At least according to James Evans. He’s not wrong. The ships were separated during a storm. Willoughby and his men became hopelessly lost, endured a harsh Arctic winter and perished. Chancellor fared rather better, making it to the imperial court of Ivan the Terrible. This resulted in one of the most fascinating cultural encounters that 16th-century Europe had to offer.
By far the most rewarding sections of Evans’s book trace how these two realms, which knew very little about one another, struck up an acquaintance. It’s great fun to watch Chancellor and his colleagues observing life in Russia with a mixture of puzzlement, admiration and revulsion.
This was a major economic and diplomatic turning point, too, so Evans is right when he states that the story should be better known. He also does a fine job of analysing the expedition’s context – this was a time when England was desperate to catch up with its Iberian rivals in the exploratory stakes.
Far too many popular history books about Tudor England rehash familiar tales. It’s therefore very pleasing to find one that reminds us of a neglected and profoundly significant episode.
MERCHANT ADVENTURERS: The Voyage of Discovery that Transformed Tudor England by James Evans, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, £25