Over the last few episodes, I’ve focused on how Britain has been struggling with a larger war against European powers. The rebellion of its American colonies raised a sense in Britain’s enemies that it might be in a state of weakness. France in 1778, and Spain in 1779 went to war against Britain. Other countries also began smelling blood. Although not ready to go to war, they did hope to take advantage of the situation.
Europe at this time was dominated by a few families of aristocrats that intermarried with one another. They made whatever deals they had to do to maintain alliances of national security. They were also always ready to pounce on a neighbor in a moment of weakness in order to add to their own real estate when possible.
There were exceptions, of course. Catholic Portugal often allied with Britain because Catholic Spain tended to be an enemy. Nordic countries, including Sweden and Denmark sometimes allied with Catholic countries in order to fight their neighbors in the German states. Russia tended to be all over the place, changing alliances regularly, and sometimes in the middle of a war. It’s also important to remember at this time that wars were not the massive bloodbaths that we see beginning with the Napoleonic era.
In the 18th Century, wars were fought between relatively small professional armies that did not involve the much larger civilian population. Most of these people were peasants, who really didn’t care that much what distant monarch claimed sovereignty over them. War might bring destruction, pillaging, and rape, but since all armies did that, including the one that ruled over the people, peasants were more concerned that the war would end quickly so they could get back to trying to survive. If a different king took their same taxes and rents, that was not much of a concern. Armies were made up of paid professional soldiers who were looking to conquer other paid professional soldiers. The monarchs of Europe paid for these professional armies to protect their real estate and look to conquer others, like some giant game of Risk.
The 18th century wars in Europe and the constantly-shifting alliances could be a whole podcast by itself. I only mention all this by way of background for the war that broke out in the 1770’s. Spain and France were at war with Britain, but other European powers were mostly trying to stay out of the fight. War was an expensive proposition, so letting other countries fight each other while you built up your money and resources, would give you an advantage against those potential adversaries in the next war. One of the key countries that maintained its neutrality in this war was that of Russia, ruled by Catherine the Great.
Catherine the Great
Catherine II of Russia, also known as Catherine the Great, was like all the other European leaders, continually shifting alliances for whatever gave her country the greatest benefit.. Catherine had been born in the German state of Prussia, today part of Poland, as Princess Sophie. Her father was Christian August, Prince of Anhalt-Zerbst, one of many tiny German states. Since her father was not the first born son, his older brother ruled and Christian embarked on a military career. These smaller states typically served in the larger Prussian Army, which usually provided military protection to the smaller German states.
|Catherine, age 16|
But the couple did have family connections. Pretty much all royal marriages took place to other royals, meaning that almost all of them were interrelated in some way. It was a strategy to keep wealth and power within the extended family. Lower ranking royals used marriage as a way to improve their family’s status, wealth, and power. It was also unusual to marry someone from your own country. Marriages were a strategic way to maintain alliances. If your child married the child of your rival, perhaps he would be less interested in waging war against his grandchild.
By the time Princess Sophie was eight years old, her mother began shopping her around the great houses of Europe in search of a potential husband. They didn’t have much luck. The family lacked wealth and position. A military general living in a townhouse was not impressive to the great royal families of Europe. Even so, her mother worked to find Sophie an impressive match that would enhance the family’s stature. By 1739, Sophie was ten years old and still without a fiancé.
|Peter III of Russia|
That, of course, was irrelevant. The children would have no say in who they married. Johanna began corresponding with the boy’s aunt, Grand Duchess Elizabeth Petrovna of Russia. Elizabeth, daughter of Peter the Great. Elizabeth’s mother was Peter’s maid. She was illegitimate, but Peter later married her mother and tried to legitimize her birth. The result was she had a hard time finding a spouse among the great families despite being daughter of the Tsar. Elizabeth had been engaged to Johanna’s brother. He died before they could be married. Johanna used that past relationship to begin correspondence with Elizabeth about a possible match between Johanna’s daughter Sophie, and the childish and ugly Charles Peter Ulrich that Sophie hated,
A few years after the two children met, Elizabeth of Russia, through a whole series of deaths, coups, and other machinations too complex to get into here, assumed the throne and became Empress of Russia in 1741. She brought the boy to Russia and proclaimed him heir to the Russian throne. He would go by the name Peter, and renounced his claims to the Swedish throne. He converted to the Eastern orthodox religion and began to prepare to take the throne upon his aunt’s death.
Meanwhile, Sophie’s mother, Johanna continued to encourage Elizabeth to agree to a marriage to the heir-apparent of the Russian throne. Sophie’s prospect of marriage grew a bit when her father inherited his family’s principality upon the death of the last of his older brothers in 1742. Probably more important was the support of the new King of Prussia Frederick II, later known as Frederick the Great. Frederick wanted the marriage in order to strengthen the relationship between Russia and Prussia. He was trying to pull Russia away from an alliance with the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Prussia’s enemy.
In 1744, Sophie, by this time fifteen years old, moved to Russia, and prepared to become the wife of Peter. She took the name Catherine, converted to the Eastern Orthodox religion, and began learning how to speak Russian. The following year, the sixteen year-old Catherine and the seventeen year-old Peter were married.
By many accounts, including Catherine’s he still despised her new husband and refused to consummate the marriage. Both husband and wife began taking other lovers almost immediately.
While the marriage relationship was, at best, strained. Catherine did work hard to build a good relationship with Empress Elizabeth. Even this relationship was tactical, rather than out of any affection. After four years of marriage, Catherine was accused of plotting with her husband to overthrow Elizabeth and take the Russian throne before the Empress passed away from natural causes.
The plot was crushed and kept relatively private. Afterwards, however, Elizabeth pressured Catherine to produce an heir, likely with the intention that she would leave her throne directly to their child, and bypass Peter and Catherine entirely.
It took a few more years, but Catherine eventually had two children, a boy and a girl. Peter was deemed to be the father, although there is great doubt as to whether this was really the case. But the children were accepted as legitimate, and the boy, Paul, took his place in line for the throne. Elizabeth took the child from Catherine and had the baby raised in her own household by nannies and tutors.
In 1762, the Empress Elizabeth died. Peter and Catherine became the new Emperor and Empress of Russia. At the time Russia was embroiled in the Seven Years War.
Now remember, the whole point of marrying the Prussian Catherine to Peter was to cement the Prussia-Russia alliance. That, however, did not take place. Russia allied with Austria, France, Spain, and a few other powers against Prussia, Britain, Portugal, and others. So, Russia was at war with Prussia and had captured Berlin.
Upon his ascension to the throne, however, Peter favored Prussia and was a huge fan of Frederick the Great. He ended up switching sides and allying Russia with Prussia, and returning Berlin to Frederick.
Catherine, of course wanting to support her husband on this important matter of state, accepted this decision. Of course, I’m joking. Catherine deeply opposed her husband’s decision to ally with Prussia. Following the truism that well-behaved women seldom make history, she began plotting to overthrow her husband. After less than six months on the throne Catherine used the issue of the Prussian alliance to get the political support she needed to take the throne for herself, and have her husband thrown in jail. Shortly thereafter, Peter died in his jail cell. It was officially ruled a stroke, but most people believe he was murdered.
So, on the issue of opposing the alliance with Prussia, Russian leaders put the daughter of a Prussian general and an accused Prussian spy, in command of Russia. Her son Paul was eight years old at the time, and had not really lived with his mother ever. Catherine continued to leave the child’s upbringing to others while she ran the country.
In 1772, Paul turned eighteen and decided it was time to take over from his mother. Catherine was having none of it. She managed to keep him in the shadows while she continued to rule Russia as its only leader.
Catherine took efforts to modernize Russia and to extend its commerce. Her position of power and her familial relationship to the great powers of Europe gave her some influence over international affairs.
When the war began between Britain and its colonies, the last thing Russia wanted was to get involved in another war. Catherine had rejected entreaties from George III of Britain to hire Russian soldiers to assist in the suppression of the American rebellion.
|End of Russo-Turkish War, 1772|
I won’t go into all the details, but the war spread through the Caucuses and into the Mediterranean Sea, leading to about six years of bloody fighting. It also led to the partition of Poland in 1774, causing officers like Thaddeus Kościuszko and Casimir Pulaski to flee the country and eventually head to America.
Russia was generally regarded as successful in the war, but had been left in debt and exhausted as a result of it. When Britain came calling with an offer to join another war a year later, Catherine was not interested. George would have to satisfy his military needs with Hessians instead. As an interesting aside, Catherine's brother, Frederick Agustus had become prince of Anhalt-Zerbst, the home of their father. He did agree to rent some of his soldiers to George III and many of them went to America to fight as Hessians.
Russia had built up an active trade with many European countries by the 1770’s. Russian serfs produced iron that was feeding Britain’s industrial revolution. Other Russian products were sent by ships to trade with the Netherlands and France.
While Russia and the other neutral powers were trying to avoid being drawn into war, they also did not want to end commerce. Other northern powers, such as Denmark and Sweden all wanted to send commercial shipping through the English Channel to countries in southern Europe. The British Navy did not want these neutral countries selling items to its enemies if those goods could benefit enemies’ war effort. So British ships had no compunctions about boarding neutral merchant ships in open waters and seizing any goods they deemed to be contraband. Russia also sent goods on British ships, which were being seized by privateers operating in European waters.
At this time, the most annoying neutral country for Britain was not Russia, It was the Netherlands. It was sending military goods to its island colonies in the West Indies. There, American ships were purchasing war supplies and other necessities, which they would run back to North America for use in the ongoing war with Britain.
