Crowned in a Far Country: Portraits of Eight Royal Brides

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9780743296373: Crowned in a Far Country: Portraits of Eight Royal Brides

Though of eminent birth and status in their own right, the women of Crowned in a Far Country all left the countries of their birth to marry heirs to great thrones. They all shared an inbred sense of duty and a genuine desire to see it performed. None fought against what she saw as her destiny but only sought to fulfill it. Some were passionate, others less so. Some were good wives; some were caring mothers. They were all catalysts, the pivots of their worlds for a time.

More than just a window into the politics and power brokering of royal marriage, Crowned in a Far Country charts the transformations of privileged princesses into women of power and historical importance.

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About the Author:

Her Royal Highness Princess Michael of Kent is the author of two previous books, Crowned in a Far Country: Portraits of Eight Royal Brides and Cupid and the King: Five Royal Paramours. For more than ten years, the Princess has pursued a successful career lecturing on historical topics. She lives with her husband, Prince Michael of Kent, in Kensington Palace in London and in their seventeenth-century manor house in Gloucestershire, England.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One

Catherine the Great

Princess of Anhalt-Zerbst/Empress of All the Russias

1729-1796

Peter the Great gave the Russians bodies;

Catherine gave them souls.

-- The poet Kherasov

Germany

Catherine the Great was born Sophia Friederika Augusta, Princess of Anhalt-Zerbst, on April 21, 1729, in Stettin, Prussia. King Frederick William of Prussia had recently acquired from Sweden this chilly gray town at the mouth of the River Oder, planning to develop it as a port for Berlin. Sophie's father, Christian August von Anhalt-Zerbst, had command of the garrison there. A man of solid virtues -- a sense of duty, order, discipline, thrift, integrity, piety and a totally practical approach to life -- he was promoted to governor of the town, and the family moved into the forbidding ducal castle, a sixteenth-century building of Harz granite. Here, in this cheerless town swept by winds from the Baltic, Sophie spent her first thirteen years.

In 1742, Christian August succeeded his cousin as ruler of Anhalt-Zerbst, 150 miles southeast of Stettin, in the heart of Germany. Since the house of Anhalt did not conform to the laws of primogeniture, he was obliged to share the sovereignty with his brother. Catherine wryly observed in her memoirs, "All Anhalt princes had the right to share; they have shared so much that there is almost nothing left to share."

Anhalt-Zerbst, though an independent principality for over 500 years, possessed no more than 20,000 inhabitants. Yet, as a foreign visitor observed at the time, "They live in a land of milk and honey; indeed these were the only people, considered as a state, whom before or since that time I have ever heard talk without complaining." The rich soil produced wheat, hops, potatoes, flax and tobacco. Deer and wild boar roamed the forests and the rivers were well stocked with salmon. The silk brocades produced in the principality, often flowered in gold or silver on a clear ground, were considered among the finest in Europe. Zerbst was also famous for its brewery and produced excellent beer. Christian August was devoted to the welfare of his people and greatly impressed his daughter as a ruler.

As a result of her father's new status, Sophie was now heiress in her own right to the domain of Jever in Lower Saxony. Although she was always described as coming from modest origins in comparison with the grandeur she was to come to know, Sophie's background was not without a certain style and glamour. Three or four months of the year, from her eighth to her fifteenth year, Sophie accompanied her mother to stay with the Duchess of Brunswick-Luneburg, where they attended balls, operas, hunts and dinners, met countless foreign visitors and took part in the etiquette of a well-organized court. Nor was her mother without useful family connections. The daughter of the Lutheran bishop of Lübeck, she was a member of the younger branch of the ducal house of Holstein and her brother had been chosen to marry the daughter of Peter the Great of Russia, the Grand Duchess Elizabeth. Although he had died before the marriage took place, Elizabeth never forgot her tall, handsome fiancé, and Sophie's mother never let pass any chance of fostering this relationship with the woman who, in 1740, was crowned Empress Elizabeth of All the Russias.

This was an era when every European court tried to imitate Versailles. Sophie was given a French Huguenot governess, Babet Cardel, who succeeded in inspiring her charge with a love of French language, drama and literature. Even when she was Empress of Russia, Sophie took pride in signing her letters to Diderot and Voltaire "the pupil of Babet Cardel." She remembered Babet as "patient, gentle, gay and lovable," a teacher with "a natural spiritual quality." Later, when she wanted people to forget that she was a German, she would speak to them in French.

As a girl Sophie displayed the same solid, serious virtues as her father along with the far more superficial flair and charm of her mother. Little Sophie was intelligent, lively, gay, mischievous, boisterous, relatively healthy and impudent, as well as having an instinctive love of learning and a thirst for knowledge. Although considered too thin, she always carried herself well, giving the impression of being above medium height. She possessed a natural sense of style and elegance, a mass of dark chestnut hair, sparkling blue eyes and a captivating smile with perfect teeth. Describing herself as a girl, she recalled, "I was never beautiful -- but I pleased."

