Sophia Dorothea of Wurttemberg (1759–1828)

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Sophia Dorothea of Wurttemberg (1759–1828)

Russian empress, grand duchess, and later dowager empress who was the wife of Tsar Paul I. Name variations: Marie Feodorovna; Maria Feodorovna or Fyodorovna; Mariia Fedorovna; Sophia Dorothea of Württemberg. Born Sophia Dorothea Augusta Louisa on October 14 (o.s.) or October 25, 1759, in Stettin, Pomerania; died on November 5 (o.s.) or November 12, 1828, probably in St. Petersburg, Russia; daughter of Frederick II Eugene (b. 1732), duke of Wurttemberg (r. 1795–1797), and Sophia Dorothea of Brandenburg (1736–1798); educated at home; married Paul I (1754–1801), tsar of Russia (r. 1796–1801, who was the son of Catherine II the Great), on September 26 (o.s.) or October 7, 1776; children: Alexander I (1777–1825), tsar of Russia; Constantine (1779–1831, who married Anna Juliana of Saxe-Coburg ); Alexandra Pavlovna (1783–1801); Helena Pavlovna (1784–1803, who married Frederick Louis of Mecklenburg-Schwerin); Marie Pavlovna (1786–1859, who married Charles Frederick, duke of Saxe-Weimar); Olga (1792–1795); Catherine of Russia (1788–1819, who married William I of Württemberg); Anna Pavlovna (1795–1865, who married William II, king of the Netherlands); Nicholas I(1796–1855), tsar of Russia (r. 1825–1855); Michael (1798–1849), grand duke.

In the fall of 1776, just before her 17th birthday, Sophia Dorothea of Wurttemberg, the daughter of the Prussian ruler of the German duchy of Württemberg, married Paul Petrovich (later Paul I), the only son of Catherine II the Great of Russia. The young woman, in conformity with Russian custom, converted from Lutheranism to Orthodoxy and took the name of Marie Feodorovna. For the first 20 years of her marriage, she lived the comfortable but isolated existence of a grand duchess as her husband waited for his mother to die. After this finally happened in 1796, Sophia Dorothea spent a brief but often unhappy five years as the wife of the reigning tsar and as empress of Russia. Following Paul's assassination in 1801, Sophia Dorothea became a formidable dowager empress and a force for conservatism in Russia until her own death in 1828.

Sophia Dorothea was born in 1759 in Stettin, Pomerania, the daughter of Frederick II Eugene, duke of Wurttemberg, and Sophia Dorothea of Brandenburg . She was brought up in a close-knit and happy family living in the town of Montbéliard close to the French frontier. Her limited home education stressed morals and manners, dancing and needlepoint. While she read fairly widely and was exposed to Rousseauian romanticism, she was not a product of the Enlightenment or wide-ranging in her interests. Because she was healthy, attractive, well mannered and of royal blood, she was considered ideal marriage material by many of the ruling houses of Europe. Indeed, in 1776 she was engaged to two men: the first was Louis, prince of Hesse-Darmstadt, who was subsequently bought off with 10,000 rubles and another bride when Catherine decided that Sophia Dorothea was the perfect mate for her son.

Paul, whose first wife Natalie of Hesse-Darmstadt had died in childbirth, was not, however, an ideal husband. By nature, he was impatient, temperamental and suspicious, demanding absolute respect and obedience from all who were beneath him and especially from his second wife. His obsessive behavior and uncontrollable temper led many contemporaries and historians to question his mental stability. Initially, these traits did not bother Sophia Dorothea. She respected and adored her husband, had no ambitions of her own, and was content to live a life of quiet domesticity in the Russian countryside. She also fulfilled her principal function by quickly producing male heirs for the Russian throne. A son Alexander was born 15 months after her marriage, followed by another son Constantine in 1779. She then had five daughters—Alexandra Pavlovna (1783–1801), Helena Pavlovna (1784–1803), Marie Pavlovna (1786–1859), Olga (1792–1795), Catherine of Russia (1788–1819), and Anna Pavlovna (1795–1865)—all but one of whom lived to maturity, and another two sons near the end of the century. After a year-long tour of Europe with her husband in 1781–82, Sophia happily settled down to remodeling and redecorating Pavlovsk—a lovely estate 36 miles from St. Petersburg. It was there that she spent much of her time picnicking with her family, playing parlor games, and looking after the upbringing of her daughters. During the first half of their marriage, Sophia "became the single most important person in [Paul's] adult life," according to Roderick McGrew. She "provided him with a secure emotional refuge and a personal bond on which he could depend."

