Fabergé In London: Romance To Revolution At The V&A-
Pt.3: The Royal Families
(This is one of three articles exploring the current exhibition ‘Fabergé In London: Romance To Revolution’ at the V&A. In this essay, we consider the story of the Royal Families who commissioned and promoted Fabergé’s work. Together with a look at the wider historical context of the period; focusing on this time of Kings, Tsars, Kaisers and Emperors; as well as their Queens and Consorts. Please view the other two via my website)
Today it is almost impossible to imagine that at the end of the 19th century, the destiny of the entire world lay in the hands of a few European Royal heads of state. By 1890, almost every country on the planet was ruled by some form of Monarchy and the bulk of what was left, gradually divided up between their large and powerful empires.¹ This was an era when Royal relationships played a decisive part in determining all our futures. One in which the choices of hereditary Monarchs- good and bad- left a long legacy that has lasted up until our own time and continues to influence the course of global events.
For the European powers, the 19th century had been a period of increasing conquest and territorial acquisition. By 1900, almost all of Africa and Southern Asia had been divided up piecemeal between them as Imperial spoils- the subjugated nations roulette chips to be exchanged at will.
Britain, France, Spain, Portugal and even The Netherlands had been Empire building for centuries; reshaping the world in their image. Now other countries who had managed to acquire, rule and control vast swathes of global territory, thanks to advanced technology and communications; glorified in an equally heroic and problematic past. Adding to their own martial traditions with new stories of ‘derring-do’.
The vast Chinese Empire was having its territory gradually absorbed by other powers too ² – most notably Tsarist Russia, who continued to play out ‘The Great Game’ with the British over India in Central Asia. However things were about to change. China’s neighbour Japan had just emerged from centuries of comparative isolation and would soon demonstrate that it was an Imperial power in its own right. Ready to take on the world.
By this time, ideas of Imperialism- that is one nations’ right to control the destiny of another through force- had reached their apogee. These appeared in many forms and came to dominate the strategic thinking of the most powerful countries in the world. Ideas that by the late 19th century, had led ambitious and avaricious European states to reap vast economic rewards- at the expense of those countries occupied. Colonialism- put simply, the concept that the whole world was ‘up for grabs’- had resulted in hundreds of millions of people being, for the most part, economically exploited and disenfranchised. Their lands to be settled by the excess populations of the dominant powers in question. All justified in the name of ‘Progress’ and ‘Civilisation’. These pervasive myths of entitlement tended to focus on the occupying countries in question as somehow special or ‘chosen’ to rule by destiny. Gradually giving credence to Social Darwinist ideas about European racial ‘superiority’. Attitudes that still effect many people’s perception of the wider world today.
Just a handful of Republics existed- the United States and France being the only ones capable of competing with the Empires as ‘Great Powers’- and both trying their hand at the Imperial game. Democracy as we know it simply hadn’t evolved and hardly anyone had an effective political voice. True, there were certain exceptions; political parties and a relatively free press did exist in certain western countries and the US (especially in the cities). But for the most part, people in Europe remained farmers, peasants, semi literate tradesmen, artisans or labourers. In places such as rural Russia, living not much better than their ancestors had as Serfs.
However, two new forces were emerging, as the social order began to move away from its Feudal roots and take on a more Modern and recognisable form. Workers were beginning to influence political power through the organisation of Trade Unions; at least in the more advanced countries. Over the course of the early 20th century, ‘Organised Labour’ or ‘Socialism’ was something that would play an increasingly significant part in the direction of most European states. Also, in Britain at least, an emerging Middle Class was coming to the fore; its wealth derived from commerce and finance. In time, this new force would gradually displace the power of the aristocracy or ‘Landed Gentry’. But not just yet.
Royal Families & Imperial Alliances
Queen Victoria can be seen as the ‘Matriarch of European Royalty’, because by the turn of the last century, so many of her progeny sat upon the Thrones of Europe. Here they enjoyed (or endured) varying levels of power and their governments relative degrees of stability. During this period, Kings and Queens as Heads of State were actually increasing in number. For example, a number of spare Princelings from German Royal Houses were invited to take the Thrones of smaller nations; which were gradually emerging from the fraying and fragmentation of that so called ‘Sick Man of Europe’: The Turkish Ottoman Empire. To these we must add the old and ailing Austro-Hungarian Empire, ruled by the old and ailing Habsburg Emperor Franz Joseph. Within both Empires’ borders were nations with complex histories and allegiances. Yet although there were the stirrings of Nationalist sentiment and in the case of the Ottomans, actual secession; these ancient Empires managed to lumber on into the 20th century. In the case of Austria-Hungary, backed up by the newest player in the Imperial game: Germany.
Inevitably, rivalries between the Great Powers would lead to conflict sooner or later. But, with the exception of wars fought over Colonial issues such as the Boar War and Russo-Japanese War; the world around the turn of the the last century was by today’s standards an unequal, but in many ways comparatively stable place.
The Edwardian Era
After Queen Victoria died in 1901, her son, known in the family as ‘Bertie’, ascended the Throne as King Edward VII of Great Britain & Ireland and Emperor of India. He was now ruler of the largest Empire the world had ever seen. Held together by an almost surgical combination of politcal gamesmanship, superior technology and gunboat diplomacy.
