Category Archives: The Romanovs and Imperial Russia

When Catherine the Great Invaded The Crimea And Put The Rest of the World On Edge

Portrait of Catherine the Great as a Legislator in the Temple Devoted to the Godess of Justice by Dmitri Levitsky, early 1780s.

Portrait of Catherine the Great as a Legislator in the Temple Devoted to the Goddess of Justice by Dmitri Levitsky, early 1780s.

My article in Smithsonian Magazine, “When Catherine the Great Invaded The Crimea And Put The Rest of the World On Edge” looks at the original annexation of the Crimea by the Russian Empire during the reign of Empress Catherine II in the late eighteenth century. Catherine presented herself to the world as an “enlightened” despot who ruled according to the law, and considered the welfare of her subjects.  Her foreign policy and treatment of internal dissent, however, demonstrated that she saw did not observe any constraints on her power. For centuries the Crimean peninsula and other regions of the modern day Ukraine have been one of Europe’s battlegrounds. Today, Russian President Vladimir Putin is following in a long tradition of Russian leaders expanding their political influence at the expense of Ukrainian autonomy.

Click here to read “When Catherine the Great Invaded The Crimea And Put The Rest of the World On Edge” in Smithsonian Magazine. 

Interested in learning more about Catherine the Great and The History of the Ukraine?

Books about Catherine the Great

Simon Dixon, Catherine The Great (2010).

Isabel de Madariaga, Catherine the Great: A Short History; Second Edition (2002).

Robert K. Massie, Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman (2011).

Books about the Ukraine

Anna Reid, Borderland: A Journey Through the History of Ukraine (2000).

Paul Robert Magocsi, Ukraine: An Illustrated History, (2013).

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My article “150 Years Ago Sochi Was The Site Of A Horrific Ethnic Cleansing” in Smithsonian Magazine

Czar Alexander II

Czar Alexander II

As you watch the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi today, it is worth reflecting on the troubled history of the Caucasus region. My article in today’s edition of Smithsonian Magazine looks at Czar Alexander II’s decision to expel the Circassian people from Sochi and the surrounding region in 1864. This rapid expulsion resulted in the deaths of more than 600,000 people. Today, Alexander II is famous for abolishing serfdom in 1861 and his treatment of the Circassian people is comparatively little known. The expulsion of the Circassians and the abolition of serfdom both reflected the Czar’s preoccupation with the stability of the Russian Empire. Alexander II spent his entire reign attempting to stabilize Russia before falling victim to a terrorist bomb in 1881.

Click here to read the full article “150 Years Ago Sochi Was The Site of a Horrific Ethnic Cleansing” in Smithsonian Magazine.

I also wrote about the history of Sochi in the Ottawa Citizen. Click here to read “Sochi’s Bloody History.”

Interested in learning more about Czar Alexander II and the expulsion of the Circassian people from Sochi? Here are some of the books I consulted while researching my articles on Sochi:

Orlando Figes, The Crimean War: A History, (2010).

Amjad Jaimoukha, The Circassians: A Handbook (Caucasus World: Peoples of the Caucasus), (2001).

W. Bruce Lincoln, The Romanovs: Autocrats of All the Russians (1983).

Edvard Radzinsky, Alexander II: The Last Great Tsar (2006).

Walter Richmond, The Circassian Genocide (Genocide, Political Violence, Human Rights), (2013).

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Sochi’s Bloody History

"A Scene from the Caucasian War" by Franz Alekseyevich Roubaud

“A Scene from the Caucasian War” by Franz Alekseyevich Roubaud

My latest column in the Ottawa Citizen discusses the expulsion of the Circassian people from Sochi and the surrounding region in 1864, which resulted in the deaths of at least 600,000 people from massacre, starvation and the elements. Although the Olympic Games in Sochi will take place on the 150th anniversary of these events, which the government of neighbouring Georgia has deemed a genocide, Russia has downplayed the bloody history of the region. Russian recognition of the death and displacement of the Circassian people in 1864 would transform the controversial Winter Games into the beginning of a process of reconciliation.

Click here to read the full article in the Ottawa Citizen

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Red Fortress: History and Illusion in the Kremlin by Catherine Merridale (Review)

The Moscow Kremlin is one of the world’s most recognizable landmarks. The imposing red brick walls and towers surrounding five cathedrals and four palaces appear to represent stability, enduring through Russia’s turbulent history. In Red Fortress: History and Illusion in the Kremlin, Catherine Merridale, professor of contemporary history at Queen Mary University in London and critically acclaimed author of Ivan’s War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945, reveals that it is a miracle that the Kremlin is still standing in the twenty-first century.

