Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Empress Catherine I of Russia

From the daughter of a Lithuanian peasant to the first female ruler of Imperial Russia, Catherine overcame a lot of obstacles in her life.

Born Marta Helena Skowro ńska on April 15th 1684, she was of Lithuanian stock; her origins remain unknown. Marta’s parents died of the plague when she was still a young child after which she was taken to Marienburg by her aunt and uncle where she was adopted by Pastor Glück where she served as a housemaid. Pastor Glück rid himself of this orphaned girl by marrying her off to a Swedish dragoon when she was 17, with whom she lived with for 8 whole days before the Swedish troops were forced out by the Russians. Marta sure got around a lot during her time … she was the mistress to Brigadier General Rudolf Felix Bauer then to Prince Menshikor and finally to Peter the Great.

Peter made no secret of his feelings towards Marta; he had at last found the woman he longed to be with. Marta made things a lot easier for the relationship to flourish by converting to Orthodoxy and taking the name Catherine Alexeyevna in 1705. The two married in secret in 1707 and their marriage produced 12 children however only 2 survived until adulthood: Anna born in 1708 and Yelizaveta born in 1709. When Peter decided to move the capital to St. Petersburg in 1703, Catherine and Peter lived in a three room log cabin while they waited for the city to be built with Catherine doing the cooking and child care and Peter tended to the gardens – just like any other ordinary family rather than the Tsar and Tsarina. Peter and Catherine’s love and affection was true as proven in their correspondence. Aww . . . The Tsar fell in love with his lowly born mistress and raised her to the Tsar of all of Russia.

Catherine became an inseparable companion, even accompanying Peter on campaign. Catherine accompanied Peter during the Pruth campaign in 1711, and it is said that it was because of Catherine that the Russians were successful in getting out of the disastrous war alive. Apparently she suggested that they use her jewels and those of the other women to bribe the Turkish Grand Vizier Baltaji into allowing a retreat, which he in turn allowed. Peter credited Catherine with that success and in show of his gratitude he married her again, officially and publically, on the 9th of February 1712 at Saint Isaac’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg.

In 1722 Catherine was proclaimed Peter’s successor, thereby excluding the grand-duke Peter and on the 7th of May 1724 Catherine was crowned empress-consort and co-rule of Russia. Of course this would not be a true royal story if there wasn’t a rumour of adultery, in this case against the empress herself. The alleged affair was said to have taken place between Catherine and one of her gentlemen of the bedchamber, William Mons, a handsome upstart and brother of a former mistress of Peter. Although there was no proof of said affair, Mons lost his head anyways, just to be sure, but Catherine seemed to escape unharmed as she remained in the Tsar’s favour until his death on January 28th, 1725. Catherine was at once raised to the throne as Empress of Russia with her great popularity with the army only strengthening her claim before the reactionary party had any time to prepare an opposition.  Though Catherine remained quite illiterate, she was an uncommonly shrewd and sensible woman and a powerful ruler who paved the way for a century that was almost exclusively dominated by women in Russia including her own daughter Elizabeth and Catherine the Great. Empress Catherine died on May 16th 1727. 

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