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Renaissance English Trade with Russia

So one of the things I do in my “free <cough, ahem> time” is a podcast on Renaissance English History. I’ve been doing it in spurts for several years, and it’s a chance to learn new things as I research topics and episodes.  On my Bucket List is getting three advanced degrees – an MBA, an advanced degree in medieval history, and going to seminary.  Because I find the idea of having long talks about religion really inspiring.

Anyway, I digress.  

I was doing some research for an episode I’m planning on trade, and I came across the Muscovy Company, which must be the most unknown of the different Companies of Merchants around – a sad little sibling to the East India Company, for example.  But the Muscovy Company had a heyday that lasted nearly 100 years, and only completely fell apart during the Russian Revolution (about which I know next to nothing – add that to the list of things I want to learn about!).

So in the mid 1500’s everybody’s giong exploring, right?  The Spanish and Portuguese are going crazy in South America, the French are trading furs in Canada, the Dutch have New York; everybody sea faring nation seems to be getting a piece of the newly discovered lands in the Atlantic Ocean.  Except for the English, who are lagging thanks to their religious turbulence, a King that – while he may or may not have been crazy thanks to a blood disorder – was certainly more interested in his marital life and recapturing the glory of war with France than with claiming land in the Americas.  Oh, there were some early English explorers like John Cabot, and certainly Henry was aware of what was going on in the world, but England lagged woefully behind the other countries.

So in the mid 1500’s everybody’s suddenly got Exploration Fever..  The other countries were busy looking for the NorthWest Passage, and England got clever and decided to look for a NorthEAST passage.  Sneaky.  


The Death of Hugh Willoughby by an unknown artist

In 1551 some merchants and explorers formed the Company of Merchant Adventurers to New Lands (in full: ‘Mystery and Company of Merchant Adventurers for the Discovery of Regions, Dominions, Islands, and Places unknown’) to look for a Northeast Passage.  Willoughby lead a group of three ships northwards.  They were delayed by bad winds, but eventually reached a point off the northern part of Norway where they suffered from more winds, and storms.  Willoughby’s ship, and a second ship were separated from the third, which was captained by Richard Chancellor.  He apparently got stuck in ice, was completely unprepared for the cold, and the frozen corpses of his men were found the next year by Russian fisherman.

But Chancellor survived, managed to get back to Norway, and set out again, eventually making it to the White Sea.  Locals were amazed at his huge Western style ships, and helped him get to Arkhangelsk.  Ivan the Terrible heard about the ship, and summoned Chancellor to Moscow to meet with him, a journey of another 600 miles in the snow.  Chancellor described Moscow as much larger than London, but built mostly out of wood, and less sturdy.  But the palace of Ivan the Terrible was luxurious, and the Czar seemed willing to talk about trading with England.  Russia didn’t have a secure route to the Baltic Sea yet, and all of the other routes were contested by both the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Swedish Empire.  

Chancellor gets back to London, carrying with him a letter from Ivan inviting trade, as well as some Russian furs.  Queen willoughby voyageMary I (aka “bloody Mary” for her proclivity to kill Protestants) rechartered the Merchant Adventurers company the Muscovy Company in 1555, and Chancellor decides to tempt fate and go back to Russia again.  The Muscovy Company became the diplomatic link between London and Moscow, and several years later Ivan actually proposed the idea of marriage to Queen Elizabeth (she declined, one assumes politely).

Chancellor died in 1556 when he was returning from Russia and was shipwrecked off the coast of Scotland.  He had on board with him the first ambassador from Russia to England, Osip Nepeya, but the ambassador survived and after being held hostage in Scotland for a number of months, finally made it to London.

In 1577 Queen Elizabeth gave the Muscovy Company a monopoly on whaling in the waters around Spitsbergen, which it claimed based on the idea that Hugh Willoughby had discovered and claimed them on his fatal journey.  After Chancellor’s death, the Muscovy Company funded several other attempts to find the Northeast passage.  One of those attempts made it through the Kara Gates to the Kara Sea in the Arctic Ocean.  They also funded two trips of Henry Hudson in his search for a northeast passage.

By the mid 17th Century, the English Civil War disrupted trade, and suddenly the Dutch swooped into the vacuum and started becoming the main traders with the Russians.  By 1917 it had ceased operations, though it still exists as a charity, and supports the St. Andrew’s Anglican Church in Moscow.  In 1994 the current Queen Elizabeth visited the original company headquarters, not far from the Kremlin.