Edward the Seventh was known throughout Europe as ‘The Peacemaker’. He was by nature convivial and cosmopolitan; with a complicated private life that tended to overshadow his achievements as King and Emperor. Edward was the sort of Royal who put people at ease and unlike many of his European counterparts, wasn’t a stickler for tired traditions and formalities. Although he came too late to the role of King with his best years behind him; Edward was determined to forge an alliance with France; the country of his wayward youth that he still looked upon with affection. There he had escaped his domineering parents, who had despaired at what they saw as Edward’s lack of seriousness and focus. More importantly, the Queen blamed him and his desolute ways, for the early death of his father Albert, the Prince Consort- something she never forgave or forgot. These were some of the reasons the Queen had kept Edward out of the loop as far as real power was concerned. But as soon as the Crown was his, Edward proved to be a capable and fairly wise King. With a wary eye on his nephew Kaiser Wilhelm’s bellicose stance and the increasing power of his German Empire. A serious rivalry that had huge potential consequences.
Alexandra & Marie
During Edward’s youth, it was thought by his parents that in order to curb his errant ways, he should marry. The perfect candidate was found in Alexandra of Schleswig-Holstein. A beautiful and elegant Danish Princess who had fortitude enough to endure the pain caused by her future husband’s frequent infidelities. That particular issue aside, Edward and Alexandra made a good couple and their marriage was to be reasonably happy. Eventually they had 6 children; including Princes Albert Victor (Eddy) and George, who would later become King.
Princess Dagmar was Alexandra’s sister and the two remained close throughout the course of their very different lives. Both women married powerful Monarchs; even though their reigns- significantly- were to be fairly short. Each however would play their part in the story ahead; as one Empire would die and be reborn, whilst the other would transform and endure.
The two sisters were practically minded and intelligent; who as children had shared a room and even made their own clothes (not an easy thing in an age of ornate and flamboyant tailoring). Although Princesses of the Danish Royal Family; in their younger years they were by no means accustomed to the wealth and splendour of the bigger European Courts. Alexandra and Dagmar also looked similar- something we see in their double portrait on display in ‘Romance To Revolution’.
Dagmar was to marry into the richest and most lavish of all the Royal dynasties: the Russian House of Romanov. A marriage that would prove very different to that of her sister. For a start, her husband would eventually become an Autocrat, who ended up ruling his country as Tsar with an iron fist. He was also a devoted and faithful family man who didn’t stray from his wife. As was customary, Dagmar followed the Russian tradition for a prospective Empress to change her name. From the time of her marriage to the then Tsaravich Alexander, she became known as Marie Feodorovna.
‘The Destiny Of Russia’
Under the autocratic rule of the Romanov dynasty, ‘Imperial’ Russia had gone from an unstable Grand Duchy on the periphery of Europe at the beginning of the Sixteenth century; to become a vast multi ethnic Transcontinental Empire by the end of the Nineteenth. This was one of the greatest and most rapid land based expansions of any political entity in history. I believe it was Peter Hopkirk who observed, that if you were to average out this rate of expansion over the course of the entire 19th century; the country had been increasing in size by roughly 50 miles per day.
Since the Middle Ages and through the Enlightenment; Russia’s rulers had enjoyed a level of power unseen in Europe since the Roman Empire. Russia’s Emperor or ‘Tsar’- to put it simply- ‘owned’ the country. All power was concentrated in his hands and he could act pretty much as he pleased. Although certain benign and forward thinking rulers had attempted changes to this system; a Feudal arrangement lasted in Russia for almost the entire duration of the Romanov dynasty.
This political structure had certain ‘advantages’, depending how you looked at things. For a start, ‘executive’ decisions could be made quickly. Someone like Peter The Great could ‘order’ a city to be built from scratch, regardless of cost and loss of life. On the other hand, the efficiency of a country like Russia was hampered by its rigid political hierarchy, vast size and over bureaucratic and military organisation. Not to mention the disparity between rich and poor. All things that restricted Russia’s evolution as a ‘Modern’ state and its technological progress until well into the 19th century. Therefore, despite its reserve of individual genius and acquisition of the vast resources of Siberia, Alaska (until 1857), Central Asia and parts of Manchuria; Russia’s development lagged behind its much smaller competitors in Europe and America.
Contained within this one Russian state was not only a significant proportion of the mass of Eurasia; but every kind of climate, environment and form of human society on earth. From the sophisticated Intelligentsia in the great cities of Saint Petersburg, Moscow and Warsaw; right through to the Hunter-gatherer inhabitants along its North Eastern extremities. Here was a country of seemingly limitless wealth, upon which the sun literally ‘never set’. If you were standing in ‘Russian’ Poland when the sun went down, it would at the same time, be rising on its Pacific coast- a world away. The destiny of Russia was always seen ‘To The East Of The Sun’ and since the time of Peter The Great; ‘once the Russian flag has been planted, it should never be removed’.
As Tsaritsa (Russian Empress), Marie had become a passionate advocate of Fabergé and introduced his work to both Alexandra and King Edward. From then on, both sisters shared that passion and did their utmost to acquire pieces and promote his company. Later on, Marie would even refer to the designer as ‘the greatest genius of our time’; after receiving her ‘Catherine the Great’ egg from him in 1914. This was an Easter gift from her son Nicholas, who by this time had become Tsar and was continuing the recently established tradition of each year presenting a Fabergé ‘Imperial’ egg to both his mother and his wife.
