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    Sir Hugh Willoughy

    Encyclopedia Arctica 15: Biographies

    001      |      Vol_XV-0923                                                                                                                  

    (Eloise McCaskill)


            Sir Hugh Willoughby (d. 1554) was in command of the first English expedi–

    tion, 1553, in search of the Northeast Passage to Cathay. He was the young–

    est son of Sir Henry Willoughby of Middleton, who was made a knight banneret

    at the battle of Stoke in 1487 and died in 1528; and was the grandson of Sir

    Hugh Willoughby of Wollaton, Nottinghamshire. In Sir Henry's will, proved

    July 1, 1528, we find that Sir Henry left to Hugh considerable estates, and

    further directed, as to certain sums, "that my son John shall receive the same,

    to use to purchase or buy a marriage for my son Hugh, if the same Hugh will be

    guided and ordered by my said son Sir John Willoughby; or else the same sums of

    money to be disposed for the wealth of my soul." There is no direct record of

    the marriage, but in the will of Sir John mention was made of "my niece Rose,

    daughter of my brother Hugh." In the accounts of Wollaton there is also mention

    of £20 a year paid out of Wollaton properties to Henry, son of Sir Hugh. A full–

    length portrait of Sir Hugh is preserved at Wollaton.

            Willoughby served in the expedition to Scotland in 1544, and was knighted

    by the Earl of Hertford (afterward Duke of Somerset) at Leith on May 11th of that

    year. He later had a commission on the border and was captain of Lowther Castle,

    1548-49. The downfall of Somerset affected his position unfavorably and he turned

    his thoughts toward the sea. He seems to have had influential friends connected

    with the Navy, including perhaps Sebastian Cabot, but there is apparently no

    record of nautical experience prior to the 1553 voyage. He seems, however, to

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    EA-Biography. McCaskill: Sir Hugh Willoughby

    have had the reputation of being a capable commander.

            The expansion of English trade and the necessity for new markets led to

    the formation, in the months preceding the spring of 1553, of a company of

    capitalists, merchants, and nobles for the purpose of finding an unmonopolized

    route to the Orient. As earlier attempts to find the Northwest Passage had

    failed, attention was directed toward the Northeast Passage. None of the doc–

    uments relating to the Company of Merchant Adventurers (not to be confused

    with the old Merchant Adventurers who exported cloth to the Low Countries) is

    known to exist, with the exception of Sebastian Cabot's instructions to the

    expedition. It is implicit in the evidence, however, that a charter was granted

    by Edward VI to the Company (later known as the Muscovy Company).

            Sebastian Cabot acted as chief adviser to the Company and was made its

    first Governor. Sir Hugh Willoughby was chosen Captain-General. Richard Chan–

    cellor (q.v.) was appointed chief pilot and second in command. It was decided

    that the voyage should begin before the end of May to allow time for the com–

    pletion of the project before the arctic winter should set in. This shows how

    the enterprisers, including Cabot, underestimated the distance to be traversed.

    Their general ignorance of what they were about to attempt is further illustrat–

    ed by the fact that they called in before the assembled council "two Tartarians,

    which were then of the King's stable," procured an interpreter, and then ques–

    tioned the stableboys "touching their country and the manners of their nation."

    But these "were able to answer nothing to the purpose, being indeed more ac–

    quaited (as one there merrily and openly said) to toss pots than to learn the

    states and dispositions of people." (Quotations from Chancellor's account of

    voyage, as told clement Adams, in Hakluyt.)

            The fleet consisted of three ships: the Bona Esperanza , of 120 tons; the

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    EA-Biography. McCaskill: Sir Hugh Willoughby

    Edward Bonaventure , of 160 tons; and the Bona Confidentia , of 90 tons. Each

    was accompanied by a pinnace and carried a boat. Willoughby sailed in the

    Esperanza , with six merchants and a crew of thirty-one. The only two really

    trained pilots in the entire expedition were in the same ship, the Edward Bona

    venture: Richard Chancellor as captain, and Stephen Borough as master. Among

    the thirty-seven members of the crew were William Borough and Arthur Pet, and

    this ship also carried ten landsmen, including a chaplain, merchants, and gentle–

    men adventurers. The Confidentia was commanded by Cornelius Dunforth, and car–

    ried twenty-four officers and men kand three merchants. The pinnaces were manned

    by drafts of men from the ships to which they were attached.

