Peter the Great, reigned 1682-1725

Peter the GreatPetrus I (Peter the Great) by Le Roy [artist] and Jo Frid Bause [engraver], 1786. Repro ID: PAF3322 ©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

Tsar Peter I of Russia is more usually described as 'Peter the Great'. As a young man, he travelled to Europe in 1697–98 to study new developments in technology, especially shipbuilding. He lived in Deptford, at the home of the writer John Evelyn, for much of his four-month stay in England.

Although officially meant to be travelling incognito, most people seemed to know Peter's identity. At a height of six feet seven, it would have been hard for him to blend into a crowd!

How did Peter inherit the throne of Russia?

Born on May 30 1672, Peter was named Peter Alexowitz, meaning 'Peter the son of Alexis'. His father, Tsar Alexis, had married twice, and Peter was the first child of his second marriage. There were already six daughters and two rather unhealthy sons, named Feodor and Ivan, from the first marriage. When Alexis died very suddenly in 1676, Feodor ruled until his own death in 1682, when the ten year-old Peter became tsar jointly with his half-brother Ivan. At first Peter's older half-sister Sophia held power as regent, but in 1696 he began to rule alone.

What were Peter's interests?

From childhood, he liked to invent complicated games involving pretend warfare. In 1683, on his eleventh birthday, he was allowed to have some real guns, and found various young men and boys to come and make up mock regiments with him. Some years later, 24 people were killed during one of his 'play' battles! Peter was also interested in practical activities such as carpentry, and sailing and building ships. In his first years as tsar, he was not very interested in government and stayed away from Moscow, the capital city of Russia.

What was Russia like at the time when Peter became tsar?

Russia was a huge landlocked country, much less developed than other countries 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 countries in war and technology. During his trip to western Europe, he looked for ideas from countries like Holland and England, which already had strong navies.

Why was Peter's journey to Europe considered unusual?

Though there had been contact with western Europe for more than 100 years, no other tsar had left Russia in peace-time before.

What did he hope to learn?

He hoped to investigate and learn about all types of technology and science, especially the latest techniques of shipbuilding and seamanship, particularly navigation. He also wanted to study the way navies were organised, and recruit specialists to travel home with him. If they advised and trained others, Russia too could have a strong navy.

Why was William III, the king of England, happy to help Peter?

William welcomed the opportunity to increase trade with Russia, so gave Peter every assistance he could. By impressing the Tsar, he hoped to win back some of the privileges English merchants had enjoyed in earlier times. The King was especially keen to sell tobacco, grown in the British colony of Virginia, to Russia. During Peter's stay in England, a group of London merchants and financiers gave him thousands of pounds for the right to import tobacco into Russia.

What raw materials could Russia trade with other countries?

Russia had plenty of pitch, potash, tallow, leather, grain and furs. By travelling through Russia, European merchants also hoped to be able to join in the lucrative eastern luxury trade in silk and spices.

Which countries did Peter visit when he came to western Europe?

Review of Dutch Yachts before Peter the GreatReview of Dutch Yachts before Peter the Great by Abraham Storck, 1697. Repro ID: BHC0926 ©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, LondonHe passed through the German states before visiting Holland, where in 1697 he worked for a time as a carpenter. In 1698 he travelled to England and stayed at a house in Deptford belonging to the writer and diarist, John Evelyn. The house, Sayes Court, suited Peter well because it removed him from crowded London. Large and beautifully furnished, it was close to the dockyards, where Peter could easily visit ships being built. He was especially keen to study the drawing of ship plans.

Were Peter and his companions good tenants?

No! During their stay they caused a great deal of damage, and Evelyn was extremely unhappy. His estate steward reported that Peter's party, which was full of 'right nasty' people, had wrecked the house and garden. Carpets were left filthy with grease and ink, and many paintings looked as if they had been used for shooting targets. Locks and windows were broken, and every one of the 50 chairs in the house had vanished, probably burned on fires!

A very keen gardener, Evelyn was appalled by damage to his prized holly hedges, lovingly cared for over a 20 year period. Apparently Peter and his friends had played a riotous game which involved pushing each other through the hedges in wheelbarrows! The King's Surveyor, Sir Christopher Wren was ordered to report on the damage, and recommended that Evelyn be paid £350 in compensation, a huge sum in the 17th century.

