Catherine I

Born: 1684
Died: 1727

On the morning of 28 January 1725, following the death of Peter the Great, Russia woke to find that it had a new ruler – Catherine I. The unexpected had happened. A commoner, a foreigner by birth, an illiterate washerwoman had became the empress of a great European power.

Much of the early biography of Catherine I is unclear. Most historians agree that she was the daughter of a Lithuanian peasant called Samuel Skowronski (from the Polish word for lark – skowronek). She was born in Livonia on 5 April 1684 and baptised into the Roman Catholic Church under the name of Martha.

Orphaned at the age of twelve, Martha was taken into the service of a pastor from Roop and converted to Lutheranism. She then went to Marienburg (now Aluksne in Latvia), where she studied housekeeping, handicrafts and the Protestant religion in the house of Johann Ernst Glück, a Lutheran clergyman and first translator of the Bible into Latvian. She did not receive any education and could not read or write.

In 1702, when Martha was eighteen, she received an offer of marriage from a Swedish dragoon called Johann. This was in the middle of the Great Northern War between Russia and Sweden for an outlet to the Baltic Sea. After spending their wedding night together, Johann left Martha to join his regiment.

On 25 August 1702, Boris Sheremetev captured Marienburg from Sweden. The Russian forces imprisoned the inhabitants and spent three days looting and plundering the town. A Russian soldier sold Martha to a captain, who passed her on to Boris Sheremetev. The general ordered her to wash his laundry, when she was spotted by the tsar’s confidant, Prince Alexander Menshikov. Sheremetev was forced to present Martha to Menshikov and she entered his service. Menshikov kept her a secret from Peter the Great, allowing her to occasionally meet up with her Swedish husband, who was now a warrant officer.

During a heavy drinking session, Menshikov blurted out his secret to Peter. The tsar asked to see Martha and she immediately took his fancy. Although neither tall nor slim, she was a strapping, healthy woman and Peter had recently broken up with Anna Mons. Much to Menshikov’s chagrin, Peter took Martha as his lover in 1703. The prince worked the situation in his own favour, however, and his former servant often interceded on his behalf at the court.

Peter sent Martha to live in Preobrazhenskoe, where his sister Natalia taught her Russian and court etiquette. Peter’s sisters took an immediate liking to his new acquisition. In 1707, Martha converted to Orthodoxy, taking the name of Catherine Alexeyevna. Her godparents were Peter’s half-sister Ekaterina and his son from his first marriage, Tsarevich Alexis Petrovich.

Over time, Peter became increasingly dependent on Catherine. She understood his character and often saved the victims of his rages from punishment and even death. Always calm and unruffled, she shared all the hardships of Peter’s life. She was made a lady-in-waiting in 1710, accompanied the tsar wherever he went and bore him eleven children, most of whom died in infancy.

In spring 1711, Peter launched a campaign against the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans. Following victory over the Swedes at the Battle of Poltava in 1709, the tsar believed that the Turks would be a walkover. The Russian generals set off accompanied by their wives, children and lovers and the whole campaign had the atmosphere of a holiday outing. On 6 March 1711, on the eve of their departure from St Petersburg, Peter announced that he was marrying Catherine.

After wandered up and down the River Pruth in search of the enemy, the Russian army of 38,000 men suddenly found itself surrounded by a Turkish army of 188,000 men. The Russians were forced to negotiate peace terms with the commander of the Turkish army, Grand Vizier Baltaji Mahommed Pasha. On 11 July, they signed a humiliating peace treaty, forfeiting many fortresses and land, yet keeping the army and tsar intact. The Russian side was headed by Baron Pyotr Shafirov, who was forced to bribe the vizier with large sums of money. When funds ran dry, Catherine offered her jewellery, swinging the negotiations in Russia’s favour. In honour of her sacrifice, Peter founded the Order of St Catherine or the Order of Liberation. On 24 November 1714, she became the first woman in history to be awarded this new decoration.

