Natalia Alexeievna (Wilhelmina Louisa of Hesse-Darmstadt)

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Grand Duchess Natalia Alexeievna
Tsarevna of Russia
Natalia Alexeievna of Russia by A.Roslin (1776, Hermitage).jpg
Born(1755-06-25)25 June 1755
Prenzlau, Brandenburg, Prussia
Died26 April 1776(1776-04-26) (aged 20)
St. Petersburg, Russian Empire
Spouse
IssueStillborn son
HouseHesse-Darmstadt
FatherLouis IX, Landgrave of Hesse-Darmstadt
MotherCountess Palatine Caroline of Zweibrücken

Natalia Alexeievna, Tsarevna of Russia (25 June 1755 – 26 April 1776), was the first wife of Paul Petrovich, Tsarevich of Russia (future Emperor Paul I), son of the Empress Catherine II. She was born as Princess Wilhelmina Louisa of Hesse-Darmstadt as the fifth child of Louis IX, Landgrave of Hesse-Darmstadt and his spouse Countess Palatine Caroline of Zweibrücken.

Life[edit]

Early years[edit]

Born in Prenzlau, Uckermark, Brandenburg, Prussia as the sixth child and fourth daughter of the nine children born from the Landgravial couple, Wilhelmina Louisa Augusta of Hesse-Darmstadt was brought up under the strict supervision of her mother, nicknamed "The Great Landgräfin", famed as one of the most learned women of her time and who befriended several writers and philosophers of her time, such as Goethe, Herder and other celebrities of that time. Already in her youth, Wilhelmina was distinguished by an outstanding mind, strong character and ardent temperament.

Journey to Russia and Marriage[edit]

In 1772, Tsarevich Pavel Petrovich of Russia was 18-years-old, and his mother, Empress Catherine II, began the search for a bride for him. After a long search, two candidates remained: Sophia Dorothea of Württemberg and Wilhelmina of Hesse-Darmstadt, but Sophia Dorothea was just 13-years-old, and Catherine II urgently needed an heir, so the Empress was forced to opt for one of the remaining three unmarried daughters of the Landgrave of Hesse-Darmstadt; however, this option didn't please the empress. In a letter to her envoy she wrote:

Princess Wilhelmina of Darmstadt is described to me, especially by the kindness of my heart, as the perfection of nature; but besides of that perfection —as I know— does not exist in the world, you say that she has a impetuous mind, prone to discord. This, in conjunction with the mind of her sovereign, father and with a large number of sisters and brothers, partly already married, and partly still waiting to be betrothed to royalty, prompts me in this regard to caution. However, I ask you to take the trouble to resume your observations...

King Frederick II of Prussia —to whom Catherine II turned for "recommendations" in this matter— wanted the marriage, moreover because the Landgrave's eldest daughter Frederica was married to the heir of the Prussian throne and so, an alliance between Prussia and Russia would be a beneficial outcome.

In October 1772, Catherine II wrote to Nikita Ivanovich Panin:

The Landgravine, thank God, has three more daughters for marriage; ask her to come here with all them; we will be very unhappy if we don't choose one of the three that are suitable for us. Let's look at them, and then decide; these daughters are: Amalie (aged 18); Wilhelmina (aged 17) and Louise (aged 15)... I don’t particularly dwell on the praise that the eldest of the princesses of Hesse who was chosen by the King of Prussia, because I know how he chooses and what he needs, and the one he likes could hardly please us. According to him - which are more stupid, they are better: I saw and knew their chosen ones.

Unable to decide which one was worthy, the Empress sent an invitation to Wilhelmina, her sisters and their mother to visit Russia. Hurriedly, the three Princesses studied to perfect their French, worked on their dancing, practiced dropping deep curtseys, and completed their wardrobes, their first stop was in Berlin where from there a flotilla of four ships, sent by the Empress Catherine, took them to Russia. It was the Grand Duke Paul's best friend, young Andrei Razumovsky, who commanded the frigate that carried the young ladies and their mother, he was immediately captivated by these charming passengers, and was particularly taken with Wilhelmine. She was not insensible to the admiration of Andrei.

