Peter the Great

At the latter end of September Peter laid siege to Narva, a fortified town on the river Narowa, just at the time that Charles was engaged with the Danes, and putting an end to the war in Denmark. This, however, was accomplished in a few weeks; and then, at the head of only 9000 troops, he came to the relief of Narva. Peter, probably astonished that the place had held out so long, but never doubting of ultimate success, left the army encamped before Narva to meet a body of nearly 30,000 men, whom he had sent for. The reason of this proceeding cannot be easily explained; for certainly the presence of the czar was most required with the main body, already 60,000 strong, at the scene of action. Probably he went forth to meet the reinforcement only from the restlessness of mind and impatience of delay which were part of his character. It was a false step, however. During his absence, on the 19th of November, Charles came up to Narva, and taking advantage of a tremendous snow-storm, which beat directly in the faces of the Russians, fell upon them, and with his 9000 men completely routed or captured an army of nearly seven times the number. The prisoners taken were nearly 40,000; and the inconvenience of the long petticoats was at last discovered, since they hindered a great number from - running away! Never was a more ignominious defeat, though the czar bore it with the greatest philosophy know very well,' he said, 'that the Swedes will have the advantage of us for a considerable time; but they will teach us at length to beat them.'

On the occasion of this defeat, the priests composed a prayer to St. Nicholas, which was publicly offered up. It besought his assistance against those terrible, insolent, furious, dreadful, invincible destroyers,' who had fallen upon them like lions and bears deprived of their young frightening, wounding, and killing them by thousands ' - and declaring that such calamities could only have befallen them from witchcraft and sorcery.' Peter, however, did not wait for the help of St. Nicholas. He entered into negotiations with the kings of Denmark and Poland to assist him with troops, and to keep up the quarrel with Charles XII; at the same time he melted the church and convent bells of Moscow to found cannon, and made every preparation for his intended campaign in the ensuing spring. But amid all his preparations for war, Peter never lost sight of those projects which were to bring forth their fruits in peace. At this period he was founding hospitals and schools, erecting linen and paper factories, and importing sheep from Saxony, gathering together smiths, braziers, and artificers of every description, and having the mines of Siberia explored for ore.

It is not our purpose to detail the battles and sieges which took place in the course of the following year or two, although we must mention one of them more particularly, as it was the occasion of introducing to Peter a person who henceforth took part in his fortunes. Marienburg was a little town on the confines of Ingria and Livonia, which, besieged by Peter's army, surrendered at discretion. Either through accident or design, the Swedes who defended it set fire to the magazine, which so incensed the Russians, that they destroyed the town, and carried away all the inhabitants. Among the prisoners was a young girl of about sixteen years of age, a Livonian by birth, who had been brought up from charity in the house of a Lutheran minister. There is no reason to suppose she had occupied any higher station than that of servant in his family; but it is said that she had been married to a Swedish soldier, who fell in the siege, the very day before it took place. This widowed orphan was taken to the camp of one of the Russian generals. Precisely how or when Peter first saw her, can never be known; but the best authenticated and most likely story is, that while engaged in handing round dried fruits and liquors at the house, or in the tent of Prince Menzikoff, the Livonian slave, known only by the name of Martha, first attracted the attention of the czar. According to his invariable custom, when pleased by the manners or countenance of any one, he entered into conversation with her, and soon discovered that she possessed a mind of more than ordinary intelligence. To this she joined, as events proved, a cheerful and lively disposition, a kind heart, and an amiable temper. No doubt Peter had penetration enough to see that she was precisely the woman who could share his enthusiasm, sympathise in his plans, and be, in short, the wife he wanted. The meanness, or indeed obscurity of her birth, was no obstacle to him; he had absolute power to raise her to the loftiest condition in his empire; and, accordingly, by the name of Catherine, which she now adopted, he married her at first privately, but a few years afterwards with the state and ceremony of public nuptials. Thus was chosen the partner of his throne, and his successor upon it.