Queen Victoria never trusted the Romanovs, and the reasons for this were both political and personal. The political centred on Britain’s historic mistrust of Russian expansion since the reign of Peter the Great, which threatened the route to India. The personal centred on the bad treatment of Victoria’s aunt who married a Romanov.
During her long reign, Victoria met all of the tsars whose sovereignty coincided with her own: Nicholas I, Alexander II, Alexander III and Nicholas II. What she did not envisage was that some of the Romanovs would marry into her own close family and that one of her granddaughters would occupy what she called “this thorny throne”.
Yet her empire and country would always come before family connections. Here’s the history of Queen Victoria’s strained relationship with the Romanov tsars of Russia.
Queen Victoria’s unfortunate aunt Julie
In 1795, Russia’s Catherine the Great chose the attractive Princess Juliane of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld to make an arranged marriage with her grandson, Grand Duke Constantine.
Juliane was 14 years old, Constantine 16. Constantine was sadistic, coarse and brutal, and by 1802 Juliane had fled Russia. Stories about Julie’s treatment soured Victoria’s relations with the Romanovs.
Bowled over by a grand duke
Victoria became Queen in 1837. Two years later, Tsar Nicholas I sent his heir Tsarevich Alexander to England. Despite reservations about meeting him, Victoria was bowled over by the handsome Alexander during balls at Buckingham Palace.
“I really am quite in love with the Grand Duke,” the twenty-year-old Queen wrote. But the Tsar quickly summoned his heir home: there could be no question of a marriage between the Queen of England and the heir to the Russian throne.
In 1844, Tsar Nicholas I arrived in Britain uninvited. Victoria, now married to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg, was not amused. To her surprise they got on splendidly, but Nicholas’ political discussions with the Queen’s ministers did not go so well and the good personal relations did not last.
Trouble was brewing between Russia and the Ottoman Empire at the time, and in 1854 the Crimean War broke out. Britain fought against Russia and Tsar Nicholas I became known as “an ogre”. In 1855, in the middle of the conflict, Nicholas died.
Russia’s new ruler was Alexander II, the man who once whirled Victoria giddily around the ballroom. The Crimean War ended with punitive terms for Russia. In an effort to mend fences, the Queen’s second son Alfred visited Russia, and the Tsar’s heir Tsarevich Alexander and his wife Marie Feodorovna were invited to Windsor and Osborne.
The Russian daughter-in-law
In 1873, Queen Victoria was stunned when Prince Alfred announced he wanted to marry Alexander’s only daughter, Grand Duchess Marie. The Tsar refused to give in to any of the Queen’s demands about the wedding and more disagreeable wrangling took place over the marriage contract, which made Marie independently wealthy. The spectacular wedding in St Petersburg in January 1874 was the only one of her children’s weddings the Queen did not attend.
The autocratic Marie did not like living in England. She demanded to be known as ‘Imperial and Royal Highness’ and take precedence over the Queen’s daughters. This did not go down well. When war broke out between Russia and Turkey in 1878, the Russian marriage became a problem. England tried to avoid being dragged into the conflict.
In 1881, Victoria was shocked to hear that the liberal Tsar Alexander II had been assassinated by a terrorist bomb just as he was about to grant concessions to his people.
The reactionary Alexander III lived under the constant threat of terrorism. This state of affairs alarmed Victoria, especially when her granddaughter Princess Elisabeth (Ella) of Hesse wanted to marry Alexander III’s brother, Grand Duke Sergei.
“Russia I could not wish for any of you,” wrote Victoria, but failed to prevent the marriage. Despite Ella’s frequent protests, Victoria did not quite believe her granddaughter was happy.
The Great Game
By 1885, Russia and Britain were almost at war over Afghanistan and in 1892 there was more trouble on the border with India. Diplomatic relations remained frosty. Alexander III was the only Russian monarch who did not visit the Queen during his actual reign. He called Victoria “a pampered, sentimental, selfish old woman”, while to her he was a sovereign whom she could not regard as a gentleman.
In April 1894, Alexander III’s heir Tsarevich Nicholas became betrothed to Princess Alix of Hesse, Ella’s sister. Queen Victoria was appalled. For several years Alix had refused to convert to Orthodoxy and marry him. Victoria had mobilised all her forces but failed to prevent another granddaughter going to “horrid Russia”.
By the autumn of 1894, Alexander III was seriously ill. When Alexander died, the Queen’s 26-year-old future grandson became Tsar Nicholas II. The family connection would now have to be balanced alongside the political relationship between their countries. Queen Victoria was upset that her granddaughter would soon be placed on an unsafe throne.
The marriage of the new Tsar Nicholas II and Princess Alix took place soon after Alexander III’s funeral. Yet it took a long time for the Queen to accustom herself to the fact that her granddaughter was now Empress Alexandra Feodorovna of Russia.
In September 1896, Queen Victoria welcomed Nicholas II, Empress Alexandra and their baby daughter Olga to Balmoral. The weather was terrible, Nicholas did not enjoy himself and his political discussions with the Prime Minister were a failure. Victoria liked Nicholas as a person but she distrusted his country and his politics.
Distrust of Kaiser William II of Germany brought Queen and Tsar closer together but her health was now failing. She died on 22 January 1901. Luckily, she did not live to see her fears fulfilled when her granddaughters Ella and Alix were killed by the Bolsheviks in 1918.
Queen Victoria left a deadly legacy to the Romanovs: haemophilia, inherited by Nicholas’ only son Alexei through Alexandra and responsible for the rise of Rasputin. So in her own way, Queen Victoria was partly responsible for the downfall of the dynasty she always distrusted.
Coryne Hall is a historian, broadcaster and consultant specialising in the Romanovs and British and European royalty. The author of many books, she is a regular contributor to Majesty, The European Royal History Journal and Royalty Digest Quarterly and has lectured in England (including the Victoria & Albert Museum), America, Denmark, The Netherlands and Russia. Her media appearances include Woman’s Hour, BBC South Today and ‘Moore in the Morning’ for Newstalk 1010, Toronto. Her latest book, Queen Victoria and The Romanovs: Sixty Years of Mutual Distrust, is published by Amberley Publishing.