Dorothea Lieven, a diplomat in skirts

Dorothea Lieven by Sir Thomas Lawrence, circa 1813

Dorothea Lieven by Sir Thomas Lawrence, circa 1813

Sharp-eyed, sharp-tongued and a diplomatic force to be reckoned with, Princess Dorothea Lieven became another one of my favourites when researching Napoleon in America. As the wife of the Russian ambassador to Great Britain from 1812 to 1834, Dorothea had easy access to royalty, ministers, diplomats and politicians. This, combined with her considerable social skills and political acumen, gave her more influence than any other woman of the time. Her letters provide scintillating commentary on the notable persons and events of the post-Napoleonic years.

At home with the Tsar

Dorothea Lieven was born Dorothea von Benckendorff on December 17, 1785 in Riga (Latvia), which was then part of Russia. (1) Her father, General Christopher von Benckendorff, was the military governor of Livonia, which encompassed parts of modern-day Estonia and Latvia. Her mother, Anna Juliane Schilling von Cannstatt, was a dear friend of Maria Feodorovna, who became Empress of Russia. When Anna died in 1797, she commended her four children to the care of the Empress, who undertook the charge conscientiously.

Dorothea was educated at the Smolny Institute in St. Petersburg, a school for daughters of the nobility. On February 24, 1800, at the age of 14, she wed 25-year old Count Christopher von Lieven, a dull, dutiful Livonian military officer whose family had close ties to the imperial family. Though it was an arranged marriage, Dorothea seems initially to have been in love with her husband. This later settled into esteem rather than passion. They had five children: Magdalena (b. 1804 – died in infancy), Paul (1805), Alexander (1806), Constantine (1807), George (1819) and Arthur (1825, named after the Duke of Wellington).

Count Lieven was with Tsar Alexander I during the Battle of Austerlitz against Napoleon in 1805, and at the signing of the Treaty of Tilsit in 1807. In 1808, he was assigned to the Russian foreign office. In 1809, he was sent to represent Russia at the Prussian court. In 1812, as Napoleon prepared to invade Russia, Lieven was appointed ambassador to the Court of St. James’s.

Ambassadress to London

An extrovert with a dread of being bored, Dorothea Lieven became a fashionable leader of London society. Her invitations were highly sought. She was the first foreigner to be elected a patroness of Almack’s Assembly Rooms, an exclusive London club, where she is credited with introducing the waltz to England.

Her cleverness was generally recognised, but her tact was shown rather in her fastidiousness than by her geniality, and the impression she produced was that she was as fully conscious of her own superiority as she was of the inferiority of those with whom she was brought in daily contact. (2)

Dorothea’s friend, Harriet Granville (daughter of the Duchess of Devonshire), wrote:

She always has an entourage; she can keep off bores, because she has the courage to écraser [crush] them…. The pleasantest women…in my opinion, go constantly to her. (3)

It was not only women who sought Dorothea’s company. Not considered a great beauty, Dorothea relied on her wit and skill as a conversationalist to fascinate men. She cultivated relationships with those most capable of advancing the interests she wanted to promote. In general, she wanted to maintain friendly relations between Russia and Great Britain, and weaken anyone who might thwart Russia’s cause. She was an autocrat who detested revolution and democracy, although she was a strong advocate for Greek independence, as Russia benefited from the decline of the Ottoman Empire.

Dorothea developed close friendships with the Regent (who became King George IV), Lord Castlereagh, the Duke of Wellington, George Canning, Lord Grey, the Earl of Aberdeen, Lord Palmerston and others. Her salon welcomed members of the Government and of the Opposition. Her enthusiasm for her favourites tended to rise and fall in accordance with their influence and position, a fact that was not lost on those she cast aside.

Dorothea spent considerable time at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, where she first makes her appearance in Napoleon in America. According to her, George IV boasted in 1823 that “I have never had a more interesting conversation in my life than I had this morning with Madame de Lieven.” (4)

In 1818 Dorothea began an affair with Austrian foreign minister Clemens von Metternich. As they rarely saw each other, their romance was more a meeting of the minds than a physical ardour. She wrote him letters full of political gossip, to which he responded rather less fulsomely. When Dorothea learned that Metternich had used some of her missives in an official report, she wrote:

I am overwhelmed by the honour you do them. Did I give you any news? I never know what I write to you; I tell you everything at random. They must make an odd collection, my letters to you, and the relationship between us is in itself odd. As a result of seeing one another for a week, two years ago, here we are engaged in an intimate correspondence which ought to imply a whole lifetime of daily contacts. Some day, if our letters are read, people will wonder what we were about – whether it was love or politics. It is not a question of passing the time, for you have none to waste. In fact, I do not really know what we are at. I see no great danger in continuing our romance, for we shall remain five hundred leagues apart; and, since we have enough intelligence for this kind of amusement, let us go on. (5)

The affair ended in 1826, when Dorothea learned that Metternich was seeing a younger, more attractive woman.

