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When Russia came to Sandringham

In the summer of 1894, the Tsarevich Nicholas came to England as a guest of Queen Victoria, first staying for a brief few days with his fiancée, Princess Alix of Hesse, at Walton-on-Thames before continuing to Windsor Castle. This was a blissful period for a young couple who were deeply in love, having become engaged at Coburg on 8 April 1894. During his stay at Windsor, the Tsarevich paid a visit alone to the Norfolk residence of the Prince of Wales, Sandringham.

I want to try and explore this little-known (short) visit and reconstruct it from the Tsarevich’s diary for 1894 (one of which he began at Windsor, autographing it as such on the title page in his own handwriting, ‘No. 8, begun in Windsor’, an amateur photograph of himself with Princess Alix glued to the page, perhaps on the Terrace at Windsor Castle) (ed. Alexander Bokhanov et al., The Romanovs, Love, Power and Tragedy, 68). Today, there is next to no trace of the Tsarevich’s visit to Sandringham House. But why did he go there at all?

Princess Alix of Hesse wrote in a letter from Windsor Castle to her future sister-in-law, Grand Duchess Xenia Alexandrovna that Nicholas had gone to Sandringham, Norfolk, her letter dated 16 June 1894. One senses she must have deeply missed the Tsarevich because the tone of her short letter is lonely (Andrei Maylunas and Sergei Mironenko, A Lifelong Passion, 75). We can tell that it was a brief visit indeed because the Tsarevich left on 16 June and was due to return the following day, which he duly did, writing in his diary that he arrived back in London on 17 June, returning to Windsor by special train (Ibid, 77). He spent the morning of his departure at Sandringham – one senses with some impatience to be back again with his fiancée in Windsor Castle – having first drunk coffee with the Prince of Wales (Ibid, 76).

The answer for quite why this visit to Sandringham took place may be found in a letter that Nicholas wrote to his mother, Empress Marie Feodorovna from Windsor Castle: ‘I’ve just had a letter from Aunt Alix [the Princess of Wales] asking me to spend two days at Sandringham’. Queen Victoria gave the Tsarevich permission to go. The next line is telling: ‘My fiancée is a little sad about it…’ (cit., Edward J. Bing, Letters of Tsar Nicholas and Empress Marie, 83). The reason why Princess Alix didn’t accompany the Tsarevich to Sandringham might lie in a letter from Queen Victoria to Alix’s eldest sister, Victoria, Princess Louis of Battenberg. In it, the Queen says she would not have minded ‘2 nights at Sandringham’ but didn’t want her granddaughter to leave her, now that she felt she was ‘losing so much of her’, the implication being that the Queen was losing her grandchild to Russia (cit., ed. Richard Hough, Advice to a Granddaughter, 123). Alix’s mother, Princess Alice, Grand Duchess of Hesse, had spent time at Sandringham in 1871 during the Prince of Wales’s desperate illness, a similar echo of how she had once spent time at the bedside of her father, the dying Prince Consort, exactly ten years earlier. Queen Victoria recorded in her journal that Nicholas had gone to Sandringham, on what for her (writing in New Style, the calendar already adopted by Europe) that it coincided with the anniversary of her coronation – 28 June.

The Tsarevich was charmed by his short visit to Norfolk, telling his mother on his return that he had been ‘delighted by my two days at Sandringham – very sad however that Alix wasn’t there!’ (cit., Ibid, 84). So, what happened while he was there?

Nicholas does not mention it, but I wonder whether he knew that it was at Sandringham House that the eldest son of the Prince of Wales, his cousin Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence and Avondale, had died. First engaged to Princess Mary ‘May’ of Teck, his younger brother, Prince George, Duke of York (Nicholas’s cousin ‘Georgie’) was later betrothed to her in his place when the latter died in 1892, on what Queen Victoria was quick to notice was a ‘14th (that fateful date’) a black date ominous in the Royal Family ever since the death of the Prince Consort in 1861 (ed. Hough, 114). Nicholas attended their wedding in 1893. Queen Victoria wrote to Princess Alix’s eldest sister, Victoria, Princess Louis of Battenberg: ‘Poor darling Eddy… you will see that dear Eddy rests between dear Grandpapa’s Cenotaph & dear Uncle Leopd’s tomb’, enclosing a photograph of the Chapel (cit., Ibid, 115).

