"They came to court balls dropping pearls and vermin": Macaulay on Peter the Great's Visit to England in 1698

Russia’s reputation as a “backward,” “uncivilized,” “barbaric” place has a pedigree dating back to the sixteenth century. As the historian Irena Gross put it, “[t]his opinion was stated, one might say, not as a judgment but as a fact.” European intellectuals’ negative opinion of Russia owed much to Baron Sigismund von Herberstein, whose Rerum Moscoviticarum Commentarii, first published in 1549, was based on two trips to Muscovy in 1517 and 1526. His Russians were rude, uncultured, ignorant, and superstitious. The Russian government was exploitative, and the people dishonest and so degraded as to prefer slavery over freedom.


The Commentarri heavily influenced the majority of subsequent European “eyewitness” accounts of Russia down to the nineteenth century, many of which simply quoted long sections of it verbatim and without attribution. European travel narratives about Muscovy had developed in to something of a mini-genre already in the seventeenth century, thanks largely to Herberstein and also to Giles Fletcher, an English diplomat who traveled to Russia in the service of Elizabeth I in 1588 and published his influential and equally damning Of the Russe Commonwealth in 1591. By the nineteenth century, Russia’s reputation for religious fanaticism, drunkenness, moral laxity, gluttony, and overall shameless debauchery was indelibly fixed in the European imagination.


So when Peter the Great, Tsar of all the Russias, sailed up the Thames in a small Dutch boat in 1698, he caused something of a stir. Previous to this, Russian tsars were not generally in the habit of leaving Moscow for purposes other than wars or religious pilgrimages. Londoners were fully prepared to find Peter fascinating, dirty, and dangerous, and the young monarch, just shy of his twenty-sixth birthday and standing six feet eight inches tall, did not disappoint them.

Godfrey Kneller painted this portrait of Peter during the latter's visit to England in 1698. Upon his departure, Peter gave the painting to William III as a gift.

Godfrey Kneller painted this portrait of Peter during the latter's visit to England in 1698. Upon his departure, Peter gave the painting to William III as a gift.

I would like to share some selections from a nineteenth-century English account of Peter’s visit, not because I condone its bias or believe it to be the most accurate representation of this event. Instead, I think this story is best read as a cultural artifact—a product of European cultural exceptionalism, built on centuries of misinformation about, and prejudice against, the “Asiatic” countries to the East.

The account is by Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859), a British historian and Whig politician. The following is taken from his History of England, Chapter XXIII.

