Peter the Great - Jacob Abbott

The Empress Catharine

It was about the year 1690 that Peter the Great commenced his reign, and he died in 1725, as will appear more fully in the sequel of this volume. Thus the duration of the reign was thirty-five years. The wars between Russia and Sweden occupied principally the early part of the reign through a period of many years. The battle of Pultowa, by which the Swedish invasion of the Russian territories was repelled, was fought in 1709, nearly twenty years after the Czar ascended the throne.

During the period while the Czar was thus occupied in his mortal struggle with the King of Sweden, there appeared upon the stage, in connection with him, a lady, who afterward became one of the most celebrated personages of history. This lady was the Empress Catharine. The character of this lady, the wonderful and romantic incidents of her life, and the great fame of her exploits, have made her one of the most celebrated personages of history. We can, however, here only give a brief account of that portion of her life which was connected with the history of Peter.

Catharine was born in a little village near the town of Marienburg, in Livonia. Her parents were in very humble circumstances, and they both died when she was a little child, leaving her in a very destitute and friendless condition. The parish clerk, who was the teacher of a little school in which perhaps she had been a pupil—for she was then four or five years old—felt compassion for her, and took her home with him to his own house. He was the more disposed to do this as Catharine was a bright child, full of life and activity, and, at the same time, amiable and docile in disposition, so that she was easily governed.

After Catharine had been some time at the house of the clerk, a certain Dr. Gluck, who was the minister of Marienburg, happening to be on a visit to the clerk, saw her and heard her story. The minister was very much pleased with the appearance and manners of the child, and he proposed that the clerk should give her up to him. This the clerk was willing to do, as his income was very small, and the addition even of such a child to his family of course some-what increased his expenses. Besides, he knew that it would be much more advantageous for Catharine, for the time being, and also much more conducive to her future success in life, to be brought up in the minister's family at Marienberg than in his own humble home in the little village. So Catharine went to live with the minister.

Here she soon made herself a great favorite. She was very intelligent and active, and very ambitious to learn whatever the minister's wife was willing to teach her. She also took great interest in making herself useful in every possible way, and displayed in her household avocations, and in all her other duties, a sort of womanly energy which was quite, remarkable in one of her years. She learned to knit, to spin, and to sew, and she assisted the minister's wife very much in these and similar occupations. She had learned to read in her native tongue at the clerk's school, but now she conceived the idea of learning the German language. She devoted herself to this task with great assiduity and success, and as soon as she had made such progress as to be able to read in that language, she spent all her leisure time in perusing the German books which she found in the minister's library.

Years passed away, and Catharine grew up to be a young woman, and then a certain young man, a subaltern officer in the Swedish army—for this was at the time when Livonia was in possession of the Swedes—fell in love with her. The story was, that Catharine one day, in some way or other, fell into the hands of two Swedish soldiers, by whom she would probably have been greatly maltreated; but the officer, coming by at that time, rescued her and sent her safe to Dr. Gluck. The officer had lost one of his arms in some battle, and was covered with the scars of other wounds; but he was a very generous and brave man, and was highly regarded by all who knew him. When he offered Catharine his hand, she was strongly induced by her gratitude to him to accept it, but she said she must ask the minister's approval of his proposal, for he had been a father to her, she said, and she would take no important step without his consent.

The minister, after suitable inquiry respecting the officer's character and prospects, readily gave his consent, and so it was settled that Catharine should be married.

Now it happened that these occurrences took place not very long after the war broke out between Sweden and Russia, and almost immediately after Catharine's marriage—some writers say on the very same day of the wedding, and others on the day following—a Russian army came suddenly up to Marienburg, took possession of the town, and made a great many of the inhabitants prisoners. Catharine herself was among the prisoners thus taken. The story was, that in the confusion and alarm she hid herself with others in an oven, and was found by the Russian soldiers there, and carried off as a valuable prize.

What became of the bridegroom is not certainly known. He was doubtless called suddenly to his post when the alarm was given of the enemy's approach, and a great many different stories were told in respect to what afterward befell him. One thing is certain, and that is, that his young bride never saw him again.

