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Princess Sophie Dorothea of Württemberg was the eldest of 8 children of Friedrich II Eugen, Duke of Württemberg and his wife, Friederike Dorothea of Brandenburg-Schwedt. Her education was better than average for girls of that era thanks to her parents devotion to culture and the arts. By her teens, she spoke German, French, Italian and Latin. At 16, she was married to Grand Duke Paul, the heir to the Russian throne (the future Tsar Paul I). As required of a Russian empress, she converted to the Russian Orthodox faith and took the new name Maria Feodorovna. Empress Catherine the Great, Paul's mother, was enchanted with her daughter-in-law in the beginning, but their relationship soured due to the extreme bitterness between mother and son and Catherine's tyrannical behavior. In 1777, Maria Feodorovna gave birth to the first of 10 children, the future Tsar Alexander I. Three months later, Catherine took the baby away to raise him on her own terms without interference from his parents. She did the same thing when a second son was born in 1779. During the long years of Catherine's reign, Maria Feodorovna and her husband lived at the palace at Gatchina near St. Petersburg. She dedicated herself to improving various palaces, doing charitable works, and hosting a literary salon. She kept voluminous diaries that recorded her life in detail; unfortunately, they were burned at her death. In 1796, Catherine died and Tsar Paul became emperor. Maria Feorovna was a generous patron of the arts and established the first schools for women. Tsar Paul reigned for only four years before being assassinated in 1801. Maria Feodorovna was 42 years old when she became a widow, and insisted on keeping the highest female position at court, which set a precedent for all future Russian dowager empresses. Her court became the center of anti-Napoleon sentiment during the Napoleonic Wars. Some of her surviving letters to her children have been published.
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