Causes of the Crimean War

Many British towns and cities have streets named after battles fought during the Crimean War, such as Alma, Sebastapol, Balaclava and Inkerman. But who fought this war, and why?

The Crimean War broke out on 5th October 1853, a military conflict fought between the Russian Empire on one side, against an alliance of Britain, France, the Ottoman Empire and Sardinia. The complexity of the war meant that it was fought on the grounds of various reasons by different parties, as everyone had a vested interest in the region.

The outbreak of violence arose from various factors, including the issue of Christian minority rights in the Holy Land, the overall declining Ottoman Empire leading to the “eastern question” and a resistance from the British and French to Russian expansion. With so many factors at play, the Crimean War proved inevitable.

In the years leading up to Crimea, competition between nations was rife, the prize being control of the Middle East, which was enough to ignite national rivalry between France, Russia and Britain. France had already taken the opportunity in 1830 to occupy Algeria and the prospect of further gains was enticing. The French Emperor Napoleon III had great plans to restore the splendour of France on the world stage, whilst Britain was keen to secure her trade routes to India and beyond.

Map Ottoman Empire

The “eastern question” as it was known was essentially a diplomatic issue centred on the declining Ottoman Empire with other countries vying for control over former Ottoman territories. These issues arose periodically as tension in the Turkish domains caused problems amongst European powers seeking to take advantage of the Ottoman disintegration.

With the failing Ottoman Empire at the forefront of international concern in the nineteenth century, it was Russia who appeared to have the most to gain by expanding her territory south. By the 1850’s Britain and France had aligned their interests with the Ottoman Empire in order to hinder Russian expansion. Mutual interest united an unlikely alliance of countries to fight the prospect of Russia benefiting from the Ottomans.

Since the early 1800’s, the Ottoman Empire had been experiencing challenges to its very existence. With the Serbian Revolution of 1804, there was liberation for the first Balkan Christian Ottoman nation. In the decades that followed, the Greek War of Independence put further strain on the Ottomans in terms of military strength and political cohesion. The Ottomans were fighting wars on many fronts and began to cede control of its territories such as Greece when it became independent in 1830.

Only a year previously the Ottomans had agreed to the Treaty of Adrianopole, which gave the Russians and Western European commercial ships access through the Black Sea straits. Whilst Britain and its western allies had bolstered the Ottoman Empire on different occasions, the result for the declining empire was a lack of control in foreign policy. Both Britain and France had vested interests in preserving the Ottomans as best they could, in order to prevent Russian access to the Mediterranean. Britain in particular had concerns that Russia could have the power to advance towards India, a daunting prospect for the UK who was keen to avoid seeing off a powerful Russian navy. Fear more than anything else proved enough to ignite the war.

Nicholas I
Tsar Nicholas I

The Russians meanwhile were led by Nicholas I who referred to the weakening Ottoman Empire as the “sick man of Europe”. The Tsar had great ambitions to take advantage of this weak spot and set his sights on the eastern Mediterranean. Russia had exercised great power as a member of the Holy Alliance which had essentially operated as the European police. In the Treaty of Vienna of 1815 this had been agreed and Russia was assisting the Austrians in the suppression of the Hungarian uprising. From the viewpoint of the Russians, they expected assistance in settling the issues evoked by the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, but Britain and France had other ideas.

Whilst there were a number of longer term causes for the escalation of tension, mainly predicated on the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the issue of religion was a more immediate source of conflict in need of resolution. The dispute over control of access to religious sites in the Holy Land between Catholic France and Orthodox Russia was a constant source of disagreement between the two for many years before 1853. The growing tension over this issue climaxed when rioting occurred in Bethlehem, then a region of the Ottoman Empire. During the fighting a number of Orthodox monks were killed whilst engaging in conflict with French monks. The Tsar blamed these deaths on the Turks who had control of these regions.

The Holy Land posed many problems, as it was the domain of the Muslim Ottoman Empire but also of great importance to Judaism and Christianity. In the Middle Ages religion had fuelled the Crusades in a bid to control this land, whilst the Christian church had fragmented into the smaller denominations with the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church representing two of the largest groups. Unfortunately, the two proved unable to resolve differences as both claimed control of the holy sites; religion as a source of conflict reared its head once more.

The Ottomans were not happy to have the conflict between France and Russia taking place in their territory, so the Sultan set up a commission to investigate the claims. France made the suggestion that the Catholic and Orthodox Churches should have joint control over the holy sites, but this led to a stalemate. By 1850, the Turks had sent the French two keys to the Church of the Nativity, meanwhile a decree had been sent to the Orthodox Church giving assurances that the keys would not fit the door lock!

Church of the Nativity
The Door of Humility, the main entrance to the Church of the Nativity

The subsequent row over the key to the door escalated and by 1852 the French had seized control of various holy sites. This was viewed by the Tsar as a direct challenge to both Russia and the Orthodox Church. For Nicholas it was simple; he saw protection of Orthodox Christians as a priority, as many he believed were treated as second-class citizens under Ottoman control.

Meanwhile the churches themselves were attempting to resolve their differences and come to some form of agreement, unfortunately neither Nicholas I nor Napoleon III were going to back down. The rights of Christian minorities in the Holy Land therefore became a major catalyst for the impending Crimean War. The French went about promoting the rights of the Roman Catholics whilst the Russians supported the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Tsar Nicholas I issued an ultimatum securing the Orthodox subjects of the Ottoman Empire under his control and protection. He was also keen to demonstrate to the British and French, by means of conversations with the British Ambassador George Seymour in January 1854, that the Russian desire for expansion was no longer a priority and that he simply wanted to protect his Christian communities in Ottoman territories. The Tsar subsequently sent his diplomat, Prince Menshikov on a special mission to demand that a Russian protectorate be created for all of the Orthodox Christians in the Empire which amounted to around twelve million people.

With Britain acting as a supposed mediator, the compromise between Nicholas and the Ottomans was being reached, however after further demands were discussed, the Sultan, who had support from the British ambassador, rejected any further agreement. This was unacceptable to both parties and with that, the stage of war was set. The Ottomans, with continuing support from France and Britain, declared war on Russia.

The outbreak of the Crimean War was a culmination of longer term international issues together with immediate conflicts over Christian minorities in the Holy Land. For several years the power exercised by the declining Ottoman Empire provided an opportunity for other nations to expand their powerbase. In the end, the desire for power, fear of competition and conflict over religion proved too difficult to resolve.

Jessica Brain is a freelance writer specialising in history. Based in Kent and a lover of all things historical.

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