In the early summer of 1553 three ships – the Edward Bonaventure, the Bona Confidentia and the Bona Esperanza – set sail from
on a voyage into
the unknown. As they sailed past London , the young king
Edward VI, an enthusiastic supporter of the venture, lay dying, too ill even to
look out of the window and see them pass. Of the three ships, only one would
The voyage had been several years in the planning, and its purpose was kept secret. Chief instigator was Sebastian Cabot, now an old man, who, at the age of fourteen in 1497 had returned with his father John Cabot from an expedition to the
. Like Americas Columbus
five years earlier, Cabot senior had hoped to reach the fabled lands of the Indies. Instead he planted the English flag on the rather
bleaker terrain of . Newfoundland
The Cabots were an Italian family and, although raised in
Bristol, Sebastian spent much
of his adult life outside ,
which did not offer him the opportunities for exploration which he craved. His
exceptional talents were recognised in England Spain,
however, where he was for many years Pilot Major, in overall charge of all ’s
maritime expeditions. Spain
In 1494, under the aegis of the Borgia Pope, Alexander VI, the Treaty of Tordesillas had arbitrarily divided the newly discovered areas of the globe into two sections, one to be ruled by
the other by .
never entered the equation. However, stirrings of the same excitement about
world exploration had begun in England England
as in the Iberian peninsula. This was well
before the days of the piratical Drake, but it did not require a genius to see
how well Spain in particular
was doing out of the gold and silver it was looting from South
As early as 1538, Cabot was making approaches to
England for a return from
but was not encouraged under Henry VIII’s regime. After Henry’s death in 1547,
however, circumstances changed. The boy King Edward and his advisors were keen
to develop English exploration and later that year Cabot was in Spain , allegedly
on a brief leave of absence from his service to the Spanish king. He never went
Although Cabot had served a monarch whose interest was in conquest and exploitation of newly discovered lands, Cabot’s own views were quite different. He wanted to establish peaceful trading links with other countries, with respect for their culture and religion – a novel attitude for the time. Moreover, knowing that
had an iron grip on southern routes to the fabled rich lands of the far east,
he realised that English expeditions via these southern routes would risk
attacks from the Iberian nations. Portugal
It was a daring – some said insane – concept.
But Cabot and his fellow enthusiasts were not deterred. Many of his supporters were merchants, and they had good cause to be interested in new trade routes. Henry VIII had destroyed
England’s economy by a series of pointless and
disastrous wars in .
Having spent the loot he had seized from the monasteries, he had debased the
coinage to pay for his misguided exploits. The new government had to rescue the
economy and started by restoring the value of English currency. Worryingly,
almost the whole of the country’s overseas exports depended on a single
commodity, woollen cloth. The trade had flourished throughout the European
continent, as the quality of English woollen cloth was second to none, but the
restoration of the currency made it suddenly much more expensive and exports
crashed. The merchants were desperate for new markets and the far east seemed
To send an expedition over the top of the world where no one had ever ventured before was very risky and expensive, far too expensive for a single merchant or even the Crown to undertake. Cabot and his colleagues came up with a novel idea. They would set up a company – a “mystery” as they called it – to which many would contribute capital. This company would employ its own staff who would trade on behalf of the company, not individual merchants. Those who had invested would take a share of the profits in proportion to their investment. And so the first joint stock company was born, financed by stockholders.
There was some debate as to whether the expedition should travel east or west, but on the advice of the best geographers and cosmographers of the time (including a young John Dee), it was decided that a north-east route around the top of Europe and down into the China seas offered the most promising prospect.
At the time it was customary to allocate the senior position in major undertakings to a gentleman, since it was felt that such a person would possess the requisite authority and qualities of leadership. The man chosen as Captain General was Sir Hugh Willoughby, a courageous and successful military leader, but a man with no maritime experience whatsoever. Each ship had an experienced captain. However, the “experience” of English captains at the time was not extensive. They were accustomed to sailing the main routes to Continental Europe and to the
A few had ventured along the west African coast, despite harassment from other
nations, but few had sailed far out of sight of land.
