Merchant Adventurers: The Voyage that Launched Modern England by James Evans

‘In the first half of the sixteenth century a fundamental change was taking place in western Europe.’

I found this account of the first English mercantile adventure to Russia fascinating. The three ships that set sail in the spring of 1553 were seeking a northern passage to Asia. They were looking for both the riches of Asia and for opportunities to trade English cloth in the cold northern climes. Two of the ships were blown off course, but the Edward Bonaventure (under Richard Chancellor) made it and returned from Russia with a trade agreement.

In 1555, the Muscovy Company was formed, and Richard Chancellor led a second journey to Russia. And this is where I pause to mention that fiction led me to this book. In the fifth novel of Dorothy Dunnett’s marvellous Lymond Chronicles (‘The Ringed Castle’), Lymond is in Russia. Here he meets Richard Chancellor. Fact and fiction are skilfully combined, and it was Lady Dunnett’s mention of Richard Chancellor that led me to read this book which was first published in 2013.

While I enjoyed learning about the foundation of the Muscovy Company and the exploits of Sebastian Cabot, it was Richard Chancellor who held my attention. Mr Evans makes it clear just how dangerous sea travel was at the time, and how relatively inexperienced English seafarers were at the time. Arguably, this voyage could be seen as the first step towards the formation of the English (later British) empire.

The information is provided in short sharp chapters, within the context of the political events of the time. I found the book easy to read and understand and would recommend it to anyone interested in reading more about English exploration during the 16th century, and especially to anyone interested in some of the history related in ‘The Ringed Castle’.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith