Alexander I of Russia started his reign after the botched coup and assassination of his father in 1801. He was born in 1777 and was raised by his formidable grandmother, Catherine the Great. He spent most of his years as Russia’s Emperor fighting (and occasionally befriending) Napoleon Bonaparte between the Second and Seventh Coalition Wars. He rejected liberal ideas after seeing the effects of the French Revolution and became increasingly conservative during the later years of his reign. These events are recorded on the Biblical Timeline with World History during that time.
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Alexander I, Emperor of All Russia, was born on December 24, 1777, in St. Petersburg. He was the eldest son of Tsarevich Paul by his wife Maria Feodorovna, the former Sophia Dorothea of Wurttemberg. Nine more children followed his birth, but Alexander remained the favorite of his grandmother, Catherine the Great.
The Empress’s relationship was never genial in the first place, so she decided to send Paul and his family to the distant Gatchina estate. In 1781, Catherine sent Alexander’s parents on a European tour. She then took a page from Empress Elizabeth’s playbook and kidnapped young Alexander and his younger brother Constantine from Gatchina. She took them to her home in Tsarskoye Selo and there took charge of their education. The parents protested when they came back, but their tears and entreaties did not move the Empress. The episode only deepened Paul’s anger for his mother.
Catherine started to groom the young Alexander as her heir. His military education was entrusted to General Nikolay Saltykov, while the cosmopolitan Father Andrew Samborsky instructed him in religion. However, the person who made the greatest impact on the young Alexander was the Swiss tutor Frederic-Cesar de La Harpe who was a disciple of the leading philosophers of the Age of Enlightenment, including Rousseau, Voltaire, and Montesquieu.
LaHarpe instructed the boy in science, language, philosophy, and history. Paul imbibed from him the liberal and humanist ideals which tempered his traditional Russian religiosity. The liberal LaHarpe slowly fell from grace after the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 and had to leave the court after the French revolutionaries guillotined King Louis XIV. LaHarpe and his charge parted ways in tears when he left Tsarskoye Selo in December 1794.
Alexander’s adjutant Adam Czartoryski filled the hole LaHarpe had left behind. This Polish nobleman became a hostage in Russia after the Third Partition of Poland and was later assigned as the prince’s tutor. Like LaHarpe, he was cosmopolitan and intelligent. The two young men respected each other, and it was to Czartoryski that Alexander first confided that he did not want to be Tsar.
The Empress arranged 16-year old Alexander’s marriage to the beautiful 15-year old Elizabeth Alexeievna (former Princess Louise of Baden). Now considered adults, Catherine soon allowed the brothers to visit Gatchina more often to their parents’ delight. Paul guided his sons in drilling the troops, but it was Constantine who stood out. Both sons, however, soon took a liking to their father’s penchant for military parades and Prussian-style uniforms.
Paul appointed Alexander the governor-general of St. Petersburg soon after his accession to the throne. This position, however, came at a price. His father would often berate Alexander in front of their soldiers and compared him to the younger Constantine. He planted spies everywhere and suspected Alexander of plotting to depose him. The prince naturally denied any wrongdoing, but the Emperor remained suspicious.
In March 1801, groups of soldiers led by the recalled Zubov brothers and Count Peter von der Pahlen stormed Paul’s Mikhailovsky Castle. Alexander agreed to go along with the coup on the condition that his father would live and would only be isolated in his castle for the rest of his life. Pahlen’s drunken soldiers, however, botched the plan and ended up killing Paul instead. The grief-stricken Alexander was proclaimed Tsar soon after.
Alexander, Emperor of All Russia
Paul was mourned by his wife and children, while courtiers, military officers, and the common people breathed a sigh of relief. But the guilt and remorse of having been a part of his father’s death hounded Alexander, so he immediately sent the ringleaders into exile. He then recalled the men exiled by his father, including his friend and his wife’s former lover Adam Czartoryski. He also recalled the Russian army which was on its way to attack India.
Alexander then established the Private Committee to address the situation of the serfs. It was made up of the Emperor’s four other friends who shared the same liberal ideals and led by Czartoryski himself. In 1802, he traveled to Prussia and met with the King Frederick William III and his wife Louise. The Emperor and the King then signed a treaty of alliance in hopes of stopping Napoleon Bonaparte and the French expansion. To this end, he also made peace with Austria and England.
The Coalition Wars
In early 1804, the French authorities arrested the suspected participants of the Cadoudal Conspiracy. These men were accused of conspiring to depose Napoleon Bonaparte and attempting to restore a member of the House of Bourbon to the throne. One of the suspected ringleaders was the Duke of Enghien, a member of the House of Bourbon who lived in exile in Baden and one of the possible claimants to the French throne. Napoleon sent his soldiers to Baden to arrest the Duke and had him brought back to Paris to be tried. The innocent Duke of Enghien was tried immediately after his arrival in Paris and hanged on the day of his sentencing. With his power secure, Bonaparte soon crowned himself the Emperor of France.