Catherine’s jewels were the vizier’s undoing. When he returned to the Turkish capital, he was beheaded for agreeing to the peace terms. The whole story, however, may be nothing more than legend. A French traveller accompanying the Turkish forces describes Catherine’s role in his memoirs: “All she did ... was go to Peter’s tent, where he did not wish to see anyone except her, and gained his approval for how they planned to conduct the negotiations, with Shafirov as the tsar’s official representative.”

Peter and Catherine returned to St Petersburg and were married in the Church of St Isaac of Dalmatia on 19 February 1712. In the marriage book, the tsar signed his name as “Rear Admiral Peter Mikhailov.” All the ushers were naval officers. In honour of the event, Peter spent one and a half months making the church chandelier. Peter and Catherine’s two daughters, Anna and Elizabeth, were confirmed as legitimate children during the ceremony.

How did Catherine differ from all the other concubines in the tsar’s harem? Her secret was being able to find a way to Peter’s heart. As the partner of the wilful and bad-tempered emperor, Catherine’s life was not easy. She had to constantly come up with new schemes to retain his affections. Like all other monarchs at that time, Peter continued to sleep with other women. But Catherine found a clever way to consolidate her hold over him and overcome her own jealousy – she herself supplied him with lovers.

On 18 June 1717, Peter wrote to his wife from Spa, where he was taking the waters: “There is nothing else to report from here. We only just arrived yesterday and, as the doctors forbid engaging in domestic entertainments [sex] while drinking the waters, I have decided to return my maîtresse to you, for I would not be able to refrain were she alongside me...” On 3 July, Catherine wrote back that the real reason for sending the girl back was clearly not the doctors’ advice, but because she had contracted an unmentionable disease “and I would not wish (God save me!) for the lover of this maîtresse to arrive back in the same state of health as she did.”

The existence of such freedom in their marital relations speaks volumes about Catherine. By accepting and even encouraging an open marriage, she instantly removed the danger of Peter starting up a secret relationship, in which an unknown rival could gain a potential advantage over her. For secret rendezvous also imply secrets of the heart. Catherine feared this and so she accepted Peter’s mistresses as part and parcel of married life.

Catherine had a shrewd knowledge of Peter’s whims, passions and weaknesses. Although she did not have a proper education or finishing, she knew how to please the tsar and make him feel good. Knowing how upset he was after his ship, the Hangö, had been damaged, she wrote to him while he was away on a campaign that the Hangö had, after successful repairs, returned “next to its brother, the Lesnoe, which it has now joined; they stand together, I saw them with my own eyes, a sight truly joyous to behold!”

Catherine knew that nothing was dearer to Peter’s heart than the ships that he had helped to build and launch. No other woman could pen such subtle letters to the tsar, who appreciated her uncanny knowledge of his character. In a letter from Bad Pyrmont on 5 June 1716, he writes that he has received the bottle of wine that she sent, “but I think that you must have the gift of prophecy, sending only one bottle, for [the doctors] have ordered me not to drink more than one glass a day.”

Catherine may not have had the gift of prophecy, but she did know Peter inside out. In a letter to her husband on 5 July 1719, she cunningly copies his own style of thought and droll sense of humour. Relating a tragic occurrence that had occurred in Peterhof Park, she writes: “The Frenchman who was making the new flowerbeds, poor soul, crossed the channel at night and ran into Ivashka Khmelnitsky [Slavonic equivalent of Bacchus], who somehow managed to push him off the bridge, sending him to make flowerbeds in the next world.”

What Catherine feared more than potential rivals was for the fate of her family. Over the years, she had given birth to eleven children, who had either lived or died. Their mother could not help thinking about what would happen to them after the tsar was gone. The future was uncertain, because the heir apparent was still Alexis, the son of Peter’s first wife, Eudoxia Lopukhina.

Although Alexis was sentenced to death for treason in 1718, he had fathered a male son called Peter in 1715. What could Catherine do to protect the rights of her own family? She only had two daughters – Anna and Elizabeth. In 1718, she gave birth to a girl called Natalia, but there was still no boy (their beloved son, Peter, unexpectedly died at the age of four in 1719).

