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Catherine I (1684–1727)

Catherine I (1684–1727)

Lithuanian peasant who became the second wife of Tsar Peter the Great of Russia and succeeded him as empress of Russia from 1725 to 1727. Name variations: Catherine Skavronsky; Marta, Marfa, or Martha Skovoronski (Skavronska or Skavronskii, Skovortskii, Skowronska); Yekaterina Alexseyevna. Born Marta Skovoronski on April 5, 1684, in Marienburg or Jacobstadt, in the Swedish controlled province of Livonia, now part of Latvia; died on May 6, 1727, in St. Petersburg, Russia; daughter of Samuel Skovoronski and his peasant wife; married Johann Raabe; married Peter I the Great (1672–1725), tsar of Russia (r. 1682–1725), on February 9, 1712; children: 12, including Paul (1704–1707); Peter (1705–1707); Catherine (1706–1708); Anne Petrovna (1708–1728); Elizabeth Petrovna (1709–1762); Margaret (1714–1715); Peter Petrovitch (1715–1719); Natalia (1718–1725).

Family moved to Latvia (1690s); Catherine became prisoner and paramour of General Boris P. Shermatov (1702); became servant and mistress of Alexander D. Menshikov (1704–05); became mistress and companion of Emperor Peter the Great (1705–12); married Peter the Great (1712); crowned as empress-consort (1724); succeeded Peter the Great as empress of Russia (1725–27).

Born to a peasant family, Marta Skovoronski survived an arduous life before becoming the mistress and finally, rechristened Catherine, the wife of Peter I the Great. After 12 difficult years of marriage, she was crowned empress-consort in a magnificent ceremony in May 1724. This astonishing story reached its zenith less than a year later when Catherine succeeded Peter on the Russian imperial throne.

The circumstances of the Empress Catherine's birth and infancy are somewhat obscure and based on mostly unreliable sources. Marta Skovoronski was probably born in April 1684 in the Swedish-controlled province of Livonia, now part of Latvia. She was born near the town of Marienburg but other sources suggest that her actual birthplace was the nearby village of Jacobstadt. Her father Samuel Skovoronski was a Lithuanian Catholic peasant who herded cattle for his master. The name of Marta's mother is unknown, but she and Samuel had several other children.

Life during Marta's childhood years in the Baltic region was extremely harsh. The area was plundered in almost continuous wars between Sweden, Poland, and Russia. When Marta was two, her father died during a plague that ravaged the Baltic provinces; her mother died about a year later. It is possible that the orphaned Skovoronski children may have lived for a few years with an aunt; then, though Catholic by birth, Marta went to live with a Lutheran pastor in the village of Ringen. When the plague reached Ringen and took the life of the pastor, the district superintendent for the Lutheran parish of Marienburg, Pastor Ernst Glück, took Marta into his home. She did the daily chores as a household servant and looked after the pastor's younger children. Although Pastor Glück provided lessons for his children, Marta received no formal education and remained illiterate. She survived her unfortunate circumstances by hiding her meager aspirations and substantial discontent under a mantle of submission and pleasantness. She also converted to the Lutheran faith.

In 1702, during her 18th year, Marta was attracted to Johann Raabe, a young dragoon in the Swedish occupation army. The Glücks negotiated with Raabe's commanding officer and a wedding date was established but had to be moved forward because war between Sweden and Russia was disrupting the peaceful life of Marienburg. A few days after the wedding, the Swedish commander withdrew his forces from Marienburg to escape the advance of Russian troops under Count Boris Shermatov. Raabe was among those withdrawn, but Marta remained behind. They never saw each other again.

Pastor Glück led a delegation, which included Marta, from Marienburg to the Russian camp to plead for mercy for the town. Detained by the Russians, Marta was assigned to the baggage train and temporarily fell under the protection of a German mercenary, Brigadier Bauer. She eventually caught the eye of Shermatov, and he added her to his collection of serving maids. Marta attended the aristocratic Shermatov at his table, made his bed and almost certainly shared it on occasions.

Considering her circumstances, Marta was fortunate to have served in the retinue of the

gentlemanly Shermatov. But in late 1703 or early 1704, she caught the eye of Alexander Dmitrievitch Menshikov, a young officer. An energetic, clever, and brave youth, Menshikov had risen from a street peddler to a place of affection with Tsar Peter I. Marta, who was by now used to being passed from one to another, found that she and her new master were two of a kind. Both were ambitious, and for the rest of their lives they remained connected. Marta saw Menshikov as a means to improve her status, and he hoped to use her charm and physical beauty to advance his ambitions at court. Sentiment between them played a part in their relationship, but advancement and a mutual fear of falling back into poverty sustained their friendship.

