Peter I is a figure well known to any student of history, he was Tsar of Russia and the founder of a great city Saint-Petersburg. What few people know though is that despite his extraordinary achievements he was somewhat difficult in personal life, Russian historians go as far as to suggest that he was mentally unstable and cruel individual. This part of his personality is especially notable in his relationship with a Dutch mistress Anna Mons. Anna Mons was a daughter of a dutch citizen living in Moscow, some accounts state that he was an innkeeper, others say that he was a wine merchant. Since young age Peter I preferred Western culture rather than traditional Russian one. Many historians blame this preference on the influence of Anna Mons over Peter I. Russian historian Mordovcev has written in his work Perfectionists and Realists in 1878: “Anna Mons is a foreigner, daughter of a wine merchant, she is a woman whom Peter loved so much that he has turned traditional Russia towards West and had turned it so much that Russia is still upside down”.
Peter and Anna met in 1690. At that time Anna’s father was one of the wealthiest merchants of German Settlement but only a year later after his death his widow – the mother of Anna – had to sell family shop and other properties in order to be able to pay the debts left by her husband; fortunately they have kept the family house. At that time Peter I was courting the best friend of Anna Mons – a young lady called Elena Fademreh.
In 1692 Anna, then of 22 years old, became the official mistress of Peter I. Most of the historians agree that Anna has done so because of financial reasons while Peter I was crazily in love with her. At the time Peter was married to crowned Evdokia Fedorovna with whom only two years earlier he had a son – Alexey. Peter I and Evdokia had an arranged marriage when Peter was 16 years old and Tsar of All Russia had no say in this arrangement. There was a good reason why Peter went along with the marriage – according to the customs of Russia of those times if he was a married man then he was considered of age to rule without a regent.
Here I would like to expand a little about Evdokia to give the reader a context of the events. Evdokia was raised according to all the traditions of Russia, she was always opposing Western culture while her husband admired everything Western. Her personality was not pleasant and her family members gained no favours in the Court of Peter I. A close friend of Peter I and one of his intelligence officers – Kurakin – has written about Evdokia and her family: “The princess had a pretty face but little brain which caused her to loose her own happiness and that of her family. Although in the beginning there was love between Peter I and his wife it only lasted a year. Furthermore Natalia Kirillovna (mother of Peter I) began to hate Evdokia and wanted to see her fighting with Tsar. All this has led to incredible changes in Russian government which became known to the whole world…”
Then he writes about Evdokia’s family:
“They are angry people, jealous and gossipy, of little brain and don’t have any knowledge of how to behave at Court… That’s why everyone hates them and comment that if this family will gain Tsar’s favour then they will kill everyone and will rule the government. In short, everyone hated them and everyone wished them ill or were afraid of them”.
In this context the reader can observe that Evdokia had few chances of keeping power and that its very probable that many courtiers have been looking for an opportunity of introducing the right kind of mistress to the Tsar. Peter and Anna met in the house of Lefort, Peter’s best friend and a very influential figure in Russian history. Later in 1693 Lefort became a full general of Russian army and in 1695 also an Admiral of Russian fleet. He was always Peter’s favourite. Remember his name as he will come up once again in the story.
After Anna became mistress of Peter her delicate financial situation has significantly improved, Peter proved to be a very generous lover. Out of his many gifts the most memorable ones are perhaps his own portrait framed in diamonds which cost around 1000 Rubles at the time, a large beautiful house that he built especially for Anna in German Settlement. He has also given her a big part of land with villages and 295 peasant houses on it. Some nobles have written about Anna that she was “a very wise landlord that was personally overseeing all the production of her lands”. Anna and her mother were also receiving a large sum of money every year.
In 1697 Peter left Russia for a diplomatic mission remembered in history as The Grand Embassy. The main goal of the mission was to strengthen the Holy Alliance between Russia and European countries against Ottoman Empire but for Peter it was also a great adventure. He went on the mission incognito, hiding the fact that he was Tsar, in fact he even worked as a shipbuilder in Dutch Republic. The mission has lasted for over a year. While Peter was away Anna was exchanging flirtatious letters with Kenigsek, a Scandinavian Ambassador. It is unclear how far this flirtation went but Peter only found out about this years later. In 1698 Peter came back to Russia, he first went to see Anna Mons and only later returned to his Court. A few days later Peter sends his wife Evdokia to a monastery which makes him free to marry again. Despite many speculations that Peter sent Evdokia to a monastery because he wanted to marry Anna there is little prove of this and the fact is Peter continued his palace life alone for 3 more years. While living apart Anna and Peter were constantly exchanging letters. Incredibly out of hundreds of letters not in a single one has Anna spoken of her love towards Peter, most letters consisted of her asking favours from Tsar and of Tsar’s love to her. In that time period Anna was not a very popular figure in Russia, nobility blamed her for arrogance and peasants blamed her for Westernisation of Russia.
