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Czar Peter III was murdered by his wife, Catherine the Great

Posted in Historical articles, History, Royalty on Wednesday, 19 March 2014

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This edited article about Czar Peter III first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 597 published on 23 June 1973.

Peter III of Russia,  picture, image, illustration

Peter III of Russia

It was the evening of Christmas Day, 1761. Peter, who had been appointed Czar of all Russia that very day, was holding a sumptuous and riotous supper party in the vast banqueting chamber of the glittering royal palace in St. Petersburg. He had insisted that his guests wore their gayest clothes. He laughed and joked incessantly while the court musicians played loud, merry music. There was nothing to indicate that in the very next room the body of his aunt, the Empress Elizabeth of Russia, lay in state, surrounded by weeping mourners. She had died that very morning.

Early in the new year, the funeral took place. The funeral procession was huge and magnificent. Thousands lined the streets to see it. But Peter seemed unaware of the solemnity of the occasion. He walked behind the hearse, two courtiers carrying his regal train. He laughed and giggled to himself like a child intent on playing pranks. Suddenly he would stop so that the hearse went on several yards ahead while the entire procession behind came to a halt. Then Peter would run on, capering madly, leaving the procession to catch up with him as best they could. To Peter, the funeral of his aunt seemed like some ridiculous game.

This was Peter the Third, the man who was now ruling Russia. It was hardly surprising that his reign was to continue for only three years, or that it should end in violence and death. But Peter, on this funeral day, could know nothing of that. Nor could he know that he was to be the one short link between two great Empresses of Russia – Elizabeth, his aunt, and Catherine, his wife, later to be known as Catherine the Great.

Peter was born in 1728. He was only three months old when he lost his mother, the beloved sister of Elizabeth, Empress of Russia. His father neglected him and during his childhood Peter suffered more neglect and ill-treatment. Then his father died too and Peter became an orphan.

When Peter was 14 years old and then Duke of Holstein, Elizabeth arranged for him to be brought to Russia. Elizabeth had adored her sister. She was determined to do all she could for her nephew. She had decided that she would make Peter heir to the throne of Russia.

She quickly discovered that Peter was a thin, awkward child with rounded and almost deformed shoulders, and a thin, high-pitched voice. Elizabeth did everything she could to try and improve his poor health and his loutish ways, but Peter responded to none of this. He was cowardly and boastful. He was also destructive by nature, and when given toys he would pull them to pieces and then lose interest in them.

However, Elizabeth, was determined that he should be the next Czar of Russia. When Peter was 16, she decided that it was time he should marry. She had already chosen the bride – an obscure German Princess, Sophia. Sophia was brought to Moscow and educated to Russian ways. She was even made to change her name to Catherine, after Elizabeth’s mother.

Previously, Catherine had only seen a miniature portrait of her husband-to-be. This had depicted Peter as a handsome young man. She was horrified when she first met him and found that he was childish, cruel, ungainly and almost repulsive. But nevertheless the marriage took place.

Five years later, a son was born – Paul. The Empress Elizabeth immediately had the baby taken under her own care. Catherine was heartbroken. Indeed, it was 40 days before she even had a first glimpse of her son. But Peter remained completely disinterested.

And now Peter, at the age of 34, was the rightful Czar of Russia.

At that time, Russia was fighting, together with England and Austria, against Prussia. However, there was much of the German in Peter. He admired the Prussians and their severe military code. Although thousands of Russian lives had already been lost in this war, Peter decided to change sides. He ordered a cease-fire, commanded that all land captured from the Prussians be returned to them, and formed an alliance with Frederick of Prussia. Those Russian lives had been sacrificed in vain.

Certainly Peter did make some useful reforms at the beginning of his reign. He abolished the secret police, did away with the salt tax, and allowed freedom of religious worship. But these were only brief moments of sanity. And Peter’s alliance with Prussia had antagonised the army and the Russian people. He was to find little favour with them, and his childlike behaviour in public did little to help.

One of Peter’s great loves was to see a house on fire. He issued orders that whenever there was a fire, no matter the time of day or night, he was to be told. With the houses in Moscow mainly built of wood, this happened quite often. Peter would be driven to the fire and there he would personally supervise the operation of putting the fire out, seemingly enjoying the crackling flames and the thick black smoke that filled the air.

Another of his passions was to drill the Palace guard. This he did incessantly for hours on end, screaming in his high-pitched voice at any soldier who so much as made a wrong step.

At the Palace, he threw lavish parties which would last all night long. He would insist that his wife attend these even though she hated them. Usually he would openly insult her either by taunting her or by making her perform menial tasks such as serving the guests.

So Catherine continued to live a lonely life, while Peter enjoyed his selfish pleasures rather like a child who had never really grown up.

But Peter was to grow up only too soon. For Catherine was an ambitious woman. And a patient one. One day she would be the sole Empress of Russia – of that much she was sure. But matters had to be taken slowly.

One of the most important members of the Russian army was the Orlov family. These five brothers were all admirers of Catherine and she had their undivided loyalty. She also had the loyalty of the army as a whole, an army which hated Peter.

By June, 1762, tension was at its height. At 6 o’clock in the morning on June 28th, one of the Orlov brothers knocked on Catherine’s door. “All is ready,” he told her. She knew that the moment she had been waiting for had come. She dressed hurriedly and then set out for St. Petersburg in company with the army and the Orlov brothers.

Word had gone ahead. People were lining the streets of St. Petersburg waiting for her. Somehow they knew that the reign of Peter the Third was drawing towards its close.

That morning Peter had been reviewing his troop. Suddenly they snatched off their hated Prussian-like badges. He screamed at them but there was fear in his voice now.

Catherine, dressed in the uniform of a Russian guards officer and sitting astride a white charger, led her regiments in triumph. Peter was taken prisoner. Suddenly, instead of being the all-powerful Czar, he was merely a terrified human being. He threw himself on his knees in front of Catherine, his wife, and begged for mercy. He resigned all rights to the throne and asked to be allowed to leave the country.

Catherine would have none of this. She had already had herself proclaimed rightful and sole ruler of all Russia. She had her husband Peter, who had insulted her so often, publicly humiliated by having him stripped of his decorations and sword. She then ordered that he should be taken under strong guard to the prison in St. Petersburg.

It was the end of the reign of Peter the Third and the beginning of the reign of Catherine the Great. A cruel fate was to lay ahead for Peter – but that belongs to the story of Catherine the Great.

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