The Sibling Rivalry That Wrecked an Empire, and Other Self-Destructive Royal Family Episodes
The Sibling Rivalry That Wrecked an Empire, and Other Self-Destructive Royal Family Episodes

The Sibling Rivalry That Wrecked an Empire, and Other Self-Destructive Royal Family Episodes

Khalid Elhassan - January 5, 2020

The Sibling Rivalry That Wrecked an Empire, and Other Self-Destructive Royal Family Episodes
Peter the Great enjoyed intimidating his women, as depicted in this painting by Pavel Svedomskiy of Peter’s mistress, Mary Hamilton, awaiting her execution. Wikimedia

2. Cuckolding an Emperor Proved Bad For a Courtier’s Health

Peter the Great’s sister and son were not the only relatives to feel his wrath: his wife got a taste of it, too. Late in his reign, rumors made the rounds that Peter’s wife, the Empress Catherine, was having an affair with her private secretary, Willem Mons. Gossip had it that the duo were lovers, and that Willem Mons’ sister, Matryona Balk, had played matchmaker.

One of the juicier tales held that “Peter had found his wife with Mons one moonlit night in a compromising position in her garden“. Whether or not Peter had actually witnessed his wife getting it on with her secretary, he did get word of the lurid stories about his wife. It ended badly for her lover.

The Sibling Rivalry That Wrecked an Empire, and Other Self-Destructive Royal Family Episodes
Peter the Great and Empress Catherine. Town and Country

1. Making His Wife Keep Her Lover’s Head in Her Bedroom

Peter the Great had his wife’s lover, Willem Mons, arrested and hauled off in chains on charges of embezzlement and abuse of trust. Mons’ sister Matryona, the supposed matchmaker, was also arrested, publicly whipped, and exiled to Siberia. On November 28th, 1724, eight days after his arrest, Willem Mons was publicly beheaded in St. Petersburg.

While that was going on, Catherine put on a public display of indifference towards her secretary’s fate, which probably saved her own head. However, Peter put on a final demonstration of his power, in a bid to test whether his wife’s indifference was genuine. He had Mons’ head preserved in alcohol and put in a glass jar, which he then placed in Catherine’s bedroom.

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

History Collection – History’s Deadliest Relatives

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

Cawthorne, Nigel – Daughter of Heaven: The True Story of the Only Woman to Become Emperor of China (2007)

Daily Sabah, August 6th, 2015 – The History of Fratricide in the Ottoman Empire

Encyclopedia Britannica – Henry II, King of England

Encyclopedia Britannica – Ptolemy VIII

History Collection – Deadly Family Spats Through the Centuries

Glubb, Sir John – A Short History of the Arab People (1969)

Herrin, Judith – Women in Purple: Rulers of Medieval Byzantium (2001)

Hughes, Lindsey – Russia in the Age of Peter the Great (1998)

Jones, Dan – The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England (2014)

Massie, Robert K. – Peter the Great: His Life and World (1980)

History Collection – Historical Rulers Who Murdered Members Of Their Own Family

Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium – Empress Irene

Plutarch – Plutarch’s Lives

Rejected Princesses – Fredegund: Assassination-Obsessed Queen

Spartacus Educational – King Richard II

Suetonius – The Lives of the Twelve Caesars

Thought Co – Wars of the Roses: An Overview

Warfare History Network – The Fourth Fitna: a Family Feud That Crippled a Caliphate

History Collection – Powerful Historic Family Dynasties that Are Rotten to the Core

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