In 1703 Peter began to live openly with Anna in her house, preferring it to the palace. From this moment on follows a chain of unfortunate for Anna events. It seems that the beauty could charm the Tsar during their brief meetings but could not live with him a consistent life. Only months after their co-living, during one of the government celebrations, Kenigsek – the Scandinavian ambassador that Anna was exchanging letters with – suddenly falls off a ship and dies. Amongst his belongings were found those romantic letters and some souvenirs sent by Anna. Despite popular belief it is unlikely that Peter would have killed the ambassador himself because in that case he would not have made the letters public to avoid personal humiliation; it is more probable though that this was organised by some noble that wanted to see Anna fall from favour. Either way after Kenigsek’s death Peter breaks up with Anna and places her under house arrest. Almost immediately after being placed under arrest Anna’s amorous attention seems to be moving on to a new target – Ambassador of Prussia – Georg Ioan von Keizerling. The same year Keizerling went to Peter to petition him for Anna’s hand. Fortunately for our curiousity Keizerling has written a letter to king of Prussia where he tells him of the conversation with Peter I:
“Your Majesty might remember that almost everyone was gossiping in improper manner of me and some girl called Mons, from Moscow – people were saying that she is Tsar’s lover. I asked the Tsar of my request… he answered that he was raising Mons girl for himself with honest intention of marrying her but since I have seduced and denigrated her then he doesn’t want to hear her name or that of her family ever again. I responded with a due humbleness that His Majesty should not be angry with Mons girl or with me, that if she is guilty of something then only of following the advice of Menshikov, of asking you to grant us permission to marry. Nor her, nor I would ever dare to do anything opposing to the wishes of His Majesty which I can prove with my honour and my life. Then Menshikov suddenly said that Mons girl is a treacherous and vulgar woman with whom he screwed around just as much as I did… I would have gotten my sword out but only then I noticed that it was stolen from me and that my servants were also discreetly taken away; this enraged me and was the reason for my argument with Menshikov… Then His Majesty together with Menshikov have not only attacked me with the harshest of words but have also thrown me down the stairs and through the whole square”.
Menshikov mentioned in this letter is Alexander Danilovich Menshikov, a prince of Russia who was one of the closest friends of Peter I and who after the death of Lefort became the First Advisor to the Tsar. As the reader remembers Lefort was the person who introduced Anna Mons to Peter and who was always in Tsar’s favour. He was one of very few who supported the relationship between Peter and Anna. In 1699 Lefort died and Menshikov became a new favourite of the Tsar. Menshikov of course had a reason for desiring the breakup between Peter and Anna, and that reason was called Catherine I. Catherine was but a servant girl in Menshikov’s house at the time but he has skilfully placed her in Tsar’s attention. Once Peter broke up with Anna he began courting Catherine, later he married her and the ex servant girl became the Empress of Russia. After the death of Peter I, Catherine stayed on the throne and Menshikov basically ruled the country through her.
By 1705 Tsar is already in love with Catherine and by 1706 Anna is allowed to leave the house to visit the church. In those times church visits had a very social aspect to them: many introductions and conversations were conducted after religious services. Soon after Anna is seen in public a new dangerous gossip is created: that Anna has bewitched the Tsar. Such rumours are rarely recorded by history unless someone profits from them. Unfortunately during her years in Tsar’s favour Anna Mons has made quite a lot of enemies with her notoriously arrogant behaviour. We can only speculate weather it was Menshikov, the new mistress of Peter or someone else entirely that did not want to see Anna restored to favour.
In 1711, 7 years after the scandal between Keizerling and Menshikov, Tsar finally allows Anna and Keizerling to marry. The marriage was celebrated on 18th of June of 1711 and on 6th of September of same year Anna’s husband suddenly dies of “unknown causes”. Anna Mons died 3 years later of consumption. But the story of her family does not stop here as her brother was serving in the household of the new wife of Peter I – Catherine I – this you can read in the article A Servant Queen.
On the example of this story we can see how important it is to stay humble even when one is on the rise. The fast fall of Evdokia – Peter’s first wife and then of Anna Mons were both caused in great part by arrogance. Anna wasn’t the most faithful of lovers but she could have potentially risen in life again has she not made so many enemies during her stardom. For Catherine I who knew well the value of humbleness the life was turning out far better.