Peter the Great
Who can tell what this very despatch contained! Most probably life or death, freedom or slavery, fame or fortune, of one or many of his subjects hung upon the word of that foreign journeyman.' It was while handling the compass and the adze at Saardam that the confirmation was brought him of the double, or rather rival, nomination of Augustus, elector of Saxony and prince of Conti, to the vacant throne of Poland; and Peter, al ready assuming the right to be a king-maker, promised to assist Augustus With thirty thousand troops. Meanwhile his army was gaining fresh victories near Azoph; but Peter had a nobler ambition than the desire of military glory. He continued to improve himself in different arts, passing frequently from Saardam to Amsterdam to hear lectures on anatomy; and he made himself capable of performing several operations in surgery. He also mastered the Dutch language, and made considerable progress in mathematics, civil engineering , and the science of fortification; besides visiting every literary, charitable, or scientific institution, and the papermills, saw-mills, and all manufacturing establishments, which he examined carefully, with the intention of introducing similiar ones into his own empire.
What is that?' was his constant exclamation at beholding anything new nor would his inquiring mind rest for a moment till he obtained an explanation. We can fancy the astonishment of the quiet, lethargic Hollanders at this energetic prince, who, though choosing to work as a carpenter, took no pains to conceal his rank; flying about the country with an activity of mind and body equally incomprehensible to them, and seeking knowledge with more ardour and avidity than other princes had ever sought even pleasure.
Peter spent about nine months in the Netherlands, during which time a sixty-gun ship was completed from his own draught and model, and at much of the carpentry of which he worked with his own hand. This vessel, said to be an admirable specimen of naval architecture, he sent to Archangel - for as yet the czar had not a seaport on the Baltic. He then crossed over to England, where he was received with great attention by William III, who deputed the Marquis of Caermarthen to attend him, and devote himself to the service of the czar. Peter's chief object was to examine the dockyards and maritime establishments of England as he had done those of Holland; but though he still preserved his incognito, he no longer worked as a journeyman. Yet, according to an old writer, 'he would often take up the tools and work with them; and he frequently conversed with the builders, who showed him their draughts, and the method of laying down, by proportion, any ship or vessel.' At first he lodged in York Buildings, while in London; and the last house next the river, on the east side of Buckingham Street, near the Strand, is said to have been inhabited by him; but afterwards, that he might be near the sea, he occupied a house belonging to the celebrated John Evelyn at Deptford.
Under the date of January 30, 1698, we find in Evelyn's diary as follows The czar of Muscovy being come to England, and having a mind to see the building of ships, hired my house, Saye's Court, and made it his court and palace, new furnished by the king.' And just about this time Mr. Evelyn's servant writes to his master thus: - 'There is a house full of people, and right nasty. The czar lies next your library, and dines in the parlour next your study. He dines at ten o'clock, and at six at night; is very seldom at home a whole day; very often in the king's yard, or by water, dressed in several dresses. The king is expected there this day: the best parlour is pretty clean for him to be entertained in. The king pays for all he has.' What a glimpse one gets at the past through such gossip as this!
Though the czar did not now carry his enthusiasm so far as to work as a carpenter, yet his fondness for sailing and managing boats was as eager here as in Holland. Sir Anthony Deane and the Marquis of Caermarthen were almost daily with him on the Thames, sometimes in a sailing yacht, and at others rowing in boats an exercise in which both the czar and the marquis are said to have excelled. The Navy Board received directions from the Admiralty to hire two vessels, to be at the command of the czar whenever he should think proper to sail on the Thames, to improve himself in seamanship. In addition to these, the king made him a present of the Royal Transport, with orders to have such alterations and accommodations made in her as his czarish majesty might desire; and also to change her masts, rigging, sails, etc. in such a way as he might think proper, to improve her sailing qualities. But his great delight was to get into a small-decked boat belonging to the dockyard, and taking only Menzikoff, and three or four others of his suite, to work the vessel with them, he being the helmsman. By this practice he said he should be able to teach them how to command ships when they got home. Having finished their day's work, they used to resort to a tavern in Great Tower Street, close to Tower Hill, to smoke their pipes, and to drink beer and brandy. The landlord had the czar of Muscovy's head painted, and put up for his sign, which continued till the year 1808, when some one took a fancy to the old sign, and offered the then occupier of the house to paint him a new one for it. A copy was accordingly made from the original, which maintains its station to the present day, as the sign of the Czar of Muscovy.'