Nathalia Keshko (1859–1941)

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Nathalia Keshko (1859–1941)

Queen of Serbia. Name variations: Natalya, Natalie. Born in 1859; died in 1941; daughter of a Russian military officer; educated in Paris; married Milan II (I), prince of Serbia (r. 1868–1882), king of Serbia (r. 1882–1889, abdicated 1889, died 1901), around 1875 (divorced c. 1889); children: Alexander (1876–1903), king of Serbia (r. 1889–1903, who married Draga).

Became princess of Serbia (c. 1875); became queen of Serbia (1882); divorced from King Milan IIwhile out of the country (c. 1889); banished by decree from Serbia and forcibly ejected (1891).

The history of the Balkans has long been one of feuds, intrigue, warfare and bloodshed, and the brief period of the Obrenovich dynasty in Serbia is no exception. Held by the Ottoman Empire from the late 14th century, but coveted as a pawn by the powerful empires of Russia and Austria-Hungary, Serbia was granted autonomy in 1829 through the Treaty of Adrianople that ended war between Russia and the Ottoman Empire. For some years power swung between the rival Karageorgevitch and Obrenovich factions, as the country began to copy the structure of European countries with a monarchy, ruling assembly, and diplomatic ties to other nations and states; by the time Serbia gained sovereign nationhood through the Congress of Berlin in 1878, the Obrenovichs had held the throne for nearly two decades, and Princess Nathalia Keshko was wife of the ruling prince and mother of the heir to the throne.

Born in 1859 in Moldavia (then a part of Rumania), Nathalia Keshko was the daughter of a well-to-do landowner and officer in the Russian army. She was raised in the aristocratic manner of Russian gentry and as a teenager was sent to finishing school in Paris. Throughout her life, she was acknowledged as a religious, chaste, and genuinely charitable woman (although it was her voluptuous figure, faithfully reproduced in a portrait, which initially won her future husband's attention). Both during and after her reign as queen of Serbia, she also proved herself capable of political machination, adroit manipulation of public opinion, cruelty, and a fierce stubbornness.

Nathalia Keshko's future husband, Milan (II), had been declared prince of Serbia after the 1868 murder of his father's cousin, Prince Michael, by partisans of the Karageorgevitch clan. Still a teenager when he took the throne, Milan began to remake its capital, Belgrade, into a city on par with those of other European nations. He was a man of great charm, if a spendthrift, and was generally adored by his subjects. Still, his diplomats had been having some difficulty finding him a bride both suitable and willing to live in the comparative discomforts of the fledgling nation, and having given up on assorted high-ranking princesses of Europe offered Nathalia Keshko's portrait to the prince for his inspection. Their marriage was a great event, the beginning of an enduring affection that Serbs would hold for Nathalia, as was the birth of a male heir, Alexander, in 1876. Tsar Alexander II of Russia was the baby's godfather, and gave him the nickname "Sasha." Yet despite these outward ties to Russia, which wished to be the dominant influence in East Central Europe, in 1877 Milan forged an alliance with Austria-Hungary by signing a secret treaty.

Nathalia Keshko's marriage began with the couple besotted by one another, but quickly deteriorated. The prince had been expecting to use a portion of his wife's dowry to pay off gambling debts, and was no doubt disappointed to find that the dowry was in land investments, none of which she would be persuaded to sell. Soon enough he was dallying with other women, events Nathalia was informed of by certain pro-Russian factions at the palace. In 1882, Milan declared himself king of Serbia, and Nathalia became queen. They fought violently on the occasions he was in Belgrade, and she was known to insult him publicly. In 1885, Milan led an army into war against Bulgaria. Serbia lost, and the king became the object of various elaborate assassination plots. These all failed, but apparently caused him to seek comfort from Artemesia Christich , the wife of his private secretary. Her hold on him soon grew so strong that even educated subjects like the king's councilors thought she was using witchcraft; Milan began speaking to confidantes about divorcing Queen Nathalia and marrying his mistress. Christich, who had a son named Obren with the prince, around 1887, was divorced by her husband. At this point Nathalia and her son were urged to go abroad for the boy's education. Not long after their arrival in Wiesbaden, Germany, rumors began to circulate that Christich was now the queen of Serbia. Nathalia Keshko wrote imploring letters to Milan, wishing to return, but he refused to allow it. He then sent her notice that he had petitioned the Holy National Church for a divorce, and told her to send their son back to Belgrade.

