The Duke and the Tsar part 2.

Tadah! So here’s part two.

At the Russian frontier Wellington had been met by an officer of the Field Jaegers of the Imperial Guard who escorted him to St Petersburg, and then to his accommodation. It was early spring and the thaw was on the distant horizon, the Russian state put him up on the Great Quay (What is now Kutusov embankment) were he would use the house of Count Dmitry Gourieff (Guriev) who had been the late Tsar’s Minister of Finance and had died in 1825. This suited the Duke because he did not like embassies. Which house this is exactly I have yet to discover, honestly it’s been hard enough getting this far, but hopefully someday I’ll pinpoint it, so on we go. Being a man that preferred to do the business of the day in the day he wasted no time in meeting Tsar Nicholas’ Minister of Foreign Affairs, whom he had probably met at the Congress of Vienna in 1814 and who he would be meeting on a regular basis; Count Karl Vasilievich Nesslerode. A son of a German nobleman who had been ambassador to Portugal, Nesslerode knew his way around a negotiating table. The Duke and the Count met that evening probably to arrange an audience with the Tsar.

Count Von Nesselode Russian Foreign Minister
Count Von Nesselode Russian Foreign Minister

The Duke and the Tsar met the next day in the magnificent surroundings of the Winter Palace where they had an extended interview which ran into some hours but Wellington found the supreme autocrat, much calmer and more sensible than his predecessor and: “eminently reasonable about the Greek’s”.
He must have impressed Nicholas because on 15 March Wellington was marching solemnly behind Nicholas and his wife, the Empress, at the funeral of Tsar Alexander, held in the freezing pillared colonnade of the Kazan Cathedral. The event was a sad farce though, as Alexander’s body had decomposed so much during the long hiatus between his death and his funeral that the coffin could not be opened, and mourners were asked to file past the closed casket instead. Fear of further revolt was thick in the atmosphere. As they were paying their respects to Alexander’s box, 60,000 troops were standing to arms in the city and lined the snowy streets. Yet apart from the issue with the coffin and one soldier, numb from freezing inaction, dropping his bayonet and cutting the chin of Prince Sapieha, all went to plan. Wellington, treated as an honoured guest, was impressed and could not quite believe that the stirring ceremony was for a man who had died four months before.

Tsar Nicholas I by Dawes 1826
Tsar Nicholas I by Dawes 1826

The Duke’s real mission was masked by a whirl of obligatory social and state occasions. His welcome bordered on rapturous and he was feted around the town at dinners and balls at which his private secretary Fitzroy Somerset thought he was treated like a King. He responded to toasts with grace and wit, and kindly accepted the many gifts that were showered on him. A fur Pelisse worth 6,000 roubles, jewels of malachite, a colossal mirror, the Colonelcy of the Smolensk Regiment of Infantry, (renamed the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment in his honour on the anniversary of the Allies entry into Paris on 19 March) and he took the massed curtsy of a girls seminary were he was entertained by 25 young ladies playing a special piano concerto for him in unison. If he hadn’t already gathered, affairs of state were performed on a grand scale.

Wellington Circa 1820's by Lawrence, this is probably the portrait that Wellington forced the artist to correct his sword.
Wellington 1814 by Lawrence, this is probably the portrait that Wellington forced the artist to correct his sword.

On a personal level the Duke never liked getting wet if he could help it and preferred warm rooms, perhaps a by-product of having served half his life in warm climates. So in snowy St Petersburg he was delighted with the double glazed windows and heated staircases that kept everything comfortable and he wondered whether such ingenious measures could not be adopted at home. Despite his previously fragile health, he never got ill once during his stay, not even a cold, and he was fascinated to note that no one else in Russia seemed to catch one either.
The Duke found that Imperial diplomacy closely resembled some sort of inexplicable Byzantine Labyrinth whose Slavic nonsensicality left him beginning to doubt whether anyone knew anything more about affairs of state than he did. At his first arrival he seemed to cause quite a stir by wearing his usual understated mode of dress. However he soon found out as Princess Lieven had warned him, that the Russians expected to see allot of gold braid on their field marshals and the Tsar was very fond of uniforms. In fact it so happened that the Duke and Field Marshal Wittgenstein were the only two men left alive with a Russian Marshal’s baton, and due to this he seems to have conformed to wearing military dress (One British commentator thought he was actually the only one left and therefore in command of the Russian army). Soon Wellington was complaining of having to change his uniform three times a day. As the diplomatic pleasantries began to lose their novelty, dinners became nothing more than “Pallid asparagus and foetid oysters” as one commentator put it.

