At the beginning of the 20th century, most of the European royal dynasties were related to each other through intermarriage. Although Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna's marriage to Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh was the only instance of a Romanov marrying into the British family, the Russian imperial family and the British royal family were also connected through their German and Danish relatives. While blood relations didn't guarantee close political relations between nations, the geopolitical situation of the time was favourable for close Anglo-Russian relations, which would subsequently have profound consequences on the Russian state and its imperial family.

For most of the 19th century Britain and Russia were rivals in what became known as the 'Great Game.' The territorial expansion of both empires began to cause friction in regions such as the Pacific and Central Asia. Britain went to war in Crimea alongside France and Sardinia as protectors of the Ottoman Empire against Russian aggression. In 1867 Russia sold Alaska to the United States in order to prevent it from being captured by Britain. In the 1870s-80s Britain was fearful that Russia's expansion into Central Asia would threaten British rule in India. Although the European powers co-operated in suppressing the Boxer Rebellion in China (1899-1900), by the turn of the century Russia's increased influence in East Asia was cause for alarm in Whitehall.

Despite these and other differences, there were signs that a rapprochement was imminent. Shortly before he died, Tsar Alexander III concluded an alliance with France in 1894.  France had been Britain's ally since the end of the Napoleonic Wars and despite tensions over imperial expansion, the two countries would sign the Entente Cordiale in 1904. Russia's defeat against Japan (a British ally) during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 demonstrated to the British government that the Russian threat was not as great as initially feared. In 1907 the Anglo-Russian Entente was signed, completing the triangular alliance known to history as the Triple Entente. 

In 1894, shortly after his accession to the throne, Tsar Nicholas II married Princess Alix of Hesse, who became Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna. Alix was said to have been Queen Victoria's favourite granddaughter and spent much of her childhood in her care. For the occasion Victoria appointed Nicholas colonel-in-chief of the Royal Scots Greys. In 1896 Nicholas and Alexandra visited Scotland and met Victoria at Balmoral, where he made a positive impression on the British Queen. She noted that the Tsar conducted himself as an English gentleman, and his command of the English language was almost faultless.

Nicholas and Alexandra in Balmoral with Queen Victoria

Nicholas and Alexandra in Balmoral with Queen Victoria

 

After Victoria's death in 1901, her eldest son Bertie came to the throne as King Edward VII. Queen Alexandra, Edward's consort, was the sister of Nicholas's mother, Dowager Empress Maria Fyodorovna. In 1909 Nicholas and his family attended the Cowes regatta at the Isle of Wight where they were received warmly by King Edward. When Edward died the following year, representatives from all the European royal families gathered at his funeral. This was the last time the extended European royal family met before the outbreak of the First World War. The beginning of the 20th century was a period of political turmoil in Europe but especially in Russia, where in 1905 a series of revolutions threatened to depose the Tsar and forced Nicholas to make major concessions. The fate of the Romanov empire was not helped when it was clear that the heir to the throne, Tsesarevich Alexei Nikolaevich, suffered from haemophilia and risked dying at any point. This hereditary disease was introduced to the European royal families by Queen Victoria herself. The Tsarina turned to the mystic Grigory Rasputin, who seemed able to work miracles and save Alexei's life when it was in danger. Although Rasputin's political influence was not as great as most historians imagine, his association with Nicholas and Alexandra served to discredit them in the eyes of their subjects. 

Upon Edward VII's death his son George V (i.e. the Russian Tsar's cousin) became the British King. King George and Tsar Nicholas had a close relationship since childhood and shared remarkable physical similarities during middle age. Britain believed in the need to contain the imperial ambitions of Germany, while Russia was insistent on preventing Germany's ally Austria-Hungary from interfering in the affairs of its client states in the Balkans. These were some of the circumstances which led to the outbreak of WWI, which was to engulf all the major European powers in a four-year conflict.

Striking resemblance between King and Tsar

Striking resemblance between King and Tsar

The early setbacks suffered by the Russian army at Tannenburg and the Masurian Lakes were not an encouraging sign for the Triple Entente. Nevertheless, the Russian army was able to score significant successes on its southern front against the Ottoman Empire. The Gallipoli campaign of 1915 was designed to allow troops of the British Empire to land in Turkey and join Russia in defeating the Ottomans, before directing their forces against Austria-Hungary and Germany from the east. The failure of this effort meant that the Russian army was usually on its own in the eastern and southern fronts, simultaneously fighting German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman armies. The Royal Navy provided supplies for Russia's army and civilian population to alleviate the dire economic situation in Russia, but the Russian Empire lacked the infrastructure to distribute these resources effectively from the port of Archangelsk.

The February Revolution of 1917 and Tsar Nicholas's abdication troubled the crowned heads of Europe, even those who were fighting against the Russians. Under the Provisional Government Nicholas and his family were initially placed under house arrest at the Alexander Palace, before being evacuated to Tobolsk in Siberia for their security. After the October Revolution, the new Bolshevik government sent the former imperial family to Ekaterinburg, where they were eventually executed in July 1918. At every stage of the process there were opportunities for British agents to smuggle the Romanovs out of Russia and to escort them to safety in Britain.

The failure to do so results from a combination of factors. Neither the British government nor the Romanovs themselves appreciated the danger they were in – given the volatile political situation during the Russian Civil War, their fate was by no means certain. Even the Bolsheviks couldn't agree on what to do with them, and while Nicholas and Alexandra suspected that they might be executed by the Communist authorities, no-one expected their children would be killed. Furthermore, the British were not too keen to offer asylum to the ex-tsar's family. While he initially offered his cousin asylum, King George became afraid of the potential for political upheaval at home and the negative reaction Nicholas (who had the reputation of a tyrant) would create for the British monarchy. By the time George changed his mind and realised the extent of the danger to Nicholas's life, authorising covert operations to rescue the Romanovs, it was too late to mobilise the resources for a successful evacuation. The final pages of Nicholas and Alexandra's diaries bear witness to an evacuation plan.

George V regretted his failure to save 'cousin's Nicky' for the rest of his life. In 1919 the British battleship HMS Marlborough arrived in Crimea and evacuated most of the surviving members of the imperial family, including Dowager Empress Maria Fyodorovna and Nicholas's younger sister Grand Duchess Xenia Alexandrovna (the late Tsar's youngest sister Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna was evacuated later). Grand Duchess Xenia lived in England for the rest of her life, receiving from her British royal cousins a small stipend and a modest grace-and-favour apartment at Hampton Court Palace, where she died in 1960. Her grandddaughter Princess Olga Andreevna Romanoff lives at Faversham House in Kent. 

Photo-card of HMS Marlborough, autographed by the Imperial passengers

Photo-card of HMS Marlborough, autographed by the Imperial passengers

  By Jimmy Chen

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