Biographies Russian Rulers Romanov Family of Paul I Children Grand Duke Konstantin Pavlovich

Grand Duke Konstantin Pavlovich

Grand Duke Konstantin Pavlovich, son of Paul I and Maria Fyodorovna, husband of Princess Juliane Henriette Ulrike of Sachsen-Coburg-Saalfeld, husband of Countess Joanna Grudzińska
Born: 1779, Tsarskoe Selo
Died: 1831, Vitebsk

Grand Duke Konstantin Pavlovich was the second child and second son of Paul I and Maria Fyodorovna. He was born in Tsarskoe Selo on 27 April 1779.

Even before he was born, his grandmother, Catherine the Great, was sure of three things. The child would be a boy; he would be called Konstantin; and, one day, he would rule over the Byzantine Empire.

During the reign of Catherine II, the Russian army enjoyed great success against the Ottoman Empire. There was great interest in the “Greek project,” which envisaged driving the Turks from the Bosporus and restoring the Byzantine Empire.

Catherine realised that once these goals were achieved, they would need a candidate for the Byzantine throne. And who better than someone called Konstantin? That had been the name of the founder of the Byzantine Empire (Constantine the Great), the capital (Constantinople), and the last reigning Byzantine emperor (Constantine XI Paleologus).

Just like Paul and Maria’s first son, Konstantin was removed from his parents by Catherine II, who decided to raise the child herself. He was given a Greek wet-nurse and educated alongside his elder brother Alexander.

Konstantin’s grandmother also chose his bride, Princess Juliane Henriette Ulrike of Sachsen-Coburg-Saalfeld, who converted to Orthodoxy as Grand Duchess Anna Fyodorovna. The couple were married in 1796, but the union was not a success. Konstantin was a jealous and brutal husband, who once put his wife inside an enormous vase and used it as target practice.

Like his father and brothers, Konstantin adored army life. He was appointed an inspector general of cavalry in 1797 and participated in Count Alexander Suvorov’s Italian and Swiss campaigns in 1799. While he was in Italy, his wife used the opportunity to flee back to Germany, from where she refused to return.

For twenty years, Empress Maria Fyodorovna did not allow her son to divorce his wife. By the time she changed her mind, he already had two illegitimate sons by French actresses. Josefine Friedrichs gave birth to Pavel Alexandrov in 1808 and Claire-Anne de Laurent gave birth to Konstantin Konstantinov in 1818.

Konstantin commanded the imperial guards in the wars against Napoleon (1805–07, 1812–14). He did not distinguish himself as a military leader, although he did show personal bravery on a number of occasions. After the victory over Napoleon in 1814, he was made commander-in-chief of the Russian forces in Poland. The grand duke moved to Warsaw and became the viceroy of Congress Poland.

In 1815, Konstantin fell in love with a twenty-year-old Polish beauty called Countess Joanna Grudzińska, whom he met at a ball. But they only officially became husband and wife in 1820, when Konstantin’s marriage to Anna Fyodorovna was finally annulled.

Konstantin’s new wife became known as the Princess of Łowicz. This morganatic marriage deprived the grand duke of his rights to the Russian throne, a fact never made public, leading to widespread confusion in 1825 and the Decembrist Revolt.

When Tsar Alexander I suddenly died in Taganrog on 19 November 1825, Konstantin was proclaimed emperor by mistake in St Petersburg. After it was announced that the throne had passed to his younger brother, Nicholas I, a group of army officers protested and led their men onto Senate Square.

These events became known as the Decembrist Revolt, which was quickly put down by the new emperor. Nicholas desperately wanted Konstantin to appear alongside him in St Petersburg, in order to dispel rumours that the two brothers were enemies or that he had usurped the throne. But the grand duke remained in Poland.

Neither did Konstantin attend the burial of Alexander I in St Petersburg on 13 March 1826. He unexpectedly turned up in Moscow for the coronation of Nicholas I on 3 September 1826, returning to Warsaw straight afterwards.

Konstantin’s views were a strange mixture of the executive despotism of Paul I and the liberal ideas of Alexander I. On the one hand, he publicly criticised the partitions of Poland engineered by his grandmother. But as the representative of the Russian tsar, he harshly suppressed national liberties and condemned the clear desire for independence from Russia.

On the night of 17/18 November 1830, sensational news reached St Petersburg: “Warsaw. General uprising, the conspirators control the city. The tsarevich is alive and well, safe among Russian forces.” The November Uprising soon spread throughout the whole country and into neighbouring Lithuania.

Although Konstantin was placed at the head of the punitive Russian force, he seemed to have divided loyalties. When the Polish dragoons rode into battle against his troops, he delighted in their horsemanship and courage, claiming that Polish soldiers were the best in the world.

When Nicholas I heard this, he angrily recalled his brother to St Petersburg. On the way home, while he was staying in Vitebsk, Konstantin contracted cholera. He died in great pain, with his wife at his bedside, on 15 June 1831. His last wish was: “Tell the sovereign that I am dying and that I beg him to forgive the Poles.”

Konstantin’s wife followed the coffin on foot all the way from Vitebsk to St Petersburg, where the grand duke was laid to rest in the St Peter and St Paul Cathedral on 17 August 1831. Exactly one year after the start of the uprising, on 17 November 1831, she herself died at Tsarskoe Selo.

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