Sophie Dorothea of Württemberg, or Maria Feodorovna as she would be known as Grand Duchess and later Empress of Russia1, was born on 25 October 1759 as the fourth of twelve children of Frederick II Eugene, Duke of Württemberg and Princess Frederica of Brandenburg-Schwedt. Her elder brother would later become the first King of Württemberg. She was born in Stettin in the Kingdom of Prussia, in present-day Szczecin, Poland. From the age of ten, Sophie Dorothea lived at the Castle of Montbéliard, in present-day France.
Sophie Dorothea learned to speak German, French, Italian and Latin and was known to have a sunny disposition. In 1773, she was first considered for the heir to the Russian throne, the future Tsar Paul I, but she was considered to be too young, and he married Wilhelmina Louisa of Hesse-Darmstadt instead. A betrothal to Wilhelmina Louisa’s brother Prince Louis of Hesse was discussed after this, but when Wilhelmina Louisa died in childbirth 1776, she was once more considered as Paul’s bride.
Sophia Dorothea and Paul both travelled to Berlin to meet one another. Upon her departure, her mother sobbed, “My mind misgives me. All sorts of disasters happen to the Czars of Russia. Who can tell what fate is in store for my poor daughter?”2 From Berlin, Sophie Dorothea wrote of her first impression of her future husband, “The Grand Duke is as amiable as it is possible to be, and he appears to unite in his person and disposition, every good quality.”3 With both partners apparently pleased with each other, Sophie Dorothea would set out for Russia with her fiance.
Sophie Dorothea converted to the Russian Orthodox Church, taking on the name Maria Feodorovna, and was granted the title Grand Duchess of Russia, with the style of Imperial Highness. They were married on 26 September 1776, and Paul’s mother Empress Catherine (the great) was delighted with her new daughter-in-law.
Sophie Dorothea soon found herself pregnant for the first time. She gave birth to her first son – the future Emperor Alexander I – on 12 December (O.S) 1777. Catherine swooped in, stating “Your children belong to you, to me and the state.”4 Sophie Dorothea had survived the birth, but she was quite ill for a time. In May 1779, she gave birth to a second son – named Constantine. Sophie Dorothea was “loved for her high virtues and finds happiness only in children”5, and she would spend the next 20 years bearing her husband ten children. However, Catherine treated her son with disdain, calling the couple “The Seconds” and treated their son Alexander as the next Emperor.
As Paul and Sophie Dorothea waited for the throne in the shadows, they spent most of their time at Gatchina, except a European Tour in 1781/1782 where they also met King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette. In 1793, Catherine arranged the marriage of their eldest son to Princess Louise of Baden (later renamed Elizabeth Alexeievna). Sophie Dorothea and Paul had no say in the matter. In 1796, she also arranged Constantine’s marriage to Princess Juliane of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld. Neither marriage would produce surviving issue.
In 1796, the years of waiting finally came to an end. On 6 November (O.S), Empress Catherine died surrounded by Sophie Dorothea, Paul, Alexander, Louise, Constantine and Juliane. Sophie Dorothea was the first to drop to her knees in front of her husband, the new Emperor. Her husband’s first act was to give his father a proper burial by Catherine’s side, and he had his body exhumed. In 1798, Sophie Dorothea gave birth to her last child – a fourth son, named Michael. It had been a dangerous birth, and she was advised to abstain from intercourse from then on.
Paul’s reign as Emperor would be short. On 11 March (O.S.) 1801, he was strangled in his bedroom by several dismissed officers. His son Alexander who had been led to believe he would act as regent sobbed that people would think he had murdered his father. Sophie Dorothea had slept through the whole thing, and she was awoken by her mistress of the robes. Guards refused to let her enter her husband’s chamber to see the body. She then tried to claim that she had succeeded her husband as she had been crowned with him. She was ordered to come to the Winter Palace, but she told the guards, “Tell my son that until I see my husband dead, I shall not acknowledge him as my sovereign.”6 She was finally allowed to see her husband’s body.
She met with her son, initially telling him, “Do not come near me! I see you are covered with your father’s blood.”7 However, he managed to persuade her that he had nothing to do with the murder. Sophie Dorothea kept Paul’s bloodstained shirt and bed and made a bedroom shrine. Just a few days later, her eldest daughter Alexandra, who had married Archduke Joseph, Palatine of Hungary, died in childbirth. She was only 17 years old. In 1803, her second daughter Elena died suddenly after becoming ill.
Sophie Dorothea spent her widowhood at Pavlovsk, where she supervised the education of her younger children. She was horrified when a proposal came for the hand of her daughter Anna from Napoleon Bonaparte. Anna herself also disagreed, and she would end up marrying King William II of the Netherlands. Constantine’s marriage to Juliane ended in divorce, and when he remarried a Polish noblewoman, Sophie Dorothea objected to him being the heir to the childless Emperor Alexander.
Sophie Dorothea would survive her eldest son and would indeed see Constantine skipped as heir and the succession taken up by her third son, Nicholas, in 1825. By then, Nicholas already had one son and two daughters by his wife Charlotte of Prussia (Alexandra Feodorovna). For a third time, she took part in a coronation.
On 5 November (O.S.) 1828, Sophie Dorothea died at the age of 69. Her last letter to her daughter Anna in the Netherlands read, “Good Annette-dear, Our dearest Nikki is here since today, and I am so happy. Unfortunately, I am sick with colic and fever, but I am doing better already. I have not been allowed to write. Goodbye, Annette-dear, dearest Willem (Anna’s husband), I embrace your children and care for you with all my heart and soul.”8
Nicholas wrote to his brother Michael after her death, “It’s all over, Michael, and we are orphans…She smiled one more time, hugging Lily, Adine, Kitty (his daughters). I can hardly write, no more strength!”9
- For clarity’s sake we will continue to refer to her as Sophie Dorothea
- A Mother of Czars by Colquhoun Grant p. 43
- A Mother of Czars by Colquhoun Grant p. 44
- The Romanovs 1613-1918 by Simon Sebag Montefiore p.226
- The Romanovs 1613-1918 by Simon Sebag Montefiore p.231
- The Romanovs 1613-1918 by Simon Sebag Montefiore p.276
- A Mother of Czars by Colquhoun Grant p. 82
- Chère Annette edited by S.W. Jackman p. 165
- The Romanovs 1613-1918 by Simon Sebag Montefiore p.355