The fortress endured a medieval Mongol invasion, a foreign occupation during the seventeenth century Time of Troubles, neglect after Peter the Great moved his court to St. Petersburg, a city wide fire following Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and bombardment during the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Merridale’s exhaustive research, including visits to sections of the Kremlin rarely seen by the public, reveals that the how the Fortress and its significance has changed over the centuries. Whole buildings behind the walls have disappeared and other have been absorbed into new structures. With each new Russian ruler, the structure and symbolism of the Kremlin changed to reflect new ideas about the Kremlin’s place in Russian history and government.

Red Fortress is filled with fascinating details about the Russian leaders who left their mark on the Kremlin. In many English language works about the history of Russia, the personalities of the Grand Dukes of Muscovy and Czars of all the Russias who ruled prior to Peter the Great blend together, with the exception of the famous Ivan the Terrible, Merridale depicts each ruler as a unique individual with his own vision for the Kremlin. Ivan the Terrible’s grandfather, Ivan the Great (r. 1462-1505), who commissioned the modern red brick walls was “reputed to be so terrifying that his glance alone made women faint.”

Ivan the Great met his match in his second wife, Sophia, the niece of the last Byzantine Emperor. Members of Sophia’s household spread the rumour that “she nagged him twice a week” while an Italian poet described her as “a mountain of fat.” Sophia’s extensive knowledge of Renaissance European art and architecture transformed the Kremlin as she persuaded her husband to appoint Italian engineers, architects, cannon-founders and silversmiths to contribute to new buildings and defenses.

The founding of the Romanov dynasty in 1613 brought new Czars with new interests to the Kremlin. Peter the Great’s grandfather, Mikhail Romanov, the founder of the new dynasty may have been illiterate and dependent on his father in matters of state but he was fascinated by western technology such as mechanical clocks. Mikhail also commissioned the Terem Palace, which is now part of the official residence of the President of Russia. Peter the Great’s father, Aleksei I imported European science books for his library and installed a palace laboratory for science and alchemy experiments. Peter the Great himself had little use for the Kremlin as a seat of government but he recognized that it was the site of immense public interest, becoming the first Russian ruler to charge sightseers admission to tour the grounds.

Merridale’s narrative slows in the middle as the Imperial Russian court moved to St. Petersburg from 1713 to the abdication of Czar Nicholas II in 1917. During this period, Russia’s Czars were visitors to the Kremlin for major events such as coronations instead of permanent residents. When the capital returned to Moscow in 1918, the Kremlin was once again at the centre of events. Although Merridale does not draw direct comparisons between fifteenth and sixteenth century Muscovy and the twentieth century Soviet Union, readers will notice a number of parallels between the court of Ivan the Terrible and Stalin’s inner circle.

Red Fortress: History and Illusion in the Kremlin ends with the Kremlin bells ringing to greet Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh during their unprecedented state visit to Moscow in 1994. The fall of the Soviet Union ushered in a new era for Russia’s most famous landmark. The Kremlin continues to change with the times, serving as the seat of President Vladimir Putin’s government and the most popular tourist attraction in Russia.

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The Diary of Olga Romanov: Royal Witness to the Russian Revolution by Helen Azar (Review)

For decades after the murder of Russia’s last Imperial family in 1918, the public learned about Czar Nicholas II’s children through published memoir literature. There was demand for stories about the family life of Nicholas, Alexandra and their children so surviving relatives of the Imperial family and members of their household included this material in their memoirs regardless of how much time they actually spent behind palace doors. The result was a body of questionable received wisdom about the Czar’s daughters, Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia that persists to this day. Countless biographies of the Imperial couple and studies of their court describe the Grand Duchesses as “children” with little social life beyond their immediate family and few official duties.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s,  diaries and letters by the Imperial family and those who knew them well have been translated and published in volumes such as A Lifelong Passion: Nicholas and Alexandra Their Own Story, The Fall of the Romanovs: Political Dreams and Personal Struggles in a Time of RevolutionThe Diary of Grand Duchess Olga Nicholaievna 1913 and The Last Diary of Tsaritsa Alexandra, gradually revising longstanding popular perceptions of the Romanovs.  The Diary of Olga Romanov: Royal Witness to the Russian Revolution, translated and published with with other primary sources of the period selected by Helen Azar, allows Grand Duchess Olga to speak for herself, revealing a young woman coming of age at a time of war and revolution.

Olga was eighteen when the First World War broke out in 1914. In common with other young women of her generation, the Grand Duchess discovered leadership opportunities and personal fulfillment through war work. The diary describes her training as a nurse and duties at the Tsarskoe Selo hospital including organizing activities for the convalescents, assisting at operations and maintaining hospital equipment. The inclusion of the reminiscences of Olga’s colleagues at the hospital alongside her diary entries provide a sense of how the Grand Duchess and her war work were perceived by patients and fellow nurses alike. While the wounded men were honored to receive visits from the Czar’s children, they were confused by the sight of Grand Duchesses performing seemingly menial tasks such as sterilizing hospital equipment, wondering why they did not ask their attendants to do these tasks for them.

Olga also engaged in considerable charitable fundraising during wartime and sat on the boards of committees. Since Nicholas II spent much of the war at military headquarters and Alexandra was consumed by her own war work, political activities and ill health, Olga developed an active social life that revolved around her war work instead of her parents. Studies of the extended Imperial family, such as The Flight Of The Romanovs emphasize the increasing gulf between Nicholas and Alexandra, and the Czar’s relatives during the years immediately preceding the Russian Revolution but Olga maintained active relationships with her aunts, uncles and cousins, including those who had experienced disfavour from her parents.

In her diary, Olga describes spending time with her great-uncle Grand Duke Paul’s morganatic second wife, Olga Paley and enjoying poetry written by Pavel’s and Olga Paley’s son, Vladimir. There are teas with Grand Duchess Victoria, who Olga called “Aunt Ducky.” Victoria was the former wife of Alexandra’s brother Grand Duke Ernst of Hesse who remarried Nicholas II’s cousin, Grand Duke Kyrill against the wishes of the Imperial couple. Only after the murder of Grigori Rasputin by Prince Felix Yussupov, the husband of Olga’s cousin Irina, and Czar Nicholas’s cousin, Grand Duke Dmitri, in December, 1916 is there a marked decrease in visits between Olga and members of her extended family.

Olga’s diary and the accompanying documents provide glimpses of the life the Grand Duchess might have led if she had not been murdered with the rest of her family in 1918. Throughout the journal, Olga expressed indifference or irritation regarding the princes considered suitable marriage partners for a Grand Duchess at the time. She criticizes the Romanian royal family, which included her suitor Prince Carol, for not committing Romania to the allied war effort in 1914. Prince Konstantin Konstantonovich, whom Olga frequently encountered while visiting his sister at the Pavlovsk palace is dismissed in the diary as “a pest.” In contrast, Olga had warm feelings toward some of the patients she nursed in her hospital, most notably an officer named Dmitri Shakh-Bagov. In 1916, Olga’s aunt, Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna married a commoner and it’s possible that Olga would have endeavored to do the same if she had survived the revolution.

Olga’s diary ended the day of Czar Nicholas II’s abdication in March, 1917. Azar speculates that the Grand Duchess may have stopped writing in her journal because of depression but it is just as possible that was concerned that any post-revolutionary diary entries might compromise the safety of her family. Azar present Olga’s last months in captivity with her family through the diary of Nicholas II, memoirs of key figures and Olga’s letters to her friends. By the end of the book, Olga emerges as a complex figure who was never able to realize her full potential because of her death at the age of twenty-two. The Diary of Olga Romanov: Royal Witness to the Russian Revolution presents the last years of Olga’s life in her own words and the words of those who knew her best, shattering longstanding  stereotypes about the lives of Nicholas II’s daughters during the First World War and the Russian Revolution.


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The Assassination of the Archduke: Sarajevo 1914 and the Romance That Changed the World by Greg King and Sue Woolmans (Review)

On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Habsburg Empire and his morganatic wife, Sophie, the Duchess of Hohenberg were assassinated by Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo. The assassination of the Archduke served as the pretext for the First World War as conflict between Austria-Hungary and Serbia triggered the European alliance system. In numerous histories of the period, Franz Ferdinand and Sophie appear on the world stage at the time of their deaths without any mention of how their romance scandalized the court in Vienna or the subsequent lives of their children, including the imprisonment of their sons in the Dachau concentration camp during the Second World War.

