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The Tsarina’s letters to William Boyd Carpenter, Bishop of Ripon

In the British Library five letters from Princess Alix of Hesse, later Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna of Russia (1872-1918) are preserved. Initially, I thought there were seven letters of hers at the British Library, but further research has enabled me to establish that these are instead, two postcards in Russian, to her only son, Tsarevich Alexei Nikolaevich (1904-1918). These letters are remarkable because they show us like so much of the Tsarina’s correspondence, that time and geography did by no means lessen the strong ties of friendship once established, not even in far-distant Russia. The letters are written to William Boyd Carpenter, WBD KCVO, D. D, D.C..L, D. Litt, Bishop of Ripon, one-time Chaplain to Queen Victoria and later, Clerk of the Closet to Edward VII.

I consulted these letters at the beginning of my research concerning Princess Alix of Hesse’s visit to Harrogate in 1894, to undertake a cure for sciatica, one month after her engagement at Coburg to Tsarevich Nicholas of Russia. The first of these letters is written from Harrogate to the Bishop, in what was arguably the most important year of Alix’s life – 1894. When he visited Windsor in the summer of 1894, Tsarevich Nicholas would be impressed with the Bishop of Ripon’s preaching, commenting in his diary that the Bishop of Ripon on 3 July 1894 (Windsor Castle) had given an ‘excellent’ sermon (Andrei Maylunas and Sergei Mironenko, A Lifelong Passion, 79). Indeed, he acquired a reputation of being a Bishop who was ‘silver-tongued’ on account of his beautiful voice.

Boyd Carpenter, photographed by Herbert Rose Barraud, published by Eglington & Co, carbon print on card mount, published 1889 (National Portrait Gallery [United States Public domain or Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Importantly, during this period, Princess Alix was preparing to be received into the Russian Orthodox Church; the Orthodox priest who was also the Tsarevich’s confessor, named Yanyshev (or Yanisheff) accompanied Nicholas to Windsor to help her in this time before her conversion. Princess Alix met him for the first time at Windsor Castle on 14 June 1894 (Ibid, 75) and on 26 June was presented to Queen Victoria (Ibid, 76).

To understand the importance of the Bishop of Ripon’s position concerning Queen Victoria, we need to look first at his own life. For this I have drawn heavily on the Life of the Bishop of Ripon by H. D. A Major, D. D Principal of Ripon Hall, Oxford and sometime Librarian at the Bishop’s Palace, Ripon, The Life & Letters of W. B. C. (1925). His papers, preserved at the British Library are extraordinary, showing that he was on corresponding terms with many of the crowned heads of Europe and their respective relatives. Boyd Carpenter held the Bible at George V’s coronation.

Boyd Carpenter’s connection with Queen Victoria was privileged and one of mutual respect and warmth. Carpenter had been Vicar of St. James’s, Holloway and was first invited by Dean Wellesley in June 1877 to preach before Queen Victoria. Thereafter, he gave a sermon for the Queen once a year for the next five years. In 1879, he was appointed Honorary Chaplain and in 1882 became Canon of Windsor. He also had his first interview with the Queen who came to regard his preaching highly, writing on 14 December 1885: ‘it was a great disappointment to me and all of us – that you could not be here yesterday to give us one of your beautiful sermons’. The Queen stood as godmother to one of Carpenter’s daughters who died as an infant. The Queen had given this daughter a cross and afterwards asked if Mrs Carpenter ‘might hereafter like to wear it as a double remembrance’.

All of the Bishop’s letters to the Queen were “carefully preserved, and two volumes of them bound”. He spoke the Queen Victoria Jubilee Sermon before the House of Commons and even wrote a Jubilee Hymn. He preached at Christ Church, Harrogate in 1904, in whose churchyard, Dr Bickersteth composed his hymn, ‘Peace, perfect peace’ on the death of the Prince Consort.

Movingly, Carpenter spoke to Queen Victoria, three weeks before her death: “We had the service in the yellow drawing-room, as being more convenient of access than the chapel. A harmonium was brought in, and HRH Princess Beatrice played… It was the last Sunday of the year and of the century… so I spoke of the changelessness of God, from the words, ‘Thou art the same, and Thy years shall not fail.’ Then followed Faber’s hymn, which the Queen liked, ‘Angels of Jesus’… I saw the Queen once more… I left her about nine o’clock in the evening; thus I bade her adieu for the last time on the last day of the last century” (cit., H. D. A Major, 224).

