In the summer of 1894, Tsarevich Nicholas of Russia came to stay at Walton-on-Thames, in the house which his fiancée, Princess Alix of Hesse’s eldest sister, Victoria, Princess Louis of Battenberg and her husband, Prince Louis of Battenberg had rented. They would stay in the house for several days before continuing to Windsor Castle, where the Tsarevich came as a guest of his fiancée’s maternal grandmother, Queen Victoria. It would be one of the happiest times of their lives.
As Nicholas wrote, on arrival in England he went ‘into the arms of my betrothed who looked lovely and more beautiful than ever’ (cit., Robert K Massie, Nicholas and Alexandra, 35). I have established that Princess Alix of Hesse was not at Waterloo Station to meet the Tsarevich, as could be inferred by this sentence when Nicholas arrived in London. Instead, he wrote excitedly on the imperial yacht Polar Star – leant to him by his father, Tsar Alexander III for the English journey – ‘Tomorrow I shall see my beloved again… I’ll go mad with joy’. He was driven in a carriage to Waterloo Station, where he was met with a guard of honour and his future brother-in-law, Prince Louis of Battenberg. The delighted Tsarevich Nicholas recorded the precise time he arrived at Walton-on-Thames – at a quarter-to-four in the afternoon.
It was the beginning of what he would describe as a ‘veritable idyll’, the continuation of their blissful engagement days in Coburg, where they had been affianced on 8 April 1894. Of course we know with hindsight – often an irritant to historical judgement, hindering us from being able to chart the events as they naturally develop – that Tsarevich Nicholas and Princess Alix would not have a proper honeymoon of their own because of the shock death of Tsar Alexander III in November 1894, meaning that crucially, Princess Alix became the wife of the next Russian Tsar – himself by his own admission, knowing ‘nothing’ of the business of ruling – without any time to prepare for her imperial role. It had been only six months before her marriage that she was packing her Russian manuals with her to take to Yorkshire when she took her cure in Harrogate. Suddenly, she was Tsarina.
It should not surprise then, that more than she might perhaps have customarily done, she treasured up everything from the time of her engagement to Nicholas. It had been all too brief a period of betrothal. Poignantly, she carefully preserved the little telegraph book of codes with her, which she had used during the period of her engagement. It was tragically discovered in the Ipatiev House at Ekaterinburg, having gone with her until the very end, even to the house where she was brutally murdered, together with the Tsar, the imperial children and their faithful retainers.
The house in Walton-on-Thames in the district of Elmbridge, Surrey is of red-brick with a slate roof, a handsome nineteenth century Grade II* listed building consisting of three storeys and slash windows and listed as such on 16 November 1984. The front door is half-glazed with moulded surrounds. Today, it houses the Stagecoach Montessori Nursery, in what was once known as the Courthouse. It is situated on Hersham Road, hard to imagine as the quiet setting for a blissful few days back in 1894. We know that Tsarevich Nicholas and Princess Alix spent idyllic days along the Thames from letters and primary sources. The Walton map shows us that the river was within leisurely walking distance; perhaps they took the most direct route via Thames Street.
Alix’s eldest sister, Victoria, Princess Louis of Battenberg must have rented the house at Walton since at least the spring of 1894 because Queen Victoria wrote to her from the villa where she was holidaying in Florence at the beginning of April 1894 – prior to the imperial engagement – hoping that Victoria, one of her favourite grandchildren, had spent her birthday ‘happily’ at Walton (ed. Richard Hough, Advice to a Granddaughter, 122). So happy would the memories be of this time for the future Tsarina, that the mere word ‘Walton’ – according to the biographer Robert K Massie (who does not list his source for this) was enough to bring tears to her eyes, years later in Russia (Robert K Massie, Nicholas and Alexandra, 35).
Victoria, Princess Louis of Battenberg recorded in her private memoirs: ‘Alix came back to us at Walton, and there Nicky joined us for the 20th to the 23rd of June…’ (cit., David Duff, Hessian Tapestry, 236). According to Princess Louis, the Tsarevich came with only his valet, and he and Princess Alix were that way able to ‘spend as much time as they liked together’.
This was true to the Tsarevich’s delight, who wrote to his mother, Empress Marie Feodorovna, that he had hoped ‘to spend a few quiet days with her and then I shall have to go to Windsor’ (Edward J. Bing, Letters of Tsar Nicholas II and Empress Marie 81). These days were indeed ‘quiet’, and the Tsarevich was later enchanted at the kindness of Queen Victoria in Windsor who ‘even allowed us to go out for drives without a chaperone! I confess I didn’t expect that!’ (Ibid, 82). Nicholas wrote to his mother that there had been no room to accommodate, for example, the Tsar’s personal confessor Yanisheff, who was to prepare Alix for her reception into the Russian Orthodox Church; instead, the confessor had to be put up in town. His letter to his mother purred with contentment: ‘And so we spent three ideal days in their cosy cottage on the Thames quite quietly, not seeing anybody…’ (Ibid, 82).
