Women Despots of the 18th Century
Catherine I, Empress of Russia, 1683-1727 Catherine’s story is that of a peasant prostitute who becomes the empress of Russia. She was born Martha Skavronska, daughter of a Lithuanian slave. Her illiterate background remained with her to some degree, as even by the time she became empress she still could neither read nor write. An arranged marriage in her village to a young soldier introduced her to the milieu of the military, where she succeeded in working her way up the chain of command by serving as a mistress to higher and higher officials. During a military banquet, while functioning as one of the serving girls, she attracted the attention of the guest of honor, the Tsar, Peter the Great. That night she shared his bed and she was on her way. By about 1704 she was the favored mistress of Peter the Great, who had sent his wife off to be imprisoned in a convent. In this same year she gave birth to the first of a large number of children by the Tsar. It was during the christening ceremony for this male child that Catherine took her new name. The Court was horrified to see this uneducated prostitute becoming more and more influential with Peter, but it was probably her background which made him comfortable. That is to say, she never objected to his having other affairs, as an aristocratic lady might have. It seems clear that she had the ability to soothe and comfort Peter for from this time on he usually insisted she travel with him, even in battle.
When accompanying him on his military campaigns her peasant background allowed her to live like a soldier, sleeping on the ground if necessary, and to be unmoved by the sight of death. During one of periodic battles against Charles XII of Sweden, Catherine was later given credit by Peter for saving his life. Peter’s army facing certain annihilation in a forthcoming engagement, the Tsar had apparently given up hope and closeted himself in his tent and refusing anyone entry. Catherine gathered together her jewels, together with what money she could borrow from the officers, and bribed an official into giving the army an opportunity to escape before the arrival of Charles. Catherine’s confidence in her future improved considerably after the removal of Alexei, son of Peter the Great’s first marriage and heir to the throne, in 1718. This young man, unlike his father as sons sometimes are, had expressed interest in removing many of the reforms of Peter. The father had him imprisoned and tortured until he died, although rumors suggested that Catherine had him poisoned. In 1722 Catherine was proclaimed Peter’s successor in a great ceremony in the Uspensky cathedral in Moscow, wearing a crown with more than two thousand precious stones. Shortly after this, Catherine nearly made a fatal mistake. Catherine had apparently been having a secret affair with one William Mons, brother of one of Peter’s former mistresses. Peter was made aware of the situation and immediately instituted a purge of officials throughout the palace. William, just before he was beheaded, wrote a little poem which seems to confirm his relationship with Catherine. It is love which brings about my downfall There is a fire burns in my breast From which I know that I must die. I know the reason for my downfall: That I have loved Where I should only honor. Catherine survived this purge, although Peter had William’s head preserved in a bottle and placed on a night table in Catherine’s bedroom as a little reminder for her to curb her impulses. Peter seemed to have a fetish for such things. Once
when he and Catherine were touring a collection of antiquities in Berlin he saw a bottle in which a penis was preserved. He ordered Catherine to kiss it, even threatening to behead her if she did not. He calmed down only when the object was given to him as a present to take home. Upon Peter the Great’s death in 1725, Catherine managed to usurp the throne, which should have gone to the grandson of Peter, son of the slain son Alexis. She now began to fully play the role of empress, expanding the number of her servants, wearing more and more luxurious clothes and instituting numerous balls, banquets and public occasions to honor herself. At the same time she was, of course, completely unsuited for leadership by virtue of her background and an apparent sense of inadequacy led her to selfdestruction. Her drinking became very frequent and soon she could not fall asleep sober. Her schedule became unpredictable and all court activities had to await her awakening, which ranged from seven in the morning to five in the afternoon. As time went on she no longer found interest in the Council meetings or in any aspect of the luxury which surrounded her. She put on weight, let her hair grow long and took on the appearance of an elder lady, though only aged 43. She died after a reign of less than 3 years.
Maria Theresa, Empress of Austria and Hungary 1717 -- 1780
Maria Theresa, daughter of the Emperor Charles VI, was attractive, with blue eyes and blond hair, graceful in manner, healthy and energetic. She was a loving wife to her husband, Francis I, Grand Duke of Tuscany, but she never let him forget that it was she, and not he, who had succeeded to the throne of the Holy Roman Empire. They had 16 children, whom she married, where possible, for political reasons. The best known was Marie Antoinette, whom Maria Theresa sent off with the advice to show proper respect for her husband’s grandfather, Louis XV, and politeness to his mistresses. She was such a model of morality that the famous
rake, Casanova, complained that “the bigotry and narrow mindedness of the Empress made life difficult, especially for foreigners.” She was a despot, but a kindly, even motherly despot. Even Voltaire, no friend of monarchy, found, she established her reign in all hearts by an affability and popularity which few of her ancestors had ever possessed; she banished form and restraint from her court...she never refused audience to anyone, and no person ever departed from her presence dissatisfied. Maria Theresa was thoroughly absolutist, but she tried to use her power fairly in governing an empire made up of many lands and peoples. She was able to rule as a despot because most of her subjects found her rule preferable to that of the landed aristocrats. She encouraged reform in the area of education, as did her son, Joseph II, but only so far as it did not weaken her authority. An example of the latter is her forbidding the teaching of English, “because of the dangerous character of this language in respect to its corrupting religious and ethical principles.” She refused to suppress torture for fear of weakening the law. She encouraged some efforts toward religious toleration, but she suppressed the Jesuits and ignored any influence of the pope on her decisions. Her reign was filled with difficult political problems, problems which were perhaps so difficult that no ruler, male or female, would have been able to successfully meet them. Hungary was eager to revolt, the Turks were constantly threatening to attack, England, France and Germany were eager to dismember her empire, her treasury was depleted and her armies were incompetent. Her lifelong goal was to obtain the lost province of Silesia from Frederick the Great. Frederick the Great called her “ambitious and vengeful,” but he also once said, Except the Queen of Hungary [Maria Theresa] and the King of Sardinia [Charles Emmanuel I], whose genius triumphed over a bad education, all the princes of Europe are only illustrious imbeciles. She failed in her quest to gain Silesia, but in signing the Peace of Teschen, averting a war with Frederick, she was satisfied that her work was done. She was the last of the long tradition of rulers who surrounded themselves with elaborate displays of art, architecture and music as an expression of the 4
majesty of their court. The Napoleonic and 19th century wars were so costly as to bring this era to an end. Her palace, Schönbrunn, with over 1,400 rooms and 500 acres of gardens, was surpassed only by Versailles. She did not, however, give much financial support to the fine arts. She did not encourage literature, and it followed that there were no literary salons in Vienna. Her father, the Emperor Charles VI loved music and maintained more than 100 musicians in his court. He was actually a composer and had written an opera for which he conducted the rehearsals himself. His daughter, Maria Theresa, although she sang the principal role in one of these performances, and possessed a number of distinguished composers in her realm, did not have the taste to encourage the highest values in music. In the opinion of one of her subjects, Leopold Mozart, the father of the famous composer, The Viennese public, as a whole, has no love of anything serious or sensible; they cannot even understand it; and their theaters furnish abundant proof that nothing but utter trash, such as dances, burlesques, harlequinades, ghost tricks, and devil’s antics will go down with them. Her taste, conforming to Leopold Mozart’s estimation, may perhaps be seen in an account, by the composer Karl von Dittersdorf, of an entertainment given her by Prince Eugene. Dittersdorf witnessed this scene which took place on an artificial lake, designed by the prince for this performance. The artificial lake was eighty feet broad and a hundred long. From bank to bank, in the center of the lake, two galleries were thrown across; on each of these were seated a number of trumpeters and drummers, with other players on wind instruments; they were heard playing alternate strains. In the lake itself, at a little distance from the shore, there stood, at regular intervals on each side, eight pedestals, painted so as to look like stone, and adorned with bronzed grotesques. On the first two pedestals, two live bears stood opposite each other, dressed as clowns; on the second two, two wild boars, dressed as columbines; on the third, two big goats, dressed as harlequins; and on the fourth were two huge bulldogs. You may fancy the noise made by growling bears, grunting pigs, bleating goats, howling dogs, and the music going on at the same time!
After allowing his guests an interval in which to enjoy the scene, the prince waved his handkerchief as a signal, and the show began. Two gondolas emerged at either end of the gallery, and made towards the cottage; each was manned by four gondoliers, dressed in Venetian fashion. One of them sat on the beak of the vessel, with a bundle of spears, lances, and similar weapons, laid crosswise before him; two others rowed, and the steerer, turning the gondola wherever he chose, sat behind them. These two gondolas advanced, circling in different ways round the pedestals; they were afterwards joined by two others, then by two more, and then the last two. The eight went through their maneuvers with such accuracy, that no ballet master, marshaling his danseuses, could have improved upon them. When they had gone their rounds, they were ranged face to face, and a tournament began, in which each water-knight, seated on the beak, broke from four to five lances; then they went once more round the pedestals on which the comic actors stood. At one and the same moment, each knight, armed with a staff, struck at one of the grotesque masks, a spring gave way under the blow, and a trap-door fell. Numbers of white ducks and geese, and one swan as well, were concealed in each of the hollow pedestals, and you may fancy the alacrity with which these winged creatures took to their native element, though a marionette rode upon each of them. These marionettes were various figures, proportioned to the size of the birds which they bestrode -- clowns, harlequins, Anselmos, Doctors, Leanders, Pasquins, Scaramouches, and other Carnival mummers. A fray ensued, and the knights seized their clubs and threatened one another. The gondolas darted about in studied disorder. When one collided with with another, the knights dipped their clubs, which were hand-syringes, into the lake, and squirted the enemies. Whenever they neared a pedestal, the creature on it got the whole benefit of a shower bath, and the animals loudly resented the rudeness of the whole proceedings. The effect on the audience may be imagined, for orders had been given to the musicians in either band to blow in any key they chose. Directly after the skirmish had begun one trumpeter blew a shrill blast in D, whilst another, with the aid of a crook, did the same in C, and another in E la fa. Some of the drummers had tuned up, others had tuned down; oboists, clarinettists, bassoonists followed suit. What an infernal discord it was! The beasts growled, the ducks and geese quacked and spluttered, coming into collision with the moving gondolas every moment, and the three thousand spectators roared with laughter. Show me the hypochondriac who could remain unmoved by such a spectacle! As Maria Theresa lay on her deathbed, her son Joseph said to her, “You are not at ease.” Her answer was the final words she spoke: “I am sufficiently at my ease to die.”
Anna Ivonovna, Empress of Russia, reigned 1730 --1740)
Anna Ivonovna, Empress of Russia was the first of several czarinas who ruled Russia during the 18th century after the death of Peter II. The ruling Council gave her a document of “Conditions” to sign before making her empress, which she signed -- and then executed those who drew up the conditions. She gave three hours per day to government and devoted the rest of her time to her lovers. Under Anna Russia began the first of its never-ending attempts to conquer the Turks. After a series of battles, led by Münnich, the efforts at this time failed. She signed a peace treaty which had cost 100,000 men.
Marie Louise of Parma, 18th Century
Marie Louise of Parma was the wife of Charles IV of Spain, who ascended the throne in 1788. Charles, being weak and timid and with little skill in affairs of state, took his wife’s suggestion that he appoint a common man as prime minister, in order that he not have to compete with someone too brilliant and ambitious. Marie Louise had someone in mind, of course, a handsome member of the king’s bodyguard, named Manuel Godoy, with whom she wanted to have an affair. Thus, Marie Louise was able to run the government by channeling orders through her incompetent lover. Napoleon threatened to reveal the whole truth to the king, and thereby gained humiliating concessions from Godoy and Spain.