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Dorothea Benckendorff, Princess Lieven (1784-1857)

Princess LievenDorothea, Princess Lieven, was born in December, 1784, into the Russian Baltic nobility at Riga, now in Latvia. Her father, General Christopher von Benckendorff, served as military governor of Russia’s Baltic provinces; her mother, Anna Juliane née Schilling von Cannstatt, held a high position at the Russian court as senior lady-in-waiting and best friend of Empress Maria Fyodorovna, the wife of Czar Paul  and mother of the Czars Alexander I and  Nicholas.

Princess Lieven had two brothers. Count Alexander Benkendorf, four years her senior, was aide-de-camp to the Emperor Nicholas, and at one time Chief of the Secret Police. He died in 1844. Count Constantine Benkendorf was born in the same year as the Princess; he rose to the rank of General in the Russian service, and died of fever, in 1828, at Pravadi, during the first campaign of the war against Turkey.

Dorothea was educated at the Smolny Convent Institute in St Petersburg and then was assigned as a maid of honour to the Empress Maria.  In 1801, at the age of sixteen, some months after finishing her studies, Dorothea married General Count (later Prince) Christopher Lieven.  

Princess Lieven had, in all, five sons and one daughter. Two sons, Alexander and Paul, alone survived their parents. Of the younger children, the only daughter died, presumably, in infancy; Arthur and George died at Petersburg, of scarlet fever, in 1835, while Constantine, having incurred his father's displeasure, left his family and died in America in the year 1838.

At the Peace of Tilsit, in 1807, Count Lieven had attained the rank of Lieutenant-General, and in 1810 was accredited to Berlin as Russian Minister Plenipotentiary, at the Court of Frederick-William III. In 1812 Count Lieven was appointed Ambassador in London, and held this post for the following twenty-two years. Dorothea used her intelligence, charisma, and social skills to contribute materially to the success of her husband’s embassy.

 In England's political environment, the Princess discovered that she had a flair for politics. By 1814, if not earlier, she was elected as one of the patronesses of Almack's Assembly Rooms, the first foreigner to be so honoured; she is said to have introduced the German Waltz to Almack's. She was a prominent political hostess: invitations to her house were the most sought after.  She held the confidence of some of the most important statesmen in London and Europe and she was considered to be at least as politically important, if not more so, than her ambassador husband who, at the time of the coronation of the Emperor Nicholas in September, 1826, received the title of Prince.

The Princess participated, either directly or indirectly, in every major diplomatic event between 1812 and 1857. She knew ‘everyone in the Courts and cabinets for thirty or forty years [and] knew all the secret annals of diplomacy’, wrote a French diplomat. Dorothea devoted herself tirelessly to the welfare of Russia, assiduously sleeping with every major statesman on the European stage, including Metternich, George IV and each successive British prime minister except George Canning, whom she saw as a plebeian with no manners. Her lovers changed with each Cabinet reshuffle.

She performed at least one secret diplomatic mission for the Tsar when, in 1825 Tsar Alexander entrusted Dorothea with a secret overture to the British government. ‘It is a pity Countess Lieven wears skirts’, the Tsar wrote to his foreign minister Count Nesselrode. ‘She would have made an excellent diplomat.’ The Tsar’s mission marked Dorothea Lieven’s debut as a diplomat in her own right.

During Prince Lieven’s ambassadorship in England, (1812-1834) the Princess played a key role in the birth of modern Greece, and made a notable contribution to the creation of today’s Belgium. In London, Princess Lieven cultivated friendships with the foremost statesmen of her day. She and Austrian Chancellor Prince Klemens Lothar Wenzel von Metternich had a notorious liaison.  Her friendships with George IV, Prince Metternich, the Duke of Wellington, George Canning, Count Nesselrode, Lord Grey, and François Guizot gave Dorothea Lieven the opportunity to exercise authority in the diplomatic councils of Great Britain, France, and Russia.

In 1834 Prince Lieven was recalled from London, and was named Governor to the young Czarevitch, later Emperor Alexander II. Despite her residence in London, the Princess had already been appointed senior lady-in-waiting to the Empress Alexandra in 1829.  Soon after the Lievens returned to Russia, their two youngest sons died suddenly. This tragedy and her declining health caused the Princess to leave her native land and settle in Paris. Though she suffered from ill health in the last decades of her life, she continued to be involved in politics and diplomacy. Her collected letters provide a wickedly gossipy insight into Regency England.

In a city where salons served a unique social and political purpose, Princess Lieven’s Paris salon, known as ‘the listening/observation post of Europe’, empowered her to be an independent stateswoman. In 1837 she and François Guizot entered into a close personal partnership that lasted until the Princess's death.

Dorothea Lieven died peacefully at her home, 2 rue Saint-Florentin, Paris1 on 27 January 1857 . She was buried, according to her wish, at the Lieven family estate, Mežotne near Jelgava, next to her two young sons who had died in St. Petersburg.

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Last modified 12 January, 2016

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