Tamar the Great (born ca. 1160, r. 1184–1213) ruled the medieval kingdom of Georgia at the height of its political power and cultural influence. The eleventh and twelfth centuries saw the development of powerful centralized dynastic monarchies and more secure inheritance patterns among royal and aristocratic families in many areas of Europe, and Georgia was no exception. Once the principle royal dynasty was firmly established, it was almost inevitable that female candidates to the throne would emerge. The twelfth century saw several female heirs to major European kingdoms, and Tamar was also arguably the most successful of these female monarchs and claimants. During her reign, Georgia reached its largest territorial extent. Over the course of her tenure, she overcame opposition from hostile churchmen, an unsuitable first husband, and military threats from outside the kingdom. Under her rule, the economy flourished as Georgia became a major area of exchange for goods coming in from both Europe and Asia. Court writers and poets produced major works of literature, including Georgia’s national epic, known as The Knight in the Panther Skin. Tamar has been neglected in historical works outside of Georgia, particularly in western languages, but scholars have recently begun to investigate her reign, examine her alongside other monarchs, and speculate about the factors that enabled her success. Most commentators have pointed to her relationships with key nobles, her patronage of the church and the backing of key churchmen, the loyalty and military skill of her second husband David, and the cooperation of authors and artists who served as encomiasts and panegyrists. In many ways, the reign of Tamar the Great is better compared to that of the much later Elizabeth I of England (r. 1558–1603) than to any of her twelfth-century contemporaries.
Tamar’s family, the Bagrationi, had been important in Georgian history since late antiquity, and her ancestor Bagrat III became the first king of a united Georgia in 978. By the time of her great-great grandfather, “David the Builder” (r.1089–1125), Georgia had entered its “Golden Age” and had brought most of the Caucasus region under its control. Tamar was the elder of two daughters born to her father King George III (r. 1156–84) and his consort Burdukhan of the Alans, and the first female candidate for the throne. Before his death, King George tried to smooth the way for her succession and so arranged for Tamar to be crowned as his heir, and he began to associate her with the monarchy by including her name in official acta. The accession of a new monarch was always a time rulers of neighbouring kingdoms and ambitious nobles within the realm watched for signs of weakness that might allow them opportunities to enrich themselves, and a female monarch was unusual enough to cause more than the usual tension as rivals made themselves wealthy at the monarchy’s expense. The catholicos (a Georgian church official who serves as head of the national church) Mikel Marianisdze, who was hostile to the Bagrationi dynasty even before Tamar’s accession, forced her into a marriage with Yuri Bogolyubsky, an ousted Kievan duke. This marriage was disastrous from the start, and it took Tamar three years to free herself from it and force Yuri out of Georgia. When Mikel Marianisdze died in 1188, Tamar was finally free to rule on her own terms. Despite the turmoil of the early years of her reign, Tamar was able to stabilize her court, and then her kingdom. Under Tamar’s guidance, Georgia reached its height of cultural fluorescence, territorial expansion, and economic dominance.
Tamar had several tools available to her to help her craft her reign, all of which she used wisely and effectively. Although it is difficult to uncover the personal traits and abilities of any medieval person, everything points to Tamar being both intelligent and capable. Among her advantages were cooperative relations with family members, the support of key members of the Georgian ecclesiastical community, a tradition of female authority in Georgia that dated to its conversion to Christianity, and a literary and artistic tradition that supported the queen’s rule.
Tamar worked together with both her father for six years between her coronation as his heir and his death, and later cooperatively with her second husband David Soslan. Tamar seems to have personally chosen David, a prince of the Alans, a people living in the north Caucasus, to be her second husband. Chroniclers from the twelfth century to the present have seen the relationship between Tamar and David as a great love story, although the sources do not offer any genuine insight into their emotional lives. But since one of the few things that a female ruler usually could not do was personally lead troops into battle, having David at the head of Georgia’s military was crucial to stabilizing and later expanding the kingdom. David was talented both in administrative and military matters. After surviving two coup attempts from Yuri, David concentrated his military efforts on Georgia’s neighbours who had made inroads into the kingdom between George III’s death and 1188. Sometime between 1202 and 1205, the Georgians defeated the Seljuk Turks at the Battle of Basian, with David leading the largest Georgian army ever fielded. In 1204, Tamar successfully sponsored an invasion of Byzantine territory along the Black Sea, where many Georgians lived, leading to the formation of the Empire of Trebizond. After David died, Tamar had her son George crowned as her co-ruler, thus continuing the dynastic tradition.