Queen Alexandra was instrumental in getting Fabergé’s New Bond Street shop in London established and it became the international face of the company. During this golden age of transatlantic travel by ocean liner, American buyers could visit to purchase items from the famous jeweller and ship them back home; potentially opening up the New World and a vast new market for Fabergé’s business.
Reval, Cowes & The End Of An Era
The Anglo-Russian Convention was signed in 1907; thereby formally ending over a century of potential and actual conflict in Central Asia and Tibet. By this time, ‘The Great Game’ had become the stuff of Imperialist legend; immortalised in literature by writers like Rudyard Kipling and the many published exploits of its ‘players’, such as the unfortunates Charles Stoddart and Arthur Conolly. To the British people, the Russian ‘Bear’ had been the epitome of the foreign bogeyman for years, thanks to the popular press. Scheming against Britain’s interests in India and Asia. All of which had now changed as the emphasis shifted further towards Germany and its warmongering leader Kaiser ‘Bill’.
In 1908, Edward and Alexandra travelled to the Gulf of Finland. Here the King was to meet his nephew, Tsar Nicholas II, outside Reval ³ on board the grandest of all Imperial yachts, the Tsar’s ‘Standart’ (thought to be the safest place in a very troubled Russia). Although not exactly a political summit as we understand it today; between the family gatherings, parties and salutes; the two most powerful men in the world were to play their part in building upon the 1907 Convention, in order to show the world that together with France, a Triple Entente could be united and strong enough to fend off any German aggression.
Both Emperors and their families got on well. Despite being very different in character, the King and the Tsar were able to ‘bury the hatchet’ on many points of contention; leaving the finer details to the Diplomats. The Triple Entente represented a complete realignment of defensive alliances. Previous enemies France and Russia were now embraced as allies; whilst Germany- viewed by many as our natural ally- became seen as a potential threat to British interests.
The Tsar’s mother, who was by now The Empress Dowager, also attended events. Unlike the current Empress, Alexandra Feodorovna (or ‘Alix’ of Hesse-Darmstadt, before her marriage); Marie Feodorovna was both popular and astute. No doubt she would have been happy to see her sister, the Queen Consort. Significantly in these circumstances, also unlike Alexandra Feodorovna; both were not German. Years before, Denmark, their home country had been at the mercy of Prussia and nearly became absorbed into the newly formed German Empire. Instead the loss of the Danish Province of Schleswig-Holstein was enough that they both remained fiercely anti German all their lives; something that influenced family relationships and the political atmosphere.
Just over a year later, Nicholas and his family would visit their British relatives on the Isle Of Wight. It was here that the famous picture of ‘Nicky and Georgie’ was taken. The two looked ‘not quite, but nearly’ identical- the King’s second son and the Tsar are attired in similar clothes and both have beards. Their expressive eyes also stand out; especially those of the Tsar. Perhaps it is no surprise they looked so similar. As we’ve already seen, Marie Feodorovna and Queen Alexandra resembled each other too.
During this period, the King’s health problems increased and he probably suspected that time was running out. Edward had been treated for cancer and was obese; but also drank and smoked hard- even by the standards of the day. Less than two years after visiting Reval, he was succeeded by his son and heir George, Prince of Wales and so ended an era; sometimes referred to as ‘The last good times of the upper classes’.
So by 1910, the King of England, Kaiser of Germany and Tsar of Russia were all first cousins, thanks to various intermarriages; a fate that had placed three ordinary, but flawed and complicated men on the Thrones of the most powerful Empires in the world. Their different personalities would help to shape the momentous events which followed.
The German Empire
At the end of the 19th century, the German Empire was a new country. Founded in 1871 after the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War; it consisted of former German speaking states and duchies that had previously been part of the thousand year old Holy Roman Empire. Plus areas of Poland, Lithuania, Silesia and Central Europe. It was a large country that also included Saxony⁴, Hesse-Darmstadt and Prussia- all places significant to our story. As well as incorporating French speaking Alsace-Lorraine – much to the consternation of the French.
Germany was to be an Empire led by the Kingdom of Prussia; a state founded on rigid militaristic principles and one whose size and influence in Europe had been steadily growing in the shadow of its most successful ruler, Frederick the Great (during the 18th Century). Not to the satisfaction of all participants, the emergent German nation was to be forged in Prussia’s image. Through a sophisticated combination of war and diplomacy; a new Frederick had finally unified Germany into a coherent Empire; realising the long held dreams of German nationalists everywhere. This was Otto Von Bismarck, Germany’s Chancellor and de facto ruler. Thanks to him, although the other states of the new Germany were in theory partners; in actual fact, they were subservient to Prussia and its Hohenzollern ‘Kaisers’ (or Kings). Bismarck was technically answerable to these former Margraves of Brandenburg; even though in his case, he was the ‘Power behind the Throne’. At least for the moment at any rate. If you wish to understand Modern German history, you need to understand this period in which the ‘idea’ of Germany came of age, along with the nation.
Imperial Germany was a country in which ancient traditions of Chivalry were forced to meet the Modern world head on: the most dynamic, industrious and rapidly advancing nation (other than the United States and possibly Japan). Given a few years, Germany would likely overtake Britain as the dominant European power in almost every sphere. It was also ahead of its time in government too; even though thanks again to Bismarck; there were significant deficiencies that would cause trouble later on and over concentrate supreme power in the hands of either the Chancellor or Emperor. Take either out of the equation and the Empire itself could become unstable. In other words, there was always the potential for a Dictatorship to emerge.