In The Assassination of the Archduke: Sarajevo 1914 and the Romance That Changed the World, Greg King, author of numerous royal history books including Twilight of Splendor: The Court of Queen Victoria During Her Diamond Jubilee Year, The Court of the Last Tsar: Pomp, Power and Pageantry in the Reign of Nicholas II, The Fate of the Romanovs and The Resurrection of the Romanovs: Anastasia, Anna Anderson, and the World’s Greatest Royal Mystery and Sue Woolmans, editor of 25 Chapters of My Life: The Memoirs of Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna reconstruct the lives and legacy of the Archduke and the love of his life, challenging the myths surrounding their marriage and providing a full biography of Franz Ferdinand, Sophie and their children.

In contrast to Franz Ferdinand’s contemporaries, the last Imperial Family of Russia, key documents concerning the Archduke’s marriage, including his private correspondence with Sophie, have been destroyed. Even the couple’s descendants are not sure how they first met or precisely when Franz Ferdinand decided to challenge his uncle, Emperor Franz Joseph and the strict laws governing the marriages within the House of Habsburg to marry Countess Sophie Chotek. King and Woolmans reconstruct the romance using a wide variety of surviving material including diplomatic correspondence, letters exchanged by Franz Ferdinand’s relatives and newspaper reports. The marriage of the heir to the Austrian throne to a lady-in-waiting, even one from the Bohemian (Czech) nobility, created a scandal at court. Franz Joseph and his officials ensured that Sophie would never be treated as her husband’s equal in life or death.

In the century since Franz Ferdinand’s and Sophie’s death, numerous myths and misconceptions have emerged concerning their characters. King and Woolmans carefully separate fact from fiction. The Archduke emerges as a complex personality, reserved, unsociable and short tempered in public but deeply devoted to his wife and children in private. His political views remain enigmatic as he was accused of having both reactionary and revolutionary inclinations over the course of his life. King and Woolmans provide evidence that his travels in the United States inspired a vision of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as a federation of equal states rather than a dual monarchy. There is less surviving information about Sophie but she emerges as a steadying influence in the Archduke’s life, devoting herself to her family and accepting the constraints imposed on a morganatic spouse.

The strongest section of the book is the description of the visit to Sarajevo in 1914. Although the reader knows that Franz Ferdinand and Sophie died there, King and Woolmans create effective dramatic tension, revealing the multitude of official missteps that sealed the couple’s fate as well as the numerous opportunities for changes in plan that would have saved their lives. The complete failure by local authorities to keep the couple safe led to rumours of an Austrian conspiracy to dispose of a troublesome Archduke and create a pretext to invade Serbia at the same time. King and Woolmans examine these interpretations of the events in Sarajevo, sifting through the conflicting accounts of why there was so little protection for the Emperor’s heir.

The only misstep in this otherwise well written and well researched biography are the periodic descriptions of the marriage of Franz Ferdinand and Sophie as a fairy tale romance with various members of the House of Habsburg cast as the “wicked stepmother” or “fairy godmother.” In his previous books, most notably The Fate of the Romanovs, Greg King has been extremely critical of sentimental interpretations of the domestic life of Nicholas II, Empress Alexandra and their children. In the opening chapters The Assassination of the Archduke, King and Woolmans challenge the current romantic image of Franz Joseph’s wife, Empress Elisabeth. By comparing Franz Ferdinand and Sophie to characters from a fairy tale, King and Woolmans appear to hold them to a different standard than the other royalty of the period.

The Assassination of the Archduke brings the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie to life, revealing their determination to marry in the face of widespread opposition and the happy home they created for their children. King and Woolmans re-examine the fatal events of the couple’s visit to Sarajevo and discuss what happened to their daughter and sons, the first orphans of the Great War. The Assassination of the Archduke is an excellent addition to any royal library as it reveals the lives of a couple better known for how their deaths changed history.

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Richard III’s Bones of Contention

While I was away on the Baltic Cruise these past couple weeks, my article about the remains of Richard III, “Richard III’s Bones of Contention” was published in the Kingston Whig-Standard on August 23. In this column, I compared the controversy surrounding Richard III to the excavation of the Romanov remains in the 1990s and the uncertainty regarding the last resting place of Tecumseh, the famous Shawnee general from the War of 1812.

Click here to read “Richard III’s Bones of Contention

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5 Potential Royal Baby Names That Have Not Received Any Bets

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in June, 2013

With days to go before the arrival of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s 1st child, British based gaming companies are taking the last bets on what the name of the new Prince or Princess will be. According to Ladbrokes, the odds are 4-1 that the royal baby will be named Alexandra, 6-1 that Victoria or Charlotte will be chosen and 10-1 that the child will be a Prince named George. Other popular choices for a boy include James, Philip and Alexander with 20-1 odds.