This act was seen as heartless when it was publicized in Serbia and throughout Europe, and Nathalia enjoyed great public support for her cause. Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany asserted that he would not let the boy return to such a father, but reneged on his word after the political ramifications of such a stand had been pointed out to him. When a Serbian general accompanied by German police went to Nathalia Keshko's home in Wiesbaden to remove Alexander, she brandished a gun at them and threatened to fire. She was outnumbered, however, and easily disarmed, and the boy was taken from her and returned to Belgrade. King Milan's support in Serbia, even among his own Obrenovich faction, declined after this event, and even more so after the church granted his divorce. In 1889, while Nathalia was traveling through Europe, he wrote a liberal new constitution and abdicated the throne. Alexander became ruler through three regents, and after his father left the country Nathalia Keshko returned to Belgrade. She was welcomed back by enthusiastic crowds, but as a result of instructions left by Milan was initially not allowed to see her son. Taking a house near the palace, she daily tried to visit him in tragicomic entreaties that drew large crowds of onlookers. When finally Nathalia was permitted to see Alexander, she set to work turning him against the regents.

To the Serbian people Nathalia Keshko remained their queen, and she was often praised for her charitable works. Because of her wide public support, the regents feared that Milan would return to again eject her from the country, then help himself to treasury funds and depart for the casinos of Europe. She was banished from Serbia by decree of Parliament, a decree she ignored. When her son was enjoined to read it aloud to her, Nathalia replied, "I will yield only to force." The assembled dignitaries were horrified when they understood that she did indeed mean physical force, but eventually took her at her word. In May of 1891, a detachment of police came to her home in Belgrade to escort her across the border. She stalled throughout the day as a crowd gathered outside; when the police finally ushered her out, the crowd rushed the carriage, rescued her, and then battled with the police. Again the police apprehended her and spirited her away to the Grand Hotel, where she was rescued and brought home by another crowd. There an armed guard of supporters remained outside her door while riots briefly raged in the streets. In the middle of the night a detachment of soldiers scaled the wall and managed to put her on a train.

Nathalia Keshko settled among the fashionable in Biarritz, where she entertained numerous nieces and nephews and took pity upon a young, poverty-stricken Serbian widow. By most accounts a naturally bovine, placid woman, Draga Mashin became Nathalia's lady-in-waiting. Milan had also been banished from Belgrade; having run through the funds his country had given him to stay away, he wrote a letter to Nathalia threatening to kill himself if she did not send him a loan. This letter she sent to French newspapers, which gleefully published it along with her reply that he should uphold the dignity of their son and stop behaving "like an actress."

In 1893, the secret treaty with Austria-Hungary was uncovered and publicized widely. Great political turmoil in Belgrade resulted in the 16-year-old Alexander, with the backing of the army, dismissing the regents and declaring himself king. He ordered his parents (unsuccessfully) to reconcile and went to visit his mother in Biarritz, where he was received with much ceremony and fell in love with Draga. Both she and Nathalia accompanied him back to Belgrade, where Nathalia reestablished herself as queen and attempted to influence her son. The ruling Radical Party dealt with this by ignoring the king except to demand his signature, so Alexander scrapped his father's constitution in favor of the previous, autocratic one. This won him no popularity, nor did his attempt to correct perceptions of his mother's undue influence by forcing Nathalia to leave Belgrade again. She returned to Biarritz. Shortly after discovering some intimate correspondence from Alexander to Draga, Nathalia threw Draga out of her house and mounted an international campaign to slander her. Draga went to Belgrade, where Alexander further alienated himself from his country by making her his mistress and, later, his wife.

Nathalia Keshko never saw her son again. She died in 1941, a generation after the Obrenovich dynasty ended when King Alexander and Queen Draga were brutally murdered and thrown from a palace window by army officers loyal to the Karageorgevitchs.


Kelen, Betty. The Mistresses: Domestic Scandals of Nineteenth-Century Monarchs. NY: Barnes & Noble, 1966.

Carol Brennan , Grosse Pointe, Michigan

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