Sunday, July 17, 2011

'Dear Katya': Catherine Pavlovna of Russia

Grand Duchess Catherine Pavlovna of Russia,
Duchess of Oldenburg
Queen of Wurttemberg

"Catherine had eyes of fire and a figure of demi-goddess." 
- Nikolai M. Karamzin

Grand Duchess Catherine Pavlovna of Russia or "Katya" as she was affectionately called by her family, was the favorite sister of Alexander I and one of the few people he trusted implicitly. Elegantly beautiful, vivacious, highly-intelligent and ambitious, Catherine was one of the brightest stars in the Russian court. She exercised a considerable moral influence to Alexander and he kept up a detailed and continual correspondence with her over the years. Their 10 year age gap and their differences in personality didn't prevent these two people to become deeply attach to each other. Alexander was calm, humble and reserved. Catherine was whimsical, dramatic and impulsive. She had a fiery nature that Alexander found irresistible, and he adored and worshiped her, so much so that some people in the Russian court even suspected that they were having an incestuous relationship. But I strongly doubt that such a thing between Alexander and Catherine ever existed. They were simply too devoted to each other.

Catherine Pavlovna (or Ekaterina Pavlovna, the Russian equivalent of her name) was the fourth daughter of Paul I of Russia and Maria Feodorovna. She was born on 10 May 1788 in Tsarskoe Selo and was named in honor of her formidable grandmother, Empress Catherine II. Her birth was a disappointment to her parents, who were expecting a son, but the Empress was delighted with this little baby girl who was named after her. She wrote: "Yesterday, the grand duchess gave birth to a daughter that received my name - Catherine. Mother and daughter are healthy now."

Catherine's education began under the supervision of the Empress, and Countess Lieven became her governess. After the Empress's death, Maria Feodorovna continued the supervision of her daughter's education. Her education was "rigid" and Catherine grew up to be a witty and very intelligent woman, with a good sense of independence and individuality. In addition to French, German and English, Catherine was also fluent and wrote well in Russian - something that was rare for Russian women of high rank during those times. She was well-read in mathematics, economics, politics, history and geography. She was also taught in music and painting, and she was engaged in engraving. By the age of 16, her beauty became more noticeable. Her character became even more lively and sociable, and shyness was alien to her. But it was her eyes that greatly stood out, as the historian Nikolai Karamzin recalled: "Catherine had eyes of fire..." With her remarkable beauty, slender figure, brilliant mind and royal descent, Catherine was a much sought-after bride. The Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna wanted her daughter to be Empress of Austria, and this prospect was shared by the ambitious Catherine herself. However, Alexander I, who wanted a fine husband for his favorite sister, would not hear of it, since he thought that the Emperor Franz was too old for her, feeble and weak-willed. Furthermore, Alexander never forgot the unhappy life of his sister Alexandra in the Austrian court, which eventually resulted to her premature death.

Catherine on the other hand, was very keen to marry Emperor Franz and live in Austria. She wrote to her brother that even though Franz was already 40 years old, she didn't find that a problem, adding: "I understand that he is no Adonis, but he is a decent man, enough to make a happy family life." However, nothing came out from this possible marriage with Austria (due to the strong opposition of Alexander I), and soon Catherine, by this time already 20 years old, finds herself still unmarried.

In the summer of 1807, Alexander received a proposal from Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon wished to strengthen France's ties to Russia and he thought about marrying one of Alexander's sisters who was of marriageable age - Catherine. Alexander was shocked and he communicated this to his mother. The Dowager Empress was horrified; she didn't want any of her daughters to become wife of a "tyrant", as she called Napoleon. Catherine was likewise averse of Napoleon and she said "I would rather marry the last Russian stoker than that Corsican." Hastily, the Dowager Empress arranged for the meeting and subsequent betrothal of Catherine to Prince George of Oldenburg. They were married on 18 April 1809 when Catherine was already 21 years old. The tragic short life of Catherine's older sisters, Alexandra and Elena, who both died in childbirth, made the Dowager Empress determine not to marry off her remaining daughters in such early age.

Although it was said that Prince George of Oldenburg was neither handsome nor imposing, he was an honest and respectable man. Catherine became deeply attached to him, and felt happy and contented with her married life. Their honeymoon was spent in Pavlovsk and eventually Alexander gave them the Anichkov Palace in St. Petersburg. Later, Prince George was made Governor-General of Tver and he and Catherine moved there in August 1809. Catherine gave balls in the palace, festivities, illuminations and fireworks. She changed "the quiet and simple provincial life" in Tver. She made every effort to "give this dear place a piece of St. Petersburg". She became involved in charity, and, with a great sense of duty, adopted many public causes. According to the French Ambassador Joseph de Maiste: "The life of the Grand Duchess Catherine in Tver is truly astonishing. In the evening, her home is like a monastery. A famous writer, Mr. Karamzin, reads her lectures in Russian history... The Princess teaches Russian language to her husband and serves as a mediator between him and the common people. Her kindness and courtesy are unparalleled. If I were a painter, I would send a picture of her eyes, that you may have seen her good nature... And this young princess was high in favor to her brother [Alexander], who lavishes her...with much attention. She is very well-educated and very intelligent. Hers is a mind that can foresee a lot and take the most decisive measures."

In 8 August 1810, Catherine gave birth to her first son, Frederick Paul Alexander. And two years later, another son, Peter. During these times, Catherine exercised considerable influence to Alexander. He took her advice concerning domestic and foreign policy. She even showed consideration to his mistress, the wily and astute Maria Narishkina, which touched Alexander deeply. During the war with Napoleon, amidst the general confusion and distress, Catherine showed a remarkable energy and initiative. She was tireless in her every effort and Alexander admired her more than ever. Unfortunately, on December 1812, before the expulsion of the French troops from Russia, her husband Prince George fell ill and died of typhus. Catherine was devasted and wrote to Alexander: "I lost with him all." She felt her loss so much that for weeks, she refused to leave her room, crying and lamenting. Her family and her friends became so concerned about her that they feared her sanity, and persuaded her to travel around Europe to take her mind off things.

The widowed Catherine traveled extensively abroad, writing numerous letters to her mother. While staying in England, she met the Prince Regent, and he proposed to her. Catherine was shocked and refused his proposal. Thereafter, she refused ever meeting him again. Because of her behavior, which provoked the outrage of the royal court and the British public, relations between Russia and Britain became even more strained.

While staying in England, Catherine met her cousin, Crown Prince William of Wurttemberg. William was married to the gentle Princess Caroline of Bavaria but their marriage was deeply unhappy and remained childless. They divorced in 1814. And now William, lonely and very unhappy, fell in love with his charming and beautiful cousin. Catherine reciprocated his feelings, and finally William proposed to her. In January 1816, they were married. Soon, the couple moved to Stuttgart. Months later, King Frederick of Wurttemberg fell gravely ill. Despite the fact that Catherine was in the last month of her pregnancy, she was almost always near the patient and taking care of him. The king died and in the same day, Catherine gave birth to a daughter. She was named Marie Frederika Charlotte. William and Catherine were now the King and Queen of Wurttemberg.

Catherine's life in Wurttemberg didn't start off very well. She had to deal with difficult in-laws and the poor financial state of the kingdom. But, having a strong character and keeping in mind that she was a Russian grand duchess, she was able to install herself perfectly in her position, and gained the respect of the people. Just like what she did in Tver, she continued her efforts to the benefit of her new country. She became involved in charity and promoted many social causes, such as establishing schools, orphanages and workhouses, and helping farmers and horticulturists to better cultivate the land. Unfortunately, Catherine's life in Wurttemberg would be cut short.

In early 1819, less than three years in her adopted homeland, Catherine fell gravely ill with erysipelas which later complicated by pneumonia. She died in the morning of 9 January 1819. Her husband, who loved her and was greatly devoted to her, was devastated, and her children were deeply affected by the death of their mother. When Empress Maria Feodorovna received the news that her daughter had died, she burst into uncontrollable sobs and cried "No, it's not true! Dear Katya is not dead, it's a lie!"

To house the remains of her precious wife, the inconsolable William commissioned the Italian architect Giovanni Salucci to build a mausoleum at the peak of the Wurttemberg Hill in Stuttgart.
Catherine was outspoken, exuberant and had a very strong personality, but she also possessed great kindness, intellectual prowess and a non-judgmental approach towards people. She was devoted to Russia, and after marrying William, to Wurttemberg, which welfare was of an utmost important for her. She was a loving and devoted wife and mother, and the people of Wurttemberg greatly mourn the premature loss of their beloved Queen.

The Countess Lieven wrote about Catherine as Queen of Wurttemberg:
"I've never met a woman who was so much afflicted with the need to move, act, play a role and overshadow others. She has charming eyes and manners, confident gait, a proud and graceful posture. Although her features were not classic, her striking fresh complexion, bright eyes and gorgeous hair captivated everyone. She knew perfectly well all the rules of decency and was blessed with strong feelings of the sublime. She spoke briefly but eloquently, her tone was always commanding."
Maid-of-honor to the Empress Elizabeth Alexeievna, Countess Edling, wrote about Catherine:
"Ekaterina Pavlovna, sister of the emperor, later Queen of Wurttemberg, whose greatness of heart was equal to that of her mind, could charm any and dominate everyone who surround her. Beautiful and fresh as Hebe, she was able, had a charming smile, and eyes that penetrate into one's soul. Her eyes sparkled with wit and gaiety... [Her] lively conversation exuded her peculiar charm. The family adored her and she felt that by staying in Russia, she could play the most brilliant role!"

Read more about Catherine's sisters:

Alexandra | ElenaMaria 


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