Certainly, the Tsarevich knew of the Prince’s death, because he wrote in his diary once back at Windsor Castle on 5 July 1894, that he had visited the Albert Memorial Chapel at St George’s, where Queen Victoria commanded Princess Alix to place a wreath. (Maylunas and Mironenko, 80). Did Queen Victoria want Alix to do this, in the presence of her Russian fiancé? Perhaps this was because there was a hidden romantic history here. Queen Victoria had written to Alix’s eldest sister, Victoria, Princess Louis of Battenberg as early as 1889 about the matter, stressing that Prince Albert Victor (‘Eddy’) was ‘so devoted’ to Alix. (ed. Hough, 104). Nicholas mentioned visiting St George’s Chapel and seeing where ‘Eddy’ had been buried, back in the summer of 1893, when he came to attend the wedding of Prince George, Duke of York and Princess Mary ‘May’ of Teck (Maylunas and Mironenko, 28). The following year changed everything, of course, between him and Alix.

Prince Albert Victor had been buried on 20 January 1892, first in the Royal Vault at St George’s Chapel, then later transferred to the Albert Memorial Chapel, where his magnificent tomb by Sir Alfred Gilbert, depicts him recumbent in Hussar uniform, with an angel hovering above. It is a ready Victorian illustration of the firm link between passion and death and is pure emotional theatre.

Prince Albert Victor had once been considered a possible bridegroom for Princess Alix, any attention of which she rejected. Alix’s private letters to a close friend betray extreme anxiety on the subject, as early as 1891.

Perhaps Nicholas learned of the room at Sandringham where Prince Albert Victor had died only two years before, today visible from the outside by the coat of arms beneath the window to commemorate his death. The room was kept more or less as it was when Albert Victor died, as was common in nineteenth-century royal practice, despite the Windsor example of the Blue Room where Prince Albert had died, which the Queen had wanted to fill with ‘living’ memory, as no ‘Sterbe-zimmer’ [death chamber] in the German fashion but a beautiful, sacred space. Even the tube of tooth-paste last used by Prince Albert Victor was left exactly as it was at the time of his death, respectfully untouched by his heartbroken father, the Prince of Wales. (Elizabeth Longford, Queen Victoria, 337).

The Tsarevich’s letter to Princess Alix, written on Sandringham notepaper, ensured that she knew every detail of his brief visit, as she opened his letter at Windsor. He wrote to her in his own room, on the date of his arrival – 16 June. Movingly, the Tsarevich noted seeing Princess Alix’s face at the window as he drove away; romantically, he watched until Windsor Castle vanished from view (Maylunas and Mironenko, 76). Today, it is pleasant to see that the Slough-Windsor line equally affords a spectacular view of the Castle, as it curves over the track spanning the Thames.

Once at Sandringham and out of the hot train, he was met by the Princess of Wales and her daughters. Rather endearingly, the Tsarevich mentioned going through the rooms of the house at full speed before leaving for a horse-sale in Kings Lynn by carriage. The horse sale, as we gather from the letter he wrote to Alix, took place in a large tent and the Tsarevich allowed himself to purchase two chestnut mares. As Nicholas wrote to his mother: ‘I bought two mares with foals, and Aunt Alix was very pleased about that!’ (cit., Bing, 84).

The royal party returned to Sandringham for tea and Nicholas walked in the gardens, visiting the stables, which now contain the large museum collection of royal vehicles, including a number boasting a connection to Edward VII. The rest of the Tsarevich’s evening was taken up with dinner – when a telegram arrived from Princess Alix – and afterwards, skittles, at which Nicholas won. (Maylunas and Mironenko, 76).

By the afternoon of the following day, the Tsarevich was back at Windsor with his fiancée, resuming the happy life which had been briefly postponed with the Sandringham visit.

Sandringham had received its guest from far-distant imperial Russia.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2019.

About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian, writer, and researcher, specializing in Queen Victoria's family and Russian royalty. An independent scholar of royal studies, she has studied historic royalty for nearly twenty years, speaking on the subject for both TV and radio, including the BBC. She joined Royal Central in 2015 and wrote a blog as Historian/History Writer for the site until 2020.