In 1553 King Edward VI of England sent three ships on an expedition to China. The ships were to sail north around Norway, in an attempt to locate a fabled northeastern passage to the Orient. The Spanish and Portuguese had secured the southern trading routes, thus obliging the English to look for another path. The commander of the expedition was a courtier named Sir Hugh Willoughby, a relative of the Duke of Northumberland, who was head of the King's Regency Council. Willoughby's second-in-command was Richard Chancellor, a man of learning who had some experience in navigation.
The Bona Esperanza, Bona Confidentia, and Edward Bonadventura set sail on 11 May from Deptford. After three months' voyaging, the Esperanza (with Willoughby on board) and Confidentia sighted land at Novaya Zemlya. The crew intended to head eastwards but weather conditions forced them to land on the Kola Peninsula on 23 August, in the region of modern day Murmansk. Willoughby hoped for a change of wind that would allow him to continue his journey. Instead, winter came and heavy snow and frost prevented further progress. Attempts to locate local fishermen were in vain, since they retreated inland during the winter months. Over the course of the coming months the entire crew of the two ships perished in the dark cold northern Russian winter.
The other vessel, Chancellor's Edward Bonadventura was separated from the other two in late July by a storm, and continued the journey alone into the White Sea. Chancellor landed at the mouth of the River Dvina, close to the Archangel Michael Monastery. Thirty years later Ivan the Terrible built the port of New Kholmogory, which was soon renamed Archangelsk from the nearby monastery. After receiving the hospitality of the inhabitants of Nenocksa (Нёнокса), Chancellor headed towards Moscow on 23 November. On the way he was intercepted by an envoy of Tsar Ivan IV (Ivan the Terrible) carrying an invitation to the capital city. Chancellor, the second-in-command of a naval expedition to China, was now journey for hundreds of miles in the capacity of an ambassador, representing England at the tsar's court. The young Tsar Ivan was presiding over a glorious era in his country's history. He had recently conquered the Tatar khanates of Kazan and Astrakhan and made a vassal of the Khan of Sibir (i.e. Siberia). Ivan was intent on expanding Russia's commercial opportunities and was keen to demonstrate Russia's wealth to the visitor.
The tsar's court made an impression on Chancellor, who described Ivan thus: “The [Grand] Duke [of Muscovy] is Lord and Emperor of many countries and his power is marvellous great.” Chancellor reported that Russia was a land of great abundance, with furs being especially plentiful. When Chancellor returned to England in 1554 he carried with him a letter from Ivan addressed to King Edward, agreeing to the establishment of trading relations. By this point Edward was dead and succeeded by his half-sister Queen Mary. The expedition's benefactor, the Duke of Northumberland, had been executed for his attempt to secure the throne for his niece, Lady Jane Grey. Chancellor avoided being tainted by association and the new queen duly established the Muscovy Company, which was given a special privilege to trade with Russia.
Chancellor travelled to Russia for a second time in 1555, where he learnt of the fate of Willoughby and his ships (the bodies had been discovered by the fishermen in the spring of 1554). Willoughby's diary was retrieved and sent back to England. After more than a year in Russia, Chancellor left Russia for England. He carried on his ship Osip Nepeya, a boyar from Vologda, whom Ivan sent as ambassador to England. On the return journey the Edward Bonadventura encountered difficulties on the Scottish coast and broke free of its anchor at Pitsligo Bay on 10 November. Chancellor and the ambassador's suite took a small boat and attempted to row to shore. Chancellor and his young son perished in the attempt, as did many members of the ambassadorial suite. Nepeya miraculously survived the ordeal, and soon found himself in London presenting his credentials to Queen Mary.
Chancellor died at the age of 35 and could have accomplished much more for Anglo-Russian relations. Chancellor and Willoughby were said to have been the first western Europeans to set foot in Russia. This seems unlikely. Nevertheless, through Chancellor's efforts a lucrative trade was established between England and Russia. Chancellor's replacement was Anthony Jenkinson, who visited Russia four times between 1558 and 1571. Jenkinson's accounts of his travels in Muscovy remain an importance source for historians of 16th century Russia. The Anglo-Russian trading relationship increased in significance as both powers became key players in the European stage. When the Russian empire gained a foothold in the Baltic at the beginning of the 18th century, Chancellor's route to Archangel was replaced by a safer one to St Petersburg, allowing Anglo-Russian trade to flourish. This commercial relationship proved to be vital for the Royal Navy's naval dominance during this period, as the masts of British warships had to be made from strong Russian timbers.
By Jimmy Chen