The Duke and the Tsar part 1.

I’ll bet allot of you don’t know about the Duke of Wellington’s mission to St Petersburg in 1826. Well I wasn’t too familiar with it either, so I looked into it and found a great story, so after having my Adventure I had to let you all know about it, this is the story of the Duke and the Tsar, or more accurately of the St Petersburg Protocol, mysterious isn’t it?

On the 1st of December 1825 one of the principle architects of Napoleon’s downfall died. Tsar Alexander I breathed his last at the palace at Tanganrog without an heir, creating a constitutional crisis that reached its peak and ended at the same time, no less than 26 days later. A society of disenchanted army soldiers, called the Decembrists marched on Senate Square in St Petersburg to oppose the ascension of Tsar Nicholas I. Fighting ensued, and when the guns fell silent another hero of the war against Napoleon lay dying, General Mikhail Miloradovich. He succumbed to his wounds on 27 December, shot in the back by a man who spoke his own language and wore  the same uniform.

General Mikhail Miloradovich by George Dawe.
General Mikhail Miloradovich by George Dawe.
The Russian Guard Cavalry advances during the Decembrist revolt of 1825 by Vasily Timm.
The Russian Guard Cavalry advances during the Decembrist revolt of 1825 by Vasily Timm.

Across the seas, in Britain, all that was known for sure was that Nicholas I had emerged as Tsar, and diplomatic protocol demanded an embassy be sent to congratulate him, and offer condolences for the late Alexander. In the opinion of George Canning, King George IV’s new foreign secretary there was only one man for the job. The man Tsar Alexander himself had touched on the shoulder in 1815 and prophesied would once more “… save Europe”.

Tsar Alexander I who died on the 1st of December 1825.
Tsar Alexander I who died on the 1st of December 1825. By George Dawe

The Duke of Wellington seemed the perfect emissary, not only was he thought of as a hero throughout the most of the continent, but he was also one of only five men, (the other four of whom were Russians,) to posses the baton of a Russian Field Marshal.
However the Duke, then in his middle fifties, was ill and at that moment travelling to Russia was the farthest thing from his mind. He was so ill that it seemed like something was out to get all the men that had defeated Napoleon, and it appeared as if it was Wellington’s turn.

The Duke of Wellington by Lawrence.
The Duke of Wellington by Lawrence.

An ear infection had caused him to collapse while out hunting, and a bout of Cholera followed. The ministrations of the incompetent Dr. Stevenson made him weaker and didn’t do his hearing any good, his Duchess, Kitty and his friends feared for his life. Kitty even put aside a current tiff with his good friends the Arbuthnots in order to try and cheer her husband up, but he rallied slowly.

Canning was adamant that Wellington should be the emissary, illness or not. The King was reluctant and wrote a private letter to the Duke giving him free rein to turn the assignment down. However when Canning floated the idea to him, even though Wellington found the prospect of a winter journey to St Petersburg quite horrifying, he felt that he would be unable to refuse the request if asked. He wrote that although he did not expect to do much good: “I don’t see how I, who have always been preaching the doctrine of going wherever we are desired to go, who had consented to go and command in Canada, could decline to accept the offer of this mission”. When Canning formally proposed the mission to him on 24 December, two days before the Decembrist revolt, the Duke accepted enthusiastically, confidently asserting to Canning’s tentative enquiries about his health that he had never felt better in his life and would be ready to start in a week.

George Canning by Richard Evans, British Foreign Secretary in 1826
George Canning by Richard Evans, British Foreign Secretary in 1826

He got ready quickly, sending his things, horses and carriage ahead. Amongst his luggage was his camp bed with a special silk mattress cover to keep away and decry the presence of vermin. Princess Dorothea Lieven, wife of the Russian ambassador coached him on protocol in the Imperial court, where the Tsar was particularly fond of uniforms. He also had to put together a staff, and he had to deal with the usual letters from friends and acquaintances and friends of friends and acquaintances, thrusting unknown young hopefuls on him, but he was adamant that the group be kept to a minimum to keep expenses down. The final staff that went to St Petersburg was his Private Secretary Sir Fitzroy Somerset, Public Secretary Lord Dunglass, Lord Dunglass’ assistant Mr. Jerningham, his aide de camp Captain Cathcart, Lord Fincastle, possibly another aide de camp or secretary, and Mr. Bligh, probably an assistant.

As he made his arrangements for the trip his friends did everything they could to keep him in England so he might not have to undergo the arduous trip while he was ill, but they found it impossible and resigned themselves to the possibility of never seeing him again. Canning’s enemies whispered that he secretly wanted the duke dead. The Duke seems to have bought into these gloomy sentiments, for when he said his farewell to his old friend General Alava, whom he had parted with on many dangerous journies, the exiled Spaniard had never seen him so moved. His is parting from his mother left Wellington deeply affected and when he said goodbye to his niece Lady Burghersh there were tears in his eyes. Princess Lieven took her leave of him and caught up in the moment she said that there was nobody in the world she loved so much as he. Wellington was ready on 8 February and two days later he received his introductions from the King to the Tsar. Accompanying this was a letter from Canning that outlined the objective of his mission.

In 1821 the Greeks had risen in revolt against the Ottoman Empire, creating a storm of support from romantic classically minded people all over Europe who saw the Greco Persian wars happening all over again. It was a cause that Lord Byron had died espousing in 1824 (It was hardly the noble death he imagined however, as he succumbed to a fever aggravated by medical bleeding). Wellington’s official orders were to congratulate the new Tsar; his secret orders were to make sure that Russia did not go to war with Turkey over Greece, or rather to get the Tsar to allow Britain to mediate between them.