Kaiser Wilhelm II
Looking from the 1890s, the Royal Houses of Europe couldn’t have appeared more confident and four dynasties dominated the continent. In Britain, Queen Victoria had reconnected to her German roots by marriage to Albert of Saxe Coburg Gotha- the royal house which would gradually evolve into the House of Windsor. By way of the Queen’s eldest daughter Victoria; the newly unified German Empire had, by the end of 1888, acquired a half English Kaiser.
The Prussian Hohenzollern dynasty into which Wilhelm II had been born was initially seen as a stabilising influence on the balance of power in Europe. But of its first two Kaisers, Wilhelm I was an old man who left things to Bismarck. Whilst his son, The Emperor Frederick, died before he was able to reign and steer Germany in a more representative and liberal direction, closer to the British model.
Wilhelm II was as complicated and insecure in private as he was bellicose and overbearing in public. A reactionary; in part by having developed an authoritarian nature that was galvanised by his youthful association with nationalist, militaristic and antisemitic individuals ⁵.
Wilhelm genuinely liked certain aspects of English identity, yet came to associate it with the liberal values he had been expected to embrace by both his parents and grandparents. Therefore he sought the complete opposite. Another reason for this headstrong rebellion went deeper. Wilhelm had been born with a withered arm and given that he was destined to be Emperor of a united Germany; endured a regimented and difficult upbringing to forge him into a Kingly (or should I say ‘Kaiserly’) bearing (One such incident involved the poor child having to master horse riding. This was something he eventually managed to do well, but not without repeatedly falling off. Over and over again). Although throughout his life as Kaiser, Wilhelm was always more than keen to play the strong ‘helmsman’ of the nation; this traumatic childhood was something he resented and it haunted him. Something he blamed his parents and their English ways for- especially his English born mother. A mother he felt had been cold and distant to him as a child and for whom he had conflicting and problematic feelings. Because it seems that underneath it all, Wilhelm craved love and acceptance and was embarrassed by his physical disability, which had to be hidden away if he was to appear the archetypal Tutonic Warrior-Prince. No sign of imperfection could be tolerated in one born so high.
All the same and perhaps surprising, he got on rather well with his grandmother Queen Victoria. Probably by being on his best behaviour in her presence and using his charm to overcome any difficulties (yes, Wilhelm could be charming in his own way). So its fair to say that Wilhelm had a love-hate relationship with his English side; loving sailing at Cowes and English Tea, whilst ranting to his inner circle about his hatred of all things English. One rather enigmatic incident involved Wilhelm distributing pictures of himself in the uniform of the English 1st Royal Dragoons ⁶, inscribed with “I bide my time”.
‘Dropping The Pilot’
He did indeed. Pretty much as soon as Wilhelm was Kaiser and Emperor; he famously got rid of Bismarck (‘Dropping The Pilot’ as the press of the day called it) and found a more compliant Chancellor. From that point onwards, until early in World War One, the fate of Germany was in his unstable hands. The careful political and military manoeuvring of his former Chancellor was to be undone with consequences that shaped Europe for a century.
Above all, the Kaiser felt that Germany should become the dominant European power. To that end, he saw Britain as it’s natural ally- the country he feared most in any military confrontation and whose success he envied. All this was despite the fact that throughout his reign (and often inadvertently); Wilhelm did so much to provoke. Without elaborating on the specifics in too much detail, the following incident is reflective of his impetuous behaviour. During the Boar War, he alienated public opinion in this country by sending a congratulatory message to the President of the Transvaal, for repelling a British adventure known to history as the ‘Jameson Raid’. Even though this was a reckless Colonial caper that caused many difficulties for the British themselves; the ‘Kruger Telegram’ forever after tainted Anglo-German relations.
Therefore, instead of Germany, Britain gradually came into an alliance with its previous enemies France and Russia- all of which made the Kaiser even more paranoid about the intentions of ‘Perfidious Albion’. By the early 1900s, Wilhelm faced the reality of German encirclement: potentially hostile nations on both sides of the country. Something his previous Chancellor Bismarck had taken great care to avoid.
The Kaiser’s leadership and management of his Empire weren’t popular with everyone. Including some in the Royal families of previously independent German states, who felt that domineering Prussia- as exemplified by Wilhelm- was little more than a bully. To them, the outspoken militarism of the Kaiser was repellent. This was also the general attitude within most of the other Royal families of Europe. Wilhelm was seen as foolhardy and potentially dangerous, his actions destabilising the careful balances of power in Europe.
However, the Kaiser got on well with his younger cousin the Tsar. Both had similar views on a number of things; especially Britain and its over liberal ways. In spirit, they wished to maintain and increase their countries’ conservative and Monarchist traditions- reforms and democracy being seen as a threat to Royal power and harbingers of anarchy and revolution. The Kaiser at one point going as far as personally drafting a treaty to be signed between himself and Nicholas; designed to bring Russia into the German sphere of influence. As soon as its terms became known in diplomatic circles, there was a feeling of incomprehension and disbelief. Even the potential existence of such an agreement could have overturned decades of careful negotiations and planning. So Nicholas was forced to back out and the potential treaty was quickly, quietly and thankfully forgotten.⁷
One of the Kaiser’s other few friends amongst Royalty was Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire (since the suicide of Franz Joseph’s son Rudolf at Mayerling in 1889). Upon his accession as Emperor, Franz Ferdinand hoped to reform the ‘Dual’ into a ‘Triple’ Monarchy; incorporating into one country the Austrian Germans, Hungarians and Slavs of the Southern Balkans- three Crowns instead of two. This was a cause for concern because it brought the Empire into potential conflict with Russia. Another safer option was to create a Modern and effective Federation out of the various provinces that made up his Uncle’s vast and ancient multinational state.