Carpenter was, according to Life, with the Queen’s eldest daughter, Empress Frederick at the end of her life, when she was in dreadful agony: ‘The Empress was not able to get up… She gave my wife a bracelet of her own, which had some family associations. She gave me a seal, which had been Queen Victoria’s, and was in the room in which she died… The Empress said… “When I am gone, I want you to read the English burial service over me…’ (cit., Ibid, pp. 251-52).

The dying Empress dictated a letter to the Bishop “Schloss Friedrichshof, Cronberg, Taunus, Dec 1st 1900, From my Bed”, with a line in her hand, despite terrible physical suffering: “I remain ever, my dear Bishop, Yours very sincerely, Dowr, Empress Frederick and Queen of Prussia’. Perhaps most moving of all was the added sentence, written by a dying woman: ‘I hope my tree is alive and growing” (cit., Ibid, pp. 254-55).

Alix and her fiancé, Tsarevich Nicholas photographed in 1894 at the time of their engagement (Eduard Uhlenhuth [Public domain])

It was to this man that Princess Alix of Hesse wrote the five surviving letters. Extracts have been published from these in several books and articles but not reproduced in full length since Major’s Life in 1925. The Western European Languages department of the British Library has granted me kind permission to reproduce these letters in full. The first of these letters was written by Princess Alix, still in Harrogate:

“Harrogate, June 1st 1894

Dear Sir, I send you my very best thanks for your kind letter and the sermon you preached at Windsor. I am greatly touched that you remembered my expressing the wish of having your delightful sermon. It made a deep impression on me, and I am so glad now to be able to read it whenever I like; – and I am sure it will be a great help to me in many ways.

I cannot tell you how gladly I would have accepted your kind invitation to go to Ripon, and see the cathedral under your guidance, but the doctor has forbidden me to go on any long excursions, as the baths are very tiring. In case he should allow me a longer drive before I leave, may I venture to ask whether it would suit you then to see us?

Thanking you again for your sermon, which I am so glad and proud to possess, I remain, yours very sincerely, Alix of Hesse.”

(British Library Additional Manuscript 47621 ff.227-8).

We see from this letter that Carpenter had sent Princess Alix a copy of the last sermon he had preached at Windsor before she left for Harrogate. She regrets that she was unable to visit Ripon Cathedral as his guest, while she was in Yorkshire but declines the invitation because she had been ordered to rest. Her letter to Queen Victoria from Harrogate, written on 28 May – only days before she wrote to Carpenter, excuse that she wrote so little, but the baths at Harrogate made her ‘tired’ and she needed to rest (Maylunas and Mironenko, 71).

A young Tsar Nicholas II and Alexandra Feodorovna, holding the newborn baby, Grand Duchess Olga (Sergey Lvovich Levitsky [United States Public domain or Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Her next letter was dated early 1895 and written from the Anichkov Palace in St Petersburg, the city residence of the Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovna, where the young couple were then living, for their first winter together:

“13th February 1895 (O.S.)

Anitchkov Palace

Dear Sir, I have been wanting to write to you for some time, but there has been so much to do that I never had a quiet moment. Please accept my very warmest thanks for your kind letter and all the good wishes, which touched me deeply. It is such a pleasure feeling one is not forgotten. With interest I read the nice book you were so good as to send me, my best thanks for it and the charming present. I saw by the papers that you had been at Osborne, and wish I could have heard your sermon. I have often read through the one you so kindly gave me, and each time it did me good.

Now that I am more used to hear the Russian language I can understand the service so much better, and many things have become clear to me and comprehensible which at first rather startled me.  The singing is most beautiful and edifying, only I miss the sermons, which are never preached in the Imperial chapels. How much has happened since I last had the pleasure of seeing you, it all seems now like a dream. The poor dear Empress is so brave and touching in her great sorrow, always thinking of others and trying to do good. It was a great comfort to her having her sister the Princess of Wales on such a long visit.

My husband has very much to do, as you can imagine – always seeing his ministers, receiving gentlemen, and having any amount of papers to read through and sign, so that we are not able to see much of each other. As soon as he is free we go and sit with his mother and he reads to us. He was so glad to make your acquaintance last summer and wishes to be kindly remembered to you now.

I fear in England you have also been suffering a great deal from the cold. – Here the frost is terrible, but we nevertheless go out twice a day for sledging – it is too cold.