Marta, assigned to Menshikov's house as a servant, was an attractive woman with a lithe figure, a tilted nose and velvety black eyes. Blonde at birth, she dyed her hair black and wore it in a long and tumbling style. In 1705, when Tsar Peter visited Menshikov, he was attracted to Marta as she served the dinner. Told by Menshikov to see the tsar to his room, Marta spent the night, and Peter rewarded her with a gold ducat when he left the following morning. Menshikov was aware that Peter had sent his wife Eudoxia Lopukhina to a convent and had recently dismissed Anna Mons , his mistress of 12 years. Hoping to use Marta for his advantage, Menshikov again invited Peter to his home, was at first evasive when Peter asked for her, then produced a sophisticated Marta in a satin gown and flamboyant coiffure. Peter stayed for several days. Soon after his departure, the captain of the guards returned to Menshikov's home with orders to escort Marta to Moscow, and she became the mistress of one of the most powerful men in the world. Moreover, Peter the Great was no ordinary man. He was a tireless worker with prodigious appetites in everything he undertook. Standing 6′8", the tsar was temperamental, easily enraged, and suffered from occasional fits.

The nature of Marta's relationship with Peter between 1703 and 1710 is uncertain. Though Peter had Marta reside at the lavish house of Menshikov's sister and fiancé in the German suburb of Moscow, his public duties and the Great Northern War with Sweden (1700–21) made him an infrequent visitor to the city. During his long periods away, Marta improved her spoken Russian; she also gave birth to a son towards the end of 1704. On the tsar's insistence, both Marta and the child were baptized into the Russian Orthodox Church. The boy was named Paul, and Marta was given the name Catherine Alekseevna, the patronymic coming from Peter's son, Alexis Petrovitch, who served as Marta's godfather.

Her amazing physical endurance was allied with a strong common sense and a simple honesty, which held [Catherine I] from being carried away by her new, exalted position, first as mistress, then as wife of the great Tsar.

—Ian Grey

Perhaps sensing his desire for a permanent relationship, Catherine devoted her efforts to understanding the moods and habits of the tsar. She made every effort to be agreeable. Gradually Peter visited Catherine more frequently during times of despair, realizing that she could calm his rages and soothe his stressful spirit. Catherine discovered that his bouts of rage, often dangerous to those around him, could be frightening. His eyes would stand out from the sockets and his mouth and face would twitch violently. Even Menshikov avoided the tsar during those spells, but Catherine would cradle Peter's head in her lap until he fell asleep. In truth, her ability to mother Peter was the strongest factor in their relationship as evidenced by the tsar calling her "mother."

A second son, Peter, soon followed the first child. In 1706, Tsar Peter took Catherine to the secluded fortress encampment where he was building his dream capital, St. Petersburg. While he worked on his new city, they lived in a small log cabin and were extremely happy. Catherine came to see Peter as her hero as well as her lover and protector. She never complained about the cramped and austere quarters and endured the same hardships that he faced. The interlude was brief. War and diplomacy soon forced Peter to leave, and the couple entered a long and tense time of intermittent separation.

It was one of the most tragic periods of both their lives. Catherine gave birth to a daughter, Catherine, on December 27, 1706, but Peter could not return to her until May. During the months that followed, both of their sons died. The following January, Peter once again had to return to the front to face another Swedish offensive. A month later, in February 1708, Catherine gave birth to a second daughter whom she named Anne (Petrovna) . After a short visit, Peter again returned to his army and the war.

It was apparent to Catherine that Peter planned to marry her. He was hesitant, however, because a marriage would remind the public of his divorce from Eudoxia. There was also the problem of Catherine's humble origins, which would make her unacceptable to the nobility as a consort for the tsar. Catherine gave birth to another daughter, Elizabeth Petrovna , just before Peter victoriously returned from the war in December 1709.