Catharine, when she found herself separated from her husband and shut up a helpless prisoner with a crowd of other wretched and despairing captives, was overwhelmed with grief at the sad reverse of fortune that had befallen her. She had good reason not only to mourn for the happiness which she had lost, but also to experience very anxious and gloomy forebodings in respect to what was before her, for the main object of the Russians in making prisoners of the young and beautiful women which they found in the towns that they conquered, was to send them to Turkey, and to sell them there as slaves.

Catharine was, however, destined to escape this dreadful fate. One of the Russian generals, in looking over the prisoners, was struck with her appearance, and with the singular expression of grief and despair which her countenance displayed. He called her to him and asked her some questions; and he was more impressed by the intelligence and good sense which her answers evinced than he had been by the beauty of her countenance. He bid her quiet her fears, promising that he would himself take care of her. He immediately ordered some trusty men to take her to his tent, where there were some women who would take charge of and protect her.

These women were employed in various domestic occupations in the service of the general. Catharine began at once to interest herself in these employments, and to do all in her power to assist in them; and at length, as one of the writers who gives an account of these transactions goes on to say, "the general, finding Catharine very proper to manage his household affairs, gave her a sort of authority and inspection over these women and over the rest of the domestics, by whom she soon came to be very much beloved by her manner of using them when she instructed them in their duty. The general said himself that he never had been so well served as since Catharine had been with him.

"It happened one day that Prince Menzikoff, who was the general's commanding officer and patron, saw Catharine, and, observing something very extraordinary in her air and behavior, asked the general who she was and in what condition she served him. The general related to him her story, taking care, at the same time, to do justice to the merit of Catharine. The prince said that he was himself very ill served, and had occasion for just such a person about him. The general replied that he was under too great obligations to his highness the prince to refuse him any thing that he asked. He immediately called Catharine into his presence, and told her that that was Prince Menzikoff, and that he had occasion for a servant like herself, and that he was able to be a much better friend to her than he himself could be, and that he had too much kindness for her to prevent her receiving such a piece of honor and good fortune.

"Catharine answered only with a profound courtesy, which showed, if not her consent to the change proposed, at least her conviction that it was not then in her power to refuse the offer that was made to her. In short, Prince Menzikoff took her with him, or she went to him the same day."

Catharine remained in the service of the prince for a year or two, and was then transferred from the household of the prince to that of the Czar almost precisely in the same way in which she had been resigned to the prince by the general. The Czar saw her one day while he was at dinner with the prince, and he was so much pleased with her appearance, and with the account which the prince gave him of her character and history, that he wished to have her himself; and, however reluctant the prince may have been to lose her, he knew very well that there was no alternative for him but to give his consent. So Catharine was transferred to the household of the Czar.

She soon acquired a great ascendency over the Czar, and in process of time she was privately married to him. This private marriage took place in 1707. For several years afterward the marriage was not publicly acknowledged; but still Catharine's position was well understood, and her power at court, as well as her personal influence over her husband, increased continually.

Catharine sometimes accompanied the emperor in his military campaigns, and at one time was the means, it is thought, of saving him from very imminent danger. It was in the year 1711. The Czar was at that time at war with the Turks, and he had advanced into the Turkish territory with a small, but very compact and well-organized army. The Turks sent out a large force to meet him, and at length, after various marchings and manœuvrings, the Czar found himself surrounded by a Turkish force three times as large as his own. The Russians fortified their camp, and the Turks attacked them. The latter attempted for two or three successive days to force the Russian lines, but without success, and at length the grand vizier, who was in command of the Turkish troops, finding that he could not force his enemy to quit their intrenchments, determined to starve them out; so he invested the place closely on all sides. The Czar now gave himself up for lost, for he had only a very small stock of provisions, and there seemed no possible way of escape from the snare in which he found himself involved. Catharine was with her husband in the camp at this time, having had the courage to accompany him in the expedition, notwithstanding its extremely dangerous character, and the story is that she was the means of extricating him from his hazardous position by dextrously bribing the vizier.

