Peter the Great

In 1697, Peter the Great of Russia travelled to England to learn about shipbuilding and navigation in order to establish the first Russian Navy.

Tsar Peter I of Russia (1672–1725), better known as Peter the Great, created the Russian Navy. As a young man, he travelled to Europe in 1697–98 to study new developments in technology, especially shipbuilding. King William III of England welcomed the opportunity to increase trade with Russia, so gave Peter all the assistance he could.  

What was Peter’s background?

Born on 30 May 1672, Peter was the son of Tsar Alexis I, and the first son from his second marriage. In 1682, ten-year-old Peter became joint tsar with his half-brother Ivan and in 1696 began to rule alone. From childhood, Peter was interested in warfare and practical activities such as carpentry, and sailing and building ships.

What was Russia like when Peter became tsar?

Russia was a huge landlocked country, much less developed than others in Europe. At war with either Turkey or Sweden for most of his reign, Peter took a particular interest in ships and arms. He wanted Russia to be able to compete with European rivals. During his trip to western Europe, he looked for ideas from countries like Holland and England, which already had strong navies.

What did Peter hope to learn in Europe?

Peter was the first tsar to leave Russia for more than 100 years. He hoped to investigate and learn about all types of technology and science, especially the latest on shipbuilding and navigation. He also wanted to study the way fleets were organised, and recruit specialists to travel home with him to help build a Russian navy.

Why was King William III of England happy to help Peter?

William wanted to increase trade with Russia, which had plenty of pitch, potash, tallow, leather, grain and furs to trade. Also, by travelling through Russia, European merchants hoped to join in the lucrative eastern luxury trade in silk and spices.

What did Peter do while in England?

In 1698 he stayed at a house in Deptford belonging to the writer and diarist, John Evelyn. The house suited Peter because it was close to the dockyards, where he could easily visit ships being built. He was especially keen to study the drawing of ship plans.

King William III also gave Peter a ship, Royal Transport, as a gift. Used to carry important passengers to Holland and back, it was one of the king's most modern ships, with an experimental design and rig. The ship was altered and refitted for Peter, and given extra golden carved decorations.

Peter was also given free access to all naval and military bases, including the arsenal and gun foundry at Woolwich. He was also invited to review the naval fleet at Portsmouth.

Peter was interested in astronomy because of its link with navigation, so he visited the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, observing Venus with the first Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed. He also visited the Royal Society and the Tower of London to view the Royal Mint.

Was Peter's visit a success?

Yes. When he returned to Russia, a large shipbuilding programme was established. In 1703, a fleet was founded in the Baltic Sea, and by the end of Peter's reign 28,000 men were serving there, on 49 ships and 800 smaller vessels. In the early years of the fleet, many Britons built, maintained and served in these Russian ships.

Before Peter became tsar, Russia had no navy at all. After his reign, Russian industry and armed forces were completely reorganised, and the country became a successful naval power.

Discover more about the Royal Naval Dockyards at Woolwich and Deptford