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An Imperial Russian summer at Windsor

The visit of the future Tsar Nicholas II to Queen Victoria in the summer of 1894 has a fabled quality; it took place a mere two months after his engagement to Princess Alix of Hesse in Coburg.

This visit has a special poignancy when viewed through later eyes; we know of course, that far from enjoying a period as Tsarevich and Tsarevna of Russia, Nicholas and Alix would, in fact, marry in November of that year, only weeks after the shocking death of Tsar Alexander III at Livadia, making them all too suddenly, Tsar and Tsarina of all the Russians, occasioning the panic-stricken words of a stunned (Tsar) Nicholas to his brother-in-law, Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich: ‘I am not prepared to be a Tsar. I never wanted to become one. I know nothing of the business of ruling. I have no idea of even how to talk to the ministers’.

This period following their engagement was certainly the most carefree and happy in the lives of Nicholas and Alexandra, the name that the latter took prior to her marriage, as Alexandra Feodorovna, when she was received into the Russian Orthodox Church. These months spent at Windsor as the guest of Queen Victoria have, therefore, something of a honeymoon-like quality, something they would, in fact, through the death of Tsar Alexander III, never be destined to enjoy, as the author David William Cripps has pointed out.

Tsarevich Nicholas sailed into the Thames in the imperial yacht Polar Star; he first spent some days with Alix at the house that her eldest sister, Victoria, Princess Louis of Battenberg, had rented at Walton-on-Thames, known as Elm Grove. The days were in the words of Nicholas, ‘a true idyll… but then we had to go to Windsor…

Alix and Nicholas sent a telegram from Elm Grove to Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle: ‘Best love from Nicky… will arrive day after tomorrow for tea. Nicky and Alix’. They duly drove the hour’s distance to Windsor from Walton-on-Thames in a tandem carriage belonging to Queen Victoria and waited for the Queen at Frogmore.

The name Frogmore occurs frequently in the young Tsarevich’s diary during this visit to Windsor. There are regular references to driving to Frogmore with Queen Victoria and Alix for breakfast or coffee – only three days after his arrival at Windsor, Nicholas wrote in his diary that they ‘went to Frogmore for coffee’ and that they went there ‘as usual…’ (Andrei Maylunas & Sergei Mironenko, A Lifelong Passion, 75).

We must imagine that the gardens – of such sentimental importance to Queen Victoria, because they contained the mausoleum of her mother, the Duchess of Kent and the Royal Mausoleum with the tomb of her beloved consort, Prince Albert – were in their full bloom of beauty at this time. The Tsarevich commented: ‘I was struck by the size of the rhododendron bushes…’ which are indeed, as striking during the former May charity open days as they surely were in the summer of 1894. The Tsarevich even attended a morning service at the Royal Mausoleum the day after his arrival at Windsor Castle, a true sign of his being integrated into the family of Queen Victoria as her ‘most loving and devoted (future) grandson’ (Ibid, 72). This was repeated again on 26 June, where the personal confessor of Queen Victoria ‘gave a very good sermon’ (Ibid, 77).

Nicholas wrote in his diary of going to Frogmore ‘on foot… where we all had tea. Sat with my bride in the little pavilion by the pond…’ [Swiss Seat] and again of walking ‘with Alix around the pond…’ two days later (Ibid, pp. 74-5).

I have wondered where Nicholas was accommodated at Windsor Castle. He describes in his diary that he was ‘staying in rooms upstairs, not far from my darling bride, and which give onto the gallery where we gather before and after dinner…’ These were, according to his letter to his mother, Empress Marie Feodorovna ‘the same rooms you stayed in previously…’ (Ibid, 74).

For dinner, Nicholas wore a Windsor tailcoat with ‘red collar and cuffs… with stockings and shoes’, at the request of Queen Victoria (Ibid, 74). Mischievously, the Tsarevich decided to wear a ‘red Circassion coat’ for Queen Victoria at dinner, who had asked him several times to appear in Cossack dress (Ibid, 79). He wore full Hussar uniform for a parade on 30 June.

According to information told to the author, the rooms where Nicholas stayed were most likely in the wing overlooking the magnificent Long Walk in the Great Park, which is where the most important of state visitors are housed at Windsor, then as now. This wing had previously held the rooms of Queen Victoria’s daughters at Windsor Castle, adjoining the Victoria Tower that contained the Queen’s private apartments. Alix’s mother, Princess Alice of Hesse, gave birth to the future Princess Louis of Battenberg in the Tapestry Room, which overlooked the Long Walk, in 1863.

