inner at Windsor Castle hosted by Her Majesty Queen Victoria in honour of a visit by His Imperial Majesty Tsar Alexander II of Russia.
In their youth they had briefly flirted with each other. Victoria was a young 20-year-old fledgling Queen while the 21-year-old heir to the Russian throne, Grand Duke Alexander, was still a good decade-and-a-half away from being the Emperor and Autocrat of all Russia.
In 1839 these two young romantics had danced away until 2am at a Windsor Castle Ball. “I really am quite in love with the Grand Duke; he is a dear, delightful young man”, a smitten Queen Victoria wrote in her journal before dreamingly recounting how they danced the Mazurka at midnight:
“The Grand Duke is so very strong, that in running round, you must follow quickly and after that you are whisked round like in a Valse, which is very pleasant… I never enjoyed myself more. We were all so merry; I got to bed by a ¼ to 3 but could not sleep till 5.”
It seems the strapping Grand Duke was likewise besotted and when news reached his spoilsport father, Tsar Nicholas I, Alexander was immediately summonsed home. But not before leaving the young Queen Victoria his little dog, Kazbek, as a farewell gift.
The two would not meet again for another 35 years, until May 1874, when Queen Victoria again hosted Alexander at Windsor Castle.
He was now Tsar Alexander II of Russia, married, and the father of ten children (including two “illegitimate”). Queen Victoria was now a widowed mother of nine.
Since the couple last met, relations between Britain and Russia had taken a nosedive when the two Empires pitted their troops against each other in the Crimean War (1853-1856). That bloody episode was about to make for awkward and uncomfortable conversation at the dinner table on this night, as Queen Victoria would soon find out.
Improvements in Anglo-Russian relations were afoot. While fate didn’t make a couple out of Victoria and Alexander, it did make a couple out of their respective son and daughter.
Four months before this dinner, Queen Victoria’s second son, the Duke of Edinburgh Prince Alfred, travelled to Saint Petersburg to marry Alexander II’s only surviving daughter, Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna. The newlyweds subsequently set up home at Clarence House in London, but the Grand Duchess was missing her imperial family.
To help his homesick daughter, Alexander II arrived in Britain on 13th May, the day before this dinner. It was officially billed a ‘family visit’, as much as a visiting Emperor can ever carry-off such a low-key sojourn, especially when a State Banquet at Windsor Castle is officially prepared.
Accompanied by his son Grand Duke Alexis, the Tsar arrived at Dover aboard the paddle-steamed imperial yacht, the Derzhava, that counted amongst its permanent crew 65 musicians and 15 choristers.
As the yacht docked and awaited the arrival of a gangway, The Times reported how the “Emperor leant over the rail and spoke to the Grand Duchess. His eyes were full of tears, and his tender affection, not in the least concealed and shown in a manner truly noble and dignified with all its eager earnestness, was touching”.
At Windsor Castle the following night, for which this is the menu, Queen Victoria “began to dress for dinner a little after 7” according to her journal. “I wore diamonds on my dress and my coronet of diamonds with my veil”.
In the Throne Room, recounted Queen Victoria, “we found the Emperor in his fine red uniform of the Chevaliers Gardes, which his father had also worn. Then we went into the Reception Room, and straight through to dinner in St. George’s Hall, the Emperor leading me in. Marie [Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna] again sat next to her father”.
This dinner was grandly depicted in publications at the time including two full-page illustrations in The Graphic capturing the magnificently decked tables; and the Queen’s bagpipers regaling the Russian Emperor as he paused midway through an entrée. The Band of the Coldstream Guards, who “played very well” according to the Queen, entertained with an appropriate mix of “Merry Wives of Windsor”, the “March of the Russian Guards”, and Ginka’s overture from “La vie pour le Czar”.
And what a banquet: quintessentially Victorian, of course. Servings of turtle and sherry soup, partridge croquettes in orange sauce, turbot in lobster sauce, and boned quails stuffed with foie-gras were served with clockwork precision and sideboards grandly displayed entire haunches of roast venison, beef and mutton.
For dessert, alongside caramel glazed choux-pastries, were the distinctly Germanic’ Gugelhupf: ringed raisin cakes closely resembling Bundt cakes, that were smothered in apricot sauce; and were likely introduced to the royal household by Queen Victoria’s late German-born husband, Prince Albert.
But for all the glittering grandness of the Saint George’s Hall - a sea of bright immaculate uniforms, the finest ballgowns, diamonds and sapphires, gold cutlery, and polished swords all mixed with magnificently plated foods and music - it seems the Tsar's mood flicked between nostalgic and grizzly; and at times tearfully melancholy.
The Queen and Emperor conversed in French and started out recounting their joyful encounter 35 years earlier.
“The Emperor talked a good deal of old times, recalling the circumstances of his former visit, remembering the rooms and the people, of whom so many are gone, or sadly changed”, Queen Victoria recalled, “but how after ten years “tout a malheureusement changé” [unfortunately everything changed] and the [Crimean] war took place."
And when discussion turned from war to his beloved daughter that now called London home, Queen Victoria recounted in her journal how the Tsar “spoke with tears in his eyes, so as to be almost unable to speak, of Marie, saying:
“Je vous remercie encore une fois pour toutes vos bontés pour ma fille; je vous la recommande: j’espère qu’elle s’en rendra toujours digne.” [I thank you once again for all your kindness for my daughter; I recommend her to you: I hope she will always make herself worthy of it]. And I put my hand out across the Emperor and took Marie’s, she herself being nearly upset”.