A move by Austria into the wider Balkans, with its patchwork of intermixed ethnicities, would indirectly pitch German against Slav. Austria proceeded to annex the territories of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1908; setting in motion a chain of events that would eventually start the First World War. The Slavic nation of Serbia was now ‘next door’ to Austria, but allied to Russia- which would come to it’s aid in any future conflict. Austria was backed by Germany, armed with a ‘blank cheque’- carte blanche to do what it liked. German approval and support meant that in any potential conflict with Russia or Serbia, Austria risked escalating a local conflict into a general European war. Something that once started, would be very difficult to contain.
So by 1914, Europe had become divided into two huge armed camps in the form of the Triple Entente of Britain, France and Russia versus the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria, Italy and potentially the Ottoman Empire.
‘a powder keg waiting for a spark’.
Tsar Alexander III & Marie Feodorovna
Alexander III was not a man known for his subtlety. With a legendary gruffness that dominated everyone around him at Court (including his Ministers); he was the focal point of all power within the vast Russian Empire. The central hub of a dynamic wheel in motion.
A huge bear of a man who famously, when responding to a threat from the Austrian Ambassador, contemptuously took a metal fork and twisted it into a knot; throwing it down on the table with the words ‘This is what I am going to do to your ‘two or three Army Corps’. It is no surprise then that his enormous army was feared throughout Europe and known as ‘The Russian Steamroller’. If anyone deserved the title ‘Iron Tsar’ it was him.
‘Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality’
Alexander had become a reactionary ruler, even in comparison to previous Russian Tsars. In 1881, he’d seen his own father blown to pieces by an anarchist’s bomb and vowed there and then to uphold and strengthen the Autocracy. Alexander believed his own father Alexander II (‘The Tsar Liberator’) had liberalised far too rapidly. Freeing the Serfs and trying to turn a backward Feudal Russia into a Modern state had resulted in nothing but instability. To Alexander III, that was what happened if you allowed democratic concessions in a country like Russia. Under his authority, all influences seen as subversive were brutally repressed and his antisemitic policies became institutionalised; causing large numbers of Jews, Socialists and many others to emigrate in order to escape persecution. So certain was he of his divinely ordained power, Alexander announced in his 1881 Proclamation speech ‘the voice of God orders Us (me) courageously to undertake, in deference to Divine intention, the task of ruling, with faith in the strength and rightness of autocratic power.’
Yet the Tsar’s monocratic oratory conceals a few surprises about the man. Russia fought no wars during Alexander III’s reign and like his English Brother in law, he became known as ‘The Peacemaker’. Also, the Tsar could in the right circumstances, exhibit a certain degree of informality. Aside from matters of state, with his family and confidents, Alexander felt able to relax. And it was his socially orientated and cosmopolitan wife, who brought out the best in him.
Marie Feodorovna was pretty much the opposite of her husband; as outgoing and sociable as she was vivacious. Not to mention tiny in comparison with the huge Alexander. Born into to the Royal House of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg; she was originally betrothed to the Tsaravich Nicholas. When he died prematurely, she became engaged to his younger brother Alexander. By the time he ascended the Throne in 1881, she had became a most popular figure in Russian society.
Marie had a gift for languages. Although being unable to speak a word of Russian at the time of her marriage; she picked up the language quickly, so as to adequately fulfill her role as future Empress. Marie was also known for her tact and diplomacy and like her brother-in-law King Edward; had that essential Royal trait of putting people at ease. And most importantly, in a vast Court like that of the Romanovs, being able to remember all their names.
In addition to being clever and quick witted, Marie had an artistic eye; to the extent of becoming a fairly accomplished painter herself. She was appreciative of quality work and able to spot (and due to her status, elevate) the careers of great talents. As already touched upon, it was thanks to the patronage of the Tsar and especially Marie, that Fabergé was able to take Russian high society by storm.
In 1894, two things of great significance occurred in Russia. Firstly, a Franco Russian Alliance was agreed, so as to counter any potential threats from the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria and Italy. This was a first step towards what would eventually become the Triple Entente of Russia, France and Britain. Although the alliance can be seen as a defensive and rational policy; it nevertheless started the countdown on events which would lead to the First World War.
Also, the usually strong as an ox Alexander III was ill with Nephritis. Years before, he and his family had been on board the Imperial train and involved in a very serious accident. Apparently, whilst literally holding up the roof of one of the damaged carriages (to enable his wife and children to escape); the Tsar had been hit by something in the abdominal region. Although he ignored this for years, it is thought that it was this blow which initiated his ultimate and untimely decline. Surrounded by his family at the Livadia Palace in the Crimea, the ailing Tsar met the intended of his son Nicholas. Alexandra of Hesse was stubborn, socially awkward and the polar opposite of his wife. Everyone present knew that soon these two young, inexperienced and shy people would hold the destiny of Russia in their hands. Alexander put his hand on Alix, apparently giving his blessing and putting aside the misgivings he and Marie had. Finally, on the afternoon of the 1st of November, Tsar Alexander III died in the arms of his wife.
