Mention the Crimean War to most people, and many will immediately think of the Light Brigade charging into a blizzard of Russian bullets and Florence Nightingale tending stricken British troops. Yet the incident that made this brutal 19th-century conflict all but inevitable involved monks not Redcoats, crucifixes not sabres – and there wasn’t a nurse in sight.
Just a few years before the Crimean War broke out, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, believed by many to sit on the very spot where Jesus Christ was crucified, found itself at the centre of a vicious brawl between two sets of opposing holy men. On one side stood Jerusalem’s Orthodox monks; on the other its Catholics clerics. The issue over which these two rival branches of Christianity butted heads was the question of who wielded ultimate control over the most sacred sites in Palestine.
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For years, tensions had been escalating at churches across the holy land. It was at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, however, that the rivalry turned physical, with the two groups coming to blows with fists, knives, candlesticks and crucifixes. Such was the level of violence that, in 1852, Lord Malmesbury, British foreign secretary, commented on “the melancholy spectacle” of “rival churches contending for mastery in the very place where Christ died for mankind”.
Melancholy it might have been but the dispute was hugely consequential – for both sets of monks had powerful backers. The Orthodox clerics were supported by the Russian empire; their Catholic foes championed by France, which had recently allied itself with Britain. For more than a decade these European superpowers had engaged in an increasingly dangerous dance of diplomatic brinkmanship. The monks’ battle in Jerusalem set them on a seemingly irreversible course for war.
To understand why, we need to leave Palestine and travel back to the city of Vienna in 1815. For it was here, in the Austrian capital, that a treaty was signed in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars that would set the template for Europe’s balance of power across the 19th century.
There were numerous beneficiaries of the Treaty of Vienna, but it can be argued that no nation gained more than Britain. The negotiations that preceded the treaty saw the British attempting to engineer a network of alliances that prevented a single strongman ever dominating Europe again (as Napoleon Bonaparte had once done), so they could avoid another costly war and get on with the business of running their global empire. For the most part, Britain got its way.
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This outcome no doubt delighted politicians in London. Less happy was the leader of another nation that had emerged victorious from the Napoleonic Wars: Russian tsar Alexander I. Nationalist and expansionist, Alexander had designs on being the European strongman that Britain most feared. He and his even more militaristic successor, Nicholas I, railed against British power and the liberal, democratic ideals that they saw emanating from the west. The scene was now set for an intense geopolitical rivalry.
In the middle of these two nations sat the Ottoman empire, a centuries-old imperium whose ailing condition had earned it the nickname “the sick man of Europe”. That sick man status had already seen it fall foul of Russia’s expansionist ambitions. As early as the 1780s the Russians had seized the Black Sea port of Sevastopol in order to gain its fleet a priceless warm water harbour. When, in the 1820s, Russian forces advanced into Ottoman Bulgaria, the Caucasus, and northeastern Anatolia, British fears of Russia’s million-strong army surging towards India, the jewel in its imperial crown, rose sharply.
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As the middle of the century approached, the flames of Anglo-Russian tensions were fanned further by the re-emergence of France as a military power. The French were also fearful of growing Russian ambitions and added another combustible element to the mix: religion. Paris threw its weight behind the claims of Catholic monks to be the true authority over Palestine’s holy sites – in direct opposition to Russian-backed Orthodox clerics. The result was the battle of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
These religious tensions were the spark that ignited a diplomatic tinderbox. The Ottomans, in whose territory Palestine was sited, found themselves the rope in an increasingly vigorous tug of war between the Russians and their Anglo-French rivals. When the Ottomans acknowledged Russian authority over Palestine’s Christians, Paris sent a battleship, the Charlemagne, to Istanbul to encourage them to change their mind. When this French brand of gunboat diplomacy worked, the Russians sent their own military mission to the Danubian Principalities (modern Romania) on the Russo-Turkish border.
With talks failing and Tsar Nicholas I left fuming at “the infernal dictatorship” of Stratford Canning, Britain’s ambassador to the Ottoman empire, conflict moved ever closer. And so it proved in October 1853, when the Turks, enraged at Russian incursions, declared war on Moscow.
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For now Britain and France stayed out of the conflict. Yet all that changed in the wake of the battle of Sinop on 30 November 1853, which saw Russian battleships pounding Ottoman ships in the Black Sea, killing nearly 3,000 Turks. Within two months, French and British fleets had themselves sailed to the Black Sea. On 28 March 1854, with public opinion still inflamed by the bloodbath at Sinop, they entered what would soon be known as the Crimean War.
This article was first published in the January 2023 issue of BBC History Revealed
Spencer is production editor of BBC History Magazine