Empress Catherine I of Russia, the first female sovereign of the Russian Empire, was born as Marta Helena Skowońska on April 15, 1684 to a peasant from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth named Samuil Skavronsky and his wife, Dorothea Hahn (also known as Elizabeth Moritz). The background of Marta’s parents is quite vague; it is said that her mother was the daughter of a Swedish officer and that her father was either a gravedigger and a handyman or a runaway landless serf. By the time Marta was three years old, she was taken away from her parents by an aunt who sent her to Marienburg, which is now present-day Alūksne in Latvia. Here, she was brought up by a Lutheran pastor and teacher named Johann Ernst Glück. But Glück did not provide Marta with an education. Instead, he employed her as either a scullery maid or a washerwoman and she was never taught how to read or write. In about 1689, both of her parents died of the plague, making their five children (including Marta) orphans.
Marta was said to be a lovely girl with extremely attractive features, so it is very likely she attracted the attention of many young men, including Glück’s son. Allegedly, Glück’s wife was so worried that her son would become too involved with their servant girl that she had the seventeen year old Marta married off to a Swedish dragoon named Johan Cruse (or Johann Rabbe) in 1702. Marta was with her husband for just eight days before the Swedish troops in Marienburg left and she never saw him again. Soon after the Swedish departure, Russian soldiers invaded and captured the town. Glück offered his services as a translator to the Russian Field Marshal, who took Glück back to Moscow with him. Marta went with her employer to Russia where it is said she worked for a short period of time as a laundress in the regiment that invaded her town. It is possible that she worked in the Field Marshal’s home but it's uncertain whether she was simply just a maid or his mistress. Either way, she eventually became a servant to Prince Alexander Danilovich Menshikov, a Russian statesman and the best friend of Emperor Peter I of Russia, more commonly known as “Peter the Great”. It's unknown as to whether Menshikov took the beautiful Marta as his mistress but what is definite is the fact that the two formed a “lifetime alliance” that would prove rather influential later in life.
|Peter the Great, Emperor of Russia|
(Paul Delaroche, 1838)
In 1703, Peter the Great visited his friend at his home and met Marta, whom he immediately became enchanted with. By the following year, she was living in his own home as his mistress. Peter I was the fourteenth child of Alexis I of Russia by his second wife, Natalya Naryshkina. When Alexis I died in 1676, four years after Peter’s birth, he was succeeded by Peter’s older half-brother, Feodor III. Feodor only ruled for six years before dying in 1682 at the age of twenty. Since he had no surviving children, he was succeeded by his sickly brother, Ivan V, ruled jointly with his half-brother, Peter I, because Ivan was “simple-minded” and unlikely to have children of his own. Since Ivan and Peter were sixteen and ten respectively at their time of their accession, their elder sister, Sophia Alekseyevna, ruled as their regent for the next seven years. In 1696, the twenty-nine year old Ivan V, who was described as “senile, paralytic, and almost blind” died, so Peter took the throne as the sole monarch. His reign was quite impressive, as he industrialized and strengthened Russia while also creating a strong navy, Westernizing his army, introducing novel administrative and territorial divisions of the kingdom, and much more. Before he met Catherine, Peter had been married to a woman named Eudoxia Lopukhina from 1689 to 1698. Although they had one surviving son, Alexei Petrovich, Tsarevich of Russia, Peter did not get along with his wife at all and eventually divorced her and banished her to a convent.
|Catherine I, Empress of Russia|
(Ivan Nikitin, 1717)
By 1705, Marta had two sons by her royal lover named Pyotr and Pavel but unfortunately, both boys died shortly after their births. As the Emperor’s principal mistress, she rose further in favor when she converted from Catholicism to the Russian Orthodox religion and changed her name to Catherine Alexeyevna (“Yekaterina Alexeyevna” in Russian). In December of 1706, she had a daughter named after herself but the girl died after only a year of life. Although no written record of Catherine’s marriage to Peter exists, it is commonly accepted that the two secretly wed sometime between October 23rd and December 1st of 1707 in St. Petersburg, the new capital of the Russian Empire. At the time of their marriage, Catherine was twenty-three and Peter was thirty-five. While the new capital was undergoing construction, Peter lived in a three-room log cabin with Catherine and remarkably enough, they lived as though they were a normal couple. While Catherine cooked, cleaned, and cared for their children, Peter did all of the heavy-lifting and worked in their garden. Peter and Catherine were deeply in love with each other and maintained a quite successful relationship. Catherine proved to be a stabilizing influence on her husband; she was the only one who could subdue his fiery temper and care for him when he suffered from his epileptic seizures. She brightened his life with her lively and cheerful personality as well as her empathy and charm.
