Entente not so cordiale: Frances Welch on the ill-fated British-Russian royal alliance and its tragic end

100 years after their assassination, we continue to be fascinated by the Romanovs. Most readers will be familiar with, if not the Imperial Family’s lives pre-Revolution, then with their tragic ending: huddled together in a cellar and machine-gunned to death in an act of violence which lasted over 20 minutes, while bullets ricocheted off the jewels sewn by the princesses into the hems of their dresses.

Frances Welch’s new book, ‘The Imperial Tea Party’, which she was promoting at the Henley Literary Festival, chronicles three “extraordinary” meetings between Queen Victoria’s family and the Romanovs. The families met surprisingly few times, considering that the Tsarina, Alexandra,was Queen Victoria’s granddaughter and that Tsar Nicholas II and King George V were cousins. Today’s talk shone an intriguing light upon the reasons behind this and also considered why the Romanovs were not offered sanctuary in England after the Russian Revolution began.

The first of three “tense, difficult” meetings took place in Balmoral in 1896, during “atrocious” weather. To set the scene, we should note that the Tsar and Tsarina had been married since 1894, the same year in which Nicholas inherited the crown from his autocratic and deeply unpopular father. The new Tsar, although more moderate in some of his views, spurned reform and was unpopular with left wing parties not just in his own country, but also overseas.

For her part, Alix was disliked for her inability to emote; the Russian people never liked her. But the royal couple were deeply in love, having been “fascinated” with each other from a young age and having overcome Queen Victoria’s initial disapproval. The British monarch disliked Russians in general, but did warm to Nicholas.

To Balmoral, then – and a visit which got off to an inauspicious beginning, having been preceded by a dynamite conspiracy and the very real fear that the Tsar et al would be blown up.Hundreds of plain clothes policemen and uniformed officers surrounded the royal entourage everywhere it went, increasing the tension around this royal reunion.

It didn’t help that the Tsar found himself embroiled in spur-of-the-moment fox hunts with the over-energetic Bertie – or that he failed to shoot a single animal. Nor was Nicholas pleased by Bertie’s continual references to a potential Anglo-Russian agreement. The political shenanigans continued, with Queen Victoria tackling Nicholas on the subject of Turkey and insisting he meet with Prime Minister Salisbury. An irritated Nicholas enjoyed his first meeting with the British PM, but their second encounter was less successful.

Twelve years later, the royal families met again – this time in Estonia, and again against a background of assassination plots. By now, Bertie had ascended the British throne; clad in an ill-fitting Russian naval uniform, a porcine King Edward VII thoroughly enjoyed the meals served upon the royal yachts, lavishing praise upon the chefs.

Bertie was less effusive about his royal cousin, although he tried his best to be diplomatic and the two got on better with each other than they did with their other cousin, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. In an effort to strengthen their relationship, Bertie “promoted” Nicholas to the rank of Admiral of the British Navy, horrifying the British authorities, who hadn’t been consulted. Less diplomatically, Bertie complained to the Tsar and Tsarina about their children’s English accents; their tutor was fired immediately and replaced by Charles Sydney Gibbes.

The final encounter between the two royal families took place in August 1909, at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. Given the political climate, it was inevitable that there would be objections in Parliament and these were exacerbated by left wing firebrand Keir Hardie, who stirred up public protests. Worse, the British public was assured that the Tsar and his family would not set foot upon British soil: a palpable mistruth.

A large and complicated security operation was put in place to protect the Romanovs, who were all terribly seasick en route to England. The Russians were also upset by the scale of the British Navy, interpreting Admiral John Fisher’s boast of “18 miles of ships” as a threat.

There was some light relief; the Romanov children played on the Isle of Wight beaches while the adults went to the races – although local police were given some uneasy moments when the eldest two Romanov daughters decided to go shopping in Cowes. Frances showed us a rather lovely photo of the girls, dressed down but still unmistakably royal, excited by this opportunity to do something they would never have been able to do in Russia.

Towards the end of the visit, the future King Edward VIII (he who abdicated to marry Wallace Simpson), showed the Romanovs around Osborne House. He would write, afterwards, of the Tsarina’s sadness, which had a palpable impact upon him: a portent, perhaps, of what was to come?

The families never met again.Nine years later, the Romanovs were assassinated, having been refused sanctuary in England. To this day, the reasons behind this refusal remain unclear. Certainly, Lord Stamfordham (George V’s private secretary) campaigned vigorously against helping the Russian royal family, but he was not alone; Lloyd George took the brunt of the blame and made no effort to refute the accusation. However, in his 1983 biography of George V, Kenneth Rose placed the blame firmly upon the monarch – to the fury of the Queen Mother, who immediately dropped the well-connected author from her lunches.

Why, though, would the king have refused to help his cousins? Fear of political upheaval? Lord Stamfordham’s influence? Fear of assassination?  With the key players all long dead it’s unlikely we’ll ever know the truth. However, thanks to historians such as Frances Welch and the work of bodies such as the Science Museum (do visit its excellent ‘The Last Tsar: Blood and Revolution’ exhibition), we may, eventually, piece together the pieces of this very royal puzzle.

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