Archaeologists Find Seal of Byzantine Empress Yolande of Montferrat in Bulgaria’s Lyutitsa Fortress

The first ever seal of Byzantine Empress Irene / Yolande of Montferrat to be discovered in Bulgaria has been found in the Lyutitsa Fortress. Photo: National Museum of History

A rare find, a lead seal of Yolande of Montferrat, Empress Irene of the Byzantine Empire, the second wife of Byzantine Emperor Andronicus II Palaeologus (r. 1282 – 1328), has been discovered by archaeologists excavating the medieval Bulgarian fortress Lyutitsa near the town of Ivaylovgrad.

This is the first seal of Byzantine Empress Irene (Yolande of Montferrat) to be discovered in Bulgaria, and the third known such seal overall, the National Museum of History in Sofia has announced.

Lyutitsa, which is one of the best preserved fortresses from the time of the medieval Bulgarian Empire, changed hands between Bulgaria and Byzantium a number of times. It is located in near Ivaylovgrad in the Eastern Rhodope Mountains in Southern Bulgaria.

Back in 2015, archaeologists discovered in Lyutitsa an 11th century vessel for the distillation of rakia, a traditional fruit brandy drink popular in Bulgaria and other Balkan countries.

In 2016, a well-preserved bulla (seal) of a Byzantine general named Demetrius was found there, among various other finds.

In 2018, the Lyutitsa Fortress in Southern Bulgaria is being excavated by two expeditions – one led by Filip Petrunov and Violina Kiryakova from the National Museum of History in Sofia, and another one from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia.

The lead seal of Yolande of Montferrat, Empress Irene of the Byzantine Empire (ca. 1274 – 1317), has been discovered precisely by Kiryakova, who is a curator at the Archaeology Department of the National Museum of History, the Museum has announced.

Both sides of Yolande of Montferrat’s seal feature her name as Empress Irene of Byzantium. One side depicts the Byzantine Empress herself, and the other side shows the Holy Mother of God (Virgin Mary) with baby Jesus Christ.

This side of the seal features an image of Byzantine Empress Irene / Yolande of Montferrat. Photo: National Museum of History

This side of the seal depicts the Holy Mother of God (Virgin Mary) with baby Jesus Christ. Photo: National Museum of History

Prof. Konstantin Dochev, a numismatist and head of the Veliko Tarnovo Office of the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology, has informed that the only two other known seals of Byzantine Empress Irene / Yolande of Montferrat are kept in the British Museum in London.

The find from the Lyutitsa Fortress is the first ever seal of the second wife of Byzantine Emperor Andronicus II Palaeologus (r. 1282 – 1328) to be found in Bulgaria.

“The find is extremely valuable and shows that Lyutitsa was an important [medieval] Bulgarian city, whose governors had correspondence even with the rulers of the largest medieval states," Bulgaria’s National Museum of History says.

Assoc. Prof. Vladimir Penchev, numismatist at the Museum, has pointed out that Yolande of Montferrat was Empress of Byzantium in 1284 – 1317.

Yolande of Montferrat was born in 1274 in the March of Montferrat (also known as Margraviate or Marquisate of Montferrat) in Northern Italy, a state of the Holy Roman Empire which became the Duchy of Montferrat in 1576.

Yolande was the daughter of William VII, Marquess of Montferrat, (1240 – 1292) and Beatrice of Castile (1254 – 1286), who was his second wife.

On her mother’s side, Yolande of Montferrat was the granddaughter of King Alfonso X the Wise of Castile (1221 – 1284) and Violante (Yolanda) of Aragon (1236 – 1301), after whom she was named. Alfonso X was the King of Castile, Leon, and Galicia in 1252 – 1284.

In 1284, the 10-year-old Yolande of Montferrat was married to the widowed Byzantine Emperor Andronicus II Palaeologus, upon which she converted to Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and adopted the name “Irene" meaning “peace".

Lear more about the Lyutitsa Fortress near Bulgaria’s Ivaylovgrad in the Background Infonotes below!

An aerial view of the Lyutitsa Fortress near Bulgaria’s Ivaylovgrad. Photo: Haskovo.net

Background Infonotes:

The Lyutitsa Fortress is a Late Antiquity / Early Byzantine and medieval Bulgarian fortress located in the Eastern Rhodope Mountains near the town of Ivaylovgrad (and the depopulated town of Rogozovo (or Rogozino)), Haskovo District, in Southern Bulgaria.