In the past few decades, British royal parents have chosen names for their children that have precedents within the royal family, a trend recognized by the current betting odds. Recent choices for royal babies, however, include the names of obscure royalty, foreign monarchs and King and Queens from dynasties that reigned centuries ago, including names that have not made the list of favourites.

Queen Elizabeth II chose Charles and Anne as names for her two eldest children, which were common for royalty when the Stuart dynasty reigned over England and Scotland in the seventeenth century but went out of fashion when the Hanover line succeeded to the throne in 1714. The Duke and Duchess of York chose Beatrice and Eugenie as names for their daughters, honouring Queen Victoria’s youngest daughter and Napoleon III’s consort respectively. With these precedents, it’s entirely possible that William and Kate might take the public and the bookies by surprise and choose a name with a royal pedigree that hasn’t made the betting lists.

Here are some possibilities:

Grand Duchess Tatiana Nikolayevna of Russia in 1913

Tatiana: Both the Duke of Edinburgh’s father and mother had a cousin Tatiana. Prince Philip’s paternal grandmother, Queen Olga of Greece was born Grand Duchess Olga Konstantinova of Russia and her brother, Grand Duke Konstantin named his oldest daughter Tatiana Konstantinovna. Philip’s mother, Princess Alice of Battenberg was a niece of the last Czar and Czarina of Russia, Nicholas II and Alexandra, who named their second daughter, Tatiana Nikolayevna. Tatiana has remained a popular name in the Mountbatten family for the past century. The Duke of Edinburgh’s uncle, George Mountbatten, 2nd Marquess of Milford Haven named his only daughter Tatiana in 1917 and the current Marquess, also named George Mountbatten, named his daughter, Tatiana in 1990.

Adelaide: A previous Princess of Cambridge was King George V’s mother-in-law, Princess Mary Adelaide. The name entered the British royal family with the marriage of the future King William IV to Princess Adelaide of Saxe-Meningen, who was queen consort from 1830 to 1837. While King William was a controversial King because of the less than courtly manners he acquired serving in the Royal Navy as a young man, Adelaide was a popular queen consort. Although she did not have any surviving children of her own, Queen Adelaide took a close interest in her niece, Queen Victoria, who remembered her fondly.

The Empress Matilda

Matilda or Maude: If William and Kate’s child is a daughter, she will retain her place in the line of succession regardless of the gender of her younger siblings. The first woman to fight for her right to succeed to the English throne was King Henry I’s only daughter, Matilda, whose named is also translated as Maude. Matilda battled her cousin, King Stephen, for the English throne and briefly held power in 1141. The conflict ultimately ended with Stephen acknowledged Matilda’s son, the future Henry II as his successor. The name has appeared more recently in the royal family. One of the middle names of Queen Victoria’s daughter Alice – Prince Philip’s great-grandmother – was Maud.

David: After spending months of their marriage living in Angelsey, Wales while William worked as a Search and Rescue pilot, it’s possible that the royal couple might consider the name of Wales’ patron saint for a baby prince. In addition to medieval Welsh princes from the House of Gwynedd, there are a number of Davids within the current royal family tree. The late Princess Margaret’s son is David, Viscount Linley and Prince Philip’s late first cousin and best man was David Mountbatten, the 3rd Marquess of Milford Haven. Edward VIII’s use of his middle name, David, within his famly, however, may work against this name being chosen for a future monarch.

Peter: There have been bets placed on Michael as a possible name for the royal baby because of Kate’s father, Michael Middleton and the Queen’s cousin, Prince Michael of Kent. Another possibility that is both a name from Kate’s family and a royal name is Peter. Kate’s late grandfather, Peter Middleton, served in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War, training in Canada. While there have not been any Prince Peters in the royal houses of England, Wales or Scotland (though Princess Anne’s son is named Peter), the name has been used by the ruling families of Russia and the Balkans. Like “Eugenie,” it’s possible that Peter might become a foreign royal name given to a member of the British royal family.

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President Vladimir Putin to be the first Russian Leader to Divorce Since Peter the Great in 1698

Lyudmila Putina in 2007

On Thursday June 6, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his wife Lyudmila Putina announced on state television that are getting a divorce after nearly thirty years of marriage. Putin described the divorce as “our joint decision” and explaining that the couple had lived separate lives for some time. The couple were married in 1983 and have two adult daughters, Mariya and Ekaterina.”

