A Tsar is Born

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Francis Lee and Peter the Great

The title of this article “A Tsar is Born” is one of these instances where I grow instantly jealous at the author who came up with it. The sentence is the title of the first paragraph in the biography of the Russian tsar Peter the Great, written by the English professor Lindsey Hughes in 2002.1 I stumbled upon this brilliant book while doing research on a man called Francis Lee. Francis Lee was a “much traveled English lawyer of mystical High Church Anglican outlook”.2 What did he have to do with Peter the Great? To answer that question we have to ponder on this famous Russian ruler for a bit. Don’t worry, the man was quite amusing.

Shipdocks and wheelbarrows

The ancestors of Tsar Peter ruled the city of Muscovy. The city was then surrounded by a conundrum of rivaling powers. There were the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth and armies of the Kingdom of Sweden to the West, and ambitious Ottoman Turks and Crimean Tatars to the South. It even looked like the city would eventually disappear in this power struggle.3 But from 1610 onward, the Romanov family started to gain the upper hand. In 1613 the then teenager Mikhail Romanov was declared tsar of Russia, which was constantly expanding from their base in Moscow. The ten million strong population, about 90 percent of which consisted of peasants, mostly functioned under strict serfdom.4 So when Peter the First became tsar in 1682, he had enough reason to be ambitious.

The wooden cabin in Zaandam where tsar Peter lived for a week. (Unknown (www.ak-ansichtskarten.de) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

The wooden cabin in Zaandam where tsar Peter lived for a week. (Unknown (www.ak-ansichtskarten.de) [Public domain] – via Wikimedia Commons)

In 1697 the young tsar left for a Grand Embassy to the West to improve diplomatic relations and to gain practical knowledge. The young man carried a sign saying “I am a student and I seek teachers”. Peter tried to conceal his true identity from the public, but an entourage of a 250 strong contingent and 1000 carriages proved not exactly helpful in that.5

In august 1697 Peter arrived in Zaandam in the Netherlands where he lived in a tiny house in an attempt to pose as a carpenter at the local quay to learn about shipbuilding. His anonymity lasted a week, then curious crowds were fighting to catch a glimp of this exotic Russian and Peter was forced to leave for Amsterdam.6 After four and a half months in the Dutch Republic, spent mainly on visiting shipdocks and windmills, Peter left for England.

There he spent about three months devoting himself to practical activity, sightseeing, and…..destroying John Evelyn’s garden. This famous diarists garden was considered a horticultural marvel, but Peter and his companions went on a drunken brawl during their stay there and decided that wheelbarrows where there for fun. Peter pushed the wheelbarrow, containing one of his drunken companions, through the famous holly hedge, which was regarded as impenetrable. They also managed to rip the paving and destroy a variety of trees and plants. Evelyn was away at the time, but on his return one of his servants drearily remarked that the Russian guests were “quite nasty.”7

Despite (or because of) these kind of incidents Peter returned to Moscow with a broad range of ideas to reform his territory. And this is where Francis Lee comes in.

A man of profound knowledge

It is said that this Francis Lee presented a concept of reforming the state of Muscovy to Peter during his infamous stay in England.8 Francis Lee was born in 1660 in the “county of Surry” and lost his parents at a young age. This tragedy invoked him to begin to “shew his disposition, by shunning all manner of Children’s company; seeking solitude, in order to read and meditate upon things far beyond his age and comprehension.”9 This lifestyle proved fruitful enough when the young Francis was admitted to Oxford in 1679, becoming a fellow there in 1682.10 He prided himself on becoming a tutor of several sons of local gentry. But in 1691 Francis Lee embarked on a Grand Tour of Europe, visiting Holland, Germany and Italy, “where he practiced physics with uncommon success”.11

He returned to England in 1694 and it seems that he was at a financial loss at this time. Several of his influential friends had died, and he was caught in a judicial conflict that caused him to lose one of his estates.12 Being divested of all he had, he decided to enter into a life of faith and “total dependence on God.”13 In the next years, our Francis Lee added a profound knowledge of theology and biblical languages to his already vast area of expertise.

It is unclear what motivated Francis Lee to write a proposal of state reform to Peter the Great, but it seems that religious zeal was an important impetus to him. In the foreword of his complete works, which appeared posthumously in 1752, it is stated that his chief aim was “healing the breaches, and for the reunion of all the divided branches that call themselves Christians, according to the Apostolic rule and standard of the primitive church; before any innovations were crept into the Eastern or Western churches.”14

For whom the bell tolls

His proposal to Peter the Great is also soaked in religious mysticism. Lee states to Peter that “an invisible hand guided you to what is a mistery to all Europe, and being followed, will conduct you to what may be for the astonishment and praise for all the world.”15

Francis proposes to Peter that he should erect seven colleges or committees “consisting of the most select and able men that can be found” that each will rule one aspect of state.16 Of these seven colleges, the College for the “Propagation of the Christian Religion” is considered important enough by Lee to elaborate on a bit more than on the other six colleges:

The pattern of this can no-where else be taken but from the Apostolic college itself: such therefore only are to be admitted into it, who most nearly approach to the sanctity and power of the Apostles.17

The task that is set for these spiritual supermen is ambitious as well:

These will be able to find various methods for the recommending and spreading of the Christian faith in its original simplicity and spirituality, without openly innovating in received customs.18

The way to achieve this according to Lee is setting up Bible Schools to train clerics in all the languages in and around Muscovy, admitting no bishops who have not lived in silent conversation with God for at least seven years, and having strict registrations of births and deaths for some reason.

