November 01, 2021

Death of an Empress



Death of an Empress
Elizabeth of Russia Portrait by Louis Tocque (1756)

Empress Elizabeth Petrovna breathed her last in December of 1761, in her St. Petersburg palace. Only a shadow of her former self, the once sprightly, frolicsome beauty (so beautiful, in fact, that legend has it she drove one lovesick foreigner utterly out of his mind) had grown quite feeble and incredibly fat. 

By any standard, Peter the Great’s second daughter had lived an unusual life. She was born out of wedlock to the emperor and the “Livonian laundress” Marta Skavronskaya, who had been taken prisoner when Russian forces captured her town. Peter eventually married Marta (who became Catherine – Yekaterina – when she converted to Orthodoxy), had her crowned empress, and recognized all their children. Still, the “stain” of Elizabeth’s illegitimate birth and lowly origins left a strong imprint on her life.

Peter had the brilliant idea of marrying Elizabeth to the French king, Louis XV, when they were both still children. It was a perfect match: the children were the same age, and the marriage would help solidify relations with France. This proposal raised eyebrows at Versailles, but did lead to protracted negotiations, which culminated in a polite refusal by the French. However, as a result of this failed undertaking, Elizabeth became fluent in French, and the subsequent dominance of French language and culture at the Russian court can largely be attributed to her.


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