As the recipient of the confidences of all these men and their wives and mistresses, Dorothea wielded considerable political and social power. Russian Foreign Minister Count Nesselrode looked to Dorothea to keep him informed of English public opinion and the sentiments of English politicians.

The methodical and laborious despatches of Prince Lieven would have availed little to shape Russian diplomacy had they not been supplemented by his wife’s keener appreciation of passing events, and by the personal judgment which she brought to bear upon the leading men of the Cabinet and the Opposition. (6)

In October 1825 Tsar Alexander I wrote to Nesselrode:

It is a pity that Countess Lieven wears skirts; she would have made an excellent diplomat. (7)

British ministers used Dorothea to find out what was happening in other countries, and to communicate things to the Tsar and Metternich that they didn’t want known through other channels. Her friends also turned to her as a source of political information. Wellington told her everything that was going on in the Cabinet, just as she was starting up a correspondence with the leader of the Opposition, Lord Grey. The appointment of Lord Palmerston as Foreign Secretary in 1830 was partly due to Palmerston’s friendship with Dorothea, who lobbied Lord Grey on his behalf.

Neither bookish nor intellectual, Dorothea wrote chatty, informative letters, with a heaping dose of cattiness. Here she is to Metternich in December 1821, about George IV and his mistress:

Since we left Brighton, the King has seen nobody. Love which allows nothing to interfere with it is all very fine; but how extraordinary when its object is Lady Conyngham! Not an idea in her head; not a word to say for herself; nothing but a hand to accept pearls and diamonds with, and an enormous balcony to wear them on. Is it really possible to be in love with a woman who accepts diamonds and pearls? (8)

Some called her a gossip-monger and a spy, though she was playing a role that was common in diplomatic circles.

Madame de Lieven lived before the days of telegraphy, when personality played a far more important role in politics, and diplomacy required prompt and independent action on the part of Ambassadors…. Ambassadors’ wives played their part according to their powers. Madame de Lieven’s role in this respect differed but slightly from that of others similarly placed, but she brought to its discharge rare qualities – a shrewd and ever active mind, an unquenchable curiosity, and the power of extracting confidences even from those who distrusted her. (9)

In 1826, when Nicholas I ascended the Russian throne, Dorothea’s brother became head of the Russian secret police and her eldest son was appointed to the Russian mission to the United States. Her husband received the title of Prince, thus Dorothea became Princess von Lieven.

In 1834, a diplomatic stand-off with Lord Palmerston led Tsar Nicholas I to recall Prince Lieven to Russia. The Times published a scathing editorial about Dorothea’s “appetite for meddling in politics, and assuming the direction of every Cabinet in Europe”:

There never figured on the Courtly stage a female intriguer more restless, more arrogant, more mischievous, more (politically, and therefore we mean it not offensively) odious and insufferable than this supercilious Ambassadress. She fancied herself ‘a power.’ She was, however, more frequently a dupe, the dupe of her own artifices reacted upon by those of others. (10)

Love in Paris

Back in Russia, Prince Lieven become governor and tutor of the Tsar’s son, who later became Alexander II. Dorothea took up her duties as lady-in-waiting to the Empress. She was miserable at having to leave her life and friends in London. Life got tragically worse in 1835 when her two youngest sons died: George on February 20 and Arthur on March 23. In September Dorothea moved to Paris without her husband.

Just as she had in London, Dorothea submerged herself in the beau monde and gave birth to a popular salon. In 1837 she became the mistress of François Guizot, a widowed historian and politician who served as foreign minister of France from 1840 to 1848. As a result, Prince Lieven cut off Dorothea’s allowance. Shortly thereafter Lieven made a tour of Southern Europe with the tsar-to-be, during which he was seized with a sudden illness. He died in Rome on January 10, 1839, leaving Dorothea free to pursue her romance. Though Guizot and Dorothea never lived together and never married, theirs was a genuine and lasting love match. For more about their relationship, see the François Guizot website.

Dorothea Lieven died of “inflammation of the chest” on January 27, 1857 in Paris, age 71. In accordance with her wishes, she was buried in a velvet dress, with a diadem on her brow, at the Lieven family estate of Mežotne, south of Riga, next to her sons George and Arthur.