Georgia had been among the first late-antique kingdoms to embrace Christianity, and when united, the community of Georgian bishops formed a powerful faction in the medieval period. During her father’s reign, the catholicos Nikolaus Gulaberisdze, a strong supporter of the dynasty, had delivered sermons and published a treatise explaining why God had seen fit to use a female, the missionary Saint Nino, whom the Orthodox Church considers “equal to the apostles,” to establish his church among the Georgian people. He argued that Georgia, having been converted by a woman, was there to echo the high dignity that women enjoyed in the New Testament. Some commentators have posited that Nikolaus was using this line of argument to prepare the Georgians for eventually being ruled by a woman. Before Tamar’s accession, Mikel Marianisdze and his faction drove Nikolaus into retirement. She called a church council in 1185 to try to deal with Mikel and his usurpations, but was unable to have him deposed, although she did manage to have several friendly bishops installed at that time. When Mikel died, Tamar recalled and reinstated Nikolaus, and he remained a firm ally of the crown. Tamar was also a generous patron to ecclesiastical institutions and monastic communities, and enjoyed a reputation for personal piety. Tamar’s alliance with church authorities, and her personal devotion both served to build her reputation in the eyes of the Georgian people.
Tamar and members of her court also began to identify the queen visually with St Nino. The medieval texts that tell the story of St. Nino are remarkable for their inclusion of female agency and power. Although the saint is little known in outside the Georgian community, her cult remains central to Georgian Christianity, and even today Nino is the most common female given name in Georgia (Tamar is second). The texts that concern her life tell us that Nino was taught by the leading female scholar in Jerusalem, so was well-educated. While still a teenager she set out on a missionary journey, performed miracles, preached publicly, and even baptized those whom she led to the faith. Her story evolved during Tamar’s reign, and it gave artists and writers new vocabulary and images that provided new ways to think about women and power. The queen and saint were often paired visually. Several surviving monumental portraits in Georgian churches depicting both Tamar and Nino exist, and the clear message in all of them is that God uses females from time to time to work mighty acts.
Tamar’s reign also coincided with a dramatic rise in the quantity and quality of literary works produced in the Georgian language. Georgian authors produced poetry, epic literature, biographies, and chronicles that together imagined successful kingdoms ruled by women. These works both adapted existing images of power to the new situation of a female ruler, and created new ways of presenting Tamar’s right and ability to rule to both her subjects and to outside powers. The texts created in this period celebrate territorial expansion, military domination, medical and scientific advancement, and artistic and architectural achievement. Together, the texts and artworks present such a laudatory picture of Tamar that it is simply not possible to separate any “real” person from the portrait that emerges from the illustrious praises heaped upon her.
The most important literary text in either medieval or modern Georgia is the national epic that is usually translated in English as The Knight in the Panther Skin. Scholars generally accept that the court poet Shotha Rustaveli wrote the poem just after Tamar’s marriage to David Soslan, and dedicated it to the queen. Rustaveli claimed to be translating a Persian story, and set his tale in Arabia and India, but since no Persian text has emerged that even resembles the Georgian poem, critics usually consider the exotic setting and claim of antiquity to be a literary device.
The poem tells the story of a female heir to her father’s throne, and the general Avtandel, with whom she is in love. Avtandel and the king are out hunting one day when they see a man wearing the skin of a vepkhi ( most likely, a panther) weeping by a body of water. When the man disappears, the princess sends Avtandel on a three-year quest to find him. Avtandel does locate him, and learns that he is on his own quest to find his lost love. In fact, this knight with the panther skin has killed a man that his lady love was being forced to marry against her will, which led to their separation. After long journeys and many adventures, the four lovers are all reunited, married, and presumably live happily ever after. It is not difficult to see the story as an allegory supporting female rule, and at the same time, critiquing forced marriages. The dedicatory prologue to the poem praises Tamar’s beauty in conventional ways, but further in, when the king seeks advice from his courtiers about naming his daughter as his heir, they respond that although she is a woman, she knows how to rule, and that the lion’s cubs, whether male or female, are equal. Although it is impossible to know the effect that these literary and artistic depictions of female rule really had on Georgian politics or public opinion, it is undeniable that Tamar and her court were both created and drew upon imagery that supported female agency and authority to bolster her rule. In fact, the Georgian word for monarch is not gendered, so a ruling female has the same title as a ruling male. This usage is in contrast to western languages, where a ruling male monarch is a king, but a female is a queen, a title that can also be used to designate the mother, spouse, or even daughter of a ruling male monarch.
