The balance of power in nineteenth-century Europe was anchored on one end by the redoubtable Queen Victoria (1819 -1901), the doyenne
of sovereigns, and at the opposite end by the autocratic Romanov dynasty — four successive emperors who ruled Russia during Victoria's own 63-year reign. Between these great powers lay the rising military power of Prussia, which concerned both Britain and Russia, and a decaying Ottoman Empire from which both hoped to benefit, as well as shipping routes vital to both countries' commercial and military interests. These and numerous other concerns made the relationship tense at the best of times. But Victoria's large family was also entangled with the Romanovs through the complicated web of royal and dynastic marriages that linked the ruling houses of Europe.
These political and personal ties are the subject of royal biographer, Coryne Hall
's new book, Queen Victoria and the Romanovs: 60 Years of Mutual Distrust
(Amberley, 2020). Ms. Hall is a seasoned royal biographer and chronicler, who has delighted royal buffs with her authoritative biographies of Empress Maria Fyodorovna, Grand Duchess Xenia Alexandrovna, and her exploration of royal Princesses who served as wartime nurses as well as the Imperial estates in the Crimea. In "Queen Victoria and the Romanovs," Ms. Hall delves into the extensive trove of Queen Victoria's diaries and personal correspondence to construct an ambitious and highly informative portrait of her six-decade relationship with the Romanovs, which is at times cordial and diplomatic and at other times overtly hostile.
The first encounter takes place "off stage" as far as Victoria is concerned, but very much sets the stage for the tension to come. Victoria's aunt, Juliane of Saxe-Coburg Saalfeld's miserable marriage to Russia's Grand Duke Constantine ended — most extraordinarily for the time — in divorce. The Coburg family felt that Juliane had been very badly treated by the Romanovs, a sentiment that was inherited by the next generation of Coburgs, which included Victoria and her cousin and future husband, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg.
Before Albert linked his name in perpetuity with that of Victoria, however, the 20-year-old Queen was swept off her feet — quite literally— by the dashing Grand Duke Alexander, son and heir of Tsar Nicholas I. On a visit to London in 1839, the Grand Duke made quite an impression on the young Queen; all thoughts of poor Aunt Julie and the prudent warnings of Lord Melbourne and Victoria's Coburg Uncle Leopold, King of the Belgians, were forgotten as Victoria indulged in champagne and her first "crush" on the future Tsar Alexander II.
The heady attraction did not last. Though Nicholas I and Victoria exchanged courteous, diplomatic correspondence, they were destined to clash in one of the nineteenth century's most brutal conflicts: the Crimean War, in which the British prevailed and Nicholas was driven to an early grave.
Efforts to mend fences only succeeded in creating more tension as Alexander II's only daughter, Marie, and Victoria's second son, Alfred, married in 1874. Imperious and stubborn, Grand Duchess Marie was one of the few in Victoria's immediate orbit who dared to contradict the queen or challenge her authority. Marie and Alfred's marriage was not a success, though they had five children, and ruled the Duchy of Coburg. This fact and the growing danger from terrorists in Russia made Victoria steer away from any further alliances between her own family and the Romanovs. It was as a wary grandmother that the Queen's fears were realized when her Hessian granddaughters, Princesses Elizabeth and Alix married Grand Duke Serge and his nephew, the future Tsar Nicholas II.
Coryne Hall points out that Victoria was fonder of Nicholas II than she was of almost any of his relations, but this did not deter either from championing the best interests of their respective empires. Russia's centuries-old desire to return Constantinople to its Orthodox orbit and Britain's determination to rule the world's waves would bring Russia and Britain into conflict numerous times as the nineteenth century drew to its close. Though Victoria's death in 1901 ensured that she would not witness the carnage to come in subsequent decades, the lasting legacy of hemophilia, which Victoria bequeathed to several of her royal daughters and granddaughters, had a profound effect on the fate of Nicholas's empire and that of the Queen's Romanov great-grandchildren..
is the author of 12 books, including A Biography of the Empress Marie Feodorovna 1847-1928
, Imperial Dancer. Mathilde Kschessinska and the Romanovs
, and Imperial Crimea: Estates, Enchantment & the Last of the Romanovs
. Follow Coryne Hall on Twitter
Jennifer Eremeeva is an American expatriate writer who writes about travel, culture, cuisine and culinary history, Russian history, and Royal History, with bylines in Reuters, Fodor's, USTOA, LitHub, The Moscow Times, and Russian Life. She is the award-winning author of Lenin Lives Next Door: Marriage, Martinis, and Mayhem in Moscow and Have Personality Disorder, Will Rule Russia: A Pocket Guide to Russian History.