Дата публикации: 29 августа 2021
Автор(ы): Alexander SOTIN
Публикатор: Научная библиотека Порталус
Источник: (c) Science in Russia, №4, 2010, C.79-85
Номер публикации: №1630230050

Alexander SOTIN, (c)

by Alexander SOTIN, Senior Research Fellow, "Old English Court" Museum, Moscow, Russia


These manorial chambers put up in the very heart of Moscow are not spectacular at first sight: low and squatty, they were erected at the turn of the 16th century next to the Kremlin and Red Square in a town district known as Zaryadye, one "beyond the trading stalls". Even the most fertile mind could not foretell the role that these chambers were destined to play as the starting point of routes leading to London, the far-off "Lunda", the capital of the English Kingdom, and on as far as the first European settlements in the New World.




Subsequently dubbed "English", these chambers were perhaps the oldest manorial estate, or podvorye in Moscow built by an obscure merchant Ivan Bobrishchev, not counting in the palatial chambers raised by boyar nobles and princess. That lowborn merchant, however, happened to be quite conversant with the trends and fads of the Renaissance Age: he asked Aleviso Nuovo (Fria-sin), the glorious Italian who had created the Archangel Church in the Kremlin, to build a St. Barbara Church next to his manor and possibly, lay a foundation for his manorial chambers.  Small wonder if we recall that Bobrishchev belonged to the old and influential fraternity of merchants who for centuries had been trading with a string of Italian colonies in the Crimea, such as Suroj (Sudak) and Katha (Feodosia). From time immemorial the Black Sea had been Russia's "window" into the wide world. The Crimea was rife with tidings from Rome, Constantinople and the Great Silk Route. Thus the Moscow community of merchants kept tabs on developments in alien parts. They were in the know.


The next owners of this podvorye were London merchants. Strange as it may seem, they landed there from... the Arctic regions—quite out of keeping with common

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sense. Looking at this nondescript manor in Moscow's Varvarka Street, we cannot help wondering: why on earth did the English choose to build a nest so far from their native Isles—here of all places in a Europe dominated by Latin and Italian? As a seafaring nation, the English spread their language far and wide all over the world in the decades to come. But the first experience of long sea voyages they learned in the Arctic by trying to reach Russia from the north. Between 1556 and 1649, the final point of their voyages was the English Court in Moscow, the main residence of the Muscovy Company set up in London in 1555.


It all began at the time of King Edward VI, a sickly boy whom Mark Twain depicted in his novel The Prince and the Beggar-rather, as a double. The boy's fate was sealed: his physicians were helpless. Yet in 1553, his last year (he was only fifteen), Edward VI blessed the boldest British sea expedition and supplied it with royal credentials. In those times English sailors lacked experience in seafaring, and they had no fleet to speak of. It was Dutch and German merchants of the powerful Hanseatic League who were shipping goods to the British Isles. The English had no inkling that in a century or two their native land, Britain, would rule the seas.


But in the mid-16th century London merchants were bitterly aware that the route to the Indian Ocean—East India, China and Spice, or Molucca Islands—were saddled by the Portuguese, while Spain was safeguarding Atlantic routes to the wealth of the New World. Still and all, there was yet another sea route through the barren artic wastes. Inspired by Columbus* and other fortune-seekers, English merchants came to realize that God willing, they would be able to brave the arctic seas as far as the Pacific Ocean; then, making a detour of Eurasia and China, they would reach India. A bold, daredevil venture that could come off only through cooperative effort. So English merchants joined forces in a Company of Merchant Adventurers for the Discovery of Regions, Dominions, Islands and Places Unknown. Chipping in, they sent a sea expedition under Sir Hugh Willoughby (?-1554).


Thus on May 10, 1553, three galleons**-the Bona Spe-ranza, the Bona Confidentia and the Edward Bonaventure-set off down the Thames on a long and perilous voyage across boreal regions. Meanwhile the king died a couple of months later, and England plunged into internecine infighting for the throne. Left to the tender mercies of fate, the voyagers had to fend for themselves—their countrymen had other fish to fry in the rough and tumble of civil strife.


A year after, the Edward Bonaventure, under the command of Richard Chancellor, the chief navigation officer, came back with shocking news. In his words, he had lost sight of the other two galleons still in August 1553 in a storm at Europe's northernmost tip. Chancellor said he decided to keep on to land... in Russia, on the White Sea shore, not China! Disembarking in the mouth of the Northern Dvina, the gallant skipper learned from local folks that he came to the demesnes of the sovereign of Muscovy. Setting out on a long journey down sylvan rivers, the Englishman reached Moscow by wintertime, where he was received by the young tsar Ivan IV, who came to be known as Ivan the Terrible later on. Fortune smiled on both. The Russian tsar got his first chance to forge sea contacts with the Western world. The English captain returned to his ship with the tsar's credentials granting generous commercial privileges to his fellow countrymen in Russia. Although pillaged by Flemish pirates on his return voyage, Chancellor did not lose heart: flushed with success, the captain was back in London with good news—he had discovered a northeastern sea passage to the rich land of Muscovy. In many ways these tidings made up for the failure of the sea expedition to get to India via the Arctic.


Meanwhile Sir Hugh Willoughby and his men, ice-locked off Kola Peninsula's northern shores, were starving on board their two galleons. Even though the ships were not damaged, they went under on their home journey.



