This article was written by Carol.
Dorothea, Princess Lieven was the wife of the Russian ambassador to England in the early 19th century and through her relationships and influence a force in European politics for 40 years.
She was born in 1785 to a Baltic nobleman, Christopher von Benckendorff and a German noblewoman, Anna Julianne Schilling von Cannstatt. Her mother came to Russia in 1776 with the Empress Maria Feodorovna at the time of the Empress’ marriage. She died when Dorothea was 14, and the Empress took charge of her and arranged her marriage to Count Christopher von Lieven, whose mother was the governess for the imperial children. They had one daughter and five sons. In 1826 Tsar Nicholas gave them the title of Serene Highness, Prince and Princess of Lieven.
In 1812 then Count Lieven was named Ambassador to the Court of St. James in London. At first, Dorothea worked at making her presence felt in London’s social scene. She was the first foreigner to be named as a patroness to the famed Almack’s Assembly Rooms, and in 1813 she introduced the waltz to that conservative group. The Diarist Thomas Raikes wrote: “No event ever produced so great a sensation in English society as the introduction of the waltz in 1813.”
Soon, however, she discovered the world of politics. She eclipsed her husband, and it was said that Russia had two Ambassadors. She began by adding notes to his dispatches to Russia and soon was writing them herself. Emperor Alexander often used her to send back-channel messages, and he wrote “It is a pity Countess Lieven wears skirts. She would have made an excellent diplomat.”
Her fascination with men in power was reciprocated. George IV was enamoured of her and kept a picture of her by his bed. She became a member of the “Cottage Coterie” who hung out with The Regent at his Windsor “cottage” and conspired against the opposition party led by George Canning. She was devastated when her friend and confidant, the Foreign Minister Lord Castlereagh died, but when Canning succeeded him, Canning became her new confidant as did later Lord Grey, who became Prime Minister in 1830.
She notoriously had a love affair with the Austrian Chancellor Metternich. They met in 1818 where they struck up a conversation about Napoleon. Metternich later said of their meeting: “This proves he (Napoleon) has been more useful to me on his rock in the ocean than ever he was on the throne.” Their correspondence survives – he wrote mainly about his love and she of politics. Five years later, the relationship was dying, as was the Russian-Austrian alliance. Metternich’s marriage to his second wife ended it.
Her wit, sarcasm and intriguing kept her in the limelight, and she actively influenced or interfered with ( depending on your point of view) many political issues including the independence of both Greece and Belgium. She helped Lord Palmerston become Foreign Minister, but he soon had had enough, and in 1834 he forced the Emperor to recall the Lievens. The Times reported their departure thus:
The recall of Prince Lieven, or rather of Mme la Princesse is an “event”…There never figured on the Courtly stage a female intriguer more restless, more arrogant, more mischievous, more politically (and therefore we mean it not offensively) odious than this supercilious Ambassadress.
She was miserable returning to Russia. Soon thereafter two of her sons died from scarlet fever, and the doctors recommended that she travel to warmer climes for her own health. She ended up in Paris and never returned to Russia. (Her husband died in 1839.)
She created a salon there which became known as the listening post of Europe and began a 20-year relationship with the French statesman Francis Guizot. When Guizot was Foreign minister, she facilitated private messages between him and the English foreign minister, Lord Aberdeen. “Your letters are always welcome and never more so than when you write with a view …of preserving peace,” Aberdeen wrote. When she asked Guizot’s political opponent, Adolphe Thiers, why he no longer came to her salon, he replied: “When you are no longer French Minister, I will visit you again.”
During the revolutions of 1848, she was forced to escape Paris. She landed in Brighton where Metternich and his third wife had also decamped. Neither thought the other had aged well although they enjoyed reminiscing. Louis Napoleon’s accession to the French throne gave her an opportunity to return to Paris, where his prospective bride Eugenia was brought to her to receive her approval.
She died in 1857 and at her request was buried with her sons at the Lieven estate. From the Times obituary: “ A woman who exercised in her time as much political and social influence, and perpetrated as much political mischief as any lady of the generation to which she belonged.” 1
- Further Reading:
D. Lieven, P. Quennell, ed: The Private Letters of Princess Lieven to Prince Metternich,
D. Lieven : Letters of Dorothea, Princess Lieven, During her Residence in London, 1812-1834
D. Lieven, G Le Strange: Correspondence of Princess Lieven and Earl Grey
H. Montgomery Hyde: Princess Lieven, Little Brown, 1938