Review: The Russian Court at Sea – Frances Welch

It is well known that the Romanov dynasty in Imperial Russia came to a sad end.  After the February revolution of 1917, Tsar Nicholas II and his family were placed under house arrest and in July 1918, the Bolshevik authorities shot Nicholas and his immediate family and servants in the cellar of the house they were staying in.  They had been told that they were to be photographed to prove to the people that they were still alive and once they had been arranged for the photograph, they were shot by the very people who were supposed to be protecting them.

Frances Welch has written a fine “what happened next” book in The Russian Court at Sea,  describing the escape from Russia of the remaining members of the Romanov tribe as they departed Russia from the Ukraine port of Yalta on the British ship HMS Marlborough.  The party consisted of the Tsar’s mother, The Dowager Empress Marie and his sister, the Grand Duchess Xenia and fifteen others, including the man who killed Rasputin, Prince Felix Youssoupov.

The Romanov party was far from being one happy family.  At least two squabbling factions were represented, and the British crew seemed bemused by the intricacies of the social relationships among the Russians.  First Lieutenant Pridham had been led to expect a party of twelve and was taken aback at having to accommodate fifty refugees.  The crew gallantly freed up all 35 officers’ cabins and commandeered additional mattresses and sheets as they could find them.  Indeed, the Tsarina’s lady in waiting wrote in her diary,

All the officers had cleared their cabins and let us have them, while they themselves were content to sleep in the hold.  When I lay in my bunk, I could see “my host’s” family portraits all around me and many small keepsakes from his loved ones at home.

After the terrible events arising from the revolution, including the mass slaughter of other members of the family and the flight into the Ukraine is must have been a relief to find such hospitality on-board a British ship, even though at the time of embarkation they did not know where they were going.

HMS Marlborough

Fortunately the Dowager and Princess Xenia had Anglophile tendencies and had visited Britain (The Dowager was the sister in law of King Edward VII) and we well-disposed to the officers and crew – who reciprocated with a degree of deference only to be expected towards royal guests.  The family had brought with them incalculable riches including rolled-up Rembrandts, jewellery and silver.

A good relationship developed between the officers and their Russian passengers as the Marlborough sailed to Malta, where they finally parted company.  They were impressed by the beauty of the island and were accommodated in a fine house belonging to the British government, San Antonio, Prince Dmitri writing,

The grounds were full of orange tress and we were able to pick and eat the choicest fruit.  The palace was reputed to be haunted not by one but by several ghosts including a phantom grey cat.  Meals were taken together at a long table and our Maltese butler would solemnly announce at the end of each meal “port or marsala” which always amused me.

Life in exile was never to equal that of a Royal family in their home country.  They arrived in London and were greeted by King George and Queen Mary but although the Dowager tried to with her sister Alix at Marlbourough House, the two elderly ladies did not get on and she decided to return to Denmark.  Even there life was difficult at times and her nephew King Christian was “particularly disagreeable”, at one point telling her to turn off lights as she was using too much electricity.

Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich and Grand Duchess Xenia Alexandrovna

Princess Xenia remained in England at the King’s expense but was troublesome to the end, eventually being exiled to Wilderness House at Hampton Court.  The young English Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret were quite taken with their Russian relation, “merrily singing the Volga Boat Song whenever they passed Xenia’s house”.

The research that went into this book is impeccable, and the list of sources is impressive.  Frances Welch evidently found many useful contacts while researching the book and translated documents from French and German.  While the voyage is perhaps a footnote in history, is is always interesting to have small events recreated in this way, revealing as they do many different aspects on greater issues.  I particularly liked the way in which the author followed up the history of the officers and their passengers right up to the 1970s and 80s (Marina died in 1981).

The book is nicely produced by Short Books and contains many photographs which illuminate the text.

As I read this book I couldn’t help but wonder what the late Beryl Bainbridge would have made of this story.  Frances Welch’s book would have provided her with exactly the sort of material she could have used for a hilarious fictional recreation of these events as she did in books like Every Man for Himself (about the Titanic) or Master Georgie (about the Crimean War).


Title: The Russian Court at Sea
Author: Frances Welch
Publication: Short Books (06 January 2011), Hardback 224 pages
ISBN: 9781906021788

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