Tuesday, 21 July 2015

The Almack’s Patroness

Old Riga
Dorothea, Countess Lieven, was born in Riga on 17th December 1785, the youngest of four children of Christopher von Benckendorff[i], the military governor. Dorothea’s mother, Charlotte Schilling was one of the attendants of Czarevitch Paul’s new bride, Sophia Dorothea of Wurttemberg, who like all Russian royal brides converted to the Orthodox faith and took the name Maria Feodorovna. Charlotte stayed at court to serve her mistress. supporting her in her antagonism towards Paul’s mistress and aggravating a marital feud.
But when the Empress Catherine died Paul became Czar, Charlotte was no longer required at court[ii] and she joined her husband in Riga. The rigours of fortress life did not suit Charlotte and she died not long after her arrival leaving her children to the care of their godmother. The Empress paid for Dorothea’s brothers, Constantine and Alexander, education; Maria Feodorovna had Marie and Dorothea educated at the former convent at Smolny[iii],

Empress Maria Feodorovna
Before she died Charlotte had encouraged the suit of a Count von Elmpt who wanted to marry Dorothea. The Empress forbad the match and sent the 11 year old Dorothea back to Smolny. In later years Dorothea recalled that she;
‘Loved him with all my heart, I thought of nothing else.’[iv]
Dorothea entered into a clandestine correspondence with Elmpt who had been banished from St Petersburg. One of her governesses acted as a go-between, but the correspondence was discovered when the Empress unexpectedly descended upon Smolny to visit Dorothea and Marie. Elmpt was sent packing.
An Engagement

Winter Palace
At the age of 15 Dorothea joined Marie, now one of the Empress’ ladies-in-waiting, at the Winter Palace. Dorothea was not considered a beauty; she was tall and thin with little to show in the way of a bust. She relied on her wit and conversation to ensnare the men. But the Benckendorff family’s proximity to the fount of all power in Russia ensured that Dorothea did not go short of suitors.

Count Aracheyev
The Empress proposed that Dorothea marry one Count Aleksei Aracheyev, a provincial noble who was a brutal military man. She escaped the marriage by dint of the Czar’s whim; Arakcheev fell out of favour before the marriage could be agreed[v].
While still at Smolny Dorothea was engaged to the third son of Charlotte von Gaugreiben, Imperial governess, Madame de Lieven. Christopher Andreivich Lieven[vi] was a Livonian nobleman and a general in the artillery.

In 1797 Christopher was made Emperor Paul’s aide-de-camp and the family was given hereditary title to an estate at Mežotne. In 1798 he was promoted to the rank of Major-General and assigned to the post of the Director of the Mobile Field Chancellery and Minister of War. On 22nd February 1799 Madam de Lieven was made a Countess and her son automatically became Count Lieven.

Countess Charlotte von Lieven
As Christopher’s fiancée Dorothea was allowed to attend court; she revelled in the attentions bestowed upon her by the young male courtiers. Christopher was jealous of Dorothea’s court and she was packed back off to Smolny where she was freely disparaging with her remarks about her fiancé. Christopher was upset by Dorothea’s comments which made their way back to him;
‘Mlle de B. said openly that she no longer loves you, that she will never stop flirting….and that she is only marrying you to get away from the convent.’[vii]
For several days Dorothea did not get her daily letter from Christopher and got ribbed by the other schoolgirls.
Bending Before the Wind
Finally Christopher wrote to Dorothea;
‘All my happiness has changed into black grief....you forgot, and even humiliated a man who was utterly devoted to you....it does not surprise me that you found in this society several men you preferred to me, and who suit you better than I do.’[viii]

He offered to break off the engagement.
But Dorothea, who was desperate to leave the convent, was shrewd enough to know that losing such a fiancé would not improve her marital chances. She turned to illness, as she was to do so often throughout her life, to get herself out of trouble. She wrote to Christopher informing him of her illness and begged for forgiveness.
At a hastily arranged meeting between the affianced couple Dorothea promised to change her character to suit Christopher who did not want a society wife. Dorothea married Christopher on 24th February 1800; she was wearing diamonds, a gift from the Czar.
Regime Change
Gatchina Palace
But it was not long before Christopher fell foul of the Czar, having failed to attend a military parade at Gatchina. The Czar, a military martinet, called Christopher an imbecile to his face. Christopher and Dorothea retired from court on the grounds of Christopher’s ill-health. The Czar’s own English doctor, Dr Beck, was sent every day to check on the state of Christopher’s health.
Paul had alienated many of the nobility by removing many of the privileges his mother had granted them. Paul’s autocratic behaviour and overt control of social life down to dress, dance and even colour of permissible clothing along with the militarisation of government led to his downfall. During 1801 over 100 officers of the Imperial Guard were imprisoned for trifling offences[ix].