Sarajevo & The End Of Empires
The particular ‘spark’ that started the First World War could have been extinguished if it wasn’t for the complex set of treaties in place between Europe’s ‘Great Powers’ by 1914. Of course, that’s not to say it wouldn’t have ignited elsewhere, in a different set of circumstances.
Franz Ferdinand and his wife visited the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo in late June 1914; where they were assassinated on the second attempt by nationalist terrorists with an allegiance to Serbia. Even though the Serbian government was not directly involved and accepted Austria’s harsh terms for compensation; the latter was intent on using military force to resolve the situation. This was despite the 1897 ‘gentleman’s agreement’ between the Archduke and the Tsar to prevent war in the Balkans. Consequently, Austria attacked Serbia and through the various treaty alliances; ended up precipitating a general European war.
The results were to be more far reaching and catastrophic than any of the participants could possibly have imagined; changing the world forever.
‘Georgie and May, Nicky and Sunny’
After the death of Tsar Alexander III in 1894, Russia found herself at a crossroads. At such a critical point in it’s history, it was necessary to have a strong, decisive and above all visionary leader holding the reins of power. Sadly, despite his good points and well meaning sense of duty, that man wasn’t Nicholas II.
When he ascended the Throne, it was hoped that Nicholas might introduce much needed reform into the Russian government. But in the shadow of his authoritarian and conservative late father, Nicholas stated from the start that he would do all he could to uphold the Autocracy; dismissing any hopes of liberalisation (in response to the Tver Address) as ‘Senseless Dreams’. Consequently, Nicholas missed an opportunity to create a more stable and inclusive future for his country, which was growing economically, but needed to Modernise.
Whereas Alexander III had ruled Russia by will and force of character, it is said that Nicholas tended to defer to the opinions of others; usually those of a right wing or repressive persuasion like Vyacheslav von Plehve or Pyotr Rachkovsky. But most of all, to his unpopular and opinionated wife. The following qoutation says a lot about how Alexander had viewed his sons’ potential abilities: ‘Nikki is a good boy,’ he said ‘but he has a poet’s soul…God help him!’
Nicholas or ‘Nicky’ to his family, was a shy and conservative man, who genuinely did not wish to Inherit 1/6th of the earth’s surface: such was the extent of Russia’s Empire during his rule. It is sometimes said of the young Tsar, that his opinion was shaped by whomever he had just been talking to. This is an exaggeration. Whilst he certainly held views that were reactionary and could be stubborn in situations, Nicholas was far from stupid. Imagine a man who was thought too childish as Tsaravich to be given any serious responsibility or power by his Father. Not only that, Nicholas became Tsar aged only 26; suddenly and almost without any preparation at all.
Unlike his cousin George, to whom, as we have seen, he bore a most striking resemblance; Nicholas had no significant experience to prepare him to be Tsar or round out his character. Only simple Royal duties and living the life of a ‘Tsaravich-About-Town’. George on the other hand had served in the Royal Navy before becoming King.
In addition to their looks, Nicky shared with George (or ‘Georgie’) certain other attributes that were fine for a Constitutional Monarch, but disastrous for an all powerful Emperor. It would have been extremely difficult at the best of times for an ordinary man like Nicholas to have to fulfil a role with such enormous magnitude as ‘Tsar Of All The Russias’. But during his tenure at the end of the Nineteenth century up to to the First World War; the maintenance of Autocracy as his father had imagined it and bequeathed to his successors was almost an impossibility. Russia might have had the fastest growing economy in the world by 1900, but five years later, Tsarism was coming apart at the seams. The fact that the long awaited Tsaravich Alexis had Inherited Hemophilia from his maternal line, threatened not only his life, but the very survival of the dynasty. Add to this the shockingly poor and reckless performance of Russia’s military in the war against Japan. This resulted during 1904-5 in descent, strikes at home and total humiliation and defeat by a rival power; whose strategic efficiency and technical superiority had been completely underestimated by almost all of the Tsar’s Ministers, Generals and Admirals. In the wake of all this, the total collapse of the Romanov regime looked likely. Long overdue reforms- anathema in Nicholas’ eyes ⁸- only postponed the inevitable. Although he conceded a parliament of sorts, or Duma; the Tsar ulrimately worked against it. So that any attempts towards meaningful change were blocked by ambitious and incompetent Ministers, who were directly appointed by the Tsar or Tsarista.
Knowing something about the personalities of Nicholas and George helps to put their eventual fates into perspective. In one area however they were total opposites: the relationship each had to their respective families. Whereas George was an authoritarian and distant Father, what Nicholas loved most in the world was the company of his four daughters, sickly son and the wife he adored.
George on the other hand, despite his temper, was ideally suited to his destiny as King. Nowhere near as convivial or influential as his father, but astute enough to play his part. A man of few words, George insisted that his tattoos ⁹ (a common practice in the Royal Navy for Sailors) were covered up at all times. As were any signs of personality, emotional expression and perceived weaknesses ¹⁰. His one passion was Philately, which proved to be a time consuming and extremely expensive hobby. But benign. In other words, with a few querks aside, George was perfect King material.
Princess Mary of Teck was known in the family as ‘May’ and her Royal life echoed that of Marie Feodorovna. Firstly, by being betrothed to the older brother of her eventual husband. In May’s case to Eddy (Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence), who had died young and changed the course of the British succession. His brother George then inherited from Eddy not just the Throne; but also his fiancé and their union proved to be a great success. Although May might not have been as gregarious as Marie, when she became Queen Consort; her intelligence and Regal presence helped the Monarchy through difficult times.
