Authors: Antonia Fraser
Tags: #History, #General, #Social History, #World
Ségur described her in the course of that triumphal procession to Kiev of 1787 arranged by Potemkin, following the defeat of Turkey and Russia’s annexation of the Crimea, which brought her both the fruitful steppes of the south and an invaluable access to the Black Sea. Stout and tiny in her military uniform, she was nevertheless ‘a conquering empress’, The descendants of the Tartars who had once swept across this territory (putting an end to the Georgian empire of Tamara) now prostrated themselves before ‘a woman and a Christian’.
When a Georgian prince from Colchis brought presents to the foot of the Russian Tsarina Catherine’s throne, it might be argued that the memory of Queen Tamara, in her sex if not her nationality, had been avenged.
Catherine, like Tamara six centuries before, understood how to make use of that deep mystical Slavic feeling towards the mother goddess, as well as the conquering goddess of war. To Orlov she was ‘little mother’ as well as ‘most merciful sovereign lady’. To the later lover Potemkin she was ‘Mother Tsarina Catherine … far more than a mother to me … my benefactress and my mother’. On the other hand, like Queen Elizabeth I, she did not consider that she belonged (unlike most mothers) to the ‘weak, frivolous, whining species of women’; in this respect she was certainly the Warrior Queen as an honorary male. When Catherine founded an orphanage, for example, she ordered that the girls should learn to cook and make bread, following the much praised women of the Bible and those hard-working ones
celebrated by Homer
(by which she definitely did not mean the Bible’s sword-wielding Judith or Homer’s flashing-eyed Athene, felling the war-god Ares with a stone).
At her accession, in fact, Catherine suffered from the same prudent dislike of war as Elizabeth I and for the same reason: the debts incurred by Russia during the Seven Years’ War, which ended a year later in 1763. Even in 1770, after a successful campaign against the Turks, Catherine believed peace to be a fine thing, though she now admitted that war also had its ‘fine moments’.
Voltaire’s correspondence with Catherine concerning the Turks was on a far more rambunctious level and there is a nice flavour of chivalry too: ‘these barbarians deserve to be punished by a heroine for the lack of respect they have hitherto had for ladies’, he wrote to the Tsarina in November 1768, a month after war had been declared by the Turks. ‘Clearly, people who neglect all the fine arts and who lock up women, deserve to be exterminated.’ A year later he was admonishing his ‘Semiramis’ and his ‘Northern Star’ in still more ardent terms: ‘Come now, heir to the Caesars, head of the Holy Roman Empire, defender of the Latin Church, come now, this is your chance.’ When there was news of a victory, he described himself as jumping out of bed in ecstasy: ‘Your Imperial Majesty has brought me back to life by killing the Turks.’ Voltaire’s subsequent salute was a weird parody of the language of religion: for he began by crying ‘Allah! Catherine!’ and went on to sing ‘Te Catharinam laudamus, te dominam confitemur’.
Catherine herself had a more controlled appreciation of these tumultuous events. Did they serve the interest of Russian greatness (with which of course she identified herself)? That was her persistent concern. She had her own well-developed sense of Russian national pride – Russia, the country she had so successfully adopted. Not only did she display a taste for operas which celebrated Russian history, she also littered the imperial grounds at Tsarskoe Selo with monumental reminders of Russian military triumphs including obelisks and marble columns as well
as war memorials. In 1771 she agreed with Voltaire that ‘this army will win Russia a name for herself’. But when she declared that ‘great events have never displeased me and great conquests have never tempted me’, the second half of her statement was not quite as disingenuous as the list of her achievements and territorial acquisitions might indicate.
Her own nominee on the throne of Poland and some of its territory annexed by Russia, further acquisitions on the Alaskan coast, to say nothing of the defeat of Turkey and Russia’s surge into the Crimea, her revenues mightily increased: all this was brought about by only six years of war in her twenty-five-year reign. Nor, in all this, was Catherine a mere glittering figurehead of a Warrior Queen. Where military and naval matters were concerned, she played an active directing part. Attending twice-weekly meetings of the seven-man council which directed the war during the Crimean campaign, she herself was probably the originator of the daredevil plan whereby the Russian fleet in the Baltic sailed five thousand miles round the coasts of Western Europe to engage the Turks.