By the end of the first decade of the eighteenth century, Catherine had two more daughters with Peter, Anna Petrovna in 1708 and Yelizaveta (“Elizabeth”) Petrovna in 1709. These two girls would be Catherine and Peter’s only children to survive infancy, as their other ten children died in early childhood or infancy. In 1711, Catherine was by her husband’s side during his Pruth Campaign, where it is said that she saved the entire Russian Empire. When Peter’s army was surrounded by a tremendous number of Turkish troops, Catherine asked that before he surrendered he should use her jewels and those of the other women in his camp to try to bribe the Ottoman grand vizier into letting them retreat. Her plan must have worked because the grand vizier did allow Peter’s troops to escape. Peter praised Catherine for her efforts and he rewarded her by officially marrying her on February 9, 1721 at Saint Isaac’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg. Thus, Catherine finally became the Tsarina at the age of thirty-six. Eight months after the wedding, when Peter raised the Russian Tsardom to Empire, Catherine’s title changed to Empress. Catherine had a total of twelve children with her husband, all of whom died in infancy or childhood except two daughters, Anna and Elizabeth. All but just her last two children were born before Catherine became the Empress Consort and her first three children were born before she secretly married Peter in 1707:
- Pyotr Petrovich (1704) died soon after birth
- Pavel Petrovich (1705) died soon after birth
- Catherine Petrovna (1706-1708) died at the age of 1 year, 6 months
- Grand Duchess Anna Petrovna (1708-1728) married: Charles Frederick, Duke of Holstein-Gottorp – had issue
- Empress Elizabeth of Russia (1709-1762) possibly married: Count Alexei Razumovsky – no issue
- Grand Duchess Maria Petrovna (1713-1715) died at the age of two
- Grand Duchess Margarita Petrovna (1714-1715) died at the age of one
- Grand Duke Pyotr Petrovich (1715-1719) died at the age of four
- Grand Duke Pavel Petrovich (1717) died shortly after birth
- Grand Duchess Natalia Petrovna (1718-1725) died at the age of six from the measles
- Grand Duke Pyotr Petrovich (1723) died shortly after birth
- Pavel Petrovich (1724) died shortly after birth
|Catherine I, Empress of Russia|
As Catherine was neither vindictive nor ambitious, she was a loyal consort to her husband and never used his power or position to help anyone gain influence in the royal court. Though she wasn’t fully immersed in politics, she made sure that she kept up with the talk. Instead, the smart and tactful Catherine spent most of her time pleasing her husband and making sure that she could help him in any way, either by cheering him up or simply keeping him company. Peter was so devoted to his wife that on May 7, 1724, he officially crowned her as his co-ruler. But soon after this, the couple ran into some problems that seriously hurt their relationship. Catherine, who was described as “a slave to her passions”, had an affair with her previous employer and her husband’s best friend, Aleksandr Menshikov, while Peter had a few affairs of his own. At first, Catherine turned a blind eye to her husband’s infidelities because of her own unfaithfulness. However, once she realized that her husband’s love for her had begun to wane, she allegedly began another affair with a man named William Mons, the brother of Peter’s former mistress, Anna Mons, and one of Catherine’s ladies-in-waiting, Matrena. Mons, who served as Catherine’s secretary, took advantage of his relationship with the Empress when he and Matrena began marketing their influence to ambitious socialites who wanted access to Catherine and her husband. Since Mons and his sister were favorites of Catherine, she excused their actions and let them continue to bribe and extort. However, her husband had fought bitterly to rid his country and court of corruption (ultimately his efforts were unsuccessful) so when he found out about what his wife had condoned, everything changed. Since he had become seriously ill in the last year of his life, he had written his will and named his wife as his successor. But when he learned about his wife’s romance with Mons and how she had allowed his acts of corruption, he renounced his will. He had Mons charged with bribery and beheaded on November 16, 1724 while Matrena was banished. Interestingly enough, Catherine showed absolutely no sorrow over her alleged lover’s death. On the day he was executed, she was actually quite lively and cheerful. After the execution, her husband even took her by the site Mons had been killed and purposely showed her his head. She kept her composure and simply said: “It’s a shame chamberlains have so many vices.”
|Catherine I, Empress of Russia|
(Heinrich Buchholz, 1725)
In the two months between Mon’s execution and Peter’s own natural death, Catherine and Peter didn’t speak to each other. But the two reconciled when Peter died on February 8, 1725 at the age of fifty-two. However, with Peter’s death the succession was still up in the air. Peter had died without naming his heir. He had initially named Catherine his successor but he had torn up his will during the whole Mons affair. He had just two daughters with Catherine and his only surviving son by his first wife had died shortly after being sentenced to death for secretly planning to rebel against his father. But Catherine had many loyal supporters in the military that wanted her to take the throne. Many other powerful government figures supported Catherine’s right to the throne as well, for they saw her accession as a means of securing or advancing their own power. So, with overwhelming support behind her, the Holy Synod, the Senate, and various high officials quickly proclaimed Catherine the first Empress of Russia in her own right. During her reign, which officially began on February 8, 1725, she created the Supreme Privy Council to control government affairs. The Council was originally made up of six of Peter’s previous advisors and was dominated by Menshikov, who had helped more than anyone else to build up support for Catherine’s crowning so that he could gain power himself. The Council rendered the Senate powerless and under their control, Peter’s reforms disappeared. Corruption, especially bribery and embezzlement, ran amok throughout the kingdom.
But during her sixteen months on the throne, Catherine continued to remain very popular with the common people due to her own background. She was the physical representation of the “new man”, ordinary people who gained power from Peter because of their aptitude instead of their ancestry. Here was a woman who had been born a peasant and had transformed herself from a lowly maid to the lover and wife of the most powerful man in Russia. Now, she had risen even further and was sitting on the throne herself, despite having no familial claim to the crown or any trace of noble blood in her veins. Not to mention that along with all this, she was also the first female ruler of the Russian Empire. The people loved her for her compassion and generosity, as well as her ability to be just and fair when it came to making political decisions. In public, she gave money to the poor, stood as godmother to peasant infants, and provided for widows. On the throne, she kept her country out of war, reduced military expenditure, and lowered taxes for commoners. During her short but successful reign, she took many lovers and although most people thought she held absolute power, the real authority when it came to ruling was Menshikov, who continued to be Catherine’s greatest asset and ally. She also found her four siblings: Krystyna, Anna, Karol, and Fryderyk, and brought them to Russia where she gave them noble titles.
|Catherine's eldest daughter - |
Grand Duchess Anna Petrovna
(Ivan Nikitin, 1725)
In 1727, Catherine fell ill from tuberculosis and on her deathbed she named her husband’s twelve year-old grandson, Peter Alexeyevich (he was the son of Tsarevich Alexei Petrovich, Peter’s only surviving son by his first wife), as her heir. The young Peter II would be crowned after her death but he would not rule until he reached maturity. Instead, the Empire would be run by the Council and Catherine’s two daughters, Anna and Elizabeth, until Peter was old enough to rule on his own. Catherine I, Empress of Russia, died at the age of forty-three on May 17, 1727 in Saint Petersburg. She was buried in the Peter and Paul Cathedral beside her husband, Peter the Great. The arrogant and controlling Peter II was able to secure full control of the Empire upon his accession, which went against Catherine’s will. However, he did not reign for long, as he died after a little more than two years on the throne at the age of sixteen in 1730 from smallpox. He was succeeded by Anna Ivanovna, the daughter of Peter the Great’s half-brother and co-ruler, Ivan V.
|Catherine's youngest daughter -|
Empress Elizabeth of Russia
(Vigilius Eriksen, 1757)
Catherine’s eldest surviving daughter, Anna Petrovna, was beautiful like her mother, though she resembled her father with her dark eyes and hair. She was intellectual and sensible, but also humble and shy. In 1724, the sixteen year old Anna married the German Charles Frederick, Duke of Holstein-Gottorp, the grandson of King Charles XI of Sweden, who was twenty-four at the time of the wedding. With her marriage to Charles Frederick, both Anna and her husband renounced all rights to the Russian crown for themselves and their descendants (however, Peter created a secret clause in his daughter’s marriage contract saying that any of her sons could claim the throne). In early 1728, the twenty year-old Anna gave birth to her only child – a son named Carl Peter Ulrich, who would become the future Peter III of Russia. Just a few days after giving birth, Anna fell sick with puerperal fever and died on March 4, 1728.
Anna’s younger sister, Elizabeth, is certainly more well-known than her older sibling. The beautiful Elizabeth Petrovna was fair-haired, bright, vivacious, stubborn, domineering, and gifted in almost everything she did. She became the Empress of Russia in her own right, just like her mother, after seizing power in late 1741. Her reign was quite influential in Russian history; the Empire grew tremendously under her rule, politics and the arts flourished, and she didn’t execute a single soul during her time on the throne. Today, she is one of the most popular Russian monarchs to ever wear the crown. Although she never married or had children, it is suspected that she secretly married her Ukrainian-born lover, Count Alexei Razumovsky, sometime during her reign. She ruled for almost two decades until her death on January 5, 1762 at the age of fifty-two.