In the same week in which Whitehall perished [in a great fire], the Londoners were supplied with a new topic of conversation by a royal visit, which, of all royal visits, was the least pompous and ceremonious and yet the most interesting and important. On the 10th of January a vessel from Holland anchored off Greenwich and was welcomed with great respect. Peter the First, Czar of Muscovy, was on board. He took boat with a few attendants and was rowed up the Thames to Norfolk Street, where a house overlooking the river had been prepared for his reception.
His journey is an epoch in the history, not only of his own country but of ours, and of the world. To the polished nations of Western Europe, the empire which he governed had till then been what Bokhara or Siam is to us. That Empire indeed, though less extensive than at present, was the most extensive that had ever obeyed a single chief. The dominions of Alexander and of Trajan were small when compared with the immense area of the Scythian desert. But in the estimation of statesmen that boundless expanse of larch forest and morass, where the snow lay deep during eight months of every year, and where a wretched peasantry could with difficulty defend their hovels against troops of famished wolves, was of less account than the two or three square miles into which were crowded the count ing houses, the warehouses, and the innumerable masts of Amsterdam. […]
The English embassies [to Muscovy] had historians whose narratives may still be read with interest. Those historians described vividly, and sometimes bitterly, the savage ignorance and the squalid poverty of the barbarous country in which they had sojourned. In that country, they said, there was neither literature nor science, neither school nor college. It was not till more than a hundred years after the invention of printing that a single printing press had been introduced into the Russian empire; and that printing press had speedily perished in a fire which was supposed to have been kindled by the priests. Even in the seventeenth century the library of a prelate of the first dignity consisted of a few manuscripts. Those manuscripts too were in long rolls: for the art of book binding was unknown. The best educated men could barely read and write. It was much if the secretary to whom was entrusted the direction of negotiations with foreign powers had a sufficient smattering of Dog Latin to make himself understood. The arithmetic was the arithmetic of the dark ages. The denary notation was unknown. Even in the Imperial Treasury the computations were made by the help of balls strung on wires. Round the person of the Sovereign there was a blaze of gold and jewels: but even in his most splendid palaces were to be found the filth and misery of an Irish cabin. So late as the year 1663 the gentlemen of the retinue of the Earl of Carlisle were, in the city of Moscow, thrust into a single bedroom, and were told that, if they did not remain together, they would be in danger of being devoured by rats.
Such was the report which the English legations made of what they had seen and suffered in Russia; and their evidence was confirmed by the appearance which the Russian legations made in England. The strangers spoke no civilised language. Their garb, their gestures, their salutations, had a wild and barbarous character. The ambassador and the grandees who accompanied him were so gorgeous that all London crowded to stare at them, and so filthy that nobody dared to touch them. They came to the court balls dropping pearls and vermin. It was said that one envoy cudgelled the lords of his train whenever they soiled or lost any part of their finery, and that another had with difficulty been prevented from putting his son to death for the crime of shaving and dressing after the French fashion.
Our ancestors therefore were not a little surprised to learn that a young barbarian [Peter], who had, at seventeen years of age, become the autocrat of the immense region stretching from the confines of Sweden to those of China, and whose education had been inferior to that of an English farmer or shopman, had planned gigantic improvements, had learned enough of some languages of Western Europe to enable him to communicate with civilised men, had begun to surround himself with able adventurers from various parts of the world, had sent many of his young subjects to study languages, arts and sciences in foreign cities, and finally had determined to travel as a private man, and to discover, by personal observation, the secret of the immense prosperity and power enjoyed by some communities whose whole territory was far less than the hundredth part of his dominions. […]
Such was the prince whom the populace of London now crowded to behold. His stately form, his intellectual forehead, his piercing black eyes, his Tartar nose and mouth, his gracious smile, his frown black with all the stormy rage and hate of a barbarian tyrant, and above all a strange nervous convulsion which sometimes transformed his countenance, during a few moments, into an object on which it was impossible to look without terror, the immense quantities of meat which he devoured, the pints of brandy which he swallowed, and which, it was said, he had carefully distilled with his own hands, the fool who jabbered at his feet, the monkey which grinned at the back of his chair, were, during some weeks, popular topics of conversation. He meanwhile shunned the public gaze with a haughty shyness which inflamed curiosity. He went to a play; but as soon as he perceived that pit, boxes and gallery were staring, not at the stage, but at him, he retired to a back bench where he was screened from observation by his attendants. He was desirous to see a sitting of the House of Lords; but, as he was determined not to be seen, he was forced to climb up to the leads, and to peep through a small window. He heard with great interest the royal assent given to a bill for raising fifteen hundred thousand pounds by land tax, and learned with amazement that this sum, though larger by one half than the whole revenue which he could wring from the population of the immense empire of which he was absolute master, was but a small part of what the Commons of England voluntarily granted every year to their constitutional King.
William [William III of Orange] judiciously humoured the whims of his illustrious guest, and stole to Norfolk Street so quietly that nobody in the neighbourhood recognised His Majesty in the thin gentleman who got out of the modest looking coach at the Czar’s lodgings. The Czar returned the visit with the same precautions, and was admitted into Kensington House by a back door. It was afterwards known that he took no notice of the fine pictures with which the palace was adorned. But over the chimney of the royal sitting room was a plate which, by an ingenious machinery, indicated the direction of the wind; and with this plate he was in raptures.
He soon became weary of his residence. He found that he was too far from the objects of his curiosity, and too near to the crowds to which he was himself an object of curiosity. He accordingly removed to Deptford, and was there lodged in the house of John Evelyn, a house which had long been a favourite resort of men of letters, men of taste and men of science. Here Peter gave himself up to his favourite pursuits. He navigated a yacht every day up and down the river. His apartment was crowded with models of three deckers and two deckers, frigates, sloops and fireships. The only Englishman of rank in whose society he seemed to take much pleasure was the eccentric Caermarthen, whose passion for the sea bore some resemblance to his own, and who was very competent to give an opinion about every part of a ship from the stem to the stern. Caermarthen, indeed, became so great a favourite that he prevailed on the Czar to consent to the admission of a limited quantity of tobacco into Russia. There was reason to apprehend that the Russian clergy would cry out against any relaxation of the ancient rule, and would strenuously maintain that the practice of smoking was condemned by that text which declares that man is denied, not by those things which enter in at the mouth, but by those things which proceed out of it. This apprehension was expressed by a deputation of merchants who were admitted to an audience of the Czar: but they were reassured by the air with which he told them that he knew how to keep priests in order.
He was indeed so free from any bigoted attachment to the religion in which he had been brought up that both Papists and Protestants hoped at different times to make him a proselyte. Burnet [Gilbert Burnet, Bishop of Salisbury], commissioned by his brethren, and impelled, no doubt, by his own restless curiosity and love of meddling, repaired to Deptford and was honoured with several audiences. The Czar could not be persuaded to exhibit himself at Saint Paul’s; but he was induced to visit Lambeth palace. There he saw the ceremony of ordination performed, and expressed warm approbation of the Anglican ritual. Nothing in England astonished him so much as the Archiepiscopal library. It was the first good collection of books that he had seen; and he declared that he had never imagined that there were so many printed volumes in the world.
[…] With all the high qualities which were peculiar to himself, he had all the filthy habits which were then common among his countrymen. To the end of his life, while disciplining armies, founding schools, framing codes, organising tribunals, building cities in deserts, joining distant seas by artificial rivers, he lived in his palace like a hog in a sty; and, when he was entertained by other sovereigns, never failed to leave on their tapestried walls and velvet state beds unequivocal proof that a savage had been there. Evelyn's house was left in such a state that the Treasury quieted his complaints with a considerable sum of money.
Towards the close of March the Czar visited Portsmouth, saw a sham sea-fight at Spithead, watched every movement of the contending fleets with intense interest, and expressed in warm terms his gratitude to the hospitable government which had provided so delightful a spectacle for his amusement and instruction. After passing more than three months in England, he departed in high good humour.