            Sebastian Cabot's instructions for the guidance of the commanders of the

    expedition e [ ?] many interesting points. They embodied his long experience,

    adapted, insofar as possible, to the exigencies of the present voyage. Loyalty,

    unity, and obedience are insisted upon. To this end the book of instructions

    is to be read once every week to the assembled company of each ship. All import–

    ant matters concerning the course of navigation are to be submitted to a council,

    consisting of the captains, the pilot-major, the masters, and the mates, besides

    the Captain-General. The majority is to prevail, but the Captain-General has a

    double vote. The fleet must be careful to keep together as far as weather con–

    ditions permit, and the commanders are to go on board the Admiral's ship as often

    as he shall require. Everyone who is able to write is to keep a log of the voy–

    age. Majority rule is again to prevail concerning "all enterprises and exploits

    of discovering or landing to search islands, regions, and suchlike." The stewards

    and cooks must give weekly accounts. Inferior officers who prove remiss may be

    removed and punished at the discretion of the captain and assistants. Blasphemy,

    swearing, ribaldry, gambling, and "all suchlike pestilences" are to be eschewed.

    There is to be morning and evening prayer and other services. Cleanliness is to

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    be enforced. The merchants are to trade only by consent of the captains, coun–

    cillors, and head merchants, or a committee of four of them. No person may

    engage in private trade "until the common stock of the company shall be furnished."

    The "state" of the English religion is not to be disclosed to any nation, but

    is to be passed over in silence. Strange peoples may be allured or enticed

    aboard ship, but no violence is to be used, and no woman is to be mistreated.

    Any person so taken is to be well entertained, and if possible made drunk in

    order to obtain infromation from him. There must be no arrogance or ridicule

    toward people of any nation. Careful notes are to be made of all regions, their

    peoples and products. If the passage is found or for other urgent cause, news

    is to be sent home if at all possible. The final article is an impressive warn–

    ing, especially against conspiracies and factions, and exhortation to duty toward

    God and the King.

            The departure of the ships is described as follows in Willoughby's own

    words, as contained in the "note" on log found with his body and printed by

    Hakluyt: "These foresaid ships being fully furnished with their pinnaces and

    boats, well appointed with all manner of artillery and other things necessary

    for their defense, with all the men aforesaid, departed from Radcliffe, and

    valed unto Deptford, the tenth day of May 1553." He further describes their

    "passing by Greenwich, saluting the King's Majesty then being there, shooting

    off for ordinance," calling at Blackwall, at Woolwich, at Heyreth, at Gravesend,

    etc. These delays were repeated throughout the rest of May and on into June,

    waiting for favorable winds, or for one reason or another, until their final

    clearance from Orford Ness on June 23. Stefansson ( cit. infra , p. 401) writes:

    "Thus it was more than six weeks after the departure from Ratcliff before they

    were at least well off on their voyage, heading for the Shetlands. There may

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    have been any number of contributory circumstances and goodish excuses; but

    still all this tardiness must indicate that Willoughby did not realize how

    brief the season would be during which the climate left him free to navigate

    the waters north of Russia. Moreover the season was farther advanced than in–

    dicated by the narrative, which is based on the old calendar; according to the

    new reckoning, it was July 3, not June 23, when they finally set out for the


            The could not "fetch Shotland [Shetland]" on account of a westerly wind,

    and "manifold contrary winds" kept them off their course for some days. Toward

    the end of July they finally came to the southern end of the Lofoten Archipelago,

    or, as Willoughby puts it, "the land being islands were called Lewfoot, or

    Lofoot, which were plentifully inhabited, and very gentle people, being also

    under the King of Denmark." At the island of Senjen, which Willoughby gives as

    in latitude 70° N., but which the other accounts give as 69-1/2°, they were

    promised a pilot to take them "to Finmark, unto the Wardhouse [Vardo, or Vardö–

    hus]," but when they attempted to enter the harbor to take on the pilot "there

    came such flaws of wind and te r rible whirlwinds that wer were not able to bear

    in, but by violence were constrained to take the sea again, our pinnace being

    unshipped." That night, "by violence of wind and thickness of mists," the

    ships were not able to keep within sight of each other. The next morning they

    saw the Confidentia , but they never saw the Edward again (The fortunes of the

    latter ship are followed in the articles on Stephen Borough and Richard Chan–

    cellor, in which, also, their versions of the voyage up to this point are given.)

