Merchant Adventurers: The Voyage of Discovery That Transformed Tudor England

Written by James Evans
Review by Lucinda Byatt

This is the extraordinary tale of a voyage of discovery every bit as epoch-making as those of Spain and Portugal. Maritime skills in early Tudor England were deficient compared to Continental achievements. Indeed, the only serious early English ‘discoverer’, Sebastian Cabot, spent many years in Seville. By the time Cabot returned to Bristol in 1548, however, a transition was under way and new skills in mathematics, astronomy (Copernicus’ findings were backed by Cabot) and cartography led to the founding of the Muscovy Company of merchant adventurers, a joint stock enterprise backed by private shareholders and supported by the young King Edward VI. Richard Chancellor, who commanded one of the three ships, was a close collaborator of John Dee, and together they contributed to advances in navigation. Mercator’s globe was probably present on at least one of the ships. There had been no contact between Russia and England before this expedition when Chancellor found himself at the court of Ivan IV. Although the fate of the other two ships is harrowing, and Evans’s hypothesis as to the cause of their death very probable, Chancellor’s contribution to future trade with Russia and to England’s organised mercantile explorations was truly “incomparable”. A richly detailed account that is a pleasure to read.