See: R. Petrov, "The Way to America", Science in Russia, No. 4, 1992.-Ed.

** Galleon-a large, heavy ship of the 15th and 16th centuries with three or four decks at the stern and one or more at the bow; used as both a warship and a trader.-Ed.

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For all the risks and hazards of like voyages, the Company of Merchant Adventurers did not hesitate to set up a Muscovy Company in London in 1555. The following year Tsar Ivan IV presented members of the second English expedition to Russia with the podvorye once owned by Ivan Bobrishchev. In 1636 Britons acquired yet another manorial estate—the New English Court located a few blocks away from the main headquarters, the Old English Court. Such courts sprung up also in Yaroslavl, Vologda, Kholmogory, Novgorod, Narva and in Archangel, this one founded by the tsar shortly before his death on seeing that foreign mariners had done a good job in thirty years by turning the Russian North from Muscovy's backyard to its main sea gate. An elected manager oversaw the company's activities in Russia; resident in Moscow, he was directly subordinate to the London-based directorate.


Next, there followed English diplomats. So the Old English Court in Moscow turned into an embassy—the first foreign embassy in the Russian capital, for there were no permanent diplomatic missions there. In fact, international relations were limited to an exchange of letters between sovereigns, in this case, between Tsar Ivan IV (1530-1584) and Queen Elizabeth (1533-1603), for all the disparity of their characters and convictions. They have made an enormous lot for friendship between the two nations, perhaps much more than anyone else in the future.


In a surprising twist, both countries proved ideal partners: Muscovy, surrounded on all sides by enemies, and England, cut off from the main sea routes. Just beginning to build a fleet of her own, she had a vital stake in trading with a country rich in material resources but having no merchant marine. The Britons found themselves in an exceptionally advantageous situation. Infected by the English example, the Russian tsar tried to build a Russian fleet on the northern rivers in the afternoon of his life; that was an abortive attempt, though. Fearing a mutiny, he took some of the state treasury to the northern town of

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Vologda so as to flee, if need be, to London. He thought of marrying Queen Elizabeth, it was rumored, but in the end proposed to her niece, Mary Hastings. But the "maiden queen" (Elizabeth) must have well remembered the fate of her mother, Anna Boleyn, beheaded by her father, the suspicious King Henry VIII (1491-1541), and would rather not take chances. Be that as it may, the two-way dialogue between Queen Elizabeth and Ivan IV has gone down as a golden age in Russo-English relations.


As a matter of fact, Russian and English monarchs kept corresponding with each other and exchanging embassies up until the middle of the 17th century when King Charles I (1600-1649) was deposed by the Long Parliament in the English Civil War and subsequently beheaded. Kept in the Moscow Kremlin's armory is a unique collection of ambassadorial gifts brought in from Albion.




Even after a series of abortive arctic expeditions the London Muscovy Company did not give up its efforts in search of a route to India, either by sea circumventing Eurasia or by land, across Central Asia. That was a matter of high priority. Thus, the English traveler Anthony Jenkinson (ca. 1530-1610) made two hazardous journeys down the Volga and on to Middle Asia (1558-1560), and then to Persia (1562-1564) to get in touch with eastern rulers and merchants.


The English came up with a daring project and proposal to Ivan the Terrible: they undertook to blaze a safe trade route across his dominions—from Western Europe to countries of the Orient as an alternative to the old Great Silk Route intercepted by the Osman Turks. They asked the tsar for charters of immunity and trade privileges in shipping merchandise across Russia.


Looking back to the Kievan Rus of the 8th to the early 12th centuries, we must say that it was the brisk trade waterway from the "Varangians to the Greek" that consolidated that state, not the princely sword, as it is often claimed. But that route fell into oblivion. The new Russian state, Muscovy, grew far from busy trade routes capable of giving birth to, and sustaining whole nations. The Principality of Muscovy emerged as a new, autocratic state ruled by the iron will of the princes.


Meanwhile the West had been eyeing the prosperous "free" Novgorod*, an independent Russian city state, as a key to the wealth of Rus, the Urals and Siberia, where the Baltic and Russian worlds were in direct contact. But things took a different turn at the close of the 15th century when Prince (Grand Duke) of Muscovy Ivan III



See: V. Darkevich, "Republic on the Volkhov", Science in Russia, No. 5, 1998.-Ed.

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Muscovy Company's coat-of-arms in a 16th-century English manuscript.


crushed the Novgorodian republic. This event had dramatic implications for Muscovy—its business life and old-time seafaring traditions were phasing out. Thus at the age of Columbus and Magellan, when West European countries were struggling for dominion over seas and oceans, Moscow Rus started looking elsewhere: as a land-locked power, she was bent on overland expansion. The cold White Sea in the north was what she had in the 16th century, with colonies of White Sea coast dwellers, the Pomors, who fled thither for safety. Descendents of the Novgorodian seafarers, they were hounded by Muscovy's rulers. The other inland seas, such as the Baltic and the Black Seas, were off limits to Muscovy. Although the key trade routes bypassed Muscovy, its rulers were comfortably well-off by controlling the fur traffic, for furs were a strategic commodity to her.


The English proved right about Russia's fantabulous wealth. But they had other cares, such as defending their coast and shipbuilding. The Muscovy Company became the chief provider of timber, rope