The way in which she managed the affair was this. She arranged it with the emperor that he was to propose terms of peace to the vizier, by which, on certain conditions, he was to be allowed to retire with his army. Catharine then secretly made up a very valuable present for the vizier, consisting of jewels, costly decorations, and other such valuables belonging to herself, which, as was customary in those times, she had brought with her on the expedition, and also a large sum of money. This present she contrived to send to the vizier at the same time with the proposals of peace made by the emperor. The vizier was extremely pleased with the present, and he at once agreed to the conditions of peace, and thus the Czar and all his army escaped the destruction which threatened them.

The vizier was afterward called to account for having thus let off his enemies so easily when he had them so completely in his power; but he defended himself as well as he could by saying that the terms on which he had made the treaty were as good as could be obtained in any way, adding, hypocritically, that "God commands us to pardon our enemies when they ask us to do so, and humble themselves before us."

In the mean time, years passed away, and the emperor and Catharine lived very happily together, though the connection which subsisted between them, while it was universally known, was not openly or publicly recognized. In process of time they had two or three children, and this, together with the unassuming but yet faithful and efficient manner in which Catharine devoted herself to her duties as wife and mother, strengthened the bond which bound her to the Czar, and at length, in the year 1712, Peter determined to place her before the world in the position to which he had already privately and unofficially raised her, by a new and public marriage.

It was not pretended, however, that the Czar was to be married to Catharine now for the first time, but the celebration was to be in honor of the nuptials long before performed. Accordingly, in the invitations that were sent out, the expression used to denote the occasion on which the company was to be convened was "to celebrate his majesty's old wedding." The place where the ceremony was to be performed was St. Petersburg, for this was now many years after St. Petersburg had been built.

Empress Catherine


Very curious arrangements were made for the performance of this extraordinary ceremony. The Czar appeared in the dress and character of an admiral of the fleet, and the other officers of the fleet, instead of the ministers of state and great nobility, were made most prominent on the occasion, and were appointed to the most honorable posts. This arrangement was made partly, no doubt, for the purpose of doing honor to the navy, which the Czar was now forming, and increasing the consideration of those who were connected with it in the eyes of the country. As Catharine had no parents living, it was necessary to appoint persons to act in their stead "to give away the bride." It was to the vice admiral and the rear admiral of the fleet that the honor of acting in this capacity was assigned. They represented the bride's father, while Peter's mother, the empress dowager, and the lady of the vice admiral of the fleet represented her mother.

Two of Catharine's own daughters were appointed bridemaids. Their appointment was, however, not much more than an honorary one, for the children were very young, one of them being five and the other only three years old. They appeared for a little time pending the ceremony, and then, becoming tired, they were taken away, and their places supplied by two young ladies of the court, nieces of the Czar.

The wedding ceremony itself was performed at seven o'clock in the morning, in a little chapel belonging to Prince Menzikoff, and before a small company, no person being present at that time except those who had some official part to perform. The great wedding party had been invited to meet at the Czar's palace later in the day. After the ceremony had been performed in the chapel, the emperor and empress went from the chapel into Menzikoff's palace, and remained there until the time arrived to repair to the palace of the Czar. Then a grand procession was formed, and the married pair were conducted through the streets to their own palace with great parade. As it was winter, the bridal party were conveyed in sleighs instead of carriages. These sleighs, or sledges as they were called, were very elegantly decorated, and were drawn by six horses each. The procession was accompanied by a band of music, consisting of trumpets, kettle-drums, and other martial instruments. The entertainment at the palace was very splendid, and the festivities were concluded in the evening by a ball. The whole city, too, was lighted up that night with bonfires and illuminations.

Three years after this public solemnization of the marriage the empress gave birth to a son. Peter was perfectly overjoyed at this event. It is true that he had one son already, who was born of his first wife, who was called the Czarewitz, and whose character and melancholy history will be the subject of the next chapter. But this was the first son among the children of Catharine. She had had only daughters before. It was in the very crisis of the difficulties which the Czar had with his eldest son, and when he was on the point of finally abandoning all hope of ever reclaiming him from his vices and making him a fit inheritor of the crown, that this child of Catharine's was born. These circumstances, which will be explained more fully in the next chapter, gave great political importance to the birth of Catharine's son, and Peter caused the event to be celebrated with great public rejoicings. The rejoicings were continued for eight days, and at the baptism of the babe, two kings, those of Denmark and of Prussia, acted as godfathers. The name given to the child was Peter Petrowitz.

The baptism was celebrated with the greatest pomp, and it was attended with banqueting and rejoicings of the most extraordinary character. Among other curious contrivances were two enormous pies, one served in the room of the gentlemen and the other in that of the ladies; for, according to the ancient Russian custom on such occasions, the sexes were separated, at the entertainments, tables being spread for the ladies and for the gentlemen in different halls. From the ladies' pie there stepped out, when it was opened, a young dwarf, very small, and clothed in a very slight and very fantastic manner. The dwarf brought out with him from the pie some wine-glasses and a bottle of wine. Taking these in his hand, he walked around the table drinking to the health of the ladies, who received him wherever he came with screams of mingled surprise and laughter. It was the same in the gentlemen's apartment, except that the dwarf which appeared before the company there was a female.

The birth of this son formed a new and very strong bond of attachment between Peter and Catharine, and it increased very much the influence which she had previously exerted over him. The influence which she thus exercised was very great, and it was also, in the main, very salutary. She alone could approach the Czar in the fits of irritation and anger into which he often fell when any thing displeased him, and sometimes, when his rage and fury were such that no one else would have dared to come near, Catharine knew how to quiet and calm him, and gradually bring him back again to reason. She had great power over him, too, in respect to the nervous affection—the convulsive twitchings of the head and face—to which he was subject. Indeed, it was said that the soothing and mysterious influence of her gentle nursing in allaying these dreadful spasms, and relieving the royal patient from the distress which they occasioned, gave rise to the first feeling of attachment which he formed for her, and which led him, in the end, to make her his wife.

Catharine often exerted the power which she acquired over her husband for noble ends. A great many persons, who from time to time excited the displeasure of the Czar, were rescued from undeserved death, and sometimes from sufferings still more terrible than death, by her interposition. In many ways she softened the asperities of Peter's character, and lightened the heavy burden of his imperial despotism. Every one was astonished at the ascendency which she acquired over the violent and cruel temper of her husband, and equally pleased with the good use which she made of her power.

There was not, however, always perfect peace between Catharine and her lord. Catharine was compelled sometimes to endure great trials. On one occasion the Czar took it into his head, with or without cause, to feel jealous. The object of his jealousy was a certain officer of his court whose name was De la Croix. Peter had no certain evidence, it would seem, to justify his suspicions, for he said nothing openly on the subject, but he at once caused the officer to be beheaded on some other pretext, and ordered his head to be set up on a pole in a great public square in Moscow. He then took Catharine out into the square, and conveyed her to and fro in all directions across it, in order that she might see the head in every point of view. Catharine understood perfectly well what it all meant, but, though thunderstruck and overwhelmed with grief and horror at the terrible spectacle, she succeeded in maintaining a perfect self-control through the whole scene, until, at length, she was released, and allowed to return to her apartment, when she burst into tears, and for a long time could not be comforted or calmed.

With the exception of an occasional outbreak like this, the Czar evinced a very strong attachment to his consort, and she continued to live with him a faithful and devoted wife for nearly twenty years; from the period of her private marriage, in fact, to the death of her husband. During all this time she was continually associated with him not only in his personal and private, but also in his public avocations and cares. She accompanied him on his journeys, she aided him with her counsels in all affairs of state. He relied a great deal on her judgment in all questions of policy, whether internal or external; and he took counsel with her in all matters connected with his negotiations with foreign states, with the sending and receiving of embassies, the making of treaties with them, and even, when occasion occurred, in determining the question of peace or war.

And yet, notwithstanding the lofty qualities of statesmanship that Catharine thus displayed in the counsel and aid which she rendered her husband, the education which she had received while at the minister's in Marienburg was so imperfect that she never learned to write, and whenever, either during her husband's life or after his death, she had occasion to put her signature to letters or documents of any kind, she did not attempt to write the name herself, but always employed one of her daughters to do it for her.

At length, toward the close of his reign, Peter, having at that time no son to whom he could intrust the government of his empire after he was gone, caused Catharine to be solemnly crowned as empress, with a view of making her his successor on the throne. But before describing this coronation it is necessary first to give an account of the circumstances which led to it, by relating the melancholy history of Alexis, Peter's oldest son.