Catherine the Great’s Death: Horse or no Horse?

Catherine the Great was one of the great rulers of the 18th century. As a public figure, she was bound to be talked about. And Catherine’s love life further fueled gossip. The Russian empress had a string of lovers, at least 12.

That, in gossip, translated to the empress having an insatiable sexual appetite. All sorts of stories about her supposed nymphomania circulated through Russia -and abroad too. But one of the most enduring of those tales is that she died while trying to have sex with a horse. Is it true, though?

How did Catherine the Great die?

Despite popular legend, there were no horses involved in Catherine the Great’s death.

Painting of Catherine in her sixties. She is outdoors walking a small dog. She wears a blue coat and a hat.
Catherine II during a walk in Tsarskosyelsky Park by Vladimir Borovikovsky, 1794. Catherine died two years later, in 1796. (Photo: Tretyakov Gallery/Public domain)

After she died, her enemies, or perhaps popular malice, circulated the story that she had died while trying to have sex with a horse.

Supposedly, the horse was brought to her chambers and was suspended over her bed thanks to a mechanical device. She would have been under the horse. But the mechanical device broke, the horse fell on her, and she was crushed under its weight and died. That is what the legend said.

But there is no truth in that story.

Catherine’s death is well documented. She died of natural causes, of a stroke, when she was 67 years old.

On 16 November 1796, Catherine woke up and followed her usual routine. Her coffee was brought in, she drank it and sat down to write.

Usually, then, she would summon her chamberlain. But this morning, she did not, for three hours. The chamberlain thought it very strange and went in to check on her. He found her lying unconscious on the floor. He called the doctor, but Catherine remained unconscious.

The next day, at 9:45 pm, she died. According to her autopsy, she had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage.

After her death, her body, with her face uncovered, was on public display for six weeks. It had not been crushed.

The empress was buried at Peter and Paul Cathedral in Saint Petersburg, Russia, next to her husband Tsar Peter III.

Origin of the horse legend

Catherine loved horseback-riding and was painted on horseback more than once. She rode astride, like a man, which scandalized many.

Catherine’s love life had always been the subject of mockery, both inside Russia and abroad. When she first arrived in Russia, she was a foreign princess in court, and she was humiliated and slandered. That she had three lovers while married did not help to silence the malicious tongues.

Then, when she became empress, she invaded other countries, setting her as an enemy of some European powers. The press in England and France, especially, mocked her relentlessly -as they did their own sovereigns. They drew hundreds of cartoons that mocked her sex drive.

So even when Catherine was alive, there were slanderous rumours that Catherine had such a voracious sexual appetite that to satiate it she slept with barn animals.

From there, it was not a huge stretch, after she died, to denigrate her by saying she had died while having sex with a barn animal.

Apparently, the death by horse tale started to circulate only decades after Catherine’s death.

A lewd cartoon of Catherine. It shows a giant Catherine stepping from Prussia to Constantinople. Seven small European kings stand beneath her and look up her skirt.
The French and British press mocked Catherine’s sex drive relentlessly. British cartoon by William Holland, 1791.

More about Catherine the Great:

Who was Catherine the Great? From German Princess to Tsarina

The Accomplishments of Catherine the Great

Catherine the Great’s Lovers: These Are the 12 Men She Loved

Catherine the Great’s Greatest Failure: Serfdom

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2020-08-26
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