Richard Chancellor: Encyclopedia Arctica 15: Biographies

Author Stefansson, Vilhjalmur, 1879-1962

Richard Chancellor

EA-Biography (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

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– fidentia . 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

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

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 Russians.
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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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 Mary 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 fate.
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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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."

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