Hoping you will keep in good health and sometimes kindly think of me in the far land. Alix.”

(British Library Additional Manuscript 47621 ff.231-4)

In this letter, we see that the Bishop has not only written to Alix – now Alexandra Feodorovna on her marriage to Nicholas – but sent her a book as a present. Gifts were also the Bishop’s practice. When Clerk of the Closet to Edward VII, Carpenter sent the King an edition of La Vita Nuova di Dante, with illustrations by Rapitti; the King promptly sent a thank you letter from Sandringham in 1902. The following year Carpenter sent the King some ‘pretty verses’ and an engraving from Paris, with which the King was delighted, writing to the Bishop that it reminded him of his ‘first visit with my beloved Parents and eldest sister to that beautiful and interesting city in 1855 when I was a boy’.

Alexandra’s letter mentions her progress in Russia, presumably because the Bishop may have remembered that back in 1894, she was learning Russian, even taking her language manuals with her on her cure to Yorkshire, together with her eldest sister ‘Ella’s’ – Grand Duchess Elisabeth Feodorovna’s ‘reader’ – Mlle Catherine Schneider. Her letter mentions sledging twice a day. The Tsar wrote to Queen Victoria at the beginning of February 1895 that much snow had fallen, which made it ‘excellent’ for sledging and skating (Maylunas and Mironenko, 124).

The Russian Imperial Family in 1901 (Rafail Levitsky [Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

By the time of the Tsarina’s next letter, the death of Queen Victoria, a ‘shared’ person for them both, had occurred:

“Zarskoe Selo, Dec.29th 1902/Jan. 11th, 1903

 Dear Bishop, It was with greatest pleasure that I received your very kind letter and book. I thank you most heartily for both. For me it is indeed a great happiness to find old friends have not forgotten me, tho’ I live so far away. How much has occurred since we last met! joys and sorrows followed each other in rapid succession. I cannot imagine England without beloved Grandmama. How well I remember sitting by her side, listening to your beautiful sermons – one you kindly gave me at Windsor!

Yes, indeed, time flies fast and we have so much to do in our short sojourn on this earth, such manifold tasks for us all to accomplish. What joy if in any small way we can help another wanderer bear his heavy cross or give him courage to battle bravely on! How many faults we have to try and master! – the hours seem too scarce in which to fulfil all our tasks.

My new country is so vast that there is no lack of work to be done. Thank God the *people* are very religious, *simple*-minded, childlike and with boundless love for their Sovereign and faith in him; so that bad elements and influences take a long time before rooting amongst them. But much patience and energy are needed to fight against the wave of discontent which has risen and spreads itself over all the world – is not the end soon coming?

Are you never coming over here? I should be *so* happy to see you and show you our little four-leafed clover. Our girlies are our joy and happiness, each so different in face and character. May God help us to give them a good and sound education and make them above all good little Christian soldiers fighting for our Saviour.

Alas, I have not much free time, but when I find a spare moment I sit down to read. I am so fond of Boehme and many of the German and Dutch theosophists of the 15th and 16th centuries – there are such splendours and they help one on in life and make everything so much easier to bear. Can you tell me of any English authors, as I know of no old Philosophers?

But my letter is becoming too long. May I hope to hear from you again? It would indeed give me great pleasure.

I remain, yours sincerely, Alexandra.”

This letter is fascinating because it opens a small window for us into Alexandra’s life in Russia and lends insight into her feelings for her new country, as well as her interests and reading matter. By 1902/3, all four imperial daughters had been born – 1904 brought the birth of Alexandra’s only son, Tsarevich Alexei.

Queen Victoria, surrounded by her Hessian grandchildren and son-in-law, the recently widowed Grand Duke Ludwig IV of Hesse (William and Daniel Downey [Public domain])

Alexandra’s sentiments on losing Queen Victoria are supported by other letters written by her at this time, showing the depth of her feelings on the death of her beloved grandmother, who had in many ways, tried to fill the space left by Alexandra’s mother, Princess Alice, Grand Duchess of Hesse who had died in 1878 when Alexandra was only six. A rock crystal jewelled clock by Mikhail Perkhin in the Royal Collection was one of the last gifts given by Tsarina Alexandra to Queen Victoria, in around 1900. After the death of the Queen, the clock remained in the Collection; it was later used by Alexandra’s cousin, George V, who kept it on his desk at Buckingham Palace.