May was astute enough to appreciate that the country was moving away from the certainties of the Victorian era and its unquestioning deference towards Royalty. She would have recognised the increasing influence of the mass media and how this was changing the perception of Royal Family in the eyes of its subjects. As Britain continued to develop towards a more representative and democratic society, so the Royals needed to change and adapt to the new circumstances.
Consequently, the King and Queen re-modelled themselves with an emphasis on ‘family’. Living without too much ceremony and an almost middle class level of thrift. In many ways like the Tsar and Tsaritsa, who also chose to live simply and bring up their children in similar Spartan conditions; cocooned away in the Alexander Palace (presumably avoiding its opulence and splendour). This custom of bringing up children with the minimum of indulgence and luxury was practiced by many of the Royal Houses. A legacy of the Victorian values that had shaped the upbringing of children and general outlook on family life throughout this period.
Also like Marie Feodorovna and her mother-in-law; May had a passion for Fabergé and added numerous examples to the Royal Collection. It is from there that a large number of the objects on display in ‘Romance To Revolution’ originate. For example, the 1914 ‘Mosaic Egg’ and surprise, originally presented by Nicholas to Alexandra.
After the First World War engulfed Europe and eventually the world in 1914; the bitter realities of mechanised conflict began to effect the values and assumptions that the ruling classes had previously taken for granted and relied upon. The huge loss of life heightened May’s sense of Royal responsibility. Although there was little she or the King could do personally to mitigate the military situation as it evolved; May famously provided Christmas provisions for the troops at the Front.
Realising its symbolic value, the King and Queen initiated an austerity drive at Buckingham Palace and expected everyone present to abide by it. The Crown also implemented significant changes that helped the Monarchy to survive during the difficult latter part of the War. A period that saw the extinction of power for almost all the other Royal Houses of Europe. The ‘Fall Of Eagles’ had started- events that go beyond our narrative.
‘Alix’ or Alexandra of Hesse-Darmstadt was shy and stubborn, yet burned inside with mystical religious fervour- a need for spiritual fulfilment that only intensified after her difficult conversation to Orthodoxy. As a young woman, she was a great beauty, who was the daughter of Princess Alice- herself the daughter of Queen Victoria. Both women were destined to have difficult and in many ways tragic lives. Alice was brought down by the Diphtheria that devastated her family aged just 35- something which inevitably had a deep impact on her daughter, who as a child was apparently Queen Victoria’s favourite. Alexandra would later recall the long summers spent at Osborne with the Queen as some of her happiest and most carefree times: a vignette starkly in contrast to the eventual grisly fate of the Romanovs.
She was also a very eligible Princess, who despite some other potential Princely candidates (including Eddy and George); seemed almost destined to marry Nicholas and become Russia’s last Empress. In part because the Tsaravich- much to his parents irritation- would consider no other bride. Eventually of course, they had to accept her, because Alexander III was dying.
For Nicholas and Alexandra, family life was as rich as their leadership and judgments were poor. Being a mother suited Alix (or ‘Sunny’ as her husband called her) and she spent more time with her children than was customary. Alix even chose to breastfeed; something fairly novel amongst women of her class and status. A practice of which her grandmother Queen Victoria certainly did not approve. She eventually bore the Tsar 5 children; the last being the all important son and heir (Russian women couldn’t Inherit the Throne). As we have seen, the Tsaravich Alexis was born with Hemophilia; inherited through the maternal line- something that was a closely guarded secret in the last years of Imperial rule. The choices made by the Tsar and especially Alix to protect their fragile son were to have huge repercussions on the eventual fate of Russia. She felt it was her fault that Alexis had Inherited the disease and because at that time nothing could be done; Alix was compelled not just even further towards religion and mysticism; but also into the confidence of men like Nizier Anthelme Philippe. A known trickster in the eyes of Ministers and the Okhrana; the Tsar’s secret police.
All of which had the effect of clouding both their judgments, because Nicholas would usually defer to Alix’s opinions on most decisions. Both being reactionary minded and not exactly blessed with insight; meant that any attempts by more intelligent or progressive Ministers to implement changes that might have saved the dynasty were overruled.
Even giving Alix the benefit of the doubt, in the final reckoning, the following retort to her grandmother Queen Victoria speaks volumes about the Empress’s character: ‘Russia is not England. Here we do not need to earn the love of the people.’
According to historian Simon Sebag Montefiore, a Courtier once described Alix as possessing ‘an iron will and monumental stupidly’. A fatal combination. As the Tsar headed for the front to take charge of his disastrous war in 1915 (having fired his Uncle, The Grand Duke Nicholas; who arguably was the only man capable of saving his dynasty); he made the catastrophic decision to leave Alexandra in charge. The results could have been easily predicted. By spring 1917, the country revolted against the chaos and compelled the Tsar to abdicate ¹¹. The Russian Revolution had begun.
All of which brings us to the contrasting fates of the Royal families. As the revolution engulfed Imperial Russia, it was assumed by many that the Tsar and his family would be offered asylum in Britain. This perhaps seems less controversial today than in 1917-18. Back then, it was felt by many that the revolution happened as it did because of Nicholas and especially Alexandra’s intransigence. In Britain, quite a few people felt hostile to the Tsar and it was thinking about such things that led the King to reverse his decision to let the Romanovs settle in this country. A decision which haunts the Royal Family to this day.
