae had to renounce her own name and to take the name Anna, which was more in keeping with the Byzantine court because it was considered more appropriate to a cult that was also oriental. That is why she is also known - so to speak, because the literature on her is very limited - as Anne of Nicaea or Constance Augusta.

The accounts of the relationship between John III and Constance of Staufen actually relate to a comely Swabian court lady in her retinue, whom the Latin sources agree on using the name “Marchesina”, and who ended up attracting the attentions of the elderly basileus. The emperor’s favorite earned, as a literary stereotype, both the privileges of a first lady at court and the remonstrance of those who, like the patriarch and some leading clerics - including the inflexible Nicephorus Blemmides - expressed their strong indignation at the scandal.

The debated issue, as it was easy to foresee, did not disturb Frederick II’s slumber, who in a letter dating from 1250 addresses Vatatze in even, at least formally, affectionate terms, informing him of the victories in southern Italy, certain that the news would cheer up his son-in-law. However, in the political diplomatic game of those years - perhaps not too differently from today - scenarios changed quickly. Moreover, papal diplomacy, despite the persistence of the Schism that dated back two centuries, began to weave plots for a rapprochement with Nicaea. These plots irritated Frederick, who did not miss the opportunity to complain about them in letters where never a word, however, was dedicated to his Constance/Anna. The death of the Stupor mundi did the rest, putting the tombstone on the Swabian-Greek alliance, with all the appropriate consequences for Constance. When her husband also died, and was succeeded by Theodore Lascaris, his stepmother Constance became a hostage of the Byzantine court, however valuable this hostage was in terms of expendability and honour. Valuable to the point that, when Michael Palaeologus usurped the throne, he attempted to legitimize his position through her. However, the firm opposition of his wife Theodora and the resolve of the patriarch of Constantinople, who said he was ready to issue an excommunication, made him retrace his steps. Constance then proved to be an excellent pawn, since Alexius Strategopoulos, a Nicene general, ended up in the hands of his brother Manfred in the meantime.

Constance returned to southern Italy after more than twenty years. The year was either 1262, or perhaps it was ‘63. It matters little. It was not a good time, anyway. Following the descent of the Angevins into southern Italy, the battle of Benevento (1266), the flight from the Saracen stronghold of Lucera and the death of the king, Constance - who, as a woman, managed to avoid the worst - withdrew to the court of her niece of the same name, the wife of Peter of Aragon. She was not even forty years old, but already, behind her, she had had an existence full of anguish and turmoil, which is not even comparable to the tranquility that would surround her in the forty years and more she still had left in the Iberian Levant, where she lived until 1313.

In Valencia, Augusta brought in the way of  a dowry from the Christian East not only possessions and cities whose total income was around thirty thousand bisants, but also two objects of great veneration, which are still preserved in the city at the mouth of the Turia: a relic of Saint Barbara and a fragment of the Holy Cross.

Of the virgin of Nicomedia, decapitated by her own father, according to a hagiography that reached its peak in the West between the 14th and 15th centuries, Constance brought to Valencia a stone from which the water that Barbara used for her own baptism would spring. The relic is still preserved today in the church of San Juan de l’Hopital. In addition, in the same church, the chapel of Saint Barbara, refurbished in a Baroque style of all-Iberian exuberance, makes room for a 19th-century wooden urn on which stands the inscription: “Aquì yaçe D.a Constança Augusta Emperatriz de Grecia”.

Constance’s most distinguished legacy - less well known than the two celebrated by Dante: her paternal grandmother, “that great Constance” who deserves a place in Paradise, and her great-granddaughter, “the genatrix of the honour of Cicilia and Aragon”, mentioned above. They are perhaps in a testamentary disposition left by the manumissioner Henry of Quintavalle and today preserved in the Cathedral Archives. After having passed for a while into the hands of the Archbishop of Toledo, in 1326 Constance’s Lignum Crucis was added to a Treasury that could already boast a Holy Thorn donated by Saint Louis IX . One can try to hypothesize the path of the relic that, after the inventio eleniana, had seen its particles circulate starting from Constantinople, where the Holy Cross had been secured by Heraclius, who had recovered it from the Persian Cosroe. The 11th-13th centuries were a period of great expansion of the cult of the Holy Cross, and the dispersal of many of its fragments, as of so many other relics taken from Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade, only fueled its veneration

Several times excommunicated, seen in the Risorgimento as anti-clerical champions of secularism, Father Frederick and Brother Manfred were, in reality, not forerunners of modernity but simply men of their time. In addition, they were also particularly devout men, and not insensitive to the mystical religiosity that was spreading. As Christian rulers, they were well aware of their mission in the world (just read two fine volumes that have just been published: F. Delle Donne, “Federico II e la crociata della pace” [Frederick II and the Crusade of Peace], (Rome, Carocci, 2022) and P. Grillo, “Manfredi di Svevia. Erede dell'imperatore, nemico del papa, prigioniero del suo mito” [Manfred of Swabia. Heir of the emperor, enemy of the pope, prisoner of his myth] (Rome, Salerno, 2022). A woman of her time, similarly, Constance is an example of devotion, in the broadest sense. When she reached Nicaea - where the particle of the Cross had arrived from Constantinople - she found a precious sign of divine mercy, and clinged to it, taking it with her on her long pilgrimage.

By Giuseppe Perta
Lecturer in Medieval History, University of Naples Suor Orsola Benincasa