The Guildhall Banquet: Alexander I's Visit to London in June 1814

Posted in People

No less than 129 years have elapsed since the Emperor Alexander II paid the last state visit to Britain in 1874, following that of Nicholas II in 1844.

Russian tsars, however, both before and after 1844, have visited England, if in ways not qualifying as 'official state'. Indeed, the most famous visit came at the end of the seventeenth century, when Peter the Great spent a momentous 100 days in and around the capital. He came at the invitation of King William III, his 'hero', whom he had just met in Holland, but he came without the Great Embassy, to which he had been attached as a mere decurion (desiatnik), and he came in conspicuous incognito. The events of his stay, rehearsed more than once, a few years ago on the tercentenary of this visit, are well-known, at least the most spectacular of them, and we might look instead at a visit of a tsar in all his glory, which, nevertheless, for all the ceremony and deference, was not an official state visit.

British relations with Russia during the reign of Alexander I had begun on a high, following the assassination of the anti-British Paul I, had gone downhill with the tsar's treaty with Napoleon at Tilsit in 1807, but then climbed steeply as Alexander joined the allies' camp in the defeat of the French Emperor. The tsar was very keen to visit England, to enjoy his role as the saviour of Europe, but also to see for himself a country in which he was genuinely interested and prepared both by his education and by the Anglophile 'Young Friends', who surrounded him in the early years of his reign. The visit was arranged between the first Paris peace conference that had ended with the signing of the First Treaty of Paris on 30 May and the opening of the Congress of Vienna in September and was to last all of three weeks, from 6 to 27 June 1814. It was as a victorious ally that he was greeted in London, but not in splendid isolation - the British Foreign Secretary made sure that the King of Prussia, Count Metternich and Marshal Blücher were also invited, recognizing that "the Emperor has the greatest merit, and must be held high, but he ought to be grouped, and not made the sole feature for admiration". Admired, nevertheless, he was, but so was the Cossack ataman Platov, who was in his suite and whose exploits and those of his Cossacks against Napoleon in 1812-14 had been heralded in Britain in popular prints and anti-Naploeonic caricatures. And not only these: the Russian ambassador two years previously had written of "the enthusiasm that they have here for Russians: generals, soldiers, nobles, people of other ranks, all are esteemed, admired, and praised". British poets and poetasters were moved to sing of Alexander,"this heaven-born hero of the most elevated character that heroism has ever reached. He has made victory the angel of peace, and power a sacrifice to liberty; - has captivated enemies, by the charm of his deportment, and has moralized the world by the example of his virtues". As behoves a Poet Laureate, Robert Southey reeled off an ode for the tsar's arrival: Conqueror, Deliverer, Friend of human-kind, The free, the happy Island welcomes thee! Thee Alexander, thee the Great, the Good, The Glorious, the Beneficient, the Just, Thee to her honour'd shores The mighty Island welcomes in her joy. All, of course, did not share in the euphoria, the Prince Regent prominent among them. He was said to have suggested to Metternich that the tsar was "a northern barbarian who is quite miserable in wanting to play the Jacobin of the south". Such considerations were far from the society ladies who attended upon Alexander's every compliment and gesture and the crowds that thronged the streets to catch a glimpse of the tsar and his entourage. For some the visit was all too much and the tsar's departure after a fortnight in the capital for Oxford and elsewhere was "to the great delight of all who [did] not wish to be jambed to pieces in the street, and to have all society disjointed". Visits to Portsmouth to see the fleet, to Oxford, to theatres and operas and balls, to visit farms, to consult with Quakers, to learn about Parliament, were all reminiscent of Peter the Great's historic visit, but were all played in a different key, inviting pageantry and pomp.

Among the great occasions that Alexander and the Prussian king and their entourages graced was a banquet given in their honour by the Lord Mayor and Corporation of the City of London, a glittering event to be repeated during the visit of President Putin. Already on 8 June the tsar was presented at Cumberland House with an address of fulsome tribute to "the august, illustrious, and magnanimous ally of our revered and gracious Sovereign", to which he made a succinct and elegant reply, ending with the comforting assurance that "I have been the faithful Ally of Great Britain in War - I desire to continue her firm Friend in Peace". The following day, a committee, headed by the Lord Mayor, the Right Hon. William Domville, further recommended that "an Entertainment suitable to the dignity of this City should be provided in the Guildhall" and Saturday 18 June was selected, with the approval of the Prince Regent. Time was of the essence, but within a week everything had been "executed in the most superb manner". There were so many dignitaries it was found necessary to invite that ladies, other than those accompanying the royals, had to be excluded, but "considering that the general effect of the coup d'oeil of the Entertainment would be lost without their presence, [the committee] directed spacious Galleries to be erected in the Hall for their accommodation" and quite remarkable arrangements were made for their comfort.

The guest list, for which the tsar supplied thirty-six names, was quite dazzling. The Russians included the tsar's sister, the Grand Duchess of Oldenburg, one of six ladies, among whom one might also mention the famous Countess Lieven, wife of the Russian ambassador; a galaxy of generals, Barclay de Tolly, Platov, Volkonsky, Mikhail Vorontsov (whose father, Semen Romanovich, the former ambassador was also there); embassy and consular officials, including the long-serving chaplain Iakov Smirnov, who had acted as Russian charge d'affaires at the end of Paul's reign; the imperial physician James Wylie, who had just been knighted by the Prince Regent.

By Prof. Antony G Cross