This is Part 3 of Catherine the Great. Catherine II, for anyone who doesn’t know, is the most known and the longest-ruling female leader of Russia. You can click here for the archives of this miniseries. I hope you enjoy!
As previously discussed, Catherine had a new sense of empowerment lodged within her mind. She became rather obsessed with a thrilling, although seemingly unlikely, thought: that she could get more power than she ever thought possible.
Maybe, perhaps, through a coup. She knew Elizabeth had gained her power through the coup of Ivan IV, who had spent his life in jail since he was a baby. She had, as you may recall, found inspiration in Roman history books through her days locked in a room with Peter III. So, the idea was fresh and rather distinct to Catherine as something relatively possible.
Catherine knew much about herself, as well. She knew people saw her as charming, someone incredibly likeable and charismatic to the people around her. However, she didn’t consider herself manipulative. Her social ranking and clout easily mixed with her likeability and charisma…but the good and weak girl never wins. Thus, she gathered her strength quickly in order to appear as someone she wasn’t thought of.
Most people assumed that, since Catherine had done her job of producing a “legitimate” heir, she wouldn’t really be seen with Peter, her horrendous husband, anymore. Imagine the surprise people had when she entered Peter’s birthday ball in a superb, diamond-encrusted blue dress in an extravagant entrance!
The mother of the heir was more than just the mother of the heir after that; she became a social figure…and with due time she was able to transform herself from something other than her previous personality.
Catherine, after this, made a point of snubbing people she didn’t care for. The girl that was loveable and liked by all, through this act of royal choosing and the fact that she was of such a high position, suddenly found herself making enemies. However, Catherine also rubbed shoulders with some fantastic allies, as well.
Sir Charles Hanbury Williams, a Welsh diplomat who served King George II of Britain as the ambassador to Russia, would be one of those great allies. You see, George II wasn’t having the best of luck in central Europe. Britain held power in a small German territory named Hanover; however, Frederick of Prussia had been scaring the rest of Europe with a political desire to grab all immediate lands surrounding his kingdom. The Seven Years War is basically on the horizon here. England’s royalty was naturally anxious and in need of support. Who better than Russia?
Charles Hanbury Williams made it a priority to find himself sitting next to Catherine. He absolutely loved her mind and common sense, something he found quite rare amongst the Russian royalty as seen through his fowl impressions of Peter III.
Oh, yes, Peter! It is important to note that just about every major political power in Europe knew that Peter III was a rather incompetent and terrible being at this point. In fact, Peter would instantly deflect every question – diplomatic or not – towards his wife, referring to Catherine as “Madame La Resource” and openly stating “I don’t know anything, ask my wife instead.”
Everyone (except for Peter) basically understood that when Peter finally took the throne, he would be ruling in name only, with Catherine calling the shots and ruling from behind the scenes.
So, Charles Hanbury Williams understood he was dealing with the right person in this situation. Catherine appreciated Charles, too. She was able to bounce ideas off of him that she had within her mind for quite some time.
Elizabeth was politically intelligent, but Catherine obviously couldn’t talk about her personal plans with her. Peter on the other hand was an absolute mess. So, Catherine found interest in being able to talk to the British ambassador. She found herself intellectually stimulated, in a sense.
Charles Hanbury Williams made a bit of a deal with Catherine. In exchange for information he could pass along to King George II of Britain, Catherine received loads of money to spend on informants throughout the capital of Russia. This allowed her to receive intelligence that she could have never gotten before.
This is how Catherine began phase one of her plan for power: she started buying the loyalty of key members throughout the military with buckets of money and kindness – something the military officers hadn’t been used to receiving.
She most likely saw this as simply moving chess pieces to work for her side in this whole mess.
While Catherine began working on moving up, Elizabeth found herself in a decline. The aging empress found herself with severe health problems, but managed to hang on with severe paranoia throughout her initial recovery.