When the Queen died in 1901, Alexandra wrote to her eldest sister, Victoria, Princess Louis of Battenberg: ‘How I envy you being able to see beloved Grandmama being taken to her last rest. I cannot believe she is really gone, that we shall never see her any more… England without the Queen seems impossible’ (cit., Baroness Sophie Buxhoeveden, The Life and Tragedy of Alexandra Feodorovna, 90). Alexandra had wanted to attend the funeral at Windsor but was prevented from doing so, as she was still pregnant with her fourth daughter, the Grand Duchess Anastasia.

Alexandra, according to her biographer, Buxhoeveden (who knew her personally) ‘quite broke down’ at the memorial service held for the Queen at the English church in St Petersburg (Ibid, 90). Alexandra wrote to one of her few friends in Russia at that time: ‘She has been as a mother to me, ever since Mama’s death 22 years ago’ (cit., Ibid, 90). In small ways, Queen Victoria was taken with Alexandra, to St Petersburg. According to the biographer Robert K Massie, a large photograph of Queen Victoria was given a prominent place on a table in her famous Mauve Boudoir, at the Alexander Palace, although Massie does not elaborate on his sources (Robert K Massie, Nicholas and Alexandra, 117). In 1917, Alexandra burned much of her private correspondence and some of her diaries, to avoid them falling into the hands of others. Among these letters were said to be all of her letters from Queen Victoria (Ibid, 413) and hers to the Queen, returned to her on the Queen’s death. At Windsor however, a good number of Alexandra’s early letters to the Queen survive.

On this occasion, Alexandra was recorded by the faithful Lili Dehn as ‘still weeping, [she] laid her letters one by one on the heart of the fire. The writing glowed for an instant… then it faded and the paper became a little heap of white ash’ (cit., Ibid, 413). A little later, Lili Dehn remembered the Tsarina watching her trying to make up a bed for herself on the couch at the Alexander Palace, in the wake of the Tsar’s abdication. Alexandra said to Lili: ‘Oh Lili, you Russian ladies don’t know how to be useful. When I was a girl, my grandmother, Queen Victoria, showed me how to make a bed. I’ll teach you…’ (cit., Ibid, 416).

Alexandra preserved in a box in her Pallisander Room at the Alexander Palace a so-called ‘memory chest’, in the door near the corridor. In this chest, she kept mementoes from her childhood, ‘tiny infant things from Darmstadt’, her own children’s baby clothes and mementoes of Queen Victoria (Elizabeth Jane Timms, Birth in Darmstadt – Princess Alix of Hesse, in Royalty Digest Quarterly, 3/2017, 10). In this chest, she stored the letters she had received from the Queen, returned to her on Queen Victoria’s death in 1901. Some of these mementoes are now believed to be at Pavlovsk; despite several attempts by the author to confirm this, no reply has yet been received.

Alexandra’s next letter is dated 1913 and is revealing for its insight into the Tsarina’s religious feeling and deepened sense of faith, as well as her health concerns. Significantly, she refers loosely to the ‘illness’ of the Tsarevich, whilst not, of course, telling Carpenter that her son was a haemophiliac. Alexei’s most serious attack to date had been at the imperial hunting lodge of Spala in Poland, the previous year. It is this attack that the Tsarina is referring to when the little Tsarevich was on more than one occasion thought to be about to die. This deathly attack was a recurrence of an earlier slip that Alexei had experienced when jumping into a boat at Bialowieza on holiday. It is perhaps touching that in the light of the extreme anguish that Alexandra is recalling, she remembers her conversations with Carpenter, at long-ago Windsor:

“Zarskoe Selo, Jan.24th/Feb.7th 1913

Dear Bishop, I hope you do not mind me calling you by the old familiar name. You must excuse me not having answered your kindest of letters any earlier, but I have been so ill again with my heart – the months of physical and moral strain during our Boy’s illness brought on a collapse – for seven years I suffer from the heart and live the life of an invalid most of the time. Thank God our darling is getting on so well, he has grown very much and looks so strong, and we trust before long to see him on his legs again running about. It was a terrible time we went through, and to see his fearful suffering was heartrending – but he was of an angelical patience and never complained at being ill – he would only make the sign of the cross and beg God to help him, groaning and moaning from pain. In the Orthodox Church one gives children Holy Communion, so twice we let him have that joy, and the poor thin little face with its big suffering eyes lit up with blessed happiness as the Priest approached him with the Sacrament. It was such comfort to us all and we too had the same joy – without trust and faith implicit in God Almighty’s great wisdom and ineffable love, one could not bear the heavy crosses sent one. You too have gone through such terrible sorrow in the loss of your dear son, and I feel it is this which made you think of us in our anguish. God bless you for your loving Christian friendship, deeply valued as coming as an echo out of the past. Well do I remember your kind talks to me in Windsor and several letters I had the pleasure of receiving from you.