The results of this brilliantly executed expansionist policy for Russia were extraordinary: twenty million subjects owed Catherine loyalty at her coronation, compared to thirty-six million in 1795 shortly before her death. It was however expansion, not war itself with its manufactured heroics, which interested her, even if she could manufacture heroics herself with a will, where necessary. ‘We need population not devastation’: that was her philosophy. In short, as she herself declared, ‘peace is necessary to this vast empire’:
a perceptive comment on the vast Russian ‘empire’ at any stage of its history.
Where Warrior Queens are concerned, we return from the users – Maria Theresa and Catherine – to the used – Louise of Prussia. Although described by Napoleon as an ‘Armida’, there was by temperament nothing of Tasso’s ‘wily witch’ and Gluck’s destructive enchantress about Queen Louise of Prussia. ‘Every day I realize that I am a weak woman,’ she wrote during her early
carefree years, ‘and I am weak because I am kindhearted. I want everyone to be happy, and so I forgive, forget, and fail to scold when I should …’
Like Catherine a minor German princess, Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz possessed, apart from this sweet feminine pliancy, the gift of beauty. On Louise’s exquisite looks there is a remarkable agreement of testimony. In 1793, when she was seventeen, her ravishing appearance captured the heart of Frederick William, the shy young heir to the throne of Prussia: ‘it is she, and if not she, no other creature in the world’, he is reputed to have exclaimed at the mere sight of her (much as Isabella of Castile is supposed to have greeted Ferdinand). A decade later, seeing the Prussian Queen dressed as Statira, the Persian bride of Alexander the Great at a fête in Berlin, Madame de Staël was ‘struck dumb by her beauty’. In 1801 Madame Vigée Le Brun, whose observant painter’s eye was disappointed in the stature of Catherine the Great, alleged that her pen failed her in trying to describe Louise. The Queen happened to be in deep mourning on their first encounter, but her coronet of black jet served only to set off the dazzling whiteness of her complexion; as for the beauty of her ‘heavenly’ face Madame Vigée Le Brun compared it to that of a sixteen-year-old girl, with the perfect regularity and delicacy of the features, the grace of figure, neck and arms: ‘all was enchanting beyond anything imaginable!’
In life this perfect regularity of feature and the supple slender figure often led to Queen Louise being compared to a Greek statue. For once, the art by which later generations must judge confirms that does not disappoint: there is something neo-Hellenic about the many representations of her which have survived, enhanced naturally by the clinging Grecian style of contemporary fashion which suited her so well. We can accept with relief the verdict of the English diplomat Sir George Jackson that the Queen was ‘really a beauty and would be thought so even if she did not sit upon a throne’. The chivalry she inspired is equally easy to understand: ‘among the younger men especially’,
wrote Jackson, ‘there prevails a feeling of chivalrous devotion towards her; and a sunny smile, or glance of her bright laughing eyes, is a mark of favour eagerly sought for’.
At first it was all lightness at the Prussian court, Frederick William succeeding his father in 1797, four years after his marriage. Perhaps the Queen – who was after all young – danced a little too much (she danced at a court ball in 1803 within hours of giving birth) and she was also lightheartedly unpunctual. There are unpublished passages in the diary of Countess Sophie von Voss, Louise’s battleaxe of a lady-in-waiting (already in her seventies, with a father who fought against Marlborough at Malplaquet) that criticize the Queen’s frivolity and even her petulance in these early years; but Countess Voss’s final verdict was to be very different: ‘all the loveliest virtues of woman and the most pleasing to God’.
On the other hand Louise’s surely admirable attempts at enlarging her perfunctory education with a study of German literature, to which more intellectual ladies-in-waiting introduced her, were greeted with boorish mockery by Frederick William. He described one of these intellectuals, Caroline von Berg, as ‘vain, trivial … and forever gushing poetry’. Nor was the reputation of Goethe sacred to the Prussian King. ‘Wha’s ’is name, t’great man from Weimar?’ Frederick William would enquire, aping the local dialect. Another of these ladies, Marie von Kleist, aunt by marriage to the poet and playwright Heinrich von Kleist, persuaded the Queen to patronize her nephew; he received an honorarium under oath of secrecy.