The Winter Palace St Petersburg
The Winter Palace St Petersburg

In terms of his secret mission he had long feared for its successful outcome. Neither was he able to agree properly on a course that would satisfy both parties, in long informal meetings, the Tsar voiced his opinions. He essentially wanted Greek independence but denied pressing for it. He was more frank about Turkey and doubted a war could be avoided. Russian ministers were equally cagey, wanting to keep the Greek card handy as an excuse to fight a moral war. Support for the Greeks generally seemed less important as fighting the Turks. Wellington was happy to let the Greeks do what they wanted but not at the expense of the Sultan. Not that he thought the Turks were to be admired; He wrote that their government was “So oppressive and odious to all mankind that we could scarcely expect to carry the country in a course of policy… The result of which is to be to maintain by the exercise of our power that government in Constantinople”. Things were not made easier by Tsar Nicholas wanting to send an ultimatum to the Sultan ordering him to remove his troops from Greece. Wellington worked desperately to prevent it being sent or at least to soften the terms. In a series of meetings through March and into early April, between himself, Nesslerode and the Tsar, Wellington argued that the Russians could not complain about broken treaties when they had broken them too, that the Tsar could not in honour go to war without a proper, solid foundation for doing so and that he could not send empty threats without looking absurd. He asked Nicholas to wait until the British government had seen if they could do anything.

Kazan Cathedral St Petersburg in winter
Kazan Cathedral St Petersburg in winter

Nicholas, like his elder brothers was a martinet, who on the whole was in favour of going to war. He argued that if he was to do it at all he would have to do it quickly as it was late in the season already and the troops would need to march soon if they were to be deployed. The Tsar had been overawed and wanted to impress Wellington with big talk. He told the Duke with all the self-assurance that an emperor can that any war would be confined to specific zones, but that he intended to spread Russian influence in the Balkans and Constantinople. In a report back to London Wellington said that he replied with his usual candour. The Tsar could “Fix the moment when, and the point at which the first shot will be fired; but he may as well talk of stopping the course of the Neva as of fixing the limits of his operations once he goes to war”. The Tsar diplomatically answered that he would do nothing that would cause the Duke, and by extension the British government displeasure. Wellington was pleased and was assured that there would now be no war (a false hope) but if there was to be one then it would be a purely Russo-Turkish matter without need for further European intervention.
The deadlock was broken when Nicholas sent for his ambassador to Britain, Prince Lieven, whose wife had given Wellington helpful advice before he left. The Tsar wanted some inside help to understand what the Duke wanted and why he wanted it. Lieven’s influence changed the balance of things and he managed to persuade Nicholas to bow to any mutually acceptable solution that Wellington made. Once that was done Nesslerode and Lieven both went to the Duke and possibly at the wise advice of Princess Lieven who knew how the Duke’s mind worked a little better than the Russians, but who much to her chagrin had been left behind in London, presented the Greek question in a new light to Wellington. In reality they said, war was not a priority for Russia, instead all they wanted was to see order and control brought to the Greek rebellion and see it stabilised. It was calculated to the Duke’s love of order and he found the reframed issue much more to his liking. Finally progress was being made.

Princess Lieven by Lawrence 1812 or 20
Princess Lieven by Lawrence 1812 or 20

After they overcame their impasse things happened fast, as they do in such matters. No sooner had everyone agreed to a course of action than Wellington was drafting protocols to sign, hoping they would provide fire-breaks to Russian expansionism. While this was happening, Stratford Canning, in Constantinople, was smoothing the way on the Turkish front. Throughout the mission, a triangle of communications had been in operation between London, St Petersburg and Constantinople, the upshot of which was that the Turks were happy to let Britain meddle a bit if it kept the Russians off their backs. Wellington went so far as to write that the Turks need have no fear of Russian attack and that they should entertain options put forwards by the British, even though he had no guarantee that this was true. The Turkish were in fact being persuaded to renounce the alleged deportation scheme, and the Royal Navy had orders to stop it if it transpired to be true.