There is a touching domesticity in the descriptions of how Nicholas spent his time with Alix at Windsor, as if it was a continuation of the life they had led at Walton-on-Thames, where they had importantly, stayed under one roof. The language used is of a life now being lived together, as if the young Tsarevich is getting used to writing it as such in his diary, because the word ‘I’ had become ‘We’: ‘Alix and I go for a walk or sit in the garden while I read to her. We return at one o’clock and have luncheon at 2 o’clock. We go for a drive at about five’ (Ibid, 75).

We read glimpses of what they did in Nicholas’ diary and letters; we learn, for example, that Nicholas sat with Alix, playing the piano, a touching recreation of the young Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who also enjoyed playing the piano together and who, significantly, spent their honeymoon at Windsor Castle, in 1840. During this period, Alix also began to add sentences in the diary of Nicholas. One such example in her handwriting is ‘many loving kisses’ between one of his mid-sentences, which suggests she was either in his rooms when he wrote it, or playfully added it where he had left off, when he wasn’t looking (Ibid, 77).  There are other additions too – sayings in German, sentimental poetry.

There are descriptions of excursions to White Lodge in Richmond, where the Duke and Duchess of York were then living [the future George V and Queen Mary] and to Bagshot, the residence of the Duke and Duchess of Connaught: ‘Yesterday we had tea at Bagshot with Uncle Arthur…’ (Ibid, 75). Two amateur snapshots attributed to the Duchess of Connaught, show Nicholas and Alix laughing at Bagshot next to a marquee – perfectly capturing this wonderful summer of happiness for the young couple who were destined to become Tsar and Tsarina of Russia, a mere five months later.

It is important to remember that the Princess of Wales was an aunt to Nicholas through his mother, Empress Marie Feodorovna, so that the Wales cousins were the mutual cousins of both Nicholas and Alix. The Princess of Wales sent an invitation to the Tsarevich to visit Sandringham – the Norfolk residence of the Prince and Princess of Wales – for two days, which he accepted, returning to Windsor on 17 June. He also had a (chaperoned) day-trip to London with Alix. During this Windsor visit, the Tsarevich was present as one of the sponsors at the christening of Prince Edward of Wales – the future Edward VIII – at White Lodge: ‘Granny gave him seven names. I was among the godfathers…’ (Ibid, 79). References to drives with Queen Victoria continue in his diary entries, including one to the ‘furthest corner of the park to Belvedere, where we had tea’ (Ibid, 77).

Nicholas accompanied Alix and Queen Victoria to Osborne from Windsor: ‘Granny’s life here is the same, transposed from Windsor – but not for us, as the sea is near’.

This last sentence seems to presage parting, which Nicholas did on 11 July, writing on board the Polar Star: ‘After saying goodbye to dear Granny, I went to the landing stage with Alix. After parting from my darling bride, I boarded the cutter…’ And again: ‘A sad day – parting – after more than a month of blissful existence!’ (Ibid 80).

Reading these personal lines of a private diary, it is impossible not to be impacted by the happiness they describe. The parting – whilst sad for Nicholas and Alix – inspired a correspondence which had stopped whilst they were together, but for the additional sentences which Alix wrote in Nicholas’ diary – even today’s reader can feel a coy delight when perusing these letters and get caught up in the private world of their happiness.

Nicholas wrote to Queen Victoria from Krasnoe Selo: ‘I cannot thank you enough for all the loving kindness and attention you showed me, dearest Grandmama…’ (Ibid, 89). Queen Victoria wrote on 23 September to Nicholas from Balmoral: ‘We have been so grieved to hear of your dear Father being so unwell…’ (Ibid, 96).

Of course, we know that this was only the beginning of what would be a steady decline in the vigorous health of Tsar Alexander III, which would eventually end in his death at the old palace at Livadia. From late September 1894, we can see the event approaching, which the recipients of these letters themselves were forced to face. Alix was sent for and journeyed to the bedside of the dying Tsar – her own father, Grand Duke Ludwig IV of Hesse had died two years earlier.

As Tsar and Tsarina, the couple would build a new palace at Livadia and enjoy the beauty of the Crimean summer with their family, in the lush climate of the Black Sea. But that lay far ahead. With the death of Tsar Alexander III, the idyll of the period of their engagement had come to an abrupt end.

The brief summer at Windsor had been however, ‘a blissful existence’.

© Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018

About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian and writer, specializing in Queen Victoria's family, Russian royalty and the Habsburgs. An independent scholar of royal studies, she has studied historic British and European royalty for nearly twenty years, speaking on the subject for both TV and BBC radio.