Potage au Printanier
Chicken consommé flavoured with finely diced and
sautéed spring vegetables
Potage a la Tortue
Turtle soup flavoured with sherry and garnished with quenelles shaped as turtle eggs
Les Turbots, sauce Homard
Turbot dressed in lobster sauce (made from the puréed lobster meat; and lobster eggs (coral) that have first been cooked in white wine and court-bouillon
Les Filets de Merlans frits
Fried battered whiting served with lemon and butter
Les Croquettes à la D’Artois
Croquettes made from Partridge meat and dressed with an orange sauce
Les Escalopes de Ris de Veau panées
Escalopes of crumbed calf sweetmeats
Les Filets de Canetons, pointes d’Asperges
Duck filets with sautéed asparagus tips
Les Poulets a la Financière
Sautéed suprêmes of chicken (wing and breast joined) served atop puff-pastry croustades that have been dressed in a Financière sauce made from mushrooms, truffles and Madeira; and garnished with poached cockscombs and chicken quenelles bound in a Madeira sauce also made from mushrooms and shredded truffles.
Roast quails stuffed with foie gras and larded with bacon fat
Les Poulardes au Cresson
Poulardes (spayed young hens) dressed with a watercress sauce
Les petits Pois à l’Anglaise
Baby peas tossed in butter and chopped parsley
Les Couglauffes aux Raisins, sauce Abricot
Gugelhupf flavoured with raisins and served with an apricot sauce
Les Gelées de Marasquin, aux Fraises
Maraschino jellies with Strawberries
Les Choux à la Crême, au Caramel
Cream puffs made from choux pastry, glazed in caramel
Roast Beef - Roast Mutton - Roast Venison
Front page news: The Graphic depicted the bagpipers behind the banquet table in St George's Hall, Windsor Castle, at this dinner in 1874. Tsar Alexander II sits between Queen Victoria and his daughter the Duchess of Edinburgh (Grand Duchess of Russia).
Visiting Windsor Castle in 1874: Tsar Alexander II (seated) with (l-r) Grand Duke Alexis (son); Duchess of Edinburgh (daughter and Grand Duchess of Russia); and the Duke of Edinburgh (son-in-law).
(Photo: Royal Collection Trust / © His Majesty King Charles III, 2022)
Dinner in St George's Hall, Windsor Castle, for Tsar Alexander II of Russia.
14th May 1874
(As depicted in The Graphic, published 23rd May 1874)
Following is a transcript from Queen Victoria's personal journal for 14th May 1874 on the night she hosted Tsar Alexander II to dinner at Windsor Castle. [Brackets] have been added by the author of this webpage:
14th May 1874
“Began to dress for dinner a little after 7. My three daughters went over at half past 7 to receive the Order of St. Catherine from the Emperor, and after a short time I followed with Alix [Princess of Wales and future Queen Alexandra], Marie [Duchess of Edinburgh and Grand Duchess of Russia], the Princes, including George C. [Duke of Cambridge], Edward S. Weimar [Prince Edward of Saxe Weimar], and Franz Teck [Duke of Teck], etc.
I wore diamonds on my dress and my coronet of diamonds with my veil. All the Princesses were very smart, Beatrice (Princess Beatrice of Battenberg] in pink, Marie in her Drawing-room dress, with her beautiful sapphires. They all wore the Russian Order.
We went into the Throne Room, where we found the Emperor in his fine red uniform of the Chevaliers Gardes, which his father had also worn. Then we went into the Reception Room, and straight through to dinner in St. George’s Hall, the Emperor leading me in. Marie [Duchess of Edinburgh and Grand Duchess of Russia] again sat next to her father [Tsar Alexander II]. Everything was arranged like last time and in full state. The band of the Coldstreams played very well.
The Emperor talked a good deal of old times, recalling the circumstances of his former visit, remembering the rooms and the people, of whom so many are gone, or sadly changed. He recalled his father’s visit, how he had liked it, and how attached he had been to England, but how after ten years “tout a malheureusement changé” [unfortunately everything changed] and the war [Crimean War] took place.
“Vous avez été mal servi, mais celui n’est plus qui l’a fait,” [you have been badly served, but he who did it is here no longer] meaning Lord Palmerston [Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during much of the Crimean War], which no doubt is true, and I said there had certainly been misunderstandings, which I much regretted. “ II le savait,” [He knew it] meaning his father; and I added that I had had a great affection for the Emperor. “Oh! il le savait,” [Oh! He knew it] he again replied, and continued that he did not see any reason why our two countries should not be on the best terms, and that if he saw any difficulties, “si vous me le permettez, je vous écrirai directement,” [If you allow me, I will write to you directly] which I quite acquiesced in.
Then he spoke with tears in his eyes, so as to be almost unable to speak, of Marie [Duchess of Edinburgh and Grand Duchess of Russia], saying: “Je vous remercie encore une fois pour toutes vos bontés pour ma fille; je vous la recommande: j’espère qu’elle s’en rendra toujours digne.” [I thank you once again for all your kindness for my daughter; I recommend her to you: I hope she will always make herself worthy of it]. And I put my hand out across the Emperor and took Marie’s, she herself being nearly upset.”
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