BIREN (or Biihren), ERNST JOHANN duke of Courland, was the grandson of a groom in the service of Duke Jacob III. of Courland, who bestowed upon him a small estate, which Biren's father inherited. He received what little education he had at the academy of Konigsberg, 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 shabby court of the princess Sophia Charlotte, the consort of the tsarevich Alexius. Returning to Mitau, he succeeded in gaining a footing at the court of Anne, duchess of Courland, through one of his sisters, who was the mistress of the ruling minister, Peter Bestuzhev, the lover of the duchess. Biren supplanted him in the favour of Anne, and from henceforth to the end of her life his influence over her was paramount. On her elevation to the Rus sian throne in 173o Biren, who had in the meantime married Fraulein von Treiden, came to Moscow, and honours and riches were heaped upon him. At the coronation (May 19) he was made grand-chamberlain, a count of the empire, on which occa sion 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. He soon made himself cordially detested by Russians of every class. He was mean, treacherous, rapacious, suspicious and horribly vindictive. Half the bribes intended for the Russian court passed through his coffers. On the extinction of the line of Kettler, the estates of Courland, in June elected him their reigning duke. He was almost as much loathed in Courland as in Russia; but large sums of money, smuggled into Courland in the shape of bills payable in Amsterdam to bearer, speedily convinced the electors. On her death-bed Anne appointed him regent during the minority of the infant emperor, Ivan VI.
Biren's regency lasted exactly three weeks. At midnight on Nov. 19, 1740, he was seized in his bedroom by his ancient rival, Field Marshal Munnich. The commission appointed to try his case condemned him (April 1 1, 1741) to death by quartering, but this sentence was commuted to banishment for life at Pelym in Siberia. All Biren's vast property was confiscated, including his diamonds, worth f 600,000. The ex-regent re-emerged for a brief moment in 1762, when the philo-German Peter III. summoned him to court. Catherine II. re-established him (1763) in his duchy, which he bequeathed to his son Peter. He died at Mitau, his capital, on Dec. 28, 1772.
See Robert Nisbet Bain, The Pupils of Peter the Great (1897) ; Christoph Hermann von Manstein, Memoirs (Eng. ed., 1856) Claudius Rondeau, Diplomatic Dispatches from Russia (St. Peters burg, 1889-92),