The Putin divorce is in keeping with current Russian social trends. Russia has the 15th highest female divorce rate and 28th highest male divorce rate in the world and the Russian Orthodox Church permits divorce under certain circumstances. The Russian people, however, are not accustomed to the public breakdown of the marriages of their leaders.

President Putin will be the first Russian leader to divorce while in office since Czar Peter the Great sent his first wife, Evdokia Lopukhina to a convent in 1698. Like the Putins, Peter and Evdokia had lived separate lives for a long time before the official end of their marriage. Unlike this week’s Russian divorce announcement however, Peter the Great’s divorce was not a mutual decision and transformed his first wife from an admirer to a potential political opponent.

Peter the Great at the time his first marriage ended in 1698.

Czar Peter I of Russia married Evdokia Feodorovna Lopukhina on January 27, 1689. At the time of the marriage, seventeen year old Peter nominally ruled Russia as co-ruler with his elder half brother, Ivan V. Real power, however, was exercised by Peter’s half sister – and Ivan’s full sister – Sophia, who ruled as regent on account of Peter’s youth and Ivan’s intellectual and physical disabilities.

By 1689, Ivan’s wife, Praskovia was expecting her first child and it was possible that Sophia would exclude Peter from the succession and continue to rule as regent for Ivan and his child. This arrangement would ensure that the relatives of Sophia and Ivan’s late mother, the Miloslavskys would continue to hold key government positions while the family of Peter’s mother, the Naryshkins, would be entirely excluded from power.

Peter’s mother, the Dowager Czarina Natalya Naryshkina decided that the most effective challenge to Sophia’s continued rule was a suitable marriage for her son. As a married man, Peter would be perceived as an adult who could rule without a regent. Any children of Peter’s marriage would be alternate successors to Ivan’s children. The teenaged Peter, however, was more interested in shipbuilding and spending time with his friends in Moscow’s foreign quarter than choosing a bride. Natalya therefore made the final selection. She chose Evdokia Lopukhina, the daughter of Feodor Abramovich Lopukhin and Ustinia Bogdanovna Rtishcheva, members of the gentry with strong ties to the Naryshkin faction at court. There are no portraits of Evdokia painted in her youth but an observer described her as of “average beauty but good understanding.”

Evdokia Lopukhina in middle age

The marriage achieved its political ends. By the fall of 1689, Peter the Great had seized power and sent his sister Sophia to Moscow’s Novodevichy Convent. Peter retained Ivan as his co-ruler and remained on good terms with his brother, sister-in-law and their daughters but power was exercised by Natalya and the Naryshkin faction while the newly married Czar pursued his own interests.

On a personal level, however, the marriage of the restless, reforming Peter and the pious conventional Evodokia was a disaster. Within a few weeks of the wedding, Peter left Evdokia with his mother in Moscow to participate in shipbuilding on Lake Pleschev, pursuing his dream of equipping Russia with a navy. During his months in Pereslavl, Peter wrote often to his mother but did not send a single letter to Evdokia.

Peter's mother, Natalya Naryshkina

Despite Peter’s silence, Evdokia wrote to Peter on his shipbuilding expedition, hoping he would return to her. One surviving letter states, “I salute my Lord, the Tsar Peter Alexeevich. May you be safe, my light, for many years. We beg your mercy. Come home to us, O Lord, without delay. I, thanks to your mother’s kindness, am safe and well. Your little wife, Dunka, bows low before you.”

Evdokia’s submissive expressions of affection irritated Peter because she also disapproved of his interests. The new Czarina had been raised to regard foreigners as heretics and viewed Peter’s enthusiasm for Western culture and technology with alarm. In contrast to Peter’s sister-in-law, Praskovia, who assumed Western dress and hired foreign tutors for her daughters according to the Czar’s wishes, Evdokia remained attached to Muscovite ways. The birth of two sons, Alexei in 1690 and Alexander in 1691 did not bring the couple closer together. When Alexander died in infancy, Peter was so estranged from Evdokia that he did not attend the funeral.

Tsarevich Alexei, the only surviving son of Peter and Evdokia

When the twenty-six year old Peter embarked on his eighteen month tour of Europe in 1697, he ordered senior courtiers and the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church to persuade Evdokia to become a nun. Once the Czarina took the veil, her earthly ties, including marriage would be at an end, leaving Peter free to remarry. Evdokia refused to leave the Kremlin and her surviving son, Alexei.

Upon his return to Russia in 1698, Peter summoned Evdokia and demanded that she release him from their marriage by taking vows. When Evdokia continued to refuse, citing her duties as a wife and mother, Peter seized their eight year old son, and placed him in the custody of his younger sister, Natalya. Evdokia was placed in a postal carriage without attendants and sent to the Pokrovsky convent in Suzdal. There, the twenty-nine year old Czarina’s head was shaved and she was compelled to take vows as the nun Helena.

19th century portrait of Peter the Great interrogating his son, Alexei

Peter’s marriage to Evdokia ended in 1698 but the Czar’s former wife reemerged later in his reign as a potential political opponent. In 1718, Peter suspected his son Alexei of conspiring against him and had him arrested. Evdokia and Alexei had remained in contact after the divorce and Peter suspected that his former wife was plotting against him as his overthrow would allow her release from the convent. Furthermore, Evdokia had refused to live as a nun in Suzdal. She had dressed as a laywoman, allowed her hair to grow back and taken a lover, Major Stephan Glebov. Evdokia was arrested and brought to Moscow for questioning then exiled to a convent in Ladoga.  Her son Alexei met a far worse fate. The Tsarevich died in prison on July 7, 1718, having been sentenced to death by his father and tortured for alleged conspiracy against the state.

Czar Peter II

Peter the Great died in 1725 and was succeeded by his second wife as Catherine I. Upon Catherine’s death in 1727, Peter and Evdokia’s grandson, ascended the throne as Peter II. The teenaged Tsar released his grandmother from captivity and she was able to hold court in Moscow at the Novodevichy Convent until her death in 1731. The breakdown of Peter’s marriage to his wife, Evdokia and relationship with his son, Alexei had lasting repercussions for the Russian state. The Russian succession was unstable throughout the eighteenth century until the ascension of Catherine the Great, the wife of another one of Peter the Great’s grandsons, Peter III. There would not be another Russian leader to divorce while in office until President Vladimir Putin in 2013.

Further Reading:

Lindsey Hughes, Russia in the Age of Peter the Great
Russell E. Martin, A Bride for the Tsar: Bride Shows and Marriage Politics in Early Modern Russia
Robert K. Massie, Peter the Great: His Life and World
Natalia Pushareva, Women in Russian History: From the Tenth to the Twentieth Century

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The Richard III Funeral Controversy and 5 Unknown Royal Grave Sites

The earliest surviving portrait of Richard III

The controversy surrounding the burial of Richard III, whose remains were discovered last year in a Leicester parking lot, continues this week as fifteen surviving descendants of the King’s relatives threaten legal action if the King is not buried in York Minster cathedral. The University of Leicester responded to the members of the Plantagenet Alliance on March 26, stating in a press release, “The plan for re-interment in Leicester Cathedral was clearly stated and unambiguous at the start of the project and announced in a statement on Friday 24 August 2012. This was before the dig started.”

Leicester Cathedral has faced criticism in recent weeks for planning a plain stone stab as a memorial for Richard III instead of the elaborate tomb designed by members of the Richard III society.  The nature of the planned funeral service has also received scrutiny because Leicester Cathedral is a Church of England place of worship but the King reigned before the Protestant Reformation and would have worshipped according to Roman Catholic rites.

The Russian Imperial family in 1913

The debate concerning the funeral of Richard III may appear unique but it has much in common with the controversies that surrounded the excavation and reburial of Emperor Nicholas II of Russia, his wife Alexandra, their five children and four of their servants during the 1990s. Russia’s Imperial capital, St. Petersburg, its current capital, Moscow, and the location of the family’s 1918 murder, Yekaterinburg were all potential locations for the reburial of the remains. Russia’s last Imperial family were ultimately laid to rest in the Peter and Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburg, which is the burial place of all but two Russian rulers since the reign of Peter the Great.

Richard III’s funeral may set precedents governing the discovery and reburial of other lost royal remains in the British Isles. There are numerous prominent royal personages who still do not have a known grave for numerous reasons including the dissolution of the English monasteries during the reign of Henry VIII, disgrace at the time of death or even rumours of survival at the time of the official funeral.

Portrait of the Princes in the Tower, Kind Edward V and Richard, Duke of York by Paul Delaroche

Here are 5 Examples of Unknown or Contested Royal Grave Sites in the British Isles:

1) The Princes in the Tower The deposed King Edward V and his brother, Richard, Duke of York disappeared in 1483, after their uncle, Richard III, seized the throne and confined them to the Tower of London. In 1674, a box containing the skeletons of two children was discovered near the White Tower. King Charles II interred the remains in an urn in Westminster Abbey. The remains were last analyzed in 1933, before the advent of DNA analysis, which made it impossible to confirm that the remains were actually those of the Princes of the Tower. The 2012 discovery of Richard III revived popular interest in modern analysis of the bones in the urn but both Westminster Abbey and Queen Elizabeth II have refused permission for further study of the alleged remains of the Princes in the Tower. Further Reading: Alison Weir, The Princes in the Tower

Statue of Alfred the Great in Winchester

2) Alfred the Great The famous Saxon King died in 899 after a long and painful illness that may have been Crohn’s Disease. Alfred, his wife Ealhswith, and son, Edward the Elder were originally buried in the Old Minster of Winchester Cathedral then moved to the New Minster. When the monks moved to Hyde Abbey in 1110, they took the royal remains with them where they remained until the Abbey was demolished on the orders of King Henry VIII in 1539. By the time a prison was constructed on the Hyde Abbey site in the eighteenth century, the bones were lost. Stone coffins inscribed with the names of Alfred, Ealhswith and Edward were discovered recently but they were empty, suggesting that the monks moved the royal remains before the dissolution of the monasteries. In 2013, archaeologists exhumed an unmarked grave in St Bartholomew’s Church, Winchester. Researchers from the University of Winchester are currently seeking permission to analyze these remains, which may be those of the long lost Alfred the Great. Further Reading: Benjamin Mekkle, The White Horse King: The Life of Alfred the Great

"Boadicea Haranguing the Britons" by John Opie

3) Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni The Celtic Queen fought her last battle against the Romans in 60 or 61 AD and is believed to have committed suicide following her defeat to avoid being paraded in a Roman Triumph. The precise location of the battle and the Queen’s final resting place in unknown. King’s Cross railway station in London is located on the site of a village known as “Battle Bridge” near the site of an ancient crossing of the River Fleet. According to legend, Boudicca fought her last stand on this location and was buried in the area. There is speculation that Boudicca’s tomb may be located under platform 8,9 or 10 at King’s Cross railway station. There is not currently sufficient evidence to merit an excavation of King’s Cross station. Further Reading: Marguerite Johnson, Boudicca

4) Simon de Montfort King Henry III’s brother-in-law, Simon de Montfort was killed at the Battle of Evesham during the Second Barons War in 1265. Montfort seized control of the government after defeating Henry III at the Battle of Lewes in 1264 and taking the King and his heir prisoner. During his year in power, Montfort pioneered representative government, summoning elected representatives from the counties for a 1265 parliament at Westminster. Henry III’s son, the future Edward I, escaped in 1265 and raised a 10,000 man army that defeated Montfort’s 5,000 supporters at Evesham. Monfort’s remains were mutilated on the battlefield and displayed in various regions of England before being buried at Evesham Abbey. Henry III was dismayed by the number of pilgrims who visited Montfort’s grave and ordered the remains to be removed to an unknown location on the Abbey grounds. Evesham Abbey was almost entirely destroyed in 1540, during the dissolution of the monasteries. Further Reading: J. R. Maddicott, Simon de Montfort

Edward II receiving the English Crown

5) Edward II King Edward II was deposed by his wife, Queen Isabella and her lover, Roger Mortimer in 1327. The former King was imprisoned in Berkeley Castle while Isabella and Mortimer governed on behalf of his young son, Edward III. There were rumours that Edward II was quietly smothered in prison later in 1327. Isabella held a public funeral for her late husband in Gloucester Cathedral that same year. In his 1592 play Edward II, Christopher Marlowe popularized a more brutal legend about the King’s passing by having Mortimer’s agents come onstage with a table and a red hot poker and one of murderers declare, “So, lay the table down, and stamp on it/But not too hard lest that you bruise his body.”

Despite the funeral and the legends surrounding Edward II’s manner of death, Edward III’s biographer, Ian Mortimer has discovered evidence that the deposed King may have escaped from Berkeley Castle and lived out his natural life in retirement in Italy. In this hypothesis, Edward II exchanged clothing with a servant who closely resembled him and left Berkeley Castle for Ireland and, ultimately, Italy. The unlucky servant was murdered and buried in Gloucester Cathedral. Mortimer’s theory has been contested by other scholars of Edward II’s life and death. For further Reading on Edward II’s reign, see Seymour Phillips, Edward II

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