Hertfordshire, royalty and the Russian Revolution

PUBLISHED: 16:44 06 November 2017 | UPDATED: 17:06 06 November 2017

Anastasia and Michael and friend ready for the ballet at Knebworth House

Anastasia and Michael and friend ready for the ballet at Knebworth House

Knebworth House Archive

War, revolution, love, diamonds, theft and tragedy – Hertfordshire’s links to the Russian revolution have it all. To mark 100 years this month since the socialist uprising, Martin Elvery investigates the intriguing connections

The leafy lanes and peaceful towns of Hertfordshire must have seemed a million miles from the seismic waves of revolution that shook the vast empire of Russia a century ago this month. Yet there are fascinating connections between the county and the events that transformed Imperial Russia into the Soviet Union.


Prior to the uprising, Russia was a strict autocracy ruled by Tsars, who, since the early 17th century, had been members of the Romanov family. It was a regime known for its huge contrast between fabulously rich aristocrats living in palaces packed with art and peasants or serfs working on the estates of the great lords in conditions not much better than slavery.

By the beginning of the 20th century there was a burgeoning working class in cities, including Moscow and the capital Petrograd (St Petersburg), working in the grim but growing factories, and a university educated intelligentsia brimming with ideas about how the Tsarist regime could be reformed, or overthrown. The revolution of 1905 led to the creation of a national assembly, the State Duma, but the compromise satisfied neither Tsar nor reformers.

In March of 1917 (February under the Julian calendar used in Russia at the time), Russian troops were pursuing the continued punishing fight against the Central Powers on the Eastern Front of the First World War. The conflict was going badly for Russia, with heavy defeats on the front and great hardship in the country due to food shortages and inflation. The mood was increasingly turning against the war and its military commander, the Tsar.

It took the spark of street protest to undo 300 years of Romanov rule in days. Thousands of women marched in Petrograd on National Women’s Day protesting against bread shortages. They were joined the following day by workers and students carrying placards stating ‘Down with the Tsar’. When Nicholas II ordered the military to put down the disorder, troops mutinied and joined the protestors. Riots ensued across the capital targeting the regime. Within 10 days the Duma had persuaded Nicholas II to abdicate.

Grand Duke Michael (with camera) and friends in the snowy grounds of Knebworth HouseGrand Duke Michael (with camera) and friends in the snowy grounds of Knebworth House

An interim provisional government was formed, in reality sharing power with the radical Petrograd Soviet – a council elected by workers and soldiers. Voting to continue Russia’s role in the war, these new powers were opposed by a small socialist clique, the Bolsheviks. Led by Vladimir Illyich Ulyanov, also known as Lenin. the group called for a peace treaty with Germany, the redistribution of land from the rich to peasants, and the transfer of power from the bourgeois government to the new people’s soviets. It’s slogan was Bread! Peace! Land! By October 25, after mass defections from the front, worker strikes and conflict between the Bolshevik red guards and the military, the Bolsheviks had gathered mass support and seized power by force in the capital, overthrowing the government.

The Bolsheviks clung to power through the turmoil of a hugely bloody civil war against counter-revolutionaries that followed the coup, and forged the world’s first Communist government and a social, agricultural and industrial revolution. The old order was swept away, including the assassination of the former Tsar and his family, including his youngest brother, Michael.

Grand Duke Michael & Hertfordshire

Just four years before his murder, Michael was living in another world with his family in the tranquility and social order of a stately home in Hertfordshire – albeit in exile from his homeland and at the heart of a royal scandal.

In 1913, Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich took a lease on Knebworth House and moved in with his new wife, Natasha. She had divorced her musician husband to marry a cavalry officer before falling for one of his friends – Michael. The duke tried to buy off his love rival with money and a government position, but in a move that shocked society, the jilted husband challenged Michael to a duel. Nicholas sent his brother away from court in order to suppress the scandal. In 1912, two years after Natasha gave birth to their son, Michael shocked the Russian court by marrying her. Nicholas reacted with fury, confiscating the duke’s estates, banning him from the line of succession and exiling him from Russia.

Michael and Natasha left for Europe, first Denmark, then France, Switzerland and finally England where his cousin George V had recently come to the throne. The couple spent a year at Knebworth, living in a style to which they would have been accustomed in Imperial Russia. The lease included stable lads and housemaids, a gardener, cooks, a butler and 14 footmen in powdered wigs and knee breeches. Natasha later said the family’s time in Hertfordshire was the happiest of her life.

Natasha's daughter, Tata, from her first marriage playing with George in the gardens at Knebworth (Knebworth House Archive)Natasha's daughter, Tata, from her first marriage playing with George in the gardens at Knebworth (Knebworth House Archive)

The couple hosted the stars of the Russian ballet and the opera – who were on tour in London at the time – in the stately home’s drawing rooms, libraries and picture galleries. Letters show that the couple’s children, Tata aged 10 (from Natasha’s previous marriage) and George, three, loved life at the house and enjoyed playing and riding ponies in the gardens. Photographs taken at the time show the family gathered happily together.

Current Knebworth custodian Henry Cobbold says the story of Michael and Natasha is one of the great doomed love stories of the 20th century.

‘Knebworth House was the setting for its one happy spell,’ he explains. ‘An idyllic honeymoon year in the English countryside away from the disapproval and troubles of the Russian Court.

‘To think that Diaghilev and the stars of the Ballet Russe would pop up from London for the weekend. What an extraordinary time! It makes me think of the 1980s film The Shooting Party, which was all shot at Knebworth House and represents that exact same period, although, as is often the case with Knebworth House, the truth is much more extraordinary than the fiction.’

The family’s happiness was to be shortlived. When the First World War broke out in 1914, Michael decided he must serve his homeland and begged his brother to let him return. Nicholas relented and Michael took command of a cavalry regiment on the notoriously bloody Eastern Front.

When Nicholas was forced to abdicate in 1917, Michael was next in line, but his position was never ratified. He was imprisoned and later murdered, aged 39, by the Bolsheviks in Perm in eastern Russia in June 1918 – the first of the Romanovs to be killed. His wife had pleaded with Lenin for his release.

Michael’s child and wife also had tragic ends. George, driving to the south of France, died in a car crash. Natasha lived out her years in obscurity and died in a Parisian charity hospital, aged 71, in 1952.

Natasha (holding dog) and friend at Knebworth (Knebworth House Archive)Natasha (holding dog) and friend at Knebworth (Knebworth House Archive)

Lady Zia & Luton Hoo

It was another love scandal surrounding a Russian aristocrat that began Hertfordshire’s other strong link to the Russian royal family.

Another Grand Duke Michael, this time a grandson of Tsar Nicholas I, began his career by following the traditional route demanded of him as a Russian aristocrat by serving in the military and the government. However in 1891, passion got the better of him and he eloped with Countess Sophie von Merenberg – a daughter of Prince Nicholas William of Nassau and a granddaughter of the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin. Their union was a scandal – Sophie was of much lower social status than her husband and was not allowed to inherit his titles.

Because of the scandal, the couple were banished from Russia by Tsar Alexander III (Nicholas and Michael’s father) and lived in various parts of Europe before relocating to Kenwood House in London.

Their daughter Countess Anastasia Mikhailovna de Torby, later styled Lady Zia, married into the wealthy Wernher family who owned the lavish mansion Luton Hoo (now a hotel, spa and golf course) on the Hertfordshire-Bedfordshire border. Her husband, British Major General Sir Harold Wernher, had distinguished himself on the Western Front in the First World War and had inherited part of the wealth of his father, Sir Julius Wernher, who had built a huge fortune in the South African diamond trade.

The marriage in July 1917 caused a stir in English society newspapers, one of which proclaimed Zia a ‘vivacious beauty, a favourite of society and an able horsewoman descended from Catherine the Great and Genghis Khan’.

Manor Farm in Wallington sparked the idea for Orwell's novel on revolution and powerManor Farm in Wallington sparked the idea for Orwell's novel on revolution and power

The marriage was attended by Lady Zia’s relative George V and Queen Mary (a frequent visitor to Luton Hoo) at the Russian Embassy and the Chapel Royal in St James’ Palace.

The couple lived a splendid lifestyle at the opulently appointed Luton Hoo. Letters show they attended at least one high society party every weekend.

Zia built on the huge collection of paintings, jewellery, porcelain, silverware, furniture, woodcarving and tapestries amassed by her father-in-law. She had a Russian orthodox chapel built at the house - now the Romanov Room used for blessings and events - and brought a fabulously rich collection of Russian treasures to her home, including around 300 pieces fashioned by Russian court jeweller Faberge.

The Queen and Prince Philip spent two nights of their honeymoon in November 1947 at Luton Hoo, returning each anniversary until the 1970s when Sir Harold died.

But this story too has a tragic end. On Lady Zia’s death in 1973, Luton Hoo and its fabulous art treasures passed to the couple’s eldest grandson Nicholas Phillips. But saddled with increasing debts, he committed suicide in 1991. The house was then sold off.

Three years later and now a hotel, Luton Hoo was raided by thieves who stole hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of Russian artefacts from Lady Zia’s collection. Other items were sold off at auction in 2000, making more than £20m.

Most of the remaining Luton Hoo collection is now on display at Ranger’s House in London.

Animal Farm

In spring 1936, George Orwell, the not-yet-famous author of Animal Farm – the classic indictment of the corruption of Russian revolutionary ideals – bought a cottage in the village of Wallington near Baldock. Tired of London, he wanted a rural setting where he could relax and write.

Situated in Kits Lane, The Stores was an ancient, four room building whose corrugated-iron roof offered noisy interruptions when it rained heavily. The house had a large, overgrown garden where Orwell kept chickens and goats and planted fruit trees and a sixpenny Woolworths rose. There was no electricity or hot water and only an outside loo.

He married Eileen at St Mary’s in the village in June 1936.

He would cycle around the countryside and past nearby Manor Farm. Orwell said the idea for the book’s farmyard characters came from spotting a boy whipping a carthorse at the farm. ‘It struck me that if such animals became aware of their strength we should have no power over them and that men exploit animals in much the same way as the rich exploit the proletariat.’

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