Ernst Johann von Biron : biography
Ernst Johann von Biron ( 13 November (November 23) 1690 – 18 December (December 29) 1772) was a Duke of Courland and Semigallia (1737) and regent of the Russian Empire (1740).
Born as Ernst Johann Biren () in Kalnciems, Semigallia, he was the grandson of a groom in the service of Jacob Kettler, Duke of Courland, who bestowed upon him a small estate, which Biron's father inherited and where Biron himself was born. He received some education at the academy of Königsberg, from which he was expelled for riotous conduct. In 1714 he set out to seek his fortune in Russia, and unsuccessfully solicited a place at the court of the Princess Charlotte of Brunswick-Lüneburg, the consort of the Tsarevich Alexei Petrovich. Returning to Mitau, he succeeded in gaining a footing at court there through one of his sisters, who was the fancy of the ruling minister, Peter Bestuzhev. Biron's sister's mistress was the young duchess Anna Ivanovna. During his patron’s absence, Biron, a handsome, insinuating fellow, succeeded in supplanting him in the favour of Anna, and procuring the disgrace and banishment of Bestuzhev and his family.
From this time to the end of the duchess's life, Biron’s influence over her was paramount. On the elevation of Anna to the Russian throne, Biron, who had married Benigna Gottlieb von Trotha gt Treyden (1703–1782) in 1723, came to Moscow and received many honours and riches. At Anna's coronation (May 19, 1730), he became grand chamberlain, a count of the Empire, on which occasion he is said to have adopted the arms of the French ducal house of Biron, and was presented with an estate at Wenden with 50,000 crowns a year.
The Council of the Empire attempted to secure from Anna an aristocratic constitution, but she crushed the powerful nobility, notably the Dolgorukis and the Galitsins, and made Biron the practical ruler of the Empire. Biron's enemies and rivals were swept out of the way, while poor people were ground down by taxation. Russians have described this reign as the Bironovshchina and the “German yoke.” Biron is said to have caused over 1000 executions, while the number of persons exiled by him to Siberia is estimated at from 20,000–40,000. As an administrator, however, he showed considerable ability, and maintained order in the Empire.
During the latter years of Anna's reign, Biron increased enormously in power and riches. Outwardly humble during his first years in power, he became more haughty and overbearing towards the end of Anna's reign. This behavior and the gruesome execution on somewhat dubious charges of his erstwhile protege, the cabinet minister Artemy Volynsky (insisted upon by Biron) soon made the favourite unpopular with Russians of all classes.
His apartments in the palace adjoined those of the empress, and his liveries, furnitures and equipages were scarcely less costly than hers. Half the bribes intended for the Russian court passed through his coffers. He had landed estates everywhere. A special department of state looked after his brood mares and stallions. The magnificence of his plate astonished the French ambassador, and the diamonds of his duchess were the envy of princes.
Biron's residence in Rundale, Latvia.]] The climax of his elevation occurred when, on the extinction of the line of Kettler, the estates of Courland, in June 1737, elected Biron their reigning duke. He was almost as unpopular in Courland as in Russia, but the will of the empress was the law of the land, and large sums of money, smuggled into Courland in the shape of bills payable in Amsterdam to bearer, speedily convinced the electors. The duchy was then in dispute between Poland and Russia. Russian armies were employed to place Augustus III, Elector of Saxony, on the Polish throne. The Elector had promised the investiture of Courland for Biron. The Emperor Charles VI, subordinating everything to his Pragmatic Sanction, readily countenanced these violent acts, and the king of Prussia was bought by certain territorial concessions. The investiture took place in 1739 at Warsaw by authority of the Polish king and senate.
On her deathbed Anna, very unwillingly and only at his urgent entreaty, appointed him regent during the minority of the baby emperor, Ivan VI of Russia. Her common sense told her that the only way she could save the man she loved from the vengeance of his enemies after her death was to facilitate in time his descent from his untenable position. Finally, on October 26, 1740, a so-called “positive declaration” signed by 194 dignitaries, in the name of the Russian nation, conferred the regency on Biron.
Biron's regency lasted exactly three weeks. At midnight on November 19, 1740, he was seized in his bedroom by his ancient rival, Field Marshal Münnich. The commission appointed to try his case condemned him (April 11, 1741) to death by quartering, but this sentence was commuted by the clemency of the new regent, Anna Leopoldovna, the mother of Ivan VI, to banishment for life at Pelym in Siberia. All Biron's vast property was confiscated, including his diamonds, worth £600,000. A second palace revolution occurred soon after, and the new empress, Elizabeth Petrovna, banished Münnich and permitted Biron to take up his residence at Yaroslav.
For 22 years, the ex-regent disappeared from the high places of history. He re-emerged for a brief moment in 1762, when the Germanophile Peter III of Russia summoned him to court. In 1763 Catherine II of Russia re-established him in his duchy, which he bequeathed to his son Peter. The last years of his rule were just and even benevolent, if somewhat autocratic. He died at Rastrelli's palace in Mitava, his capital, on December 29, 1772.
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