1553 Looking for a Passage to Muscovy

The search for a new passageway to the riches of the Far East led to the development of joint stock trading companies such as the Massachusetts Bay Company that funded the Massachusetts Bay Colony. These companies were like today’s venture capital groups. Expeditions were dangerous and a huge risk for their investors as well as the seamen. To minimize the monetary loss of a ship at sea, merchants pooled their resources. They shared the costs of purchasing the ship, fitting her out, and hiring her crew. That way, when an expedition failed, each individual lost only a portion of the costs. [No such insurance provided the lowly seamen or their families.]

England’s joint stock companies helped her enter the international shipping game. One of the first of its kind was the Muscovy Company established in the early 1550s. At the time, England was having financial difficulties. Her prosperous cloth trade in the markets of Antwerp in the Netherlands was declining. More than ever, English merchants wanted to find a way to obtain the luxuries of the East without paying the exorbitant prices asked for by the Venetians, Portuguese, Dutch, and Spanish.

The English crown was not helping. Edward VI, who followed his father King Henry VIII’s death in 1547, led with a feeble hand and died young. Edward’s sister, ‘BloodyMary, ascended after his death in 1553 and threatened to tear the country apart with her tumultuous religious battles.

Business must go on. During Queen Mary’s reign English merchants began looking for a water route eastward over the Scandinavian countries. They were discouraged from seeking a westward route by the survey reports submitted by Giovanni Verrazzano and Jacques Cartier to their patron Francis I of France. There seemed to be no valuable resources in North America. If merchants could enter Muscovy from the northeast, they could circumvent the trading routes to Cathay controlled by the Muslims.

A map drawn by Diogo Homem between 1554 and 1588 shows us the lay of the land as English mariners viewed it at the time. You can see how a northeast passage seemed promising.

Diogo Homem, Europe, possibly for the Atlas commissioned by Queen Mary, c1554-1588.(1)

English merchants knew that before their captains could venture to the polar seas, where no Englishman had sailed before, they needed larger and stronger ships to manage the ice-covered waters. Since as early as 1550, they told their ship carpenters to design and build such ships and then sent them out to find the northeastern route. The first expeditions turned back when they reached frozen waters north of Scandinavia.

In 1553, an estimated 240 merchants and speculators formed a company called the Mystery and Company of Merchant Adventurers for the Discovery of Regions, Dominions, Islands and Places Unknown. They financed a tiny fleet of three of the newly designed ships and hired Sir Hugh Willoughby, who was accustomed to sailing in northern waters, to serve as the captain of the flagship, the Bona Esperanza [Good Hope]. They employed Richard Chancellor as their chief pilot. He would sail on one of the other ships.

The fleet set out on May 10 of that year. From the beginning, ‘bad winds’ slowed their progress [winds from the wrong direction]. North of Norway, the tempests worsened with ‘terrible whirlwinds.’ By the 14th of September, Willoughby and one of the ships were separated from Chancellor. Willoughby sailed east, possibly as far as Novaya Zemlya [the Norwegians called it Gåselandet or Goose Land, so perhaps geese spent summers there]. But the storms became so bad he had to turn back and seek shelter. The two ships anchored at today’s Kola Peninsula east of Murmansk. The following summer, Muscovite fishermen found the ship filled with frozen corpses, including Willoughby’s. The fishermen returned his ship-log to the English.

Richard Chancellor was more fortunate. During the storms, he put into port at Vardø, Norway, where the locals kept him and his crew safe and warm. Then, even though the Norwegians warned him against it, he pressed east and found the narrow entrance from the Barents Sea into the White Sea. The people living there guided him to the Muscovite port Arkhangelsk [ArchAngel]. The Czar, Ivan the Terrible, soon heard about Chancellor’s arrival and summoned the Englishman to his court in Moscow. Ivan and Richard established a pact for northern trade that lasted for three hundred years, with a few hiccups along the way.

In 1555, after Richard Chancellor’s return to England, the joint stock company renamed itself as the Muscovy Company. Sebastian Cabot, John Cabot’s son, served as its first governor.

By 1573, trade with England was well established and Queen Elizabeth kept an ambassador in Moscow. Sir Jerome Horsey spent much time in Russia between 1573 and 1591 managing the Muscovy Company’s interests. He would stay in a compound the British built for themselves there, parts of which still exist. Horsey died in 1626, four years before the departure of Winthrop’s Fleet. The painting below [illustrated later in 1875] shows Ivan the Terrible showing off his treasure to Horsey.

Painting of Ivan the Terrible showing his treasure to Jerome Horsey, by Alexander Litovchenko, 1875.(2)

In our upcoming stories, you will hear merchant investors referred to as adventurers. Even though the Muscovy Company had hundreds of adventurers, the norm was for six to ten individuals to share the expenses for one ship. The larger companies included: the British East India Company [founded December 31, 1600], the Dutch East India Company [founded March 20, 1602], the Company of Merchant Adventurers of London that sponsored Plymouth Colony [given a royal charter by Henry IV back in 1407], and, as noted, the Massachusetts Bay Company [chartered in 1629].

Next article: 1567 The Adventures of Hawkins, Drake, Ingram, Browne, and Twide


  1. Homem, Diogo. Europe, Atlas, illustrated between c1554-1563, courtesy of the Exposition de Cartographie Nautique Portugaise sur le Maroc. {{PD-old}} Public Domain. Image source: http://www.uc.pt/fluc/coimbra-marrakech/indexfr/sources/icono/12.jpg?hires
  2. Painting of Ivan the Terrible showing his treasure to Jerome Horsey, by Alexander Litovchenko, 1875. Originally uploaded to Wikipedia by Ghirlandajo on 2 February 2005. {{PD-old}} Public Domain. Image source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3186489


  1. McDermott, James. Martin Frobisher, Elizabethan Privateer, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2001.
  2. Hakluyt, Richard. The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English