Many of Elizabeth’s longtime enemies collaborated with some of Catherine’s newer enemies. They saw this as a great way to bring misfortune to the ruling class. With Elizabeth unhealthy and Peter still unfit to rule, usurpers wanted to bring back Ivan – the baby who had been thrown in (and was still living in) prison by Elizabeth as a baby.
Catherine heard of these plots through her new informants, and she called for Ivan to be brought to the palace to see if he would actually be fit to rule. He was a blundering, drooling idiot. A literal lifetime of growing up in jail wasn’t proper for Ivan, and thus Catherine found it disgusting – and rather laughable – that usurpers only had him as a scapegoat for power.
Charles Hanbury Williams began dealing with other matters, and Catherine began meeting up with his secretary, Stanisław August Poniatowski, in order to relay messages. Catherine began having feelings for the secretary, dressing up in men’s clothes to meet up with him late at night on multiple occasions. Poniatowski met Catherine at the age of 26, and he felt strong relations with her – it might have actually been true affection.
It’s at this point that we realize that Catherine still hasn’t really ever felt, or really been, truly loved prior to this relationship. Her mother Johanna had been despicable; her husband Peter was abhorrently disturbing; her first lover Saltykov had merely used her to advance in his career. Poniatowski felt different to the Prussian-Turned-Russian beauty.
Catherine dedicated most of her days catching up with world politics, perhaps getting prepared to take on the role as an empress upon a world stage. She also started writing her repeatedly aforementioned memoirs at the age of 27. Shortly afterwards, Charles Hanbury Williams was recalled back to Britain. This, unfortunately, meant Poniatowski had to go with him.
Of course, Catherine wanted her lover to return. She used her rising influence and hefty paychecks to have Poniatowski return to the Russian court as an ambassador of Saxony the following January, in 1757. He would only stay within the court for just shy of two years, leaving the Russian capital in August 1758 to move on to greater things.
Peter didn’t trust Poniatowski, and his already damaged mindset mixed with a strengthening desire for power over the country he still despised. He began bragging his might, telling Catherine that WHEN he became ruler of Russia, he’d have her shaved and divorced – extradited back to her own country. It was fairly clear to Catherine, this being the final straw, that Peter was not trustworthy in any sense.
But, Peter was right to not trust Poniatowski. Catherine was pregnant with his child, her second child. Husband number one, boyfriend number two, pregnancy number four, child number two. However, Peter wasn’t a Saint himself. He had a mistress of his own, a rather irritable girl with a personality to match his own.
When Catherine was giving birth to her second child, a little girl who would be named Anna, Peter stumbled into the room. He was drunk, the smell of alcohol heavy on his breath. Catherine, in labor and disgruntled as all Hell, asked him what he was doing there. He replied to her, “Only in times of need do we know our true friends.”
Maybe Peter thought Catherine having another child would make it look as if his marriage wasn’t crumbling. Maybe he thought Catherine giving birth to a second child would make him look great, strong, and macho. Maybe he, in his drunkenness, thought he was “getting it” with both his wife and his mistress.
Ana, much like Paul, was briskly taken away soon after her birth. It was around this time when something in Catherine’s mind snapped. She began thinking not of a coup, but how to implement a coup.
That’s when Empress Elizabeth, despite her failing health, had Catherine hauled out of bed in her night gown to meet with her. Catherine found herself on the opposite side of both Elizabeth and her husband Peter, so she did what any rising woman would do…
…she flung herself at Elizabeth’s feet, begging to be sent back to her family for she had thought of an unforgivable crime.
Elizabeth was astonished to hear this, expecting the rising woman to be argumentative and stubborn yet curious to see her begging for forgiveness and mercy. Rather than instantly throw her out of the court, something she probably had planned on doing beforehand, she basically set her on trial right then and there.
This is when Peter lost his damn mind, and Catherine once again earned brownie points with the aging Empress.
