Peter the Great Pickled the Head of His Wife's Lover
Peter the Great Pickled the Head of His Wife’s Lover

Peter the Great Pickled the Head of His Wife’s Lover

Khalid Elhassan - November 21, 2018

Peter the Great (1672 – 1725) was a bad man to anger. A transformative figure in Russian history, Peter was bigger than life, both figuratively and literally – he stood at 6 foot 8 inches, which would make him an uncommonly big man today, and which made him a veritable giant in his own era. He is best known for having taken over a backwards Russia, and dragged it – often kicking and screaming – out of the medieval rut in which he found it, and into the mainstream of European culture.

A man who went at life full tilt, Peter did not seem to understand the concept of half measures and moderation in whatever he did. That extended to his grudges and vindictiveness, which Peter took to extremes, just like he did everything else in his life. An illustrative example of that was Peter’s treatment of Willem Mons, rumored to be his wife’s lover. The emperor had Mons beheaded, then reportedly had the head pickled in alcohol and placed in his wife’s bedroom.

Peter the Great Pickled the Head of His Wife’s Lover
Anna Mons’ house in Moscow’s German Quarter. Pintrest

Peter, Catherine, and the Mons Family

Peter first came in contact with the Mons family in 1691, during one of his frequent visits to Moscow’s German Quarter. There, he met and fell hard for Anna Mons, the daughter of a Dutch wine merchant. Anna became Peter’s longtime mistress, and her family’s fortunes rose, as they were elevated from commoners to Russia’s elites. Her sister Matryona was married off to a major general and governor of Riga, while her younger brother, Willem Mons, eventually became the personal secretary of Peter’s future wife, Catherine I.

For a while, especially after Peter soured on his then-wife, Eudoxia Lopukhina, it seemed that Anna would marry Peter and become the next Russian empress. Anna became the emperor’s quasi official royal mistress, and he showered her with gifts and estates, including 295 farms and a Moscow mansion. However, after twelve years, Peter began losing interest in Anna. So she tried to rekindle his affections by making him jealous, and began flirting with the Prussian ambassador.

It backfired when the ambassador, oblivious to his status as a prop in Anna’s machinations, proposed marriage. Peter, rather than rediscover his affections for Anna, flew into a rage. He confiscated the estates he had gifted her, and placed her under house arrest, along with her mother, her sister, and dozens of her friends. Peter eventually relented, freed Anna and those he had arrested alongside her, and allowed his by now former mistress to marry her Prussian beau.

Peter the Great Pickled the Head of His Wife’s Lover
Empress Catherine in 1716. Atlas Obscura

In the meantime, Peter had fallen in love with another commoner, a Polish-Lithuanian servant and daughter of a peasant, or gravedigger, or handyman, or runaway serf, depending on the sources. Whatever her father’s occupation, Peter married her in 1707 and made her his empress, Catherine I. In the meantime, Anna Mons’ sister, Matryona, wasted no time after her release from house arrest in making a beeline for the new empress, and before long, she had become Catherine’s confidant and one of her best friends. Matryona put in a good word for her brother, Willem.

The third Mons sibling, Willem Mons (1688 – 1724), had fought for Peter at the Battle of Poltava in 1709, and had not suffered unduly from his elder’s sister downfall as Peter’s mistress. When his other sister, Matryona, introduced him to the new empress, Willem made a good impression upon Catherine, and with her support, he won advancement, and was put in charge of managing many of Peter’s estates. He was also made Catherine’s personal secretary, and began accompanying her on her trips abroad. His rapid rise aroused the jealousy of many of Russia’s elites.

Peter the Great Pickled the Head of His Wife’s Lover
Peter the Great and Catherine. Alexander Palace

The Empress and Willem Mons

It did not take long before empress Catherine’s relationship with her new secretary began to attract controversy. Among other things, Willem Mons began abusing his position as gatekeeper for the empress’ correspondence in order to solicit bribes as a condition for passing messages on to Catherine. However, that petty corruption was not the main reason why tongues were set a-wagging throughout Russia: juicier and far more salacious rumors were soon making the rounds.

Lurid stories circulated about just what kind of relationship existed between the empress and Willem Mons. Gossip had it that the duo were lovers, and that Willem Mons’ sister, Matryona Balk, had been the matchmaker who had arranged the intimate affair. One of the juicier tales, according to historian Robert K. Massie in a biography of Peter the Great, held that “Peter had found his wife with Mons one moonlit night in a compromising position in her garden“. Whether the emperor had or had not actually caught his wife and secretary en flagrante, there is no doubt that Peter eventually got word of the stories surrounding his wife and her secretary.