Another practical proposal was tolling a bell at set times “ throughout all your dominions, principalities and lordships for every man, woman and child, that is capable hereof, to retire from all external action about a quarter of an hour, exercising themselves all the while in meditation, recollection or mental prayer.”19

Misusing sacred vessels

It is not clear whether Francis Lee has ever actually met tsar Peter. There is no record of any actual confrontation and the only copy we have of his proposals is the one that is included in the posthumously published edition of Francis Lee’s complete dissertations.20

If Peter received the proposal, he might have thought any advice on religious matters would be practical. In 1667 a liturgical reform ordering all Russian clergy to perform manual blessings with three fingers raised instead of two caused huge conflict. Opposing clergymen were burned at the stake, and in answer to that religious men set themselves on fire in protest against this radical innovation.21

Peter eventually did set up a college of religious affairs to reorganize Church leadership. But it seems that Peter the Great did not share his motivations for that with Francis Lee. His reorganisation was mostly intended to concentrate power of religious affairs in his own hand. The Russian church became an organ of government. Priests for example were forced to give up on confidentiality when there would be any talk insulting to the tsar during confession.22 Anyhow, Peter the Great’s lifestyle did not match the demands that Francis Lee had formulated for the members of the committee of religious affairs. Peter is known to have shown his lack of piety several times when his brawls of drink and debauchery spilled over into the Muscovite churches “misusing sacred vessels and making fun of the liturgy.”23

Francis Lee, for his part, died in 1719 while doing some business in France. It is rumoured that just before he died he converted “in extremis” to Catholicism.24 He left a broad array of manuscripts, including a celebration of Noah’s ark as a masterpiece of naval design.25


Zo gaan die dingen
Het eiland van het tweede gezicht
Folmer verdwijnt en andere verhalen
Het duister dat ons scheidt
Lars Sanders

Lars Sanders

Lars Sanders studied history at the University of Groningen and specialised in the history of post-war Germany. Is addicted to fine prose and has a keen interest in representations of the devil and what Ian Kershaw once punningly classified as the lunatic fringe of politics.
Lars Sanders

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  1. L. Hughes, Peter the Great. A biography (London 2002) 1 

  2. D.MacCullogh, A history of Christianity (London 2009) 542 

  3. Ibidem, 537 

  4. L. Hughes, Peter the Great, 4 

  5. Ibidem, 40 

  6. Ibidem, 43 

  7. Ibidem, 50 

  8. K. Waliszewski, Peter the Great (New York 1897) 200 

  9. F. Lee, Apoleipomena or Dissertations Theological, Mathematical and Physical (London 1752) 5 

  10. Ibidem, 6 

  11. Ibidem, 16 

  12. J.M. Sperle, God’s Healing Angel: A Biography of Jane Ward Lead (Kent 1985) 226 

  13. Ibidem 

  14. F. Lee, Apoleipomena, 17 

  15. F. Lee, Proposals given to Peter the Great, Czar of Muscovy in 1698. At his own request. To be found in the Apoleipomena, page 1 

  16. Ibidem, 2 

  17. Ibidem, 7 

  18. Ibidem, 7 

  19. F. Lee, Proposals given to Peter the Great, 10 

  20. A. Cross, Peter the Great through British Eyes. Perceptions and Representations of the Tsar since 1698 (Cambridge 2000) 36 

  21. D.MacCullogh, A History of Christianity, 540 

  22. Ibidem, 542 

  23. Ibidem, 541 

  24. The source I found seems a bit unreliable: http://www.passtheword.org/francis-lee/fl-intro.htm. It refers to a foreword by Lee’s daughter in the complete works but no such foreword is actually to be found, last seen October 13th 2014 

  25. F.Lee, Of Naval Architecture; and of the Bulk and Figure of Noah’s Ark; and how it was accommodated to live in a tempest of Waters, included in the Apoleipomena pages 219-230 

Lars Sanders

About Lars Sanders

Lars Sanders studied history at the University of Groningen and specialised in the history of post-war Germany. Is addicted to fine prose and has a keen interest in representations of the devil and what Ian Kershaw once punningly classified as the lunatic fringe of politics.
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