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    Richard Chancellor

    Encyclopedia Arctica 15: Biographies

    001      |      Vol_XV-0169                                                                                                                  

    (Eloise McCaskill)


            Richard Chancellor (d. 1556), English navigator and first fully trained

    English pilot, whose science and skill on the first voyage in search of the

    Northeast Passage in 1555 led to the opening up of trade between England and

    Russia. Of his family nothing is known except that in 1553 he had "two little

    sons," as the account of his voyage in Hakluyt tells us, "which were in the

    case of orphans if he sped not well." The spelling of his name is likewise

    uncertain, as no signature of his seems extant. Hakluyt wavers between Chan–

    cel l or and Chancelour, and Clement Adams, who wrote in Latin the account which

    Chancellor dictated to him Latinizes it as Cancelerus.

            We know that Chancellor had considerable Mediterranean experience and was

    with Roger Bodenham, captain of the Barke Aucher , on a famous trading expedi–

    tion to Chios and Candia, when the ship was in great peril from the Turks. We

    are also told (in the Hakluyt account) that he "was brought up by one Master

    Henry Sidney [father of the famous Sir Philip Sidney], a noble young gentleman

    and very much beloved of King Edward." Sidney commended him to the merchants

    who invested in the 1553 voyage in the following terms: "...I do now part with

    Chancellor not because I make little reckoning of the man, or that his mainten–

    ance is burdenous and chargeable unto me, but that you might conceive and under–

    stand my goodwill and promptitude for the furtherance of this business, and that

    the authority and estimation which he deserveth may be given him. You know the

    man by report, I by experience; you by words, I by deeds; you by speech and

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    EA-Biography. McCaskill: Richard Chancellor

    company, but I by the daily trial of his life have a full and perfect knowledge

    of him."

            When the northeastern venture took shape, with the founding, on December

    18, 1551, of the Company of Merchant Adventurers [later the Muscovy Company],

    Sebastian Cabot became chief adviser and Richard Chancellor one of the twelve

    councillors. Plans were completed and preparations made in the spring of 1553.

    Three ships were sent out under the command of Sir Hugh Willoughby (q.v.): the

    Bona Esperanza (called the Speranza ), the Edward Bonaventure , and the Bona Con–

    . Willoughby was captain of the Esperanza , Chancellor of the Edward ,

    and Cornelius Durforth of the Confidentia. (For further details of the organ–

    ization of the voyage, manning of ships, etc., see article on Willoughby. Here

    the fortunes of Chancellor will follow in particular.) The three ships, vic–

    tualled for eighteen months, sailed on May 20th, carrying an open letter from

    Edward VI, written in Latin, Greek, and several other languages. The letter,

    which stated that discoveries and the making of commercial treaties were the

    sole objects of the expedition, was addressed to "the Kings, Princes, and other

    Potentates inhabiting the northeast parts of the world, toward the mighty Empire

    of Cathay." The ships suffered a long delay at Harwich waiting for a better

    wind, and Chancellor was upset to find that part of their provisions were bad

    and that the hogsheads of wine leaked. It was too late to remedy this, however,

    and the fleet got out to sea with a final clearance from Oxford Ness on June 23rd.

            A course was steered due north until June 27th. Westerly winds prevented

    their touching at the Shetlands, and, "after much traversing and tracing the

    seas by reason of sundry and manifold contrary winds," they came to the southern

    end of the Lofoten Archipelago on the coast of Norway toward the end of July.

    Touching at various points, they arrived August 2nd at the island of Senjen in

    latitude 69-1/2°N. Here they were promised a pilot to conduct them around the

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    EA-Biography. McCaskill: Richard Chancellor

    North Cape to the Danish stronghold of Vardo, which marked the farthest out–

    post of European civilization in the Northeast. Before the pilot could come

    aboard a great storm arose in the afternoon and scattered the ships out to sea.

    Clement Adams' account in Hakluyt tells us: "The General [Willoughby] with his

    loudest voice cried out to Richard Chancellor, and earnestly requested him not

    to go far from him. But he neither would nor could keep company with him if he

    sailed still so fast; for the Admiral [the Speranza ] was of better sail than

    his ship." Well may the General have cried out; for the only able pilots in

    the expedition, Richard Chancellor, captain, and Stephen Borough, master, were

    both on the Edward Bonaventure . Either of these could have saved Willoughby

    from his ultimate ghastly fate.

            Chancellor never saw the other two ships again. When the storm abated

    he made his way to Vardo, the appointed rendezvous in case of separation. Here

    he waited seven days in vain, and finally decided to push on alone. As he was

    preparing to depart, "it happened that he fell in company and speech with cer–

    tain Scottishmen, who...began earnestly to dissuade him from the further pros–

    ecution of the discovery by amplifying the dangers which he was to fall into,

    and omitted no reason that might serve to that purpose." But Chancellor, "hold–

    ing nothing so ignominious and reproachful as inconstancy and levity of mind,

    and persuading himself that a man of valor could not commit a more dishonorable

    part than for fear of danger to avoid and shun great attempts, was nothing at

    all changed or discouraged with the speeches and words of the Scots, remaining

    steadfast and immutable in his first resolution — determining to bring that to

    pass which was intended, or else to die the death."

            After this heroic decision, "Master Chancellor held on his course toward

    that unknown part of the world, and sailed so far that at last he came to the

    place where he found no night at all, but a continual light and brightness of

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    EA-Biography. McCaskill: Richard Chancellor

    the sun shining clearly upon the huge and mighty sea. And having the benefit

    of this perpetual light for certain days, at the length it pleased God to bring

    them into a certain great bay, which was of 100 miles or thereabout over." This

    was the White Sea. They anchored at the mluth of the Dvina, near the site of

    the present city of Archangel. Here they met fishermen, who were at first ter–

    rified, and prostrated themselves before Chancellor and tried to kiss his feet.

