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16 January 2012

On this day in history: Ivan the Terrible crowned Tsar, 1547

Born in August 1530, Ivan became the Grand Prince of Moscow at the age of three following the death of his father, Vasili III. Initially, his mother Elena Glinskaya acted as regent, but she too died (possibly from poisoning) when Ivan was only eight years old. Members of the aristocratic Shuisky family took over as regents until Ivan became old enough to take the reigns of power in 1544.

On 16th January 1547, he became Ivan IV when he had himself crowned Tsar of all Russia with the Monomakh's Cap at the Cathedral of the Dormition, Moscow. In the early part of his reign, Ivan embarked on the process of modernising the state. He reformed the legal code, created an assembly of the three estates of the realm called the Zemsky Sobor and a council of nobles, established a standing army, opened new trade routes and ordered the construction of St Basil's Cathedral to commemorate his conquest of the Khanates of Kazan.

Ivan was also capable of violent outbursts, possibly due to mental illness. These may explain why he became known as 'Ivan the Terrible' - a translation of his Russian nickname, Ivan Grozny, which some suggest may be better translated as 'Ivan the Fearsome'. He ordered the assassinations of a number of nobles who he suspected were plotting against him, including Philip II, Metropolitan of Moscow, and Prince Alexander Gorbatyi-Shuisky.

In a fit of anger Ivan killed his son and chosen heir the Tsarevich Ivan Ivanovich. The young Tsarevich had witnessed the Massacre of Novgorod, where his father had ordered the killing of thousands of denizens of the city. The Oprichniki, a repressive force created by Ivan, carried out the massacre as well as being responsible for the murder of thousands of suspected opponents of the Tsar and for conscripting peasants for the disastrous Livonian War.

Ivan died on 18th March 1584, probably while playing chess with one of his advisers Bogdan Belsky. Following the opening of his tomb in the 1960s, scientists discovered that his body contained large amounts of mercury, suggesting that he had been poisoned. Ivan was succeeded by his pious but reputedly mentally deficient son Feodor I who died childless, thus ending the Rurik dynasty.

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