The year 1710 was a happy one; the couple returned to their spartan life of solitude and work at St. Petersburg. Though Peter left briefly to launch his new navy, he had Catherine seated beside him in the place of honor at an official function on his return. By December, an inevitable war with Turkey led Catherine to request permission to accompany Peter to the front and to provide inheritances for their daughters in case they did not survive. Though Peter refused Catherine's first request, he recognized their daughter Anne as a princess at a court banquet. On March 7, 1711, Peter informed the members of the royal family that Catherine was his "consort," and upon his death she would be provided for as an imperial dowager. He acknowledged that his first wife still lived, but when time permitted he intended to wed Catherine.

Catherine continued to insist on traveling with Peter, and he finally relented. When he left for the Turkish border in June 1711, she was with him. But the campaign bogged down on the Pruth River, and the Russians were soon surrounded by a powerful Turkish army. Tradition, perhaps fostered by Peter to make Catherine more acceptable to the Russian people, gives Catherine credit for negotiating a truce. Unconfirmed sources suggest that she and other women bribed the Turks with their jewelry. The following year, wearing a brocade gown that glittered with gems, Catherine married Peter on February 9, 1712, at Menshikov's chapel in St. Petersburg. His wedding gift was an ebony and ivory candelabrum carved by his own hands. Most of the day was celebrated by an elaborate banquet that was concluded with a massive firework display. Peter also legitimized their daughters, Anne and Elizabeth. Catherine gave birth to two more children, Peter Petrovitch in 1715 and Natalia in 1718. Both died without surviving their childhood.

Catherine's marriage brought few changes to her life. By choice, the royal couple had only a few servants and lived a less than magnificent lifestyle. Peter, always preoccupied with his realm, was often away but would return when possible to his family. Catherine, who felt that hers was a supportive role, had no political or social aspirations and always endeavored to please her husband. Though she gave her advice if Peter requested it, she rarely pursued an agenda or openly disagreed with his views.

Catherine did attempt to improve Peter's attitude toward his son by his first marriage. Disappointed with Alexis, Peter had made up his mind to disinherit his eldest son and heir. Alexis, who fled from Russia, was later lured back by a promise of reconciliation. Instead, Peter had him arrested, tried and sentenced to death for high treason. There is evidence that Catherine unsuccessfully pleaded to Peter for mercy for Alexis, who died in June 1718 while undergoing judicial torture.

With the death of his only living son, Peter was burdened with concerns about the succession. His only surviving male heir was his grandson Peter Alexivitch (Peter II), the son of Alexis and Charlotte of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel . Resolute that his grandson would never reign, Peter issued a decree in February 1722, authorizing that Russian tsars appoint their own successors in order to exclude undesirable successors in the dynasty. Peter revealed his desire to have Catherine succeed him by crowning her empress-consort in an elaborate ceremony in the Uspensky Cathedral in Moscow on May 7, 1724. Catherine's coronation crown was fashioned by Paris jewelers using over 2,500 precious stones. Peter even stripped jewels from his own crown and purchased a massive ruby from China to cap the diadem. Yet he never formally proclaimed her as successor, and there were those who feared he might even choose a foreign relative to succeed him.

The only breach in Catherine and Peter's relationship occurred that same year. It has been traditionally believed that gossip among jealous courtiers drove Peter to suspect Catherine of taking a lover, and his eye fell upon William Mons, Catherine's chamberlain and the brother of Peter's former mistress. Much of this incident is debatable because Peter never held a formal inquiry in order to prevent embarrassment for his court. In November 1724, he had Mons, whom he also suspected of corruption, arrested and then exacted his vengeance on the entire family. Though most of them were exiled, William Mons was beheaded in Trinity Square. No incontrovertible evidence ever surfaced that proved there was a liaison between Catherine and Mons. Some scholars believe that Peter never suspected Catherine of having an affair but was instead angry over her defense of Mons' corrupt behavior. Peter and Catherine's children finally brought about a reconciliation, and at Princess Anne's betrothal ceremonies things seemed almost normal again. Peter was already very ill. Several weeks before, he had caught pneumonia rescuing some capsized sailors. After a long illness, he fell into a coma just as he was attempting to name his successor in writing; his only words were that "everything should be left to…." He died on January 28, 1725.

Charlotte of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel (1694–1715)

German princess. Born on August 29, 1694; died in childbirth on November 2, 1715; daughter of Ludwig Rudolf, duke of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel; sister of Elizabeth Christina of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel (1691–1750, the mother of Maria Theresa of Austria ); married Alexis Petrovitch (d. June 1718 while undergoing judicial inquiry authorized by his father Peter I the Great), on October 25, 1711; children: Natalie (1714–1728); Peter Alexivitch also known as Peter II (1715–1730), tsar of Russia.

