Empress Maria Fyodorovna

Empress Maria Fyodorovna, born Princess Sophie Marie Dorothee Auguste Louise of Württemberg, wife of Paul I, mother of Alexander I and Nicholas I, painted by Gerhard von Kügelgen 1800s
Born: 1759, Stettin (Prussia)
Died: 1828, Pavlovsk

When the future Paul I, son and heir of Catherine the Great, was widowed in April 1776, his mother quickly found him a new wife. Her choice fell on Princess Sophie Marie Dorothee Auguste Louise of Württemberg.

Sophie was the fourth child and eldest daughter of Duke Friedrich II Eugen of Württemberg and Margravine Friederike Dorothea Sophia of Brandenburg-Schwedt. She was born on 25 October 1759 at Stettin (now Szczecin) in Pomerania.

Sophie grew up in a loving atmosphere of culture and family values at the ancestral castle of Montbéliard, which is now in the territory of France. Her father corresponded with Jean-Jacques Rousseau and invited many famous intellectuals to the palace.

The first meeting between Sophie and Paul took place in Berlin. The couple took an instant liking to one another, and their engagement was soon announced. Catherine II set Sophie’s parents a series of strict conditions, including a ban on them ever visiting Russia.

Sophie made a favourable impression when she arrived in St Petersburg. Catherine wrote that “everyone is delighted with her.” She converted to Russian Orthodoxy as Grand Duchess Maria Fyodorovna on 14 September 1776 and married Paul on 26 September 1776.

Paul and Maria settled down to a happy family life. When Maria fell pregnant with Catherine’s first grandson, the empress presented her son with a thousand acres of land near Tsarskoe Selo. This place became known as Pavlovsk.

After moving to Russia, Maria learnt many new things about the world around her. The first surprise was that the fifty-year-old empress had a string of young lovers and ruled over a licentious court. Next, she learnt that Paul and his mother actively disliked one another. These were great shocks to the German princess, who had only known love and affection in her close-knit family.

Although Maria was kind and pleasant, she was not a particularly intelligent woman. More exactly, she did not possess the mind or outlook of Catherine the Great. To her, the empress was not a great reformer or political figure, but simply an immoral woman. She could not forgive her mother-in-law for taking away her two eldest sons, Alexander and Konstantin, to be raised by their grandmother.

Maria zealously studied the Russian language – just as she zealously did everything else in life – but did not feel the same love for the country that Catherine II had. She did not share the passionate ambitions of the empress, who dreamt from an early age of supreme power in Russia.

Maria’s life was the complete opposite of her mother-in-law’s world. All she wanted was to live quietly with her husband in their own cosy nest. Every spring, with unconcealed delight, she left St Petersburg for the lakes and parks of Gatchina and Pavlovsk.

Maria enjoyed nothing better than walking with her children in the countryside and visiting her favourite corners, farms and pavilions. Over twenty years, she gave birth to four sons and six daughters. She was a tender and loving wife, who enjoyed painting, running the household, and raising her younger children.

For many years, Paul and Maria enjoyed an almost ideal relationship. As time passed, however, Paul began to change. Frustrated at his exclusion from power, he grew surly and suspicious. Maria was too submissive ever to argue, and had great difficulty dealing with her increasingly neurotic husband.

These worries were compounded by the appearance of a rival for Paul’s affections. This was a lady-in-waiting called Ekaterina Nelidova. Although Ekaterina was not particularly beautiful, she was clever and witty. By comparison, Maria seemed like a rather dull paragon.

Maria feared that Nelidova would become a second Madame de Montespan, but Paul claimed that the liaison was purely platonic. The two women eventually managed to get along. Ekaterina left the court and, later, worked with Maria to try and control Paul’s erratic behaviour.

By this time, Paul had become emperor, and no longer wished to listen to anyone else. Maria was now empress, but this did not bring happiness or peace of mind. In the uneasy atmosphere of the imperial palace, she took refuge from her personal fears in the rigid etiquette of the court ceremonies.

Some historians claim that, on the night of Paul’s murder, Maria attempted to seize power, just like Catherine in 1762. But this is hard to believe. There is no indication of any previous ambitions or desire to rule before 1801.

After Paul’s death, Maria was a widow for over a quarter of a century. She lived with the knowledge that her eldest son, Alexander, had been implicated in the plot to murder her husband. She continued to be respected by her children, and her thoughts and advice often found their way into Russian legislation.

The dowager empress devoted a large part of the rest of her life to charity. She headed the Institutions of Maria Fyodorovna – the largest philanthropic organisation in Russia. She remained active and retained much of her former beauty and freshness. Maria was never ill, tired or depressed. She worked quietly for the public good, just as she had once done as the head of Paul’s home and family.

The end came unexpectedly on 5 November 1828. Maria had always been robust and healthy, and she refused to believe in the possibility of death. When Nicholas I saw that his mother was dying, he advised her to receive communion. “What?” she objected, “But I am not in any danger – I will do it tomorrow!” “Why put it off?” her son tactfully suggested. And so she acquiesced, just as she had always submitted to her fate...

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