These days were spent delightfully. The Tsarevich’s letters tell us that each day was spent outside ‘all day long in beautiful weather, boating up and down the river, picnicking on shore’ (cit., Massie, 35). Whilst on shore, they all took tea. Princess Alix had received a tea basket as a birthday present from Queen Victoria only recently, which she used whilst on her cure in Harrogate and as she came to Walton from Harrogate, she brought it with her, and the four of them all went out to enjoy it on the banks of the Thames. Remarkably, the tea basket survived the Revolution and is listed as the property of the State Museum of Ethnography in St. Petersburg and was publicly exhibited at the Hermitage, Amsterdam on the centenary of the Russian Revolution in 2017. Certainly, the tea basket was reused at Walton, because the Tsarevich mentions in a letter (in alternative translation) on his last day at Walton that Alix had a ‘wonderful’ tea basket which had been given her by Queen Victoria, which they had used.
The engaged couple sat on rugs under the chestnut trees in the gardens of the house, while the Tsarevich read to Princess Alix aloud from Pierre Loti’s Matelot, published the previous year, as she embroidered. According to Robert K Massie, the couple also gathered fruit and flowers (Ibid, 35). French books continued to be gifted between the imperial couple after marriage. For example, a book printed in Paris for example, bound in leather and silk, Contes du Temps Jadis was given by the Tsar to his wife, bearing the dedication: ‘For darling Alix, X-mas 1912′ (ed. Marilyn Pfeifer Swezey et al., Nicholas and Alexandra: At Home with the last Tsar and his family, 116). French was, of course, also, the language of polite St Petersburg and its fashionable salons, as well as the court language of Europe.
Nicholas expressed sentiments in his diary on 8 June in his rooms at Walton-on-Thames that it was more or less like Coburg all over again (Andrei Maylunas and Sergei Mironenko, A Lifelong Passion, 73) and of how pleasant it was to be all together in the house. He slept ‘splendidly’ in his ‘cosy little room’ and wrote gleefully in his diary at Walton of his delight at sharing the same roof as his fiancée. The first evening was spent indoors because of the rain but the following day, they sat in the drawing room and then went for a drive around Walton-on-Thames in a carriage, Victoria’s daughters, Princesses Alice (future Princess Andrew of Greece) and Louise of Battenberg (future Queen of Sweden) coming, too.
The diary of the Tsarevich is the most important source we have for these brief days spent at Walton. Thanks to his assiduousness at recording every romantic and everyday detail, we know for example that he played the piano at Walton and that the afternoon of the second day was spent boating on the Thames, the young Battenberg princesses coming, too. The cinematic quality of his descriptions allow us to visualise a beautiful hot summer’s day along the Thames from the quiet pages of his diary, now reposing in the Moscow archives. The idyll breathes from the paper; ‘tea’ was taken in a rowing boat. On the last day at Walton, the royal party made another trip up the Thames, the Tsarevich rowing. It was on this day that they used Alix’s tea basket (Ibid, 74).
The next day – 11 June – finds Nicholas’s diary written up (we must suppose somewhat reluctantly) at Windsor Castle. Had he known it though, the blissful existence only continued, with more drives with Alix and coffee with Queen Victoria (‘Granny‘) at nearby Frogmore. The Tsarevich sighed that they had to sadly give up the ‘carefree’ life they had spent at Walton (Ibid, 74). He left for Windsor with Princess Alix and Prince and Princess Louis of Battenberg in the Queen’s tandem carriage (Ibid, 74); the carriage ride took an hour. Many years later, his sister, Grand Duchess Xenia Alexandrovna, would end up living out her British exile in places close to where he had been, after the Revolution. Her first grace-and-favour residence was Frogmore Cottage, Windsor and later, Wilderness House at Hampton Court Palace, Surrey. By then, of course, Nicholas II had been assassinated with his family.
Before leaving for Windsor, the Tsarevich and Princess Alix sent a telegram to Queen Victoria: ‘Best love from Nicky and we should so much like to spend only one more day here. Would arrive day after tomorrow for tea. Nicky and Alix’ (cit., Nicholas and Alexandra documentary, presented by HRH Prince Michael of Kent,1996).
I visited the house at Walton-on-Thames for the first time over fifteen years ago. It was a curious feeling to be walking through the rooms of this house where the Tsarevich and Princess Alix had once been so happy, to visit what would have once been the dining room and the upper rooms on the first floor where most likely the bedrooms were and to find only understandably surprised administrative assistants looking up from their computer desks, whilst I tried to imagine three days back in the summer of 1894. Pleasingly, several of the upper rooms had fireplaces still in situ, and a gnarled old tree on the front lawn allowed me to imagine the Tsarevich sitting reading to his future wife in French on an old rug. Unfortunately, the tree wasn’t a chestnut tree.
Alix’s eldest sister Victoria concluded in her memoirs: ‘We four were fetched by a Royal carriage… to go to Windsor’, which surprised those local to Walton-on-Thames ‘who never realised who the important people stopping with us had been’ (cit., Duff, 236).