Second in importance to
, as Pilot Major of the voyage, was
a young man called Richard Chancellor, one of the new breed of intelligent men
who studied geography and cosmography (including celestial navigation). He had
been trained by Cabot and probably had a much clearer idea of what the
expedition entailed than Willoughby .
He would have known how ignorant Europeans were about this area of the globe
and how severe the weather would become if the ships did not either break
through to the warmer waters around Cathay or return to Willoughby . England
The largest ship was the Edward Bonaventure. On this Chancellor sailed, with Stephen Borough as captain, at twenty-seven already an experienced seaman. The middle ship, the Esperanza, was regarded as the flagship, as it carried
, and was captained by William
Gefferson, while the smallest ship, the Confidentia,
was commanded by Cornelius Durforth. Gefferson and Durforth were experienced,
but only within the contemporary parameters of experience. Willoughby
Heavily loaded with cargo which the sponsors considered suitable for trade and for gifts to monarchs in the unknown lands which lay ahead, the three ships set sail from the shipyards at Ratcliffe, just downstream from the Tower, on 10 May, 1553. They made their way in a somewhat leisurely fashion down the Thames estuary and out into the
North Sea. The plan was to sail across to the coast of , then
follow it north until it veered east. Thereafter, they would be sailing into
unknown territory. Unfortunately, bad weather drove the ships back to the east
coast of Norway .
The first three weeks of June were lost, frustratingly, confined to English
Not until 23 June was the expedition able to sail forth at last into the
Worryingly it was already past the summer solstice. They were full of
confidence, however, and Chancellor, who was extremely skilled in the use of
the latest navigational instruments, recorded their position meticulously. When
they reached the rugged and unfamiliar coast of , Chancellor even landed when
they were about halfway up the Norwegian coast and took further measurements.
For the moment all seemed to be going well. Norway
Amongst the scattered islands further north they were again delayed by unfavourable winds. It was the end of July by the time they neared the top of
west coast and
called a conference of the expedition’s leaders. Once they rounded Finnmark,
the northernmost portion of Willoughby Norway
which wraps around northern Sweden
they would enter uncharted waters. There was, however, one safe port here,
Vardøhus (Wardhouse to the English). Cabot had instructed the small fleet to
stay together, but if anything should happen to separate them, it was agreed
now that they would make for Wardhouse and wait till all were reunited. Finland
It was a wise plan, for once they rounded the
North Cape, a terrible storm blew up,
accompanied by thick mist. Chancellor and Borrough immediately reduced the
canvas on the Edward, but to their horror
they watched the other two ships racing away from them under full sail. They
never saw them again.
Once the storm had eased, the Edward made for Wardhouse and waited for the Esperanza and the Confidentia. When Chancellor felt he could wait no longer, he set sail once more along the unfamiliar coast, heading east. It was now into August as the sole remaining ship sailed along a barren and unpopulated coast until it reached a wide opening into a huge gulf – the area now known as the
White Sea. To their immense
relief, the Englishmen found human habitation at last, as they dropped anchor
near the Orthodox monastery of St Nicholas, close to where Arkhangelsk was later
founded. To their astonishment, they learned that this was , ruled
by Tsar Ivan IV, or Ivan the Terrible as he has come to be known. Russia
The Englishmen knew there was a backward and barbarous country called
or Muscovy, somewhere vaguely to the east of in Continental Europe. They
had no idea that it reached so far north. Indeed the young and warlike Tsar had
been busy defeating his neighbours and extending his territory ever since he
had come to the throne. Chancellor carried a warm and friendly letter from
young King Edward to any ruler who might be met with, and he was anxious to travel
to Poland to
meet and treat with this ruler. However, although the local people received the
travellers kindly, they were clearly terrified of Ivan. The Englishmen could
not travel through the country until Ivan granted his permission. Moscow
As the waiting extended into weeks, the Edward was sealed in by the ice, the river Dvina which led into the interior froze solid, and the winter snows of
Muscovy covered the land. At last a small party led by
Chancellor was able to set out, and discovered that travel in these northern
lands was much easier in winter. Bundled in furs they skimmed across an
ice-bound land in horse-drawn sleighs.