With no compromise possible, Britain informed the Netherlands that its navy would stop and search any Dutch vessels in the English Channel. In January of 1780, a small British fleet in the Channel commanded by Commodore Charles Fielding, confronted a fleet of Dutch merchant ships and demanded the Dutch permit them to board and search the ships. The Dutch commander refused. Fielding ordered his ships to open fire, after which the Dutch almost immediately surrendered and the ships were taken as prizes to a British port.
The incident set off a diplomatic flurry as Dutch officials protested the British navy’s attack on neutral merchant ships. It also gave Russian Empress Catherine the incident she needed to announce Russia’s new Declaration of Armed Neutrality.
League of Armed Neutrality
Russia saw the growing discord as a chance to increase Russian influence. Catherine announced that Russia would resist any efforts by foreign ships to search Russian-flagged vessels at sea. Russia entered into a treaty with Denmark and Sweden to cooperate in resistance to searches or any other interference with merchant vessels in the open sea. It further demanded that the countries at war, Britain, France, and Spain, agree to respect these rights.
The principles asserted by the treaty were that neutral vessels could navigate freely between ports and along the coasts of the nations that were at war. Even if neutral vessels carried property belonging to countries that were at war, they could be carried freely without interference, with the exception of contraband items (such as arms or ammunition). It would protect items such as naval stores or ship’s timber which might be put to use supporting a belligerent country’s war effort, but also had legitimate peacetime uses. A belligerent could blockade a port to prevent commercial traffic, but this could only be respected if there was a clear naval force blockading a port. Roving vessels with intent to search or seize neutral merchant ships could not claim to be part of a blockade.
Spain and France accepted the principles laid out in the treaty right away. Britain received the declaration from the Russian ambassador on April 1, 1780. Britain agreed as a matter of policy to comply with some of the principles, but would not recognize any of them as international rights. Britain believed that its navy was its most powerful weapon against France and Spain. Giving up its power to interdict trade would hamper its war effort.
Challenging British resistance to the declaration, Russia announced that its League of Armed Neutrality would deploy a fleet of 84 Russian, Danish, and Swedish warships to keep open the seas to neutral merchant vessels. If the British attacked these ships, it could lead to open war against the League, something that Britain really could not afford at the time.
The end result was that the League further isolated Britain from the rest of Europe. The Netherlands attempted to join the League, but Britain ended up declaring war on the Netherlands before they got the chance to join, thus taking them out of the category of being a “neutral.” Over the next few years, the other major powers of Europe joined the League, adopted its principles, and to some extent, contributed to its enforcement. Prussia, Austria and Portugal would join the League in 1781. Even Russia’s rival, the Ottoman Empire joined in 1782, and the powers that make up what is today southern Italy joined in 1783.
The result was that virtually all of Europe was either at war with Britain or part of the league that was hostile to Britain’s naval policies. Britain was finding itself even further isolated and subject to even greater threat from its lack of allies.
Next week: Britain opts to expand the war even further with its decision to attack Spanish outposts in Central America.
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Charles Fielding https://morethannelson.com/officer/charles-fielding
Kaplan, Herbert H. “Observations on the Value of Russia’s Overseas Commerce with Great Britain during the Second Half of the Eighteenth Century.” Slavic Review, vol. 45, no. 1, Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies, 1986, pp. 85–94, https://doi.org/10.2307/2497923
League of Armed Neutrality https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/modern-europe/british-and-irish-history/league-armed-neutrality
Carpenter, William S. “The United States and the League of Neutrals of 1780.” The American Journal of International Law, vol. 15, no. 4, American Society of International Law, 1921, pp. 511–22, https://www.jstor.org/stable/2188285
Griffiths, David M. “An American Contribution to the Armed Neutrality of 1780.” The Russian Review, vol. 30, no. 2, [Wiley, Editors and Board of Trustees of the Russian Review], 1971, pp. 164–72, https://www.jstor.org/stable/127896
Kulsrud, Carl J. “Armed Neutralities to 1780.” The American Journal of International Law, vol. 29, no. 3, 1935, pp. 423–47, https://www.jstor.org/stable/2190419
Armed Neutralities - League of the armed neutrality https://www.americanforeignrelations.com/A-D/Armed-Neutralities-League-of-the-armed-neutrality.html
(from archive.org unless noted)
Catherine, II, Memoirs of Catherine the Great, New York: Tudor Publishing Co. 1935 (borrow only)
Haukeil, Henry A. and Tyrrell, H. The History of Russia from the foundation of the Empire to the War with Turkey in 1877–78, Volume 1 (London: The London Printing and Publishing Co. 1879.
Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*
.Almedingen, E. M. So dark a stream; a study of the Emperor Paul I of Russia, 1754-1801, Hutchinson & Co. 1959 (or read on archive.org).
De Madariaga, Isabel. Britain, Russia, and the Armed Neutrality of 1780: Sir James Harris's Mission to St. Petersburg During the American Revolution, Yale Univ. Press, 1962.
Kaplan, Herbert H. Russian Overseas Commerce with Great Britain During the Reign of Catherine II. American Philosophical Society, 1995.
Massie Robert K. Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, Random House, 2012
* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.