            The fourth day following, conditions permitted the Esperanza and the Con–

    to hoist their sails and set about finding their way to Vardo, the

    agreed upon rendezvous in case of separation. They sailed northeast by north,

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    EA-Biography. McCaskill: Sir Hugh Willoughby

    but soon found that they were quite out of their reckoning and that their charts

    were incorrect. In spite of frequent changes in direction owing to varying

    winds, they stradily made some progress toward the east, until on August 14 land

    was discovered in latitude 72° N. This is usually taken to be Novaya Zemlya,

    but, if Willoughby overestimated his latitude, it may have been Kolguev Island.

    His course cannot with any certainty be laid down. The land was found to be

    desolate in the extreme and they could not go ashore because of shoals and ice.

    After this their course is utterly incomprehensible, as on many days the distance

    sailed is not set down in the log and no more latitudes are mentioned. The posi–

    tions and courses given throughout the log show clearly the extreme ignorance of

    Wil l oughby and the other responsible officers not only of pilotage but of the

    simplest navigation.

            After August 21st, their general course was westward, the object being now

    to return to some safe place on the coast of Norway where they might winter. On

    the 28th they landed on a barren shore and saw signs of human habitation but

    found no people. They missed the entrance to the White Sea, where Chancellor

    had already found a haven, and coasted northwestward along the shore of Lapland,

    On September 18th they entered one of the harbors, at the mouth of the river

    Arzina, "near Kegor," probably at the site of the present Varsinskoe. Here they

    saw "very many seal fishes and other great fishes, and upon the main... bears,

    great deer, foxes, with divers strange beasts...." As the year was far spent,

    they decided to winter here, and sent out groups of men in three directions to

    search for inhabitants, but all "returned without finding of people, or any sim–

    ilitude of habitation." "Here endeth," writes Hakluyt, "Sir Hugh Willoughbie

    his note, which was written with his own hand." This log was found a year later

    in the cabin of the Bona Esperanza by Russian fishermen who discovered the two

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    ships with all on board dead.

            The details of their sufferings and death are not known. The general view

    was that they were frozen to death through their "want of experience to have

    made caves and stoves," as Henry Lane puts it. Stefansson says they probably

    died of scurvy. The only documeny besides the log of which we have any record

    was a will made in January 1554, by Gabriel Willoughby, kinsman of Sir Hugh and

    one of the merchants who traveled with him. By this it becomes apparent that

    Sir Hugh and most of the crew were still alive at that time. They certainly

    did not die of starvation, for when the ships were found they contained a con–

    siderable quantity of provisions.

            When the ships were discovered they were still lying at the same anchorage.

    Few details of their discovery are known, although the wildest tales were cir–

    culated, such as the story forwarded by Giovanni Michiel, the Venetian agent in

    London, in a letter to his Government in 1555, in which he relates that Willoughby

    and his men were frozen in "various postures, like statues," some "in the act of

    writing, pen still in hand," "opening a locker," or "platter in hand, spoon in

    mouth," etc., with the dogs on board displaying "the same phenomena." It is too

    bad that Richard Hakluyt, who was born only around this time, was not able to

    obtain more details of the fate of Willoughby.

            When Chancellor returned to the White Sea in 1555, he had been instructed

    to obtain news of Willoughby and the two ships, and, having learned of the dis–

    covery by the Russian fishermen, sent agents to visit the site. A considerable

    quantity of the cargo was recovered, and it is thought that Willoughby's body

    was sent home at this time, but it was not possible to return the ships in that

    year, as Chancellor did not have enough seamen to man them. On his 1556 expedi–

    tion, extra hands were sent for this purpose. On the return voyage, on which

    Chancellor again in the Edward Bonaventure , was bringing the first Russian Ambassador

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    to England, the Bona Esperanza , Willoughby's ship, carried ten members of the

    Ambassador's suite and a cargo worth £6,000. (The lading of the Bona Confidentia

    is not known.) In a violent storm off the Norwegian coast the Confidentia was

    seen tosplit on a rock at the entrance to the port of Trondheim. The Esperanza

    was never seen again. When Chancellor's ship was cast away off the Scottish

    coast and he was drowned, it is likely that part of the story of Willoughby's

    fate porished with him.


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

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

    , 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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