In 1584, at the age of 27, Feodor I was crowned Tsar of Russia. Son of Ivan IV “the Terrible”, Feodor looked nothing like his physically imposing father – in fact, he was small, with short arms and a squat neck. Quiet and passive, Feodor was believed to have been mentally retarded at birth, with little intelligence and a dispassion for ruling the country.
His vapid eyes and naïve gaze certainly contributed to this perception, and even his own father did not believe his son capable of ruling. Instead, he organized a small advisory council to assist Feodor I, which included his wife and brother-in law. By the end of the year 1587, his brother-in-law Boris Godunov was the only member of the council that remained due to internal struggles for power; because of this, he took over the position of acting Tsar in place of the disinterested Feodor.
Many Russians believed that “feeble-mindedness” was indicative of religious wisdom, and ascribed Feodor’s mental incapacitation to spiritual superiority. Oddly enough, because of this, the people he refused to rule still loved and respected him greatly.
Feodor spent much of his time in solitary prayer, though he took special interest in traveling across the country to visit churches and ring their bells. This resulted in the nickname “Bellringer”, and was originally intended to be a term of endearment.
The only child of Feodor and his wife died in infancy, and it was this failure to procreate that would bring an end to his family’s dynasty. Feodor did have a half-brother named Dmitri, however this child was considered illegitimate and therefore unfit to rule – the Russian Orthodox Church recognized only a man’s first three marriages, and Dmitri had been the offspring of Ivan IV the Terrible’s eighth wife. Feodor genuinely cared for his half-brother, however he did not make any attempt to change the established laws of the church.
In 1591, Dmitri was found dead at the age of ten. The official verdict was that the child had cut his own throat while having an epileptic seizure, and no one questioned the remarkable nature of such an accusation – except for the child’s mother, who claimed her son was murdered by members of Godunov’s court as an insurance policy against any possible competitors for the throne, even though illegitimate children had no real claim to it. Evidently, Feodor never questioned whether his brother-in-law had any involvement with Dmitri’s death… and in 1598, after a bout of illness, he passed away in his bed.
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