On 21 August 1793, Princess Dorothea of Courland was born as the daughter of Dorothea von Medem, Duchess of Courland and Peter von Biron, the last Duke of Courland (in present-day Latvia). Or was she perhaps the daughter of Count Aleksander Batowski? No one knows for sure, but she was recognised by the Duke as his daughter. He was 69 and bordering on senile. Dorothea had five siblings, of which three sisters survived to adulthood.
Dorothea spent her early years in Sagan, and she saw little of the man who recognised her as his daughter. The age difference between Dorothea and her siblings was quite significant. She was ten years younger than her third sister. In her early childhood, her three elder sisters often spent the summers with their father while Dorothea remained with her mother. Dorothea was only six years old when her father died on 13 January 1800. Dorothea and her sisters were now the wealthiest heiresses in Europe. Meanwhile, her mother had moved onto another lover by the name of Gustave Maurice, Baron d’Armfeld, who took it upon himself to see to the marriages of her three elder sisters. Dorothea later wrote, “My whole family was under the spell of this Baron d’Armfeld; so fatal to the tranquillity of all those whom he called his friends. He ruled our domestic life despotically…”1
The eldest sister Wilhelmina had inherited the title of Duchess of Sagan, but her proposed match to Louis Ferdinand, Prince of Prussia fell through, leaving Wilhelmina very disappointed. She threw herself into an unhappy match with Prince Louis de Rohan-Guémenée, a French émigre, which ended in divorce five years later. The second sister Pauline married Frederick Hermann, Prince of Hohenzollern-Hechingen and although he was a much better catch than Louis de Rohan, Pauline was not any happier. The third sister Jeanne eloped at the age of 16 with the music-master, a German man named Arnold. However, she was tracked down and brought back to her family under protest. The music-master was eventually arrested, and he died (or was executed) in prison just a few days later. In March 1801, Jeanne married Francis Pignatelli of Belmonte, Duke of Acerenze to save her from future scandal.
Meanwhile, the young Dorothea was entrusted to the care of an English governess. She was a brutal woman who beat Dorothea and even forced her to run naked outside during the winter. There was little actual educating going on. Dorothea later wrote, “Sad almost to the point of melancholia, I remember perfectly how I longed to die…”2 Her unexpected saviour came in the form of the Baron d’Armfeld whom she had disliked, but he saw the deficiency in her education and knew she had more in her. Within weeks, she was able to read, and she was asking for more. Finally, her mother began to take an interest in Dorothea, and two tutors were appointed for her. Dorothea began to read everything she could get her hands on – in English, German or French.
On 15 April 1808, Dorothea was confirmed in the St Nicolas church in Berlin. Being rather non-religious, Dorothea later wrote, “The future seemed to unveil itself before me at the moment the pastor, having invoked for me the blessing of the Most High, declared me a member of the Faithful. I understood that my entry into adult life meant that I would be called on to fight, to struggle fiercely, rather than to follow the happy and brilliant career which everything seemed to promise me…”3 Her mother promised her a separate household in Saxony and the freedom to go to Berlin in the winter. Dorothea was now 15 years old, and her mother wanted to get rid of her.
Dorothea already had her eye on a potential husband – Prince Adam Czartoryski. The dashing Prince had been taken as a hostage to Russia, and he had been appointed as Grand Duke Alexander’s aide-de-camp as a reward for good behaviour. When Alexander became Tsar in 1801, he suddenly found himself nominated as Minister of Foreign Affairs. He left Alexander’s service in 1806, and his thoughts had turned to marriage as well. Dorothea had never even met Prince Adam, but she had heard the stories. They finally met in de spring of 1807, but her mother was quite dependent on the Russian Emperor, and he and Prince Adam hadn’t exactly left things on good terms. Several more suitors came calling, but none charmed her as much as Prince Adam.
Things changed when Tsar Alexander came to dinner in October 1807 with a man named Count Edmond de Talleyrand-Périgord in his entourage. He was the heir of his uncle Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, Prince of Benevento, who until recently had been Minister of Foreign Affairs for Emperor Napoleon.4