Tamar came to power at the end of the twelfth century, a century that had seen female monarchs designated in England, the Spanish kingdom of León, and the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem. These queens experienced varying degrees of success, but none were as successful as Tamar. In almost every case, the fact that the reigning monarch formally designated the female heir during his lifetime demonstrates some uneasiness about whether a woman ruler would be accepted. Matilda, the widow of the German Emperor Henry V, was the only legitimate child of King Henry I of England when he died in 1135, and Henry had tried to secure her position as his heir by having his barons swear to support her eight years earlier, but at the time of Henry’s death, Matilda had remarried and she and her new husband were in rebellion against her father over control of continental lands. Matilda’s cousin Stephen, Count of Blois, seized the throne, and although she spent almost two decades trying to recover the throne, she was unable to do so. In the end, she and Stephen agreed on a treaty that left Stephen in power, but made Matilda’s son his heir. In León, Urraca became the heir to the kingdom when her half-brother died in battle in 1108, and after her father formally designated her as his successor. At the time, she was a widow with two small children, and the nobles insisted that she marry again. Her father chose Alfonso of Aragon as her husband, and after her father died, she went ahead with the marriage despite opposition from her nobles. The marriage was both a political and a personal disaster. Melisende, daughter of King Baldwin II of Jerusalem, inherited the throne from her father in 1131. Her father associated her with the ruling of the kingdom even before his death, and she signed governmental documents as “heir to the kingdom.” When she acceded, she had a husband and an infant to further secure the succession. Her husband Fulk made a bid for sole power, but Melisende was supported militarily by her cousin and a faction of the nobles, as well as by key members of the church hierarchy. And finally, although she was initially passed over in favour of her son, the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem saw another regnant queen between 1186–90, when Sibylla, daughter of King Amalric I of Jerusalem took the throne.
While medieval commentators might have expressed some doubts about the abilities of individual women, there was surprisingly little discourse on whether women as a whole were suited to rule. Peaceful success of a legitimate heir had become the norm, a development that aided in the ability of the queens’ successes. The support of, or opposition from, family members was also key to whether a woman succeeded. Tamar’s first husband, Yuri, proved both unsuitable and a danger to her continued reign before she and David Soslan were finally able to defeat his attempts to regain power in Georgia. In Anglo-Norman England, the continental nobles in particular were suspicious of the territorial goals of Matilda’s second husband Geoffrey, Count of Anjou. Some even claimed that the marriage, made after their oath to support Matilda, negated the oaths because the marriage to a neighbouring count with possible designs on their territories was not in their best interest. Geoffrey was also either unwilling or unable to support Matilda militarily in her attempts to regain the English throne. Melisende’s husband Fulk of Anjou made an unsuccessful bid for power early in her reign, a move that destabilized the kingdom by dividing the nobles and church leaders. And Urraca’s marriage to the rival king of Aragon was so universally unpopular that she was able to take lovers who supported her even before her annulment was granted. Successful queenship also went hand in hand with the backing of key members of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, and in most cases, a cadre of artists, writers, and court poets willing to lend their talents to supporting the queen’s rule.
The reign of Tamar and the other queens regnant came during a period that scholars sometimes refer to as the twelfth-century renaissance. During this century, the European population and urban centres were growing, literacy and numeracy were increasing, and the Roman church was in the throes of a reform movement that led to the emergence of the so-called “papal monarchy.” European monarchs, using both military power and new administrative techniques that were being developed, were in the process of centralizing power and professionalizing their households. The rise of a class of professional administrators and the bureaucratic state has led some commentators to posit that royal family members, including queen consorts, who formerly had been valued because of their access to and informal sway over their husbands, were pushed aside in favour of these new administrators beginning around 1100. With the loss of this informal power, scholars have argued, there was an overall loss of female power and influence in medieval Europe. More recently, though, scholars of queenship and gender have pointed to the unexceptional nature of female power and authority in the later medieval period, and to powerful and influential queen consorts such as Blanche of Castile in France (r. 1223–26, queen to Louis VII and regent for their son Louis IX), and Catherine of Aragon in England (queen consort of Henry VIII from 1509 until their divorce in 1533). The rise of regular succession procedures, with a preference for primogeniture, also opened the door for female succession.
In Georgia, Tamar’s reign was the culmination of the Georgian “Golden Age” that began with the reign of David IV “the Builder,” and effectively ended with the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century. The Golden Age saw the medieval kingdom’s greatest period of military domination and territorial expansion. It was also a time when trade and commerce flourished, great architectural monuments were erected, advances were made in painting and the minor arts, and poets, writers, and lyricists produced great works of both religious and secular literature. Tamar’s religious patronage stretched beyond the borders of the kingdom, and she established monastic communities in the Kingdom of Jerusalem, including eight in the city itself. When these communities were ceded to Saladin in the third crusade, she successfully petitioned him to regain control of them. Tamar also became known for her humane and, for the period, enlightened policies forbidding torture and the death penalty.
The claim that a medieval woman exercising power and authority is "exceptional" is clearly an empty one; medieval elite women ruled over counties, duchies, great abbeys, and even kingdoms. And yet few were as successful as Tamar of Georgia. Tamar's story deserves to be better known in western scholarship, not only because she was medieval Georgia's most powerful monarch, but also because her career, in comparison with that of other ruling women of the central medieval period, demonstrates both the possibilities and the limitations of female monarchy in the European Middle Ages.