Catherine I (Russian: Екатерина I Алексеевна, translated Yekaterina I Alekseyevna, born Polish: Marta Helena Skowrońska, later known as Marta Samuilovna Skavronskaya) was the second wife of Peter the Great and Empress of Russia from 1725 until her death.
The life of Catherine I was said by Voltaire to be nearly as extraordinary as that of Peter the Great himself. There are no documents that confirm her origins. Said to have been born on 15 April 1684, she was originally named Marta Helena Skowrońska. Marta was the daughter of Samuel Skowroński (later spelt Samuil Skavronsky), a Roman Catholic peasant from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth born to Minsker parents, who in 1680 married Dorothea Hahn at Jakobstadt. Her mother is named in at least one source as Elizabeth Moritz, the daughter of a Baltic German woman and there is debate as to whether Moritz's father was a Swedish officer. It is likely that two stories were conflated, and Swedish sources suggest that the Elizabeth Moritz story is probably incorrect. Some biographies state that Marta's father was a gravedigger and handyman, while others speculate that he was a runaway landless serf.
In 1704, she was well established in the Tsar's household as his mistress, and gave birth to a son, Peter. In 1705 she converted to Orthodoxy and took the new name of Catherine Alexeyevna (Yekaterina Alexeyevna). Though no record exists, Catherine and Peter are described as having married secretly between 23 Oct and 1 Dec 1707 in St. Petersburg. They had twelve children, two of whom survived into adulthood, Anna (born 1708) and Yelizaveta (born 1709).
Catherine went with Peter on his Pruth Campaign in 1711. There Catherine was said to have saved Peter and his Empire, as related by Voltaire in his book Peter the Great. Surrounded by overwhelming numbers of Turkish troops, Catherine suggested before surrendering, that her jewels and those of the other women be used in an effort to bribe the Ottoman grand vizier Baltacı Mehmet Pasha into allowing a retreat.
Mehmet allowed the retreat, whether motivated by the bribe or considerations of trade and diplomacy. In any case Peter credited Catherine and proceeded to marry her again (this time officially) at Saint Isaac's Cathedral in St. Petersburg on 9 February 1712. Catherine was Peter's second wife; he had previously married and divorced Eudoxia Lopukhina, who had borne him the Tsarevich Alexis Petrovich. Upon their wedding, Catherine took the style of her husband and became Tsarina. When Peter elevated the Russian Tsardom to Empire, Catherine became Empress. The Order of Saint Catherine was instituted by her husband on the occasion of their wedding.