If you recall back to when Catherine was 14 years old, dying of pneumonia before the royal marriage could occur, you remember that she had earned her first brownie points by asking for a Russian Orthodox clergy to stand by her bedside rather than a man of Lutheran faith. This was something that made Elizabeth absolutely adore her. And now, a little over 12 years later, she found herself revamping the love that Elizabeth had for her.
Peter was irrational and loud, hoping to send Catherine away so he could marry his mistress and never have to deal with his Madame La Resource again. While Peter’s shouting got increasingly incoherent, Catherine kept it together. She answered questions rationally, apologized for any and all misconduct, and truly showed herself as a mentally and emotionally sharp individual to Elizabeth.
In short, Catherine truly impressed the Empress, and she was excused. At first, the Duchess was a bit scared. Being excused from the trial didn’t feel right. However, Elizabeth quickly sent word to her that she shouldn’t worry, that she had been forgiven, and that all was well between them. Her sincerest apologies were sent through word of messenger.
Catherine soon learned through her previously paid informants that Elizabeth was going around to her aids and staff shouting that “my niece Catherine is brilliant – she seeks justice and truth. My nephew Peter is an absolute idiot.”
Catherine smiled; she knew she had her favors – and her allies – lined up exactly how she wanted them.
Austria and France both got in contact with the Duchess of Russia, making it clear that they were starting to fear Peter getting the crown. In short, the governments of Austria and France understood that Peter was Prussian at heart, with loving affection towards Frederick of Prussia – who was continuously starting wars in central continental Europe. They feared having the “great and all mighty Russia” controlled by a man like Peter, and they rightfully felt that way.
Catherine smiled once more; the two countries began sending Catherine money. Think of it, at least three countries had secretly sent the Duchess money. First Britain, and now Austria and France.
Yes, she had the external support. But what about internal support? Catherine already had that covered. She had used British money and kindness to win over high ranking military officers, and connections with royal guards proved quite useful to her. Guards that had helped Elizabeth grab power were more than happy to consider doing the same for Catherine.
Elizabeth’s health was beginning to fail again. The years of partying and drinking and eating poorly were beginning to mix with her age and previous health issues. She collapsed, was put on an incredibly strict “daily regimen”, and treated for “hysteria” – possibly menopause.
She suffered dizzy spells, refused medicine, and became so paranoid she forbade anyone from speaking the word “death” in the same room as her. Her doctors fed her laxatives dipped in marmalade and made her drink lime blossom tea at the end of each day in an attempt to get rid of any poisons within her body.
For the last year of her life, the Empress Elizabeth was on a cycle. She would get sick, have a short rebound, get sick again, and have yet another short rebound. Everyone knew she was entering her final days; it was only a matter of when that final day would come.
But, that day did indeed come. Elizabeth died on January 5th, 1762.
Catherine was set! She was ready to go! All she had to do was put her ducks in line and begin the coup to take power before Peter could. It was the perfect time for her to strike and – she didn’t do it. Catherine was pregnant yet again, this time the father being her new (and favorite) lover, Grigory Orlov.
Pregnant, she decided that it wasn’t her time to stage a coup and take over her adopted country. She didn’t have enough time to stage anything, and thus let Peter become emperor despite his behavior at Elizabeth’s funeral. While Catherine prayed in vigil besides Elizabeth’s body for the six weeks it was left out, Peter had danced and skipped and ran to and fro in a manner that was deemed utterly disrespectful.
In fact, Peter had ordered for celebrations of Elizabeth’s death. He proclaimed, rather loudly, “LET US DRINK.”
But, as Catherine was pregnant and the usurpers that weren’t on Catherine’s side only had a man who had lived his entire life in prison as their chance to take power away from the Romanovs, it was Peter III who would become the next ruler of Russia.
The man who hated Russia with a passion – the same man who refused to learn the language, refused to convert to the national religion, and openly had longings for his Prussian homeland – was now the absolute ruler of Russia.
That concludes part three of this special little miniseries about Catherine the Great. You can click here for the archives of this miniseries, which will be updated when the next post is published.