Few could have forecast the extraordinary future ahead. Baroness von Printzen, lady-in-waiting at the tiny court of Anhalt-Zerbst, who had been present at Sophie's birth, had watched her grow up and became her trusted friend, wrote, "I would never have guessed that she would become as famous as she did," adding that "Only through error, whimsy or flippancy could she have been called outstanding or brilliant.

"In a word," she observed candidly, "I got the impression of quite an ordinary person." But what the baroness also noticed was Sophie's ambition, noting that even as a girl she had a serious, cold and calculating mind. And as Sophie wrote of herself at this time, "I used to tell myself that to be 'something' in this world, one needs the qualities which this 'something' demands. Let us look seriously at our little inner self. Do we have these qualities or do we not? If we do not, we will develop them." Babet Cardel described her as an esprit gauche (perverse spirit), a mind ripe for an outside influence to give it direction. That influence was to be Russia.

The Journey

On New Year's Day 1744, a letter arrived in Zerbst marked "Secret and Confidential." Inside was an invitation from the Tsarina Elizabeth Petrovna to Her Highness the Princess Johanna Elizabeth and her daughter to come to Russia as soon as possible. Although no reason for this request was given, Sophie's mother knew exactly what it meant. Elizabeth had never married and was looking for a bride for her nephew and heir. A second letter confirmed her judgment. It came from King Frederick in Berlin and urged her to accept the tsarina's invitation in the interests of Prussia.

Sophie's father had been completely excluded from these intrigues. As a loyal subject he offered no opposition to the plan, yet it was with genuine regret that he allowed his daughter to leave -- the fate of German princesses married in Russia in the past was not the future he wished for Sophie.

The princess and her party travelled incognito in the depths of winter, and there was little to alleviate either the boredom or the discomfort of the journey. It took six weeks, and Sophie long remembered her feet swelling so much that she had to be lifted in and out of the carriage. Often they travelled at night, and when they did stop at an inn it was rarely better than peasant lodgings, with little heat and no privacy.

But as soon as they reached Russia, the nightmare was over. At Riga, their incognito discarded, they received a royal welcome. The empress had sent a squadron of cavalry to escort them, grand lords and ladies to attend them, and magnificent rooms in the castle were prepared for them. Johanna Elizabeth forgot that these honors were in fact for her daughter, and from this time Sophie's real isolation began. Neglected and ignored by the one person she knew in this strange place, the future Catherine the Great hereafter kept her own counsel and relied on her inner strength. Outwardly she must have been a most unprepossessing sight to the bejeweled and gold-braided courtiers who attended her. Pale, thin and simply dressed, she passed by almost unnoticed.

They journeyed on to St. Petersburg in an imperial sledge, "scarlet, and decked with gold, and lined inside with sable." These sledges (which had been invented by Peter the Great) were pulled by six horses, and Sophie and her mother were able to lie down full length on piles of silk and satin cushions, sable rugs pulled up to their chins. So great was the contrast with the first part of their journey that Sophie instantly fell under the spell of Russia -- a devotion that was to last all her life.

Russia

Her first sight of St. Petersburg revealed a city still under construction, and the only large stone building was its formidable fortress. Everywhere she came across scaffolding, hammering and noise. Yet although Petersburg was Western in appearance, fundamentally its character was Russian, utterly different from Zerbst with its medieval town hall and Gothic churches. For the rest of her life Sophie was to prefer St. Petersburg to Russia's ancient capital, Moscow. But at Moscow the tsarina was awaiting them. There, on the eve of the Grand Duke's birthday, Sophie was to undergo her first test: to meet her future husband under the watchful eye of the Empress Elizabeth.

When Sophie and her mother reached Moscow, the city was bedecked for the birthday celebrations of the Grand Duke, with Chinese lanterns and illuminations lighting up the golden domes of a thousand churches. This was a world where luxury and squalor existed side by side, whose values and standards were totally alien from those of the strict Lutheran society in which she had been brought up. Gossip and scandal, gambling, immorality and excesses of every kind -- all covered by a veneer of piety -- constituted the normal behavior of society. But Sophie had tired already of her Lutheran upbringing. She kept a German Bible, marked in red ink where as a child she had learned verses by heart. She had firmly decided that Martin Luther was a boor who (as she put it) "did not teach anybody anything."

Before the German princesses had time to change, Elizabeth's nephew the Grand Duke was announced, eager to see his future bride. If the fourteen-year-old girl was taken aback by the sight of this spotty, malformed youth, she gave no outward sign. As she wrote later, "I cared very little for the Grand Duke, but I cared ...

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