Book review: The Imperial Tea Party: Family, politics and betrayal: the ill-fated British and Russian royal alliance by Frances Welch

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It should have been a joyful occasion but the ‘dreich and misty’ driving rain that greeted the arrival of the newly crowned Russian Tsar Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra at Balmoral in September of 1896 was just an augur of things to come.

From the Tsarina’s ‘debilitating headaches’ and the Scottish castle’s lack of creature comforts to wet hunting expeditions at which the Tsar did not bag a single deer and an abrasive relationship between Bertie, Prince of Wales, and his Russian nephew Nicky, the meeting of two royal families turned into a prickly and tense affair.

The Balmoral holiday was just the first of three extended meetings between the British and Russian royal families before the Romanovs’ tragic end in front of a Bolshevik firing squad in Ekaterinburg in 1918 during the brutal Russian Revolution.

In her wonderfully gossipy and factually fascinating account of the ill-fated royal alliance, Romanov expert Frances Welch peeps behind the scenes of these pivotal encounters which had such far-reaching consequences for 20th century Europe and beyond.

Russia and Britain were never natural bedfellows, with Queen Victoria declaring at the time of the engagement of her favourite granddaughter Alix that ‘the state of Russia is so bad, so rotten, that at any moment something dreadful might happen.’

It was a moment of incisive foresight, but the union was a rare love match in royal circles and their marriage in 1894 marked the beginning of an uneasy Anglo-Russian entente that would last for the next 23 years.

At that first meeting in Scotland, the ageing Queen Victoria was still very much the hostess, eager to embrace her new baby great-granddaughter, Grand Duchess Olga, and the granddaughter she had cherished since the death in 1878 of Alix’s mother (the queen’s second daughter Alice, the Grand Duchess of Hesse).

But, like the two later meetings at Reval (now Tallinn in Estonia) in 1908, and at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight in 1909, the much-anticipated reunion was beset by misunderstandings and misfortunes.

Amidst the social unrest taking root across Europe in the late 19th century, radical left-wing factions in Britain were unhappy about the arrival of the Russian royals because of the Tsar’s reputation as a hardliner but Queen Victoria and her Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, were determined to take political advantage of the visit.

Not helped by the Scottish weather which hardly improved during the stay, the Tsar took to his room with toothache and Alix spent much of her time in bed with real or imagined ailments.

Meanwhile, Bertie, the corpulent and confident Prince of Wales, and his nephew the Tsar were distinctly unimpressed with each other, Nicky finding Bertie ‘overbearing and too friendly’ and Bertie pronouncing the Tsar ‘weak as water.’

By the next meeting of the two families in Tallinn 12 years later, Bertie was now King Edward VII and the Tsar and Tsarina’s family had burgeoned to five children, including the sickly, haemophiliac Romanov heir, Tsarevich Alexei.

At home, Nicky and Alix were deeply unpopular with the infamous 1905 Bloody Sunday massacre in St Petersburg still provoking outrage amongst Russian people, and disquiet growing over visits to the palace by Grigory Rasputin, the so-called mad monk who had become ‘indispensable’ in the Tsarina’s battle to keep her son alive.

On board their floating palace, the royal yacht Standart, the couple and their children enjoyed a ‘pared-down life,’ with the Tsar smoking and playing dominoes on deck and the Tsarina ‘cocooned’ with her children.

By the following summer of 1909, when the Romanov family sailed into Cowes on the Isle of Wight, the island was teeming with Russian and English security officials to protect what one of the British party described as ‘the poor hunted Tsar.’

And it was during this meeting that the future King George V, who looked almost identical to his first cousin Nicky, was reported to have been ‘very heartfelt’ towards the Tsar, ‘having, apparently, the same nature.’

As they waved each other fond goodbyes from their yachts at the end of the visit, the two families could not have known that they would never meet again... and that nine years later King George would turn down the Romanovs’ plea for refuge.

Politics, history, intrigue and tragedy all come under Welch’s keen gaze but this is also the intimate and very human story of two families who, despite all their personal and social difficulties, were engaged in a desperate battle to keep Anglo-Russian relations afloat and prevent war breaking out in Europe.

With a weak, vacillating tsar who was never really cut out to be an autocratic ruler – he privately admitted he would have preferred to be a constitutional monarch like his English cousins – Nicholas was never going to be a reliable partner in any royal anti-war coalition.

His refusal to accede to the growing clamour for reform in Russia and his unstable, shy and socially inept empress wife – referred to disparagingly by a British lady-in-waiting as ‘a rabid, pathetic hausfrau’ – ultimately helped lead to the tragedy that unfolded in a dark, dank cellar in the Urals.

The role played by George V in refusing sanctuary to the Romanovs after their capture by the Bolsheviks was not fully revealed until 1983 with the publication of Kenneth Rose’s biography of the king which laid bare the truth of George rescinding the government’s offer to take in the Russian family.

In the end, the awkward reunions of 1896, 1908 and 1909 and the attempts to strengthen ties between the two families were not enough to stop the war, or the cruel massacre of the Tsar, Tsarina and their five children.

Welch explores the intensely personal background and events of these ill-fated ‘imperial tea parties’ with unflinching honesty and a novelist’s eye for rich social and domestic detail.

The ostensibly mundane becomes fascinating and riveting with the knowledge of how the story ends at the forefront of the reader’s mind.

Written with the insight and humanity that we have come to expect from this writer, The Imperial Tea Party is the perfect balance of entertainment, history and exquisite pathos.

(Short Books, hardback, £12.99)