William Cavendish's exploits in Russia, 1826

Pray give my love to Gran[,] Fanny[,] Aunt Mary[,] George[,] and Richard’, ‘Y[ou]r most affectionate William Cavendish’, a standard signature line written by an 18 year old William Cavendish (later 7th Duke of Devonshire) writing home to his mother while staying in Russia with William Cavendish, 6th Duke of Devonshire, who was attending the coronation of Tsar Nicolas I as Ambassador Extraordinary on behalf of George IV.

William Cavendish's sketchbook with drawings from his trip to Russia

Many of William’s letters to his mother show his affection for his family but a dislike of being in Russia. Despite Russia not making a great impression on the 18 year old William Cavendish, he did appreciate some of the architecture and gardens of the country, recording his drawings in a sketchbook, however he could not seem to find anything that overly impressed him, describing the Emperor’s palace of Peterof [often described as the Russian Versailles] as ‘extremely pretty’ with ’some fine large rooms but nothing very extraordinary’. The young William was also non to fussed with the fountains at Peterof, commenting that it had ‘beautiful waterworks’ but ‘none of the fountains go as high as those at Chatsworth’. Although less than impressed with the buildings he saw, the hard to please young man did seem impressed at his first meeting with the Emperor, telling his mother that ‘He is very tall & extremely handsome.’

Extract of a letter showing William Cavendish's opinion of Peterhof

Following the death of Elizabeth Alexeievna, Empress of Russia, the Coronation was delayed for over four months, a ‘very tiresome’ eventuality for William Cavendish, but when it finally took place William appears overawed by the celebrations and describes the scenes in great detail: ‘In the evening there were beautiful illuminations; the whole Kremlin was covered with light one end to the other, all the towers & chambers in it looked like a [mass] of fire; Ivan’s Tower looked beautiful it was covered with red lamps […] It was quite like what one reads of in the Arabian nights.’ By the end of the trip, William was eager to get back to England and start his first term at the University of Cambridge and appears frustrated at the Duke. The Duke himself realised this and passes on his own message to Louisa, William writes: ‘he [the Duke] is conscious that if my education is [ruined] & if I become a dunce it will be solely and entirely his fault’. Fortunately for the 6th Duke, further letters sent to William Cavendish’s mother reveal William’s overwhelming success at Cambridge!

Extract of letter showing gifts presented to the Duke

As well as relating his personal thoughts about Russia and the Coronation the letters can also be used to find out more about the collections held at Chatsworth, William recounts that ‘The Duke has had several presents here; a snuff box with the Emperor’s picture on it […] several things made of Siberian jasper from the Emperor & a small bronze model of the famous statue of Peter the Great from the Empress’s Mother’. This description of the gifts received by the 6th Duke can help the Collections team understand and attribute provenance to items held within the Devonshire collection today and further emphasises the importance of cataloguing these letters and other personal papers in the Chatsworth archive.

Equestrian portrait of Peter the Great given to the 6th Duke by the Empress's mother - look out for this on the Oak stairs

Louise Clarke
Cataloguing Archivist

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