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