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.
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.