The death of the Duke of Enghien alarmed Alexander especially after he was taken from his Empress’s homeland. His death, as well as Napoleon’s interest in the Mediterranean and the Balkans, finally cemented Alexander’s decision to go to war against the French Republic. In 1805, Russia, Britain, and Austria agreed to renew their coalition against France. Prussia, meanwhile, remained neutral.
In the same year, Napoleon decided to dissolve the Italian Republic and bring the peninsula into the fold with him as its king. The alarmed Austrians mobilized their army in preparation for the attack, but this move only gave Napoleon a reason to order his own army to cross the Rhine. The French Grande Armee and the Austrian army led by Baron Karl Mack von Leiberich met at Ulm on October 16, 1805. General Mack miscalculated by refusing to wait for the arrival of his Russian allies led by General Mikhail Kutuzov, so his vastly outnumbered troops were soon hemmed in and destroyed. Mack surrendered before the arrival of the Russian reinforcements.
The Russians led by General Kutuzov finally joined what remained of the Austrian army after the Battle of Ulm. Alexander also arrived and despite his lack of experience, he disregarded the elderly yet experienced Kutuzov and assumed command of the army at the Battle of Austerlitz. He also allowed the equally inept Holy Roman Emperor Francis II to direct the maneuvers instead of relying on Kutuzov.
On December 2, 1805, the Russian-Austrian Coalition and Napoleon’s Grande Armee met at Austerlitz. The Coalition initially occupied Pratzen Heights but abandoned it to attack the French army’s seemingly weakened right flank. With Pratzen heights abandoned, the Russian-Austrian army exposed the vulnerability of its center. Napoleon then took them by surprise when a French contingent appeared behind the Coalition army and attacked its center. The Coalition army was decimated with thousands killed or wounded. The Russians, including the hapless Alexander, fled the battlefield and were forced to return to their homeland in utter defeat.
Alexander shouldered all the blame for the humiliating rout, but it did not stop him from going after his arch nemesis. In the following year, Russia and Prussia agreed to create the Fourth Coalition. Russia decided to enter the fray once again after Bonaparte encouraged the Ottomans to reclaim Wallachia and Moldavia. Prussia, meanwhile, agreed to go to war after Napoleon had the Nuremberg bookseller Philipp Palm executed for releasing a subversive tract.
Napoleon’s Grande Armee, however, was able to defeat the Prussians at the Battle of Jena (October 14, 1806). Alexander responded by sending Levin Bennigsen and the Russian army to fight the Grande Armee at Eylau (February 7, 1807) and at Friedland (June 14, 1807). Both battles resulted in an overwhelming French victory although the body count was high on both sides. With these losses, Alexander finally realized that he had no choice but to make peace with Napoleon.
The Treaty of Tilsit
They met on a raft which floated in the middle of the Niemen River and immediately started the peace negotiations. Napoleon dazzled Alexander with his wit and the Emperors became temporary friends. The Emperor of France was not overly impressed with Alexander but admired him to a certain extent. King Frederick William III, meanwhile, was left on one of the banks of the river to await the fate of his country while Alexander negotiated on his behalf.
The Treaty of Tilsit became unpopular back in Russia. In late 1808, Alexander and Napoleon met once again in a summit near Erfurt, but this time their meeting was less pleasant. Alexander grumbled about the blockade’s negative effects on the Russian economy and the fact that Russia did not benefit from Napoleon’s Continental System. He also raised the threat of the presence of thirty thousand French troops in the Saxon Duchy of Warsaw which Napoleon had folded into the Confederation of the Rhine. Napoleon tried to pacify him by offering Moldavia and Wallachia and encouraged him to take the Swedish Duchy of Finland.
Temporarily pacified, Alexander returned to Russia and started his conquest of Swedish-held Finland. His father’s trusted general Aleksey Arakcheev took over when the campaign floundered and soon brought Sweden to heel. Russia then transformed Finland as its own duchy.
The Fifth Coalition War
Austria once again declared war against France (War of the Fifth Coalition) in 1809. Austrian soldiers then invaded Bavaria while most of the French forces were fighting in the Iberian peninsula. Napoleon hastily recalled his soldiers from Spain but was initially unsuccessful at overpowering the Austrians. To Napoleon’s dismay, Alexander proved to be an unreliable ally. He called upon the Emperor to send in some troops but was forced to wait seven weeks before additional Russian reinforcements arrived. Finally, on July 6, 1809, Napoleon once again showed his enemies that he was Europe’s most brilliant general by routing the Austrians in the Battle of Wagram. The Austrians were forced to sue for peace and limp home in defeat. Napoleon and Alexander’s brief friendship ended soon after and bitter hostilities returned.
