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The Tale of the Death of Basil III


The account of the death of Basil III appeared in chronicle-writing almost immediately after the event itself, in 1534.16 The account of the grand prince’s last days was undoubtedly written by someone who witnessed his death. There is a detailed description of Basil’s illness (“a small sore on the left side of the thigh … the size of a pin-head” which caused blood poisoning). The sick prince was taken from the Trinity Monastery, where he happened to be, to Moscow. He asked his court physician Nikolai Bulev (with whom Philotheus disputed in his epistle on the “Third Rome”) whether there was any remedy, “an ointment or anything else” to ease his affliction.

“My art is helpless without God’s aid,” replied the physician. Basil realised that his condition was hopeless. “Brothers! Nikolai has divined my illness well—it is incurable,” he said to his cour­tiers.

The account of the death of Basil III was compiled during the reign of his widow Yelena Glinskaya (who ruled as regent for her infant son Ivan), and she naturally played a particularly honoura­ble role in it. It was she whom Basil charged to rule “like former grand princesses”. Custom demanded that he send for his son on his death-bed but Basil, who had become a father late in years and was very concerned about the health of his three-year-old son Ivan, was afraid of alarming him: “I do not wish to call my son, Grand Prince Ivan, for he is too little. I lie in my great affliction, and do not wish that my son should fear me.” “Do not let my son Ivan out of your sight for a moment, Ographena,” he cautions the nanny. Other words and actions of the dying prince are equally natural and moving, such as his attempts to conceal the gravity of his affliction from his young wife, who sobbed so bitterly that Basil could not give her his parting instructions—“because of her cries he did not manage to give her a single word of instruction”, and the conversation with his brother about the last days of their father, Ivan III.

The account of Basil Ill’s death was amended several times in the chronicle-writing of the sixteenth century. In The Resurrection Chronicle, compiled after the death of Basil Ill’s wife, Yelena, the reference to her being charged to rule was omitted and replaced by a eulogy to the boyars (uttered by Basil III) for their loyalty; at the same time many details in the account of the Grand Prince’s illness and death were also omitted. In The Chronicle of the Beginning of the Reign (and in some of the manuscripts of The Nikon Chronicle) new amendments were made. The eulogy to the boyars was omitted and a reference inserted to the effect that Basil presented the infant Ivan IV with “the tsar’s crown and royal diadems, with which Vladimir Monomachos was crowned”. And finally, in the last volume of The Illustrated Chronicle (in The Tsar’s Book) the earlier account of the death of Basil III was restored (plus the addition of the “Monomachos crown”) together with the details of the grand prince’s last days typical of this account.