    But he, "according to his great and singular courtesy," refused their deference

    and came to friendly terms with them. He learned from them that the country

    was called Russia or Muscovy, and that it was ruled by Ivan Vasilivich (Ivan IV,

    later called the Terrible).

            While Chancellor was treating with the Russian governor of the territory

    for provisions, the latter secretly sent word to the Czar about "the arrival of

    a strange nation." Chancellor and his companions were eventually invited by the

    Czar to Moscow, and made the long overland journey, being much impressed by the

    sleds in which they traveled. They were sumptuously entertained by the Czar,

    and obtained from him a letter to the King of England, granting freedom and

    every facility of trade to English ships. Chancellor's own account of Russia,

    "Booke of the great and mighty Emperor of Russia..." (in Hakluyt) and the de–

    scription in Clement Adams' discourse provided England with the first eyewitness

    description of the great Muscovite Empire. These accounts contain much valuable

    and generally correct information on the splendor of the Russian court, the

    cities, government, laws, religion, customs, products, trade, etc., of the


            The following spring Chancellor returned to the site where his ship was

    anchored and where it had wintered, and as soon as navigation became possible

    he set sail for England. He arrived in the summer of 1554, having been robbed

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    EA-Biography. McCaskill: Richard Chancellor

    on the way by Flemish pirates. There was great delight in England at the

    prospect of the new trade possibilities. A second expedition to the White Sea

    was planned for the following spring. In February, Philip and Mary granted a

    fresh charter of incorporation to the company of merchant adventurers, which

    came to be known as the Muscovy Company. The aged Sebastian Cabot was appointed

    Governor for life.

            The 1555 expedition consisted of two ships, the Edward Bonaventure and the

    Philip and Mary . Chancellor, in the Edward, was placed in command of the ex–

    pedition, but Stephen Borough (q.v.), former master of the ship, was retained

    in England to prepare for a voyage the following year to carry out the original

    purpose of the Company, the discovery of the passage to Cathay. With Chancellor

    were Richard Gray and George Killingworth, the Company's first agents in Muscovy,

    and several other merchants. The instructions were for the Edward to go again

    to Russia by way of the former route through the White Sea, while the Philip and

    was to stop at Vardo to collect a cargo of fish oil. The agents were in–

    structed to go with Chancellor to Moscow, present the Queen's letters to the

    Czar, obtain from him a grant of privileges, and set up warehouses in Moscow or

    other towns. They were also to exert themselves with all diligence in inquiring

    about the route to Cathay, and were to try to obtain news concerning Willoughby's


            The ships got under way the end of May, and all instructions were duly car–

    ried out. Warehouses and factories were established and the Czar made a grant

    of privileges, including freedom from tolls and customs, freedom from arrest,

    and recognition of the jurisdiction of the Chief Agent of the Company over all

    Englishmen in Russia. It was learned that after the departure of Chancellor the

    previous year the bodies of Willoughby and his men had been discovered in their

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    EA-Biography. McC skill: Richard Chancellor

    ships lying at anchorage in the mouth of the Arzina River. The ships were

    visited by some of Killingworth's men and a considerable quantity of their

    cargo recovered. (For further details, see Willoughby .) Chancellor and the

    agents remained in Russia for the winter, but the Edward Bonaventure was sent

    home before navigation closed, being joined by the Philip and Mary at Vardo.

            On the return of the two ships in 1556, Chancellor met them at St. Nicholas

    (Archangel), bringing with him a Russian Ambassador for England, Osep Nepea,

    Governor of Vologda, together with his wife. The ships had brought hands to man

    Willoughby's two vessels, and all four ships set sail for England with numerous

    Russian passengers, including the members of the Ambassador's suite, and many thous–

    and pounds worth of goods. The entire homeward journey was disastrous because

    of violent storms. The Philip and Mary managed to struggle into Trondheim and

    passed the winter there, returning to England in April 1557. The Bona Confidentia

    was seen to split on a rock and perished with all hands. The Bona Esperanza was

    never heard of again. Chancellor, in the Edward Bonaventure , continued unac–

    companied on the homeward voyage. But this was his last mission, for on November

    10th his ship was cast away in the dark of the night off Pitsligo on the coast of

    Aberdeenshire in Aberdour Bay. Chancellor, intent on saving the Ambassador, took

    to the boat, placing him and his wife in it with several other Russians. But the

    boat was swamped before reaching shore. The Ambassador was saved, but his wife

    and the other Russians, Chancellor, and most of the crew perished.

            J. A. Williamson, in his Maritime Enterprise , writes: "The death of Richard

    Chancellor was a great loss to his country. He had been successful as seaman,

    explorer, and diplomatist. His courage in face of misfortune on the first voy–

    age and his admirable conduct at the court of the Czar had alone made the success

    of the new company possible, and entitled him to take a worthy place among the

    great Englishmen of his age."

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    EA-Biography. McCaskill: Richard Chancellor


    Hakluyt, Richard Principal Navigations , 1599. Vol. I.

    Stefansson, V. (with the collaboration of Olive R. Wilcox): Great Adventures

    and Explorations
    . New York, 1947.

    Williamson, J. A. Maritime Enterprise 1485-1558 . London, 1913.

    Dictionary of National Biography : article on Chancellor.


    Eloise McCaskill

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