The Sixth Coalition War
In 1808, Napoleon invaded Portugal and Spain as part of its war against the British. Despite his unpopularity because of the strain of the prolonged conflicts, he unwisely declared a new war against Russia in 1812. The main reason for the war was Russia’s unsatisfactory performance in the Continental System that he imposed in 1807. In 1810, Russia finally discarded the Continental System and ended their alliance with the French. For Napoleon, it was time to bring Russia to heel.
Prussia and Austria, repeatedly crushed by Napoleon years prior, had no choice but to send their armies to the frontline to support France’s invasion of Russia. Russia, meanwhile, sealed an alliance with Sweden after Alexander promised to help the kingdom annex neighboring Norway (then held by Denmark). Alexander himself wanted to lead the army, but his sister Catherine restrained him since she knew that he was not a brilliant commander and he did not inspire trust in the battlefield.
The Russian army led by General Kutuzov and Napoleon’s army finally met at the Battle of Borodino on September 7, 1812. Casualties were high on both sides, and the result was a stalemate (although both sides claimed victory). The Russians prudently retreated deeper into their territory. Napoleon decided to push into Moscow but found that the city had been abandoned by the Russians upon their arrival. Fires had broken out in the deserted city (possibly set by its own inhabitants) and soon turned it to ashes. The devastation did not deter Napoleon from occupying Moscow, but the victory was hollow.
Alexander, meanwhile, stayed in St. Petersburg during the French occupation in Moscow. This made him unpopular among his people as news of the disasters of the war trickled in. Several of his advisers and members of his own family asked him to sue for peace, but he steadfastly refused to give in. Napoleon, on the other hand, was growing despondent in Moscow. His supplies had run low and he feared that the arrival of the harsh Russian winter would decimate his army further. He decided that it would be prudent to order his troops to march back west.
The journey home was a disaster of epic proportions. The dreaded Russian winter soon set in and made the journey back to Smolensk hellish. Only half of the original 600,000 men remained by the time Napoleon’s army reached Smolensk, but their numbers would be reduced further. In November 1812, the French army tried to cross the Berezina River, but they were fired upon by Russians positioned on both banks. Many were killed, while some were taken as prisoners. By the time they set foot on their homeland, Napoleon’s army was down to its last 100,000 men.
Napoleon’s disastrous retreat from Moscow in 1812 made Alexander ecstatic. But he realized that Russia would never be at peace as long as Napoleon remained as ruler of France. The Emperor then made it his ultimate goal to bring Napoleon down.
In 1813, Alexander, the Russian army, and some Swedish reinforcements marched east to join the Prussian army. Although Napoleon led a significantly smaller force made up of French and Polish soldiers, he was still able to rout the Coalition at Lutzen (May 2, 1813) and Bautzen (May 20-21, 1813). But the tide soon turned on him, and the allies won most of the minor battles thereafter. Napoleon sued for peace, but his unwillingness to compromise meant that he and the allies would have to meet on the battlefield once again.
Napoleon’s second wife Marie Louise was an Austrian archduchess, but it did not stop her fellow Austrians from joining the Coalition during the latter half of 1813. Napoleon’s army defeated the Coalition’s forces in the Battle of Dresden on August 26, 1813, but it was one of his last significant victories. The Coalition finally crushed the French forces at the two Battles of Kulm (August 29 and September 17) and at the Battle of Leipzig (October 16-19, 1813).
Fresh from these victories, the Coalition’s army then marched west to pursue Napoleon and arrived in France in middle of March 1814. Alexander wanted his troops to storm Paris, but he was restrained by the Austrian minister Klemens von Metternich and the British diplomat Viscount Castlereagh who only wanted to force Napoleon to abdicate as Emperor in favor of his half-Austrian son.
Napoleon had escaped to Fontainebleau where he tried to mobilize another army to no avail. Meanwhile, in Paris, Napoleon’s duplicitous Minister of Foreign Affairs Talleyrand soon announced his removal as Emperor of France. He finally gave up the fight and offered to abdicate in favor of his son. The allies refused this offer and soon exiled him to the remote island of Elba off the western coast of Italy.
The Congress of Vienna and the Last Coalition War
Upon Napoleon’s abdication, the allies agreed to restore the House of Bourbon to the throne through King Louis XVIII (brother of the executed King Louis XVI). They also agreed to meet once again in Vienna later that year to decide the fate of France and of greater Europe.
On September 13, 1814, Alexander and his entourage arrived in Vienna as promised. Representatives of Prussia, Britain, France, and Austria also converged in the capital to hammer out the details on how to maintain the balance of power among the European powers. Their main goal was to prevent another political revolution from happening, as well as to prevent the rise of another Napoleon. Austria was represented by the experienced diplomat Klemens von Metternich, while Viscount Castlereagh represented Britain. Prussia’s Prince Karl August von Hardenburg’s deafness hindered his participation in the Congress and therefore he could not obtain a good bargain for his country. Prince Talleyrand was also invited to the Congress as a representative of France and its newly-restored monarch.
The partition of the Kingdom of Saxony was one of the thorny issues tackled in the Congress of Vienna. Alexander wanted Poland as a Russian territory, while Prussia wanted to bring the Kingdom of Saxony into its fold. These territorial ambitions did not sit well with Austria, France, and Britain so their representatives protested. It was Prince Talleyrand who saved the negotiations when he proposed a new war against Russia and Prussia if they did not agree to a compromise.
After months of bargaining and bullying, the allies forced Alexander to accept a palatable partition of the Kingdom of Saxony. He gave up his claims to Galicia and gave it to Austria, and accepted instead the Duchy of Warsaw as a Russian client state. King Frederick Augustus (who, at that time, was a prisoner of Prussia) retained his title as ruler of Saxony. However, he was forced to cede a significant portion of his territory to Prussia.
The Last Coalition War
The negotiations were not yet finished when the representatives received news that Napoleon had escaped from Elba on February 26, 1815. French soldiers quickly abandoned their posts and joined the charismatic general when he reached mainland France. Alexander and his allies had no choice but to mobilize the allied armies once again to face Napoleon. Despite his resistance, Napoleon’s fate was already sealed. The allied forces defeated him at the Battle of Waterloo and he was sent to the remote island of St. Helena where he died in 1821.
Alexander’s Russian Projects and His Abandonment of Liberalism
Alexander started out as a liberal thinker thanks to LaHarpe’s influence but became a staunch conservative and autocrat later in his reign. He first freed the serfs of Livonia but backtracked after asking his nobles to submit plans to free the serfs in Russia proper. He then created settlements where soldiers and their families lived and farmed but appointed the brutal Arakcheev as the project’s administrator. Forced into years of hard labor and subject to Arakcheev’s cruelty, thousands of soldiers soon revolted in 1819. The rebellion, however, was brutally crushed by Arakcheev. Despite his belief in Christian mysticism, the Emperor wholly approved Arakcheev’s ruthless way of quashing the rebellion.
France was ruled once again by a monarch, but the liberal ideals of the Revolution slowly made its way into other parts of Europe. Uprisings inspired by the French Revolution flared out in Spain, Germany, and Portugal, and alarmed Alexander and other conservative European leaders. When a revolution engulfed Naples in 1820, Alexander immediately summoned a congress to address this new threat. Austria’s Metternich proposed that the Holy Alliance intervene to quash the rebellion. The Tsar initially opposed this, but news soon reached him that his own Semyonovsky Regiment rebelled in response to the brutality of Arakcheev’s protege. The Emperor allowed Arakcheev to crush the rebellion with severe ruthlessness.
Later Years and Death
In 1819, Alexander’s beloved sister Catherine died in Wurttemberg. Her death devastated the Emperor who was already tired of the wars he experienced and of ruling his vast empire. He finally verbalized his desire to leave the throne in 1820, but his lack of heir stood in the way of his abdication. Alexander’s marriage with Elizabeth did not produce children, so he was hard-pressed to find a suitable heir. He had several children by his mistress Maria Naryshkina, but they were immediately disqualified because of their illegitimacy. The ruthless Constantine had already renounced his claim to the throne, so the Tsar privately appointed his younger brother Nicholas as his successor in 1823.
In 1824, his daughter by Maria Naryshkina died and the young lady’s death was soon followed by Elizabeth’s illness. The Tsar, recently reunited with his wife, suggested that they travel south to the Sea of Azov so she could recuperate. On September 1825, the Emperor left with a small group of servants and settled in a villa in Taganrog. His wife later followed him in the seaside villa.
The Emperor contracted typhoid fever on October 27 and frustrated his doctor by refusing to take any medication. He recovered little by little but suddenly fainted in the middle of November. He sank into a coma three days later and died on the 19th of November, 1825. He was forty-seven years old.
Picture by: George Dawe – Белый Городъ, Public Domain, Link
Dziewanowski, M. K. Alexander I: Russia始s Mysterious Tsar. New York: Hippocrene Books, 1990.
Lieven, Dominic, ed. The Cambridge History of Russia. Vol. 2. The Cambridge History of Russia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. doi:10.1017/CHOL9780521815291.
Montefiore, Simon Sebag. The Romanovs: 1613-1918. New York, Vintage Books, 2017.
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