The Times eulogized Dorothea Lieven as

the confidential correspondent of three Czars, of three Empresses, of Grand Chancellors, Chamberlains, and Governors of Russian provinces without number – a woman who exercised in her time as much political and social influence, and perpetrated as much political mischief, as any lady of the generation to which she belonged. …

We trust we have seen the last of these female diplomatists. Apart from her political intrigues, Madame de Lieven was a woman of accomplishment, attainment and esprit; a good linguist, an excellent musician, a good historian – she possessed talents and attainments which in the humblest station must have raised her to importance. (11)

A letter to the editor responded:

Her political influence was exercised for no petty or personal objects; she played a part in the great game of politics because her position had placed it within her reach, and her tastes were gratified and excited by success until politics became the predominant interest of her life. …

It has been well said of Princess Lieven, that she had the clearness and virility of man’s intellect with the tact of women’s – the grace of her sex without its frivolity, and the elegance of the highest breeding without its formality. These were the secrets of her influence, and I believe she had no others. Her knowledge of affairs was not profound, and her interests were always more keenly excited by persons than by things; but in the management of those personal relations which fill so large a part in human affairs she has never been surpassed. (12) 

You might also enjoy:

Lord Liverpool was not a Ninny

Napoleon’s Nemesis: The Duke of Wellington

The intriguing George Canning

Charades with the Duke of Wellington (in which Dorothea Lieven plays a game of charades)

  1. December 17 is Dorothea’s birthday according to the Gregorian calendar. As Russia used the Julian calendar until 1918, Dorothea Lieven was born on December 28 in her native land.
  2. Lionel G. Robinson, ed., Letters of Dorothea, Princess Lieven, during her Residence in London, 1812-1834 (London, 1902), p. viii.
  3. Leveson Gower, ed., Letters of Harriet Countess Granville, 1810-1845 (London, 1894), Vol. I, p. 221.
  4. Peter Quennell, ed. The Private Letters of Princess Lieven to Prince Metternich, 1820-1826 (New York, 1938), p. 220.
  5. Ibid., p. 27.
  6. Letters of Dorothea, Princess Lieven, p. xvi.
  7. Karl Robert Nesselrode, Lettres et Papiers du Chancelier Comte de Nesselrode, 1760-1856, Vol. XI (Paris, 1904), p. 149.
  8. The Private Letters of Princess Lieven to Prince Metternich, p. 145.
  9. Letters of Dorothea, Princess Lieven, p. xvii.
  10. The Times (London, England), May 23, 1834, p. 5.
  11. The Times (London, England), January 29, 1857, p. 7.
  12. The Times (London, England), February 2, 1857, p. 5.

6 commments on “Dorothea Lieven, a diplomat in skirts”

  • Anna M. Thane says:

    Very interesting post, thank you for sharing! Do you happen to know wether it is true that Dorothea von Lieven tried to win the affection of Prince Felix of Schwarzenberg, but was outrivaled by Lady Jane Ellenborough, and, as a revenge, made Lady Jane Ellenborough’s affair with the Prince known in public?

  • Shannon Selin says:

    My pleasure, Anna. Thanks for commenting. I’m not aware of Dorothea leaking the news of Lady Ellenborough’s and Prince Schwarzenberg’s affair, though it sounds like the kind of thing she was quite capable of doing. My understanding is that the lovers themselves made their affair public to push Lord Ellenborough into suing for divorce. Dorothea refers to the divorce in a letter of September 26, 1829 to Lord Grey: “Have you heard, my dear Lord, that Lord Ellenborough has instituted proceedings against Mr. Anson? He has just discovered that the latter has been his wife’s lover! So Austria is safe.” (Correspondence of Princess Lieven and Earl Grey, Vol. 1, edited and translated by Guy Le Strange, London, 1890, p. 306.)

  • David James says:

    Thank you! One of our members kindly shared your post in our Georgian History group https://www.facebook.com/groups/TheGeorgianEra/

  • Maria Gouma says:

    Princess de Lieven lost two of her sons to scarlet fever. Whatever happened to the other two? She never mentions her sons.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      As you say, of Dorothea Lieven’s five children who survived infancy, the two youngest – George (b. 1819) and Arthur (b. 1825) – died of scarlet fever in Russia in early 1835. Paul (b. 1805) became a Russian diplomat. He died in 1864. Constantine (b. 1807) became a soldier, but was forced to resign his commission due to compulsive drinking, gambling and womanizing. He died in 1838. Alexander (b. 1806), also a Russian diplomat, died in 1885. His obituary in The Times (London, Nov. 11, 1885) reads:

      Prince Alexander Lieven died recently at his seat at Kockenhof, near Riga. The deceased was the son of Prince Christopher Lieven, the Ambassador of Alexander II. He was born in St. Petersburg in 1806, and received most of his education in England with his brother, Prince Paul, who died in 1864. After passing only six months in the army, the late Prince entered the diplomatic service, which he also quitted early to enjoy his immense fortune in retirement. He lived much in Germany and Italy, and latterly at his magnificent residence of Kockenhof. His numerous acts of beneficence made him much respected and very popular among the country people, and nearly the whole population of the district attended his funeral. The deceased died a bachelor, and with him the second line of the princes of Lieven becomes extinct.

      According to Modris Eksteins in Walking Since Daybreak (1999, p. 21), Alexander fathered at least one illegitimate child, a daughter, with Countess Manteuffel.

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There never figured on the Courtly stage a female intriguer more restless, more arrogant, more mischievous, more...odious and insufferable than this supercilious Ambassadress.

The Times