In 1723, Catherine gave birth to their final child, a son. He was also called Peter, but died soon after he was born. By this time, Catherine was approaching forty, and Peter could no longer hope for a legitimate heir. But he was determined to prevent the throne from passing to his grandson, the son of the executed tsarevich.

On 5 February 1722, Peter signed a decree altering the way in which the Russian throne was inherited. Instead of the crown passing from father to son, the sovereign would henceforth nominate his own successor from among the members of his family.

Peter’s decree was an important step towards absolute rule. From now on, the tsar controlled not only today, but also tomorrow. The obvious intention of the new law was to leave the throne to Catherine. On 15 November 1723, a manifesto announced the forthcoming coronation of Catherine, who was crowned empress at the Dormition Cathedral in Moscow on 7 May 1724.

The French ambassador, Jacques de Campredon, spotted the true significance of the coronation ceremony: “What is particularly noteworthy is that the tsarina was, contrary to the usual custom, anointed, and thereby still recognised as a ruler and sovereign after the death of the tsar, her husband.”

In November 1724, Peter learnt of Catherine’s love affair with the chamberlain William Mons. They were only discovered by accident, during an investigation into an accusation of bribery and embezzlement. This case of marital infidelity was more serious than any other, because it involved the mother of potential heirs to the throne. While it was no doubt a bitter blow to the ego of the ageing tsar, it was also a crime against the dynasty, the throne and the state. William Mons was executed and Peter tore up the document naming Catherine as his successor.

Peter the Great died on the night of 27/28 January 1725 without leaving an official heir. A meeting of senators, clergymen, generals and guards officers was split over who should inherit the throne. Members of the old aristocracy – the Dolgoruky, Golitsyn and Repnin families – wanted to offer the crown to Alexis’s son Peter, the eleven-year-old grandson of Peter the Great. They regarded Catherine as a Lithuanian laundress not worthy of even approaching the Russian throne.

Peter’s protégés – Menshikov, Yaguzhinsky and Tolstoy – supported Catherine. The second group carried the day thanks to the brilliant oratory of Archbishop Feofan Prokopovich and the actions of General Ivan Buturlin, who stationed two guards regiments beneath the palace windows. Catherine was declared empress, colonel-in-chief of the Preobrazhensky Regiment and captain of the Bomber Squad.

When Catherine was proclaimed empress of Russia in 1725, many of her former acquaintances rushed to St Petersburg. Before Peter’s death, a man called Carl Skowronski had appeared, claiming to be her brother. The tsar did not believe him and ordered his arrest. After Peter’s death, Carl was joined by two “sisters” – Anna and Christina – and a brother called Friedrich.

Catherine housed her relatives at Tsarskoe Selo. On 5 January 1727, Carl and Friedrich were made counts with larks in their coats of arms. Carl was awarded the title of chamberlain and a mansion on the River Neva. Anna and Christina were given land and elevated into the nobility. In 1742, during the coronation of Catherine’s daughter Elizabeth, their cousins were also made counts. Two new aristocratic families descended from Anna and Christina thus appeared in Russia.

As empress, Catherine did not have any interest in affairs of state. She took a young German lover – the handsome and empty-headed Carl Gustaf von Löwenwolde – and spent her days drinking or going for carriage or sleigh rides. The burden of governing the country was left to Prince Alexander Menshikov and the Supreme Privy Council. Created in 1726 as a body of advisers to the empress, the Supreme Privy Council was composed of six leading politicians. Catherine herself signed decrees without even looking at them – her thoughts and desires were elsewhere.

Soon, the empress’s immoderate lifestyle contributed to her poor health. Thanks to her passion for crackers dipped in strong Hungarian wine, Catherine contracted dropsy and her legs swelled up. She took to her bed in spring 1727 and never recovered. On 6 May 1727, after two years on the throne, Catherine died of pneumonia. She was buried alongside Peter the Great in the St Peter and St Paul Cathedral.

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