Maddalena Tocco holds a place in history much more because of who she married rather than her own accomplishments, but that doesn’t mean she’s not worth remembering. Surprisingly little is known about this woman herself–her personality, her attitudes, even her appearance which is a total mystery–but the times she lived in could not have been more tumultuous or momentous.
We don’t know when Maddalena was born, but my guess would be sometime in the first decade of the 15th century. She was the daughter of Leonardo II Tocco, an Italian-born nobleman and military leader. The Tocco family at this time ruled areas of Greece that had once been ruled by the Byzantine Empire. Her uncle, Carlo I Tocco, was a warlord and eventually the Despot of Epirus. After a long and very complicated series of minor wars between the Toccos and what remained of the Byzantine Empire, Carlo was defeated in 1427 at the Battle of the Echinades, which gave Byzantium control over the Peloponnese Islands. As part of the treaty that resulted from this battle, Maddalena was given in marriage to Constantine Palaeologus, the younger brother of the Byzantine Emperor John VIII Palaeologus. The wedding occurred in July 1428.
When she became a Byzantine princess, Maddalena changed her name to Theodora. She seems to have lived not in Constantinople–which her husband rarely visited–but at least part of the time at Santameri Castle on the coast of Greece. Records about her are very scarce, but the biographical sketches of Constantine indicate that it was a happy marriage and he loved her very much. Not long after the marriage she became pregnant by him. Unfortunately, the delivery was difficult. The child, a girl, was stillborn. Maddalena/Theodora followed soon after. She died in November 1429, leaving Constantine a widower.
For what reason we do not know, but Constantine never married again. Perhaps he was so stricken by grief at his wife’s death that he vowed never to marry again (Thomas Jefferson did the same thing when his wife died in 1782). He had no surviving children and thus no heirs. The same was true of his older brother, John VIII. When he died in October 1448, the Byzantine crown passed to Constantine, who became Constantine XI Palaeologus. He was the last Emperor of Byzantium, killed in battle as Constantinople fell on May 29, 1453, ending the empire forever.
How might things have been different if Maddalena had lived? We have no way of knowing, but if Constantine XI had an heir, and that heir survived the battle, he (or possibly she) might have carried on the Palaeologus dynasty in exile. Although it’s a stretch, there might still today be an heir-presumptive to the Byzantine throne, much as Georgii Mihailovich claims to be for the Russian crown. Nevertheless, the Palaeologus family, branched out into various collateral relatives, lost its direct link to the throne that morning in 1453. Maddalena Tocco, though by that time dead for 24 years, still had a pretty important impact on history.