As for the Kaiser, he got off fairly lightly. Throughout most of the war which he had done so much to precipitate; Wilhelm became ever more sidelined in terms of decision making and policy. Far from being the victorious Tutonic Warlord, the Kaiser deferred power to Hindenburg and Ludendorff. Germany’s military leaders, who’s success at the Battle Of Tannenberg had eclipsed their master and Monarch.
Throughout four long years of stalemate on the Western Front, Germany’s fortunes waxed and waned. Against the Russians however, it essentially won and acquired large amounts of Tsarist territory. In the end of course, Germany lost the war and Wilhelm his Crown. Forced to abdicate, he was exiled to Doorn in the Netherlands where he was to live what remained of his life in very comfortable circumstances.
All the same, it must have been galling for Wilhelm to remember that it was his government who allowed Lenin to take power in Russia. Thanks to this action, the revolution developed along a far more radical path which ultimately resulted in the extinction of the Romanovs. To the Kaiser’s credit and totally inappropriately; he did offer the Nicholas and his family sanctuary in Germany (Alexandra was technically of German decent and so were her children). This was however something impossible for the Ex Tsar and Tsaritsa to accept. Despite the latter being frequently labeled ‘The German Woman’; both were Russian Patriots. Instead they had hoped for refuge in England or at least another allied country.
Austria-Hungry and the Ottoman Empire were also on the loosing side in World War One. Both were eventually torn apart and their Monarchies brought to an abrupt end. Yet none suffered the fate of the Romanovs. After the Treaty of Versailles, these ancient Empires simply ceased to exist as political entities. Their successor states being structured along national rather than Imperial lines.¹²
The destruction of the Tsar and his entire family not only brutally put an end to 305 years of Romanov Russia and an entire way of life; but also demonstrated the fatal weaknesses of Absolute Monarchy. King George’s descendants continue to reign over this country; mostly because they remain the figureheads of an elected government that has the overall support of the people. Yet in post Soviet Russia, a nostalgia remains for the Romanovs. To some the death of the Tsar and his family was a wound that remained unhealed and partly explains why they were posthumously beatified by the Orthodox Church.
Perhaps it is through their lost splendour (to borrow- in somewhat poor taste- from the title of Prince Felix Youssopov’s autobiography ¹³) that we look at those fabulous Fabergé items and get a glimpse into a rarified world. One that may have disappeared over a century ago, but nevertheless still has resonance today. Because the end of Imperial Russia was so swift and thorough, it might well be argued that the eggs and other objects left behind in some way became compensations, or even condensations of that lost past. It’s essence reduced down to a few pieces of beautiful and wondrous jewellery, by Royal association and in leu of something else.
(C) Gideon Hall 2022
1. Forced or coerced into becoming an Imperial possession, dominion or colony. In many cases where central power was delegated through some form of local royalty.
2. ‘Imperialism from outside, Warlordism from within’. This process of the reduction of Qing Dynasty China would eventually result in a revolution that established Asia’s first Republic.
3. Today called Tallin. In Estonia.
4. Fabergé spent his formative years in Dresden prior to the foundation of the German Empire.
Regarding Fabergé’s commercial activity in Germany, although I couldn’t find any major examples; online is a signed photo of the Kaiser sent to his uncle, King Edward VII (how provocatively Wilhelm). In Baden-Baden however, there is currently an extensive Fabergé museum which includes Marie Feodorovna’s Karelian Birch egg.
The Kaiser was apparently a collector of Fabergé, as were the Ottoman Sultan, Emperor of Japan and King of Thailand.
5. Some of those around the young Wilhelm- like Bismarck- were shrewd politicians who understood the nature of power. Others however were the kinds of bullheads whom Wilhelm’s high minded parents had strongly disapproved.
6. It was customary at this time for Monarchs to present honorary ranks to their opposite numbers. In this case, I can testify to Wilhelm’s surprising sense of humour. During WW1, my grandfather was a Captain in the same English regiment that Wilhelm was an honorary Colonel. Early in the conflict, they had received a congratulatory telegram from the German Emperor. Proud that his regiment had gained a victory in battle- against the German Army! Forever afterwards, his portrait hung in the officer’s mess.
7. It turned out Nicholas had actually signed the treaty, but for obvious reasons it was never formally ratified.
8. Nicholas had seen the House of Commons in London and wasn’t at all keen. In political terms, he was far closer to his German cousin Wilhelm, admiring the latter’s authoritarian and conservative tendencies.
9. Interestingly, years later Nicholas would visit the same tattoo artist as George; Hori Chyo in Japan and acquire a large Dragon on his arm, which he also kept hidden.
10. His youngest son John, was famously kept out of public view for his entire life, because of his learning disabilities.
11. He did so for himself and on behalf of the Tsaravich, for his health. The Crown was then offered to his brother Michael, but he too declined it and so the dynasty ended.
12. Both Austria and Turkey were reduced to rump states; fragments of their former Imperial size and status. Yet they would endure as nations in one form or another.
13. Prince Youssopov and Grand Duke Dmitri were responsible for killing Gregori Rasputin at the Moika Palace at the end of 1916. Prince Youssopov famously lived in extraordinary luxury and inherited one of the largest fortunes in Russia. It was said to rival the Tsar’s. He writes about all this in his memoir ‘Lost Splendour’.