In 1697 and 1698, the young Tsar Peter I of Russia embarked on a Grand Embassy across Europe. As the name suggests, this was primarily a diplomatic mission, with Peter looking for allies to join him in a war against the Ottoman Empire. This was the first time a Russian tsar had visited western Europe. Peter assumed the name Peter Mikhailov, but his true identity was never in doubt. The reason of this was to avoid the ceremony that would usually accompany state visits.
Over the course of the embassy Peter was interested in learning from western European technologies. He was keen to acquire the technical skills himself, which he could later teach to his subjects. In August 1697 he visited the United Provinces (The Netherlands), where he spent four months working as a shipbuilder. At the invitation of William of Orange, the Dutch Stadtholder, Peter was invited to England, over which William also ruled as King William III.
In January Peter and part of his entourage arrived in London, where they first stayed at the Strand in central London, before moving closer to the docks in Deptford. Peter stayed at Sayes Court, which was owned by the diarist John Evelyn. By all accounts, Peter and his friends did not treat the property well. Peter was fascinated by the wheelbarrow (a device unknown in Russia) and would have his courtiers push him in the wheelbarrow into Evelyn's precious garden hedges. The walls and floors were covered in mud and grease, and more than a dozen paintings damaged. After Peter's departure Evelyn claimed for compensation from the government. He eventually received £350, a considerable sum for the time.
Peter's visit to England did not solely consist of trashing his lodgings, though these activities did seem to take up considerable time. In Deptford he observed the shipbuilding activities in the royal shipyards, often joining in with the work. Statues in Amsterdam and St Petersburg (outside the Admiralty) depict Peter working as a ship's carpenter. Related to his interest in naval and military affairs, Peter was given access to the arsenal at Woolwich and invited to review the fleet at Portsmouth.
At the Royal Observatory Peter met Sir John Flamsteed, the first Astronomer Royal. Reported meetings with such luminaries as Edmund Halley, Isaac Newton and Sir Christopher Wren are most likely to be apocryphal. Peter did visit the Royal Mint in the Tower of London, where Newton served as Warden of the Mint before being appointed to Master in 1699.
Upon his departure from England, Peter received a gift from William III in the form of the Royal Transport. Designed to carry important persons across the North Sea between England and the Netherlands, the vessel was one of the most modern in the king's fleet. The ship's ornamentation was further embellished before being presented to the tsar. Peter was overjoyed at the gift, though a diplomatic alliance with England was not forthcoming.
Peter's three month visit to England is commemorated in a bizarre sculptural ensemble in Deptford, unveiled by Prince Michael of Kent in 2001. Designed by Mikhail Shemyakhin (also responsible for a seated statue of Peter in the grounds of the Peter and Paul Fortress in St Petersburg, in which the tsar is depicted with a tiny head), the towering figure of the tsar stands in a tricorn hat between an empty throne and a dwarf. The English inscription reads:
Russian Czar, Peter the Great, arrived in England in January 1698 and stayed in Sir John Evelyn's house, Sayes Court in Deptford for four months. This monument is erected near the royal shipyard where Peter the Great studied the English science of shipbuilding. The monument is a gift from the Russian people and commemorates the visit of Peter the Great to this country in search of knowledge and experience.
By 'official' standards, Peter's Grand Embassy was a failure. None of the European powers were willing to join him in an alliance against Turkey – they were more concerned about the fate of the Spanish throne (the Spanish War of Succession involved the major European powers and lasted from 1700 to 1714). In Dresden Peter met with Saxon Elector Augustus the Strong, who was also King of Poland as August II. The two became lifelong friends but their efforts were eventually directed against Sweden rather than Turkey.
Nevertheless, Peter's Grand Embassy was a great success at an informal level. Not only did he manage to bring a handful of skilled craftsmen and technical experts back to Russia with him, Peter acquired extensive knowledge himself and soon implemented what he had learnt in Russia. The layout of Peter's new capital of St Petersburg was inspired by his experience of London and Amsterdam, while the fleet he created in the Baltic was greatly influenced by the knowledge of maritime affairs he acquired in England and Holland.
By Jimmy Chen
Images: Robert Scarth [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Paul Delaroche [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons