Before the advent of modern transportation, it was rare for a monarch to cross his country’s borders, even to other friendly nations. Before steamships and railways, it was impractical and hazardous for a king to leave the safety of his palace. Most royalties had their travels around the world, well before their ascension to the throne, to enrich their education, broaden their perspective, and cultivate basic manners and skills for their future job as sovereigns of their own countries.
Nicholas I, the Russian Tsar (1825 – 1855) was no different. He embarked on worldly trips before ascending to the throne, one of the dearests to his heart was his visit in 1816, when he was 20 years old, to Britain. Not only did he love the company of the British aristocracy and enjoy their social life, but he was also popular with the ladies.
However, it wasn’t his admiration of the British aristocracy and the British tradition that made him decide on another trip in 1844, when he was a veteran monarch, with almost twenty years of rule. Nothing short of a significant diplomatic endeavor could have justified his arduous, dangerous journey. Moving out of Russia was dangerous, even moving freely in the motherland was risky, considering the Tsar’s oppressive rule, and most importantly, his brutal suppression of the Polish revolt in 1831. Owing to its occupation of a large swath of Poland, Imperial Russia had the greatest share of Polish rebels, but they were under check by the Tsarist machinations. It was the Polish expats that the Tsar had to fear the most. Sprawled across all over Europe, the Polish revolutionaries vied for Russian noble blood. News of the Tsar traveling across Europe would entice more than a few rebels to assassinate the brutal monarch who was enslaving their people.
Nicholas I of Russia, however, felt that his diplomatic journey was justified; he was willing to take the risk.
Under the pseudonym of “Count Orlov,” the Tsar, along with a few select of his imperial entourage, took the nondescript coaches and raced across continental Europe, not telling anyone, not the British Government, not even Baron Brunov, the Russian ambassador in London of his visit to the British capital.
After stopping briefly in Berlin, the royal coaches continued non-stop to Hamburg, from which Count Orlov and his entourage boarded a Dutch steamer that took them across the North Sea to Britain. It was only when the boat had moved, that news was relayed to the Russian ambassador (and consequently the British government) of the Tsar’s imminent arrival. Count Orlov, the ambassador, had to wait a full day at Woolwich port, awaiting the arrival of the Tsar’s boat, because not even he knew when the steamer was due to arrive. It finally did at 10 p.m. on June 1, 1844.
Accustomed to his ministers and officials answering his calls at a whim, the vigorous Tsar, as soon as he entered the Ashburnham House (the Russian Embassy in Westminster), sent a letter to the Prince Consort, Prince Albert (Queen Victoria’s husband), asking for a meeting with the British monarch in the nearest possible time. It was way past midnight, and the Prince Consort was already in bed when he received the communication.
However, what in the first place was the necessity for taking on this arduous, dangerous journey? Why didn’t Tsar Nicholas I relay his messages via his ambassador or even dispatch a special envoy?