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‘We go together to Marlborough House!’: ‘Nicky’ and ‘Alix’

When Tsarevich Nicholas visited Windsor as a guest of Queen Victoria in the summer of 1894, he spent a brief time with his fiancée, Princess Alix of Hesse, at Marlborough House, the London residence of the Prince and Princess of Wales on the Mall. As Nicholas wrote with glee to his mother, Empress Marie Feodorovna, that following his short visit to Sandringham, the Norfolk residence of the Prince of Wales: ‘later on we go together to Marlborough House!’ (ed. Edward J Bing, Letters of Tsar Nicholas and Empress Marie, 83). One might sense the Tsarevich’s excitement at being together with Princess Alix, sharing one roof as they had done at Walton-on-Thames, on the Tsarevich’s arrival in England, before they continued to Windsor Castle. It made sense too that there should be a forthcoming invitation to Marlborough House from the Prince and Princess of Wales, Nicholas having spent a short stay in their Norfolk home. Princess Alix, however, had not been invited to Sandringham House, whilst Nicholas had been.

Official engagement photograph of Princess Alix of Hesse and Tsarevich Nicholas of Russia, taken by the Coburg photographer, Eduard Uhlenhuth, 1894 (Eduard Uhlenhuth [Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons])

In the attempt to piece together this shortest of visits to Marlborough House, we have to rely on the Tsarevich’s diary and letters to work out what took place. According to Nicholas’s letters to his mother, the couple ‘spent two days at Marlborough House, arriving the day before Victoria’s [Princess Victoria of Wales’s] birthday’ (cit., Ibid, 84). Interestingly and what was clearly a source of delight for the Russian Tsarevich, he and Princess Alix were allowed to be together and left undisturbed, a continuation of their being permitted at Windsor by Queen Victoria ‘to go out for drives without a chaperone!’ (cit., Ibid, 82). Nicholas wrote with pleased surprise to his mother: ‘They let us go, I mean Alix and myself, alone; which is very strange!’

During this short period, they visited Princess Louise of Wales, the Princess Royal and Duchess of Fife and her husband ‘MacDuff’, Alexander Duff, 1st Duke of Fife, whom Queen Victoria had created Marquess of Macduff on his wedding to Princess Louise in 1889, in addition to his elevation to the Fife dukedom. On this visit, the Tsarevich and Princess Alix ‘saw their little girls and had tea with them’ (cit., Ibid, 84). He also mentions that they saw a well-known French play, Madame Sans Gene, ‘which I liked immensely’ and that the play was ‘admirably produced’ (cit., Ibid, 84). We learn from Nicholas’s diary that this was shown at the Gaiety Theatre, in London’s West End, known as such since 1868 and popular for its burlesque theatre, as well as pantomime and operetta. The Gaiety Theatre left empty, suffered bomb damage during the Second World War and demolished in the 1950s. A hotel was planned on the site, incorporating one of the walls of the old theatre’s restaurant, but work was cut short on the building in 2008.

Interior of “The Gaiety Theatre, Strand”, London Journal, 6 February 1869, (Tim Riley at en.wikipedia [United States Public domain or Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Queen Victoria had expressed her wish to Alix’s eldest sister Victoria, Princess Louis of Battenberg, that Princess Alix of Hesse not go to for any length of time to Marlborough House, or even to Clarence House in a letter, dated May 1894: ‘Marlborough House I do not wish for more than a night, or outside 2 nights’ (ed. Richard Hough, Advice to a Granddaughter, pp. 123-4). The implication in this, was the Queen’s reluctance to expose her beloved granddaughter to what was then known as the fast ‘Marlborough House set’, an association which has stuck and still surrounds the glittering society reputation of the Prince and Princess of Wales.

Nicholas wrote to Princess Alix from Sandringham of the invitation for them both to go to Marlborough House, a visit which would include a family luncheon and thereafter, a garden-party (Andrei Maylunas and Sergei Mironenko, A Lifelong Passion, 76).

‘The Garden Front of Marlborough House, taken by special permission of H.R.H. The Prince of Wales’, ca. 1896 (Internet Archive Book Images via Wikimedia Commons [No restrictions])

In the event, the couple left Windsor at one o’clock in the afternoon, for Marlborough House. The Tsarevich wrote of his delight at sharing a train carriage with Princess Alix, who had by now discovered that he kept a diary. At this point in his diary entry, she took a pen and wrote in it, in her handwriting.

This is as much as we know – in their own words – of this brief visit to Marlborough House, but it nevertheless is part of that blissful summer of 1894, short-lived and cut devastatingly short by the shock death of Tsar Alexander III in November 1894. The whole summer, therefore, acquires a poignancy similar to that of a kind of honeymoon that never was.

Tsarevich Nicholas had stayed at Marlborough House before, the previous year, when he came to attend the wedding of his cousin, Prince George, Duke of York, to Princess Mary ‘May’ of Teck at the Chapel Royal, St James’s Palace. Princess Alix had also been invited to this wedding by Queen Victoria but had declined because 1893 had been an eventful and also expensive year, (Maylunas and Mironenko, 26), one in which she had made her trip to Italy. One wonders perhaps, if she had attended, whether this would have anticipated the betrothal by a whole twelve months, but in 1893, Princess Alix’s letters to the Tsarevich and others, show that at this time, she was still adamant at resisting a change in her personal confession, the Lutheran faith.

In 1893, Nicholas had been given a ‘cosy’ room in which to stay, lodged between the rooms occupied by the daughters of the Prince and Princess of Wales and, Prince George, Duke of York, whom he physically greatly resembled, so much so that both were mistaken for one another. During that visit of 1893, the Tsarevich had visited many of the key sights in London like any cultured foreign tourist – Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s Cathedral and the Tower of London. Much later, Tsarevich Alexei Nikolaevich, the only son of Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna, would own a jigsaw puzzle of Westminster Abbey amongst his imperial collection of toys (ed. Marilyn Pfeifer Swezey, Nicholas and Alexandra, At Home with the last Tsar and his family, 123). In 1894, the trip to London may have awakened memories of the previous year’s visit, but it was a fleeting visit, and this time, he wasn’t alone.

Probably Nicholas remembered his earlier visit of 1893 when he had written of his regret at having to leave England, ‘particularly Marlborough House’ (Ibid, 29). But 1894 had changed everything – with his engagement to Princess Alix.

©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.