The difficulty in her life was not her husband but rather her domineering mother-in-law. Catherine was not on good terms with her son who, by all rights, should have held the throne she occupied. She isolated him from all state affairs, considered removing him from the line of succession, and insisted on raising his two older sons in St. Petersburg. Many in her court snubbed or insulted Paul and Sophia, and foreign dignitaries considered it politic to avoid Pavlovsk as well as Paul's other estate at Gatchina. Paul, bored by his political inactivity and restless in the country, ultimately looked for more stimulating company than his wife could provide and found it in one of her ladies-in-waiting, Catherine Nelidova . While their intense relationship was platonic, it hurt Sophia and weakened her marriage. In time, the two women formed a unique alliance and worked together to give Paul the emotional support he needed and to control his frequent public outbursts of temper.

In 1796, Catherine finally died, and Paul, to the surprise of some, took over as tsar of Russia. During his first years in office, he consulted his wife on domestic reform, put her in charge of the Society for the Education of the Daughters of the Nobility, and personally crowned her his empress. There were those in court, however, who did not like the stabilizing influence of the Sophia-Nelidova alliance or the pro-Prussian, anti-French policy which "the empress' party" advocated. In 1798, it was suggested to Paul that his often pregnant wife should avoid the possibility of further children and that she and her friends were getting much of the credit for domestic change while he was not receiving the public respect he deserved. The ever-suspicious and vengeful tsar decided to teach his totally innocent wife a lesson. He took a new mistress, Anna Lopukhina ; installed her in a royal apartment; banished Nelidova from St. Petersburg; and removed Sophia from all affairs of state. Three years later, Paul was assassinated by military and court figures who did not like either his pro-French foreign policy or his increasingly erratic behavior at home. Sophia, who knew nothing of the plot and briefly tried to succeed her husband, became the dowager empress when her eldest son ascended to the throne as Alexander I.

She carried out her new role in a much different fashion than she had her earlier duties as grand duchess. As Paul's long-suffering wife, Sophia Dorothea had been conventional, cheerful, a bountiful mother and respectful spouse who conspicuously avoided the intrigues of Catherine's court. She was criticized only for her intellectual shallowness and dullness. As Paul's grieving widow, she assumed a different persona. She demanded the respect she was never accorded by her mother-in-law to the point of insisting that she, and not Alexander's wife Elizabeth of Baden , should be the first lady of Russia. Sophia insulted and isolated her daughter-in-law in much the same way she had been treated by Catherine. As dowager empress and matriarch of Russia, Sophia bombarded her son with reprimands and advice and insisted that he pay homage to her at Pavlovsk on a weekly basis. Her court, laced with protocol and ceremony, became the unofficial center of St. Petersburg's society. If it lacked the sexual impropriety of Catherine's court, it also had none of the intellectual brilliance and cultural glitter of her predecessor's.

Sophia Dorothea of Wurttemberg played a more important political role in the first quarter of the 19th century than she had in the last 25 years of the 18th. She pressured Alexander to make sure none of Paul's murderers held important positions in his government. She became the center for much of the conservative opposition to Alexander's early liberal reforms, and she worked to undermine reforming ministers such as Michael Speransky, especially if she considered them to be pro-French. In the long run, her most lasting influence was through one of her younger sons. Denied a role in the education and upbringing of Alexander and Constantine, she had reasserted her familial rights after the death of Catherine. Rather than being brought up on the ideas of the Enlightenment, as had their older brothers, Nicholas and Michael learned conservative values and military traditions at Pavlovsk. It should come as no surprise therefore that Nicholas (I), who unexpectedly succeeded Alexander in 1825, became the most reactionary tsar in modern Russian history. His mother died three years into his reign at the age of 69.


McGrew, Roderick. Paul I of Russia, 1754–1801. Oxford: Clarendon, 1992.

Ragsdale, Hugh. Tsar Paul and the Question of Madness: An Essay in History and Psychology. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1988.

R. C. Elwood , Professor of History, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada

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Sophia Dorothea of Wurttemberg (1759–1828)

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