It has a total area of 26 decares (app. 6.4 acres), and is also known as the Marble City (because its fortress walls are made of white marble), and as Kaloyan’s Citadel (after Tsar Kaloyan (r. 1197-1207) of the Second Bulgarian Empire).

Even though its research is still in its early stages, there is archaeological evidence to believe that this particular fortress is the rich medieval city Lyutitsa which is mentioned in numerous historical sources. In the 9th-17th century, Lyutitsa was the center of a bishopric, and in the 17th-18th century – of an archbishopric.

Lyutitsa is one of the best preserved Bulgarian fortresses from the Middle Ages; in that, it is comparable to other well preserved medieval fortresses in Southern and Southeast Bulgaria such as the Mezek Fortress and the Matochina Fortress. Its fortress walls and towers have been preserved up to a height of 6-10 meters. It has 12 fortress towers, 9 of which have survived.

The Lyutitsa Fortress is also located close to another popular archaeological landmark, the Ancient Roman villa Armira which has been restored and has emerged as a well-known cultural tourism site.

Archaeological finds such as pottery, coins, decorations, household items made of metal and bone indicate that the location of Lyutitsa was inhabited as early as the 1st millennium BC, (starting in the Late Bronze Age), i.e. the time of Ancient Thrace.

The first time Lyutitsa was mentioned in historical sources goes back to the 9th-10th century when its name appears as a bishopric in the parish lists of Byzantine Emperor Leo VI the Wise (r. 886-912) and Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Nicholas I Mysticus (901-907; 912-925), and then again in 940 under Byzantine Emperor Constantine VII the Purple-born (r. 913-959). It was also mentioned in the memoires of Byzantine Emperor John VI Cantacuzene (r. 1347-1354) who reveals that the city of Lyutitsa was destroyed in the invasion of the Ottoman Turks in the Balkans in the 14th century. While its name was not mentioned explicitly, it is also believed that the Lyutitsa Fortress was referred to by French knight and historian Geoffrey of Villehardouin of the Fourth Crusade who speaks of a fortress where Tsar Kaloyan (r. 1197-1207) of the Second Bulgarian Empire stationed his troops after the siege of Dimotika (Didymoteicho) in 1207.

Based on historical and archaeological research, it is believed that the Lyutitsa Fortress first became part of the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680-1018) in the 9th century when it was located in the area of the border with Byzantium, and subsequently changed hands numerous times.

The fortress walls of Lyutitsa date back to the Late Antiquity (4th-6th century), i.e. the Early Byzantine period. They were destroyed several times, and today’s surviving fortress walls and towers are believed to have been erected in the 12th-13th century. The fortress was in use during the time of Early Byzantium and the medieval Bulgarian Empire, and even survived well into the Ottoman period and Late Middle Ages, i.e. up until the end of the 18th century when its residents abandoned it, and settled at nearby mineral springs founding a town called Ladzha (today a quarter of Ivaylovgrad).

Lyutitsa’s fortress wall has a total length of 600 meters. It features one octagonal, two round, and nine rectangular fortress towers. Inside the fortress, archaeologists have found the ruins of two churches (dating back to the 10th and 15th-16th century, respectively), the keep of the fortress, a well, a water reservoir hewn into the rocks (with Thracian finds discovered on its bottom), a sewerage system as well as a medieval necropolis with 15 graves.

The 10th century bishopric church was built of marble, and had three naves and a very rich decoration of both murals and marble reliefs.

The most interesting finds include: Ancient Bulgar / medieval Bulgarian pottery identical with the pottery from Pliska (capital of the First Bulgarian Empire in 680-893) and Veliki Preslav (capital of the First Bulgarian Empire in 893-970), which is a testimony to the importance of the Lyutitsa Fortress for medieval Bulgaria and its high culture; a very rare coin of Byzantine Emperor John V Palaeologus; as well as two medieval fragments from vessels for the distillation of rakia, a traditional fruit brandy drink popular in Bulgaria and the Balkans (found in 2011 and 2015).

In 2006, the archaeologists found in Lyutitsa the grave of one of the medieval bishops of the city who was buried in a sitting position, holding a magnificent silver-coated bronze cross in his right hand.

The Lyutitsa Fortress was first excavated in 2002, and then again in 2004-2011 under the leardership of Assoc Prof. Boni Petrunova from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia. Subsequently, the excavations of Lyutitsa have been conducted by archaeologist Filip Petrunov (who is Petrunova’s son) from the National Museum of History in Sofia. Many of the artifacts discovered in the Lyutitsa Fortress are exhibited in the Ivaylovgrad Museum of History.

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