Whether the tales were true, or whether the emperor believed them or not, the mere fact of the stories’ existence was bad news for Willem Mons. Peter the Great had built up a reputation and larger than life persona based upon his perceived prowess and virility, and his power and prestige – both within Russia and abroad – were based in small part on maintaining that image. The last thing that he wanted or could afford, especially now that he was a middle aged man on the wane, was to look like a ridiculous cuckold.

Peter the Great Pickled the Head of His Wife’s Lover
Peter the Great interrogating his own son, before having him executed. Pintrest

Stung by the stories circulating, Peter the Great’s wrath fell upon empress Catherine’s secretary like a ton of bricks. Late one evening in November of 1724, the emperor’s men seized Willem Mons’ papers, and a few hours later, they hauled him off in chains, under arrest on charges of embezzlement and abuse of trust. His sister Matryona, who was rumored to have played matchmaker between empress and secretary, was also arrested, publicly flogged, and exiled to Siberia.

Catherine tried to intercede with Peter on her secretary’s behalf, but her pleas fell on deaf ears. When it became clear just how serious Peter actually was, Catherine’s concern shifted from her secretary’s fate to her own fate if her husband focused his wrath upon her. So she switched gears, and abandoning all attempts at intercession, Catherine went out of her way to display indifference. Willem Mons was subjected to a brief but brutal interrogation, then sentenced to death.

Peter the Great Pickled the Head of His Wife’s Lover
‘The Morning of the Streltsy Execution’, by Vasily Surikov, 1881, depicting Peter the Great, on horseback at right, supervising the executions of rebellious Streltsy soldiers. Wikimedia

The Emperor’s Wrath Falls Upon Mons’ Head

On November 28, 1724, eight days after his arrest, Willem Mons was publicly beheaded in Saint Petersburg. While her secretary was getting his head chopped off, the empress was taking dance instructions with her daughters, while hiding from her husband and the public any emotion she might have felt. That might have mollified Peter somewhat, and perhaps even saved Catherine’s own head. However, in a last display of his power, and perhaps to test whether his wife really was indifferent, he had Mons’ head preserved in alcohol and put in a large glass jar, which he then placed in Catherine’s bedroom.

It was not the first time Peter the Great had forced a woman in his family to stay close to the remains of her lover. In 1698, when Peter was still getting a feel for his power as Tsar, the Streltsy regiments – a sort of medieval Russian Praetorian Guard – rebelled, and made contact with his half sister, Sophia Alkesyevna. Sophia had ruled as regent when Peter was a child, but resisted surrendering her power when Peter grew up and sought to rule in his own right, so he had her locked up in a monastery.

Ten years later, in 1698, a lover of Sophia led the Streltsy in a failed uprising while Peter was out of the country, seeking to replace him with Sophia. Peter rushed back to Russia, but the rebellion had already collapsed by the time he returned home. Upon reaching Moscow, he brutally suppressed and broke the Streltsy, who were tortured and executed by the thousands. Peter played an active part in the executions, personally chopping off the heads of rebels with an ax in public, in what is now Moscow’s Red Square. He also strung up the bodies of executed Streltsy outside Sophia’s monastery, and left the corpse of her lover dangling from a rope directly outside her window.

Peter the Great Pickled the Head of His Wife’s Lover
‘Mary Hamilton Awaiting Execution’, by Pavel Svedomskiy. Wikimedia

Two decades later, Peter went back to his playbook of gruesome displays. When his mistress Mary Hamilton – who was also one of Catherine’s ladies in waiting – got on his wrong side, he had her arrested and charged with abortion, infanticide, theft, and slandering the empress. After she was beheaded, the emperor had Mary’s head pickled in alcohol. Peter thus seems to have gotten a kick out of showing the women around him just who was boss, and to have reprised the fates of Mary Hamilton and of his sister’s lover’s remains when deciding what to do with Willem Mons’ head.

Catherine, who maintained her cool throughout, survived the tempest, and succeeded Peter on Russia’s throne when the emperor died a few months later. One of her earliest acts as sole empress was to make it up to Willem Mons’ sister, Matryona, by recalling her form Siberia, rehabilitating her as an imperial favorite, and lavishing gifts and honours upon her. As to her former secretary’s pickled head, Catherine kept it in her possession until her death – a ghoulishly sentimental memento of a man she might have actually loved.

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Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Atlas Obscura – What Happened to the Severed Head of Peter the Great’s Wife’s Lover?

Executed Today – 1724: Willem Mons, Head Grafter

History.Info – Did You Know Peter the Great Allegedly Made His Wife Keep Her Lover’s Severed Head in Her Bedroom

Massie, Robert K. – Peter the Great: His Life and World (2012)

Russiapedia – Foreigners in Russia: The Mons Family

Esquire Magazine – Peter the Great & the Severed Head: the Morbid Beheading of his Wife’s Confidant

Wikipedia – Willem Mons

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