The school of life is indeed a difficult one, but when one tries to live by helping others along the steep and thorny path ones love for Christ grows yet stronger, always suffering and being almost an invalid, one has so much time for thinking and reading and realises always more and more that this life is but the preparation to yonder real life where all will be made clear to us. My children are growing up so fast and are such real little comforters to us – the elder ones often replace me at functions and go about a great deal with their Father – they are all five touching in their care for me – my family life is one blessed ray of sunshine excepting the anxiety for our Boy. I do wish you could see them someday!

I am sure you regret having left Yorkshire after so many years, but hope that your new nomination may be a pleasant one.

God bless you. In old friendship, Alexandra”

(British Library Additional Manuscript 47621 ff.240-3)

The Tsarina in her nursing uniform, ca 1916 (Crimea at hu.wikipedia [United States Public domain or Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The Tsarina’s last (surviving) letter to Carpenter was written during the First World War, from Tsarskoe Selo, at a period when she was still able to get messages through to England. Unsurprisingly, most of the letter is about the Tsarina’s admirable war work, as part of which she trained also as a nurse, together with her two eldest daughters, Grand Duchesses Olga and Tatiana:

“Zarskoe Selo, Jan.20th/Feb.2nd, 1915

Dear Bishop, As there is an occasion for sending a letter today, I hasten to thank you for your kind new year’s wishes wh. I heartily reciprocate. You cannot think what pleasure it gave me hearing from you – every word from an old friend in times of great sorrow or anxiety acts as balm upon the heart. We can only trust and pray that this terrible war may soon come to an end – the suffering around is too intense. You, who know all the members of our family so well, can understand what we go through – relations on all sides, one against the other. And the gross disappointment of seeing a country morally sinking into such depths as Germany has is bitter to behold. It is all so wonderful! And France, where systematically the government was trying to crush out the influence of Church and Religion, has been obliged to get priests for the army. Well, certainly, prayer and work alone can help one through such times of sorrow. – You kindly asked after our children, thank God they are keeping well; the two eldest daughters help me very much with nursing and the wounded, dressing their wounds, looking after their families and so forth. I overtired my heart again, so had to give up my hospital work for some time and I miss it sorely. It does one no end of good being with those brave fellows – how resignedly they bear all pain and loss of limbs! “Christ suffered, so we must suffer too” – many such a word do you hear from the lips of a suffering soldier. But I must close my letter now. Kindly remember my dear ones and me in your prayers, and believe me,

Yrs. sincerely, Alexandra”

(British Library Additional Manuscript 47621 ff. 245-7)

It is perhaps poignant that the last letter which Alexandra wrote to Carpenter contains the plea: ‘Kindly remember my dear ones and me in your prayers’. Of course, we know that after this letter was written, the First World War had another three years to run, during which time the Tsar abdicated and following his internment at Tsarskoe Selo with his family and faithful retainers who chose to stay, was then moved eastwards into Siberian exile and imprisonment, which only ended with the murder of the Russian Imperial Family by the Bolsheviks at Ekaterinburg on the night of 16/17 July 1918.

Boyd Carpenter also died in 1918. His grave may be found fittingly, as later Canon and Sub-Dean of Westminster but also given his royal connections, in the north cloister at Westminster Abbey. His grave bears his crest – a globe on a stand – and his motto “Per acuta belli”. The inscription on his gravestone reads:’ William Boyd Carpenter K.C.V.O., D.D., D.C.L. Bishop of Ripon 1884-1911, Clerk of the Closet, Canon and Sub-Dean of Westminster. Born 1841. Died 1918′.

This correspondence, whilst only consisting of five (surviving) letters, spans Alexandra’s years at the side of Nicholas, from 1894 – the year of their marriage – up until three years before their deaths.

It is an extraordinary consequence of once hearing a Bishop preach his sermons back in 1894 at Windsor.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2019