Several candidates for the throne emerged. The stronger claims belonged to Catherine, who had nursed Peter in his last weeks, and Peter the Great's grandson, Peter Alexivitch, son of Alexis. Even as Peter was dying, the Russian nobles were forming factions to support their candidates. The old nobility, the Golitzins, Repnins, and Dolgorukis, supported Peter Alexivitch. The "new party," consisting of men like Menshikov who had risen from obscurity under Peter's reign, preferred Catherine. The Semenovski and Preobrazhenski imperial guard regiments remained loyal to Menshikov and those other leaders supporting Catherine, Procurator-General Pavel Iaguzhinski, Senator Peter Tolstoi, and Admiral Fyodor Apraksin. The opposition faction collapsed and the prominent figures of the state proclaimed Catherine the empress of Russia. The Senate and Holy Synod, which had controlled the bureaucracy during Peter's reign, proclaimed her succession the same day.

Catherine, almost totally illiterate, had no desire for power nor the qualities of a monarch. Her supporters viewed her as a suitable figure-head who would maintain the Petrine reforms and provide for their position and security. Catherine had always relied on strong men, and she became dependent upon her old friend Menshikov as her chief advisor. She took almost no part in government and in February 1726 began transferring authority to the Supreme Privy Council. In a sense, this council, dominated by Menshikov, became both an associate and advisor of the empress.

Catherine made every effort to complete several projects instituted by her husband. In 1725, she opened the Academy of Sciences, which had been one of Peter's dreams. His plan to explore the northern Pacific region was continued when she financed the expedition of Vitus Bering. Still in mourning for Peter, she permitted the marriage of her daughter Anne and the duke of Holstein to go forward. While 400 wedding guests celebrated, Catherine spent the day alone. Like Peter, she sought the affection of her soldiers and frequently dined with her officers, reviewed parades, and visited military hospitals.

Catherine attempted to distance herself from politics. She relied on the Supreme Privy Council but only occasionally attended the twice-a-week meetings. She signed the papers the council placed before her, entertained diplomats, and enjoyed making public appearances at banquets, balls, and parades. She loved the trappings of monarchy, and her taste for life became more self-indulgent and luxurious. She spent fortunes on clothing imported from abroad. Lavish improvements were added to the numerous royal palaces, and she traveled in gilded coaches and barges.

In November 1726, Catherine suffered a serious chill while being evacuated from a flood in St. Petersburg. Though she seemed to have recovered, she soon began to suffer fainting spells. By the middle of April, she was seriously ill and even had occasional hallucinations of talking to Peter in her sleep. Her physicians diagnosed an abscessed lung, but they had no treatment that could cure her. Some of her supporters believed she was being slowly poisoned, but it is more likely that she was in the terminal stage of tuberculosis.

While Catherine favored naming her daughter Anne as her successor, her advisors, led by Menshikov, convinced her that Peter Alexivitch had the best claim. Shortly before her death, she apparently assented to naming Peter as heir to the throne and sanctioned his marriage to Menshikov's daughter (though the marriage never took place). Catherine also nominated her daughters, Anne and Elizabeth, Peter's aunts to the Privy Council. Following her death, the Supreme Privy Council confirmed a last testament by Catherine, long believed a forgery, naming Peter as her successor. Catherine fell into a coma and died during the evening of May 6, 1727, in the third year of her brief reign.

sources:

Longworth, Philip. The Three Empresses: Catherine I, Anne and Elizabeth of Russia. NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1973.

Massie, Robert K. Peter the Great: His Life and World. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980.

Mottley, John. History of the Life and Reign of the Empress Catherine of Russia. London: n.p., 1744.

——. The History of the Russian Empire from its Foundation to the Death of the Empress Catherine. 2 vols. London: n.p. 1757.

Strong, Phil. Marta of Moscow: The Fabulous Life of Russia's First Empress. Garden City: Doubleday, Doran, 1945.

suggested reading:

de Jonge, Alex. Fire and Water: A Life of Peter the Great. NY: Coward, McCann, 1980.

Grey, Ian. Peter the Great: Emperor of all Russia. Philadelphia, PA: J.B. Lippincott, 1960.

Phillip E. Koerper , Professor of History, Jacksonville State University, Jacksonville, Alabama

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