Schiller became a special favourite: the Queen wanted him as Poet Laureate. She also read Shakespeare in translation.
The Queen’s tentative efforts at intellectual independence had however little in common with that kind of Amazonian behaviour described with all the richness of sexual violence in Kleist’s
: ‘A nation has arisen, a nation of women, Bound to no overlord …’
Louise’s submissiveness, her wifely wish to please, was most notably demonstrated by the continuous procession of children that she bore. Ten years after her marriage
she had already borne seven; two of the children had died and there were also various miscarriages. Louise gave birth to a total of nine children in fourteen years, the last of them less than a year before her death.
When Madame Vigée Le Brun met the Queen in 1801, she could not make an appointment before noon because, as Louise explained, ‘the King reviews the troops at ten every morning and likes me to attend’. The only blight on this picture of domestic and marital bliss appeared to be the plain looks of Louise’s numerous children. ‘They are not pretty,’ murmured the Queen sadly. ‘Their faces have a great deal of character’, was the painter’s tactful comment. Privately, she thought the youthful princes and princesses of Prussia downright ugly.
But for Prussia and its king – if not yet its queen – already problems existed along more serious lines than those of a military review or a homely royal family. The rise of Napoleonic France had placed Prussia in a quandary: neutrality? And if not neutrality, alliance with which of the various great powers involved? It was a profound Prussian conviction of the time that its army, built up by Frederick William’s great-uncle Frederick the Great, remained the finest in Europe. Time would test the validity of that belief. In the meantime Frederick William’s indecisive nature led him to see his fine army as a bastion of Prussia’s neutrality rather than as anything more aggressive.
The King’s personal quandary however – neutrality versus alliance – remained. And it was this quandary, finally, which brought Louise to play the role of Warrior Queen. In 1803 the French forces occupied Hanover, a state which on the one hand Prussia was pledged to protect as a neutral zone, and on the other coveted for itself. Prussia was offered Hanover in return for a treaty with France. Frederick William hesitated unhappily. Napoleon made good use of his dilemma of conscience. The French judicial murder of the young Bourbon Prince the Duc d’Enghien on 21 March 1804 for alleged conspiracy horrified all royal Europe: but Louise was persuaded not to wear mourning for the Duc by the new Prussian Foreign Minister, the veteran
statesman Carl-August von Hardenberg, who hoped to secure Hanover peaceably.
Louise’s martial instincts were still nascent. Placatory gifts of dresses from the newly created Empress Josephine (Napoleon assumed the title of Emperor on 18 May) were accepted: pale grey satin magnificently embroidered with steel, and white satin embroidered with gold thread, further adorned with Alençon lace and Brussels point. The Queen’s attempts at influencing the King towards war were dated nearly a year later by Sir George Jackson to February 1805. It was not until September of the same year that she was generally reputed to head the ‘war party’.
What brought about the transformation? Napoleon himself angrily and publicly ascribed the change to another charismatic man: the Tsar Alexander I. There had been that magic summer at the Baltic coastal resort of Memel in 1802, the year following the accession of the young Tsar. The grandson of Catherine the Great, Alexander was an intensely attractive figure: even the crabby Countess Voss found him at this stage ‘irresistible’, with his handsome appearance and striking fair colouring (he was of course genetically far more German than Slav, his mother like his grandmother having been born a German princess).
Memel, symbolically enough, was not only on the Baltic, but also on the borders of Prussia and Russia: here the two courts mingled and the two youthful royal families – already interrelated – relaxed together.
Louise flowered. ‘She was today more beautiful than ever’, wrote Countess Voss of one particular June evening. There was dancing every night, and presents for Louise from the Tsar including earrings of her favourite pearls (even Countess Voss got a pearl necklace). No wonder the Countess wrote that she was ‘quite grieved that these pleasant days should come to an end’.
But further delightful co-celebrations were planned by Alexander, such as a pageant based on the happy days at Memel for Louise’s birthday the following March; Louise’s current baby would be named Alexandrina with the Tsar as her godfather.