they were well received by Ivan, who had his own reasons for welcoming an
alliance with ,
and before long he agreed to grant free-trading rights to the merchants of the
new company, although the formalities would not be completed until the second
expedition. Far from being a primitive country, despite the violent and tyrannical
rule of its Tsar, England Muscovy was rich (at least
in the palace) in gold and silver dishes, rich clothing and tapestries,
abundant food and drink. (Rather too much drink.) The Russians also considered
themselves to be the true Christians, heirs not only of St Peter’s Rome but of Constantinople,
now fallen to Islam. The Catholic church was a mere upstart, and the strange
Protestant sects quite beyond the pale.
When Chancellor and his small party returned north to the
White Sea they were
relieved to find that the Edward had
not suffered from its icy winter. As soon as the sea was clear, they set out
for home, an eventful voyage, including a skirmish with pirates.
They were to discover an
profoundly changed since they left. King Edward was dead. The brief attempt to
put Lady Jane Grey on the throne (in accordance with Edward’s wishes) had ended
in mass executions, including that of John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, a
major patron of the expedition. Queen Mary was on the throne, busily turning England back
into a Catholic country and executing as heretics any who opposed her. England
But what of the two missing ships? During the spring of 1554, as the Edward sailed home, a group of Russian fishermen discovered the ships anchored in the mouth of the river Varzina. All those on board were dead, yet curiously they seemed to be reading or engaged in games of dice or cards.
was slumped at his desk in front
of his papers, including his log of the voyage. This log revealed that the two
ships had sailed before the storm away to the north-east, probably as far as Willoughby Novaya Zemlya. When they realised they had far overshot
Wardhouse, they turned back, following a zigzag course westwards, some distance
off the north coast of Russia,
by-passing the White Sea, where the Edward lay at anchor. When they
discovered the Varzina estuary, they took refuge there from the increasingly
bad weather, planning to overwinter in its sheltered waters.
The area appeared bleak and uninhabited, but according to the log
sent out three scouting parties to attempt to contact any human habitations. They
found no one. The mystery was: How had they died? For a long time it was
assumed they had died of cold or starvation, but that coastal area is not as
cold as many parts of Willoughby .
Besides, they had plenty of warm clothing. There were still plentiful supplies
of food on board. Recently, another theory has been put forward, which seems
convincing. The bare tundra supports no trees, so once the men exhausted their
supplies of firewood, they would need to look elsewhere. The beaches in the
area provide ample amounts of sea coal washed up from coastal seams, a fuel
familiar by now in Russia .
On board the ships every hatch and door was kept tightly closed against the
cold. If the men burned sea coal on their stoves to keep warm, it is likely
they died of the insidious effects of carbon monoxide poisoning. England
However, the fate of the two ships remained for the moment unknown as the Edward reached an
so very different from the one they had left the year before. Was this first
attempt to sail eastwards around the top of the globe successful, or would the
whole enterprise be abandoned? England
They had failed to find the north-east passage.
What they had succeeded in doing was to lay the foundations of a trading agreement for the first joint stock company, the Muscovy Company, which would survive until 1917 and which provided the structure for the many trading companies which followed, including the most famous, the East India Company. They also laid the groundwork for all future joint stock companies, whatever their business, and for the
Empire, which was to stretch across the globe, following in the
wake of its merchant adventurers.
More voyages of the Muscovy Company were soon to follow, marked by both success and disaster, including one remarkable journey 500 miles east of the
But that is another story.
Interesting - I'm eager now for the next installment of exploration.
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