The St Petersburg Protocol was signed by Nesslerode, Lieven, Tsar Nicholas and Wellington on 4 April 1826. It agreed that Britain would mediate between Russia and Turkey to agree on a measure of Independence for Greece under Turkish sovereignty. Should the Turks refuse ,both Russia and Britain were to act independently or jointly to see that they changed their minds. It was a road that would eventually lead to the forming of a British, French and Russian coalition against the Turks in July of 1827 which would result in the Battle of Navarino in October of that year, which further lead to the Russo Turkish War of 1828-9 that finally saw Greek independence. But at the time the Protocol allowed the Turks to survive as a counterbalance and to maintain the status quo that Wellington believed Britain needed to keep ahead of the game. The possibility of a European war was no longer really a danger, especially when France came on board later. The King of Prussia was highly complimentary of Wellington on his return journey home.
His opponents and many historians however take a dimmer view of his short term success, in fact more often than not in books and on the internet you will see that most think he failed. At the time he was considered to have bungled the matter, certainly it was not quite the agreement that Canning had wanted, the protocol was deeply flawed in not outlining the extent of Greek possessions. Canning even went so far as to say that he thought Wellington had been outwitted by the Russians and that any good had been accidental, nevertheless he gave official support to the measures Wellington had agreed on. Essentially the Duke had given away more than was needed, his assurances of assistance and his promises exceeded the outlines of his mission, however he was the man on the ground, and he could not always ask Canning what he wanted next. In the end he got the best deal “He” thought he could get. He was a man who usually felt he knew better, and more often than not he was right, but more significantly, left without anyone to answer to, he was once more in command. Wellington therefore proceeded accordingly, even at the expense of Canning’s plans, which were in truth just as unrealistic as the Duke’s promises. From the first Wellington had been doubtful as to how he could negotiate from such a weak position, yet was personally satisfied with the results. Most of the public disagreed, this was because most people had no clue about the true nature of his mission and thought Wellington had gone out to gain official independence for Greece. In light of that, the deal that emerged looked remarkably like a disappointment.

Wellington left St Petersburg on 6 April 1826, by which time Canning was already proclaiming the mission a failure. He returned to England via Berlin were the Prussian Royal Family were once more happy to entertain him. In the spring of 1826 he arrived back to England with presents for his friends including a heavy porphyry vase for Mrs Arbuthnot. Those close to him had last seen the Duke apparently on death’s door, but the man who returned from the snows of Russia seemed a new man. Princess Lieven thought he was much contented and changed, Arbuthnot thought he looked fat and fresh and in high spirits and despite the critics one cannot blame him, after all he had achieved all that might reasonably have been wished of him.

I hope you enjoyed the story of the Duke and the Tsar, and thank you so much for reading.

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 Path to Victory, Rory Muir.
Wellington the Iron Duke Richard Holmes
Wellington a Personal History Christopher Hibbert
Wellington Pillar of State Elizabeth Longford
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

I’ll see you again for another adventure in Historyland.

0 Replies to “The Duke and the Tsar part 2.”

  1. cant be easy to research some of these blogs – but as always enlightening and interesting to know of the dukes continual work and actions in England and in Europe after the wars with Napoleon.

  2. Poor Artie – contemporaries were always quick to criticize but, invariably, it’s agreed that in the end he did the right thing. In many situations. You very ably lay out the history and draw a lively picture of the events surrounding the St. Petersburg visit. Thank you for the painstaking research involved in this post – excellent work! As to the cold, Wellington often urged his friends and relatives to take cold baths and to scrub their skin vigorously on a daily basis for good health. Mayhap this was a holdover from his routine on military campaigns. And he was a big proponent of galoshes. Cold feet were seen by Wellington to be the root of many evils! As your post demonstrates, there was much more to Wellington than the Battle of Waterloo.

    1. Thanks so much I’m glad you liked it. I think you’re right about his hygiene precations, he drew up very precise regulations for the 33rd regarding that in India and he remained a fastidiuous man. I have always felt that many of the allegations and critisism’s of the Duke were unjust, so I try to defend him when I can.

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