Czar Paul
His mother Catherine had been an autocrat, but an enlightened one. One diarist recorded;
‘The late Catherine had had the intention.....to give up the crown to her favourite grandson Alexander, for in her son she did not find the abilities to administer so extensive an empire.’[x]
Paul’s murder on 23rd March 1801 came only 12 days after Paul had removed Christopher from his posts, claiming he had been ill for too long.
‘Your indisposition has lasted too long, and as business cannot depend on your intestines you will have to send back your portfolio of war to Prince Gagarin[xi].’[xii]
Neither Christopher nor Dorothea were implicated in the Czar’s murder and Christopher found favour with the new Czar, Paul’s son Alexander I who made Christopher his Aide-de-Camp.
Family Affairs
Prince Dolguruky
Dorothea and Christopher had one daughter, Magda born in 1804, and three sons: Christopher was enraptured by his daughter as Dorothea wrote to her brother Alexander;
‘I wish you could see my husband with his child. He is altogether wrapped up in her. But then she is so attractive.’[xiii]
Their son Paul was born on 24th February 1805, Alexander on 9th March 1806 and Konstantin was born in 1807. The Empress was godmother to all three boys.
One of Dorothea’s earliest lovers was Prince Peter Dolguruky who was a friend of the family. She also had an affair with Grand Duke Constantine[xiv], heir presumptive and a military martinet who drove his wife out of Russia. Even Dorothea admitted that his virtues were outweighed by his vices.
Napoleon at Austerlitz
Christopher was very much involved in the Russian fight against Napoleon, whose drive for empire saw him conquer much of Europe. While Napoleon was conquering much of Europe Alexander saw himself as a peacemaker; it was not until the French crept closer to the Russian borders that Alexander became concerned.
Christopher was present at the battle of Austerlitz at which Napoleon crushed the armies of Russia and the Holy Roman Empire., and at the signing of the Treaty of Tilsit[xv] on 7th July 1807, the year Christopher was made Lieutenant-General.
Catherine Palace at Tsarskoe Selo
Magda died in 1807, possibly from the poor St Petersburg climate[xvi]. Dorothea’s grief embittered her against Christopher, absent on the Czar’s business. She withdrew to Tsarskoe Selo and refused to journey to Tilsit for the signing of the treaty.
When Christopher was with her the couple argued, although Dorothea assured her brother this was only because she was arguing with anyone she came into contact with. This may have been a way of easing her grief coupled with her anger at Russia’s defeat at the hands of the French. That France and Russia were now allied only added to Dorothea’s anger.
‘From morning to night I argue with everyone I meet…..In fact I need to argue to kill my bad temper which I cannot overcome……I am established here in spite of my husband’s return, and am content to see him for a few hours once a week.’[xvii]
Catherine the Great –John T Alexander, Oxford University Press 1989
The Princess and the Politicians – John Charmley, Penguin Books 2006
Paris Between Empires – Philip Mansel, Phoenix Press Paperback 2003
The Russian Empire – Hugh Seton-Watson, Oxford University Press 1988
Arch Intriguer – Priscilla Zamoyska, Heinemann Ltd 1957

[i][i][i][i] A protégée of Catherine the Great, possibly one of her lovers
[ii] She’d antagonised Paul by encouraging Maria Feodorovna in her antagonism towards Paul’s mistress
[iii] Catherine had it turned into a ‘school’ for girls to learn French, German and Italian, learn to play the piano and dance
[iv][iv] The Princess and the Politicians - Charmley
[v] He was still in exile by the time Paul was murdered in 1801
[vi] The links for Christopher and his mother have been translated from the Russian
[vii] Arch Intriguer - Zamoyska
[viii] Ibid
[ix] Including having hair too long or wearing waistcoats
[x] Catherine the Great - Alexander
[xi] Prince Grigory Ivanovich Gagarin, later ambassador to Italy
[xii] Arch Intriguer - Zamoyska
[xiii] Ibid
[xiv] Possibly little more than a flirtation
[xv] Signed by Napoleon, Alexander and Frederick William
[xvi] Renowned for diseases spread by insects living in the surrounding swamps
[xvii] Arch Intriguer - Zamoyska


  1. Eleven? she was a bit precocious... but then, escaping a nunnery might have had more to do with it...it appears to have been a most unsatisfactory childhood.

  2. Great post, thank you so much for sharing.
    I think Dorothea to be an extraordinarily interesting person. Do we get to hear more of her on your blog?

    1. Thank you; Dorothea was rather different from most other ladies of her time. I am currently working on parts 5-7 on Dorothea and they will be posted in due course