It was in the best interests of Britain that the balance of power in Europe remained undisturbed. This required all the existing states and empires to continue offsetting the threat of the other, a 19th century nuclear deterrent if you will. Britain felt that the Ottoman Empire was a good counterbalance to the Russians, as it always had been, but the Sultan’s power was growing weaker, the Greek revolt proved this, and it was a real possibility that if the Ottoman’s crushed the Greeks the Russians would have to intercede, and that would give Russia too much power in the wrong places. Not only that but Britain might be forced to choose sides in a shooting war. This policy would continue right up to 1854 when Britain actually went to war in the Crimea to protect the Ottoman Empire from the same Tsar that Wellington was now going to meet.

As usual Wellington was fairly ambiguous on the matter and felt that neither Turkey or Greece would be entirely successful. However as a conservative he swayed more towards the Sultan, predicting that he would be forced at length to concede some form of autonomy for Greece. But the new state would, he felt be unstable and pro Russian. Canning was eager to find a quick fix to the matter, as his pet projects lay towards Spain and Latin America. In both respects Wellington was not the best man Canning could have chosen for the job. The Duke felt that what he needed was a man who would follow the orders he was given, and indeed thought they should negotiate with the aid of France and Austria. Canning however was keen on Britain treading a solitary path. Wellington was a man used to giving orders and Canning not only needed a skilled diplomatist he needed someone who could overawe the Tsar, and Wellington was the man for the job.

Wellington was heading into a complex hotbed of deep seated rivalries, the Turks and the Russians despised each other and were constantly at war. In 1822 the Congress of Vienna had urged Russia and Turkey to come to some kind of an accord, they were old and bitter enemies, but it had been agreed that Russia would surrender those territories and forts captured from the Turks and the they agreed that they would rebuild all the churches they had demolished, see to the redress of the affairs of Serbia and withdraw their troops from Russian allied principalities. That was all well and good and satisfied the European powers but the problem was that neither side kept up their end of the bargain. Things came to a head when the Sultan also known as the Supreme Porte, arrested a group of Serbian Deputies in Constantinople who had come to seek the fulfilment of promises made in the Treaty of Bucharest in 1812. The Russians claimed the high ground first and threatened that if the hostage deputies were not returned and a delegation was not sent to Odessa to discuss the problem the Tsar would sever diplomatic contact and look into military options. The Greek question loomed amongst this, alone the Tsar had no particular excuse to go to war in Greece, but he could use the rupture of the treaty of Bucharest as an excuse to help his co-religionists. Having proved unable to suppress the revolt himself, the Sultan had called in the creditable Egyptian army, which was to blame for the recent atrocity reports from Greece, and even now the Porte was planning to deport the rebels en masse to Egypt and repopulate Greece with Egyptians as a reward.

Into this rode the Duke, completely focused on his mission to get the Tsar and the Porte to allow British mediation between Russia and the Ottoman Empire, already the British emissary in Constantinople (confusingly also called Canning) was awaiting developments from St Petersburg. Wellington believed in the balance of power, and mistrusted the liberals who so wholeheartedly supported the Greeks, he feared that Russia might crush Turkey and lay open the Bosporus, the long Tsarist ambition of planting an Orthadox flag on the walls of Constantinople loomed at the peripheries of his vision.

Panorama of St Petersburg in 1820 by Toselli.
Panorama of St Petersburg in 1820 by Toselli.


The Duke arrived in Berlin on 17 February and already he was finding the trip less arduous than he had thought he would. The rigour of campaigning tended to agree with him and he probably slipped back into some old grooves. As was his habit he had read up on recent history before travelling, that being Napoleon’s retreat from Russia, and as the journey progressed he wrote letters to Sir Walter Scott who was writing a biography of Napoleon. Scott found these letters hard to read and found the Russian names almost indistinguishable but said that they would do him “Yeoman’s service”. On matters of his mission Wellington peaked at five letters a day to Canning. For two days he was entertained in Berlin by the Prussian Court and the “Better Bourgeois”. Among those he met were some of the Russian Court with whom he was able to speak with regarding his trip, all were sure there would be a war with Turkey. He and his small staff lodged at chilly Inn’s and Hotels because he did not like staying at Embassy’s. On the 20th they drove on for Warsaw and then into Livonia. As he rolled through the flat countryside in his warm caleche, Wellington began to feel less ill and more and more foreboding for his mission. He had no real means of negotiating and he could only stop a war between the Russians and the Ottomans if they both wanted peace.

Theatreplatz St Petersburg in winter 1820 by Karl Ivanovich Kollman
Theatreplatz St Petersburg in winter 1820 by Karl Ivanovich Kollman

On 2 March 1826 Wellington arrived in St Petersburg. Winter still held the city in its grip, the canals frigid with ice, and horse drawn sleighs filled the streets. The Duke thought it the most beautiful city in the world. Why should he not?it was a common enough opinion and had survived the journey his friends had feared would kill him. Now refreshed by the cold Baltic breezes and the knowledge he would recover there was work to be done.

Thanks to Kristine Hughes
and Shannon Selin
for their help and assistance early on in my research and for Chris Makrypoulias for his invaluable help on St Petersburg.

Wellington the Iron Duke Richard Holmes
Wellington a Personal History Christopher Hibbert
Wellington Pillar of State Elizabeth Longford
Wellington Waterloo and the Fortunes of Peace, Rory Muir.
The Duke Phillip Guedella
Despatches, Correspondence, and Memoranda of Field Marshall Arthur, Duke of Wellington Vol III
A Russian Princess in London and Paris Judith Lissauer Cromwell
Old Days in Diplomacy By Charlotte Anne Albinia Disbrowe
The Greville Memoirs, by Charles C. F. Greville Vol I
Life of Arthur Duke of Wellington by Gleig

Thanks for reading, see you again for Another Adventure in Historyland.

Click here to see part two.


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