What other places did Peter visit?

Peter was interested in astronomy because of its link with navigation, so visited the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, observing Venus with the first Astronomer Royal, Flamsteed. Here too, the Tsar and his group broke several items!

Fascinated by all things scientific, Peter also visited the Royal Society. He was interested in coinage too, so visited the Tower of London to view the Royal Mint. While at the Tower, Peter was not shown the axe used to behead King Charles I, as it was feared he might throw it into the river! Peter remembered how angry the execution had made his father. Peter visited many other places during his stay, including a Friends' Meeting House in Deptford, where he discussed religion with the Quaker William Penn on several occasions.

How did King William help Peter?

Peter the Great: sailing orders (in Russian)Peter the Great: sailing orders (in Russian), 21 Jun 1719. Repro ID: F9464-001 ©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, LondonHe ordered the Admiralty to allow Peter the use of several small yachts. More importantly, he also presented Peter with the 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, and given extra golden carved decorations to suit Peter better. Peter discovered that the ship's designer, Peregrine Osborne, Marquis of Carmarthen, enjoyed drinking as heavily as he did himself, and the two became good friends.

The first captain of the Royal Transport was William Ripley, who had previously been accused of treating sailors in his crew brutally. This did not worry Peter, and Ripley joined his service, sailing the Royal Transport back to Russia. The King also helped by allowing Peter free access to all naval and military bases, including the arsenal and gun foundry at Woolwich. Additionally, Peter was invited to review the naval fleet at Portsmouth and the King approved the hiring of many men for service in Russia.

How well did Peter look after the boats he used during his visit?

He damaged several of them. He liked to take the helm himself, and while steering, ran into other vessels. In one such collision all the joints of the other ship were shaken, loosening the caulking between the planks. While visiting Woolwich Dockyard, another mishap led to a bill for 15 shillings, this time for anchor-cable cut and lost by Peter. King William himself paid for all the repairs these various incidents created.

Was Peter's visit a success?

Yes. Technology from western Europe proved very important in the development of an efficient Russian navy. Peter learnt a lot from his visits to the Deptford dockyards, where ships for the East India Company were built. When he returned to Russia, a large shipbuilding industry 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 on these Russian ships.

About 60 specialists from England had agreed to travel back with the Tsar after his 'Great Embassy'. These included master shipbuilders and assistants, mast-makers, riggers, joiners, anchor-makers, captains, pilots, gunners and engineers. Many of them found it difficult to get permission to return home once they were in Russia!

Over the next 100 years, Britain continued to provide many high-ranking officers for the Russian navy. Sailors from Russia also trained on British ships in both the Royal and Merchant Navies. Peter's innovations paved the way for further developments during the reign of Catherine the Great, his grandson's wife. 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.

How did Peter the Great die?

In November 1724 he leapt into freezing water and worked throughout the night, to assist in the rescue of 20 sailors whose ship had been grounded. The resulting fever helped lead to his death early in 1725.

Some of the main events in Peter the Great's life

1672 Peter the Great is born. 
1676 Peter's father, Tsar Alexis dies, and Peter's half-brother Feodor becomes Tsar. 
1682 Feodor dies and Sophia becomes regent on behalf of her younger half-brothers.
1688 Peter begins his first attempts at shipbuilding, on a lake.
1689 Peter marries Evdokia Lopukhina, his first wife.
1693 Peter sees the sea for the first time. His passion for ships and sailing is to last throughout his life.
1696 Ivan, Peter's half-brother dies. Peter begins to build up a navy.
1697–98 Peter leads his Great Embassy to western Europe, visiting the Netherlands, Vienna and England.
1703 Peter orders the building of a new city to be named St. Petersburg.
1707 Peter marries Catherine, his second wife privately. The marriage to his first wife, banished to become a nun, is declared null and void.
1717 Peter visits Europe again, travelling to the Netherlands and Paris.
1718 Alexis, Peter's son, dies in mysterious circumstances after attempting to escape from his father.
1724 Peter's second wife Catherine, is crowned as empress.
1725 Peter dies, after contracting a fever several months earlier.
1727 Catherine rules after the death of Peter.
1727 Catherine dies and Peter's grandson becomes Tsar Peter II.