The meeting of the Tsarevich with the Hessian princesses occurred in Gatchina on 15 June 1773. Paul chose Wilhelmina; she was very pretty, gay and exuberant, and the heir of the Russian throne was very delighted with her. Catherine II wrote:

...My son from the first minute fell in love with princess Wilhelmine, I gave him three days to see if he was hesitating, and since this princess is superior in all aspects to her sisters...the eldest is very meek; the youngest seems to be very clever; in average, we all have the desired qualities: her face is charming, the features are correct, she is gentle, smart; I am very pleased with her, and my son is in love...

An anonymous portrait of Wilhelmine Louise of Hesse-Darmstadt, soon to be the Tsesarevna of Russia.

On 27 June 1773 the Landgravine of Hesse-Darmstadt and her three daughters were awarded with the Order of Saint Catherine. Almost one month later, on 15 August, Princess Wilhelmina was accepted in the Orthodox faith with the name and title of Grand Duchess Natalia Alexeievna, and the next day her betrothal with the Tsarevich Paul took place amidst great ostentation.

Tsarevna[edit]

Grand Duchess Natalia portrayed the year of her death, by Alexander Roslin

On 29 September 1773, the wedding between Tsarevich Paul Petrovich and Natalia Alexeievna took place in the Church of the Nativity of the Most Holy Theotokos (currently Kazan Cathedral). Very soon she showed her domineering and impetuous nature: the English envoy James Harris, 1st Earl of Malmesbury noted that she "ruled her husband despotically, without even giving herself the trouble to show the least attachment to him."

During the first few months of her marriage, Natalia's gaiety and spontaneity animated the whole court; the Empress was delighted with her initially, but as time passed difficulties started to appear. The new Tsarevna's union was a failure: although Paul Petrovich loved his wife, Natalia was disappointed with her life as a married woman; for this, she began several political intrigues against Catherine II in order to help her husband to take the throne, because she felt such a need to accede to power due to her disastrous conyugal life. In addition, the Tsarevna refused to learn Russian and, being raised in modern Europe, showed certain independence in her statements, adhering to liberal ideas and even occasionally advocated the liberation of the peasants. Catherine II clearly didn't like her daughter-in-law behavior, she wrote:

...Fearing evil, we do not trust the whole earth. Do not listen to any good or bad advice; until now, there is no good nature, no caution, no prudence in all of this, and God knows what will happen because they do not listen to anyone and everyone wants to do it their own way. After a year and a half and more, she still do not speak Russian; we want to be taught, but she was not diligent in her studies, her many debts are twice bigger than the biggest fortunes in the country, and hardly anyone in Europe gets so much.

Despite Natalia wasn't in love with her husband, she used her influence over him and tried to keep him away from everyone except for a narrow circle of her friends. According to contemporaries, the Tsarevna was a serious and ambitious woman, with a proud heart and a cool temper. In addition, she had been married for two years, but there was still no heir, to the concern of the court and the Empress.

However, in early 1776 the long-awaited pregnancy of the Tsarevna was officially announced to the court. Rumours of her affair with the charming Andrei Razumovsky aroused doubts about the real paternity of the child; however, for Catherine II didn't seem to care if was her son's or Andrei's. Natalia was carrying the heir to the Russian throne, and for the Empress, that was all that mattered.

Death[edit]

On 10 April 1776 around 4 a.m., the Tsarevna began the first labour pains. The contractions lasted for several days, and despite the baby couldn't be born naturally, the doctors didn't use either obstetric forceps or made a caesarean section; the child died in the womb and infected the mother's body.

"The case is very bad" —Catherine II told her State Secretary perhaps the next day, in a letter marked 5 a.m.—. "What way did the child go, and his mother go. Keep this up to yourself"....

After five days of torment at 5 a.m. on 15 April, Tsarevna Natalia Alekseevna finally died after giving birth to a stillborn son.

Ancestry[edit]

Bibliography[edit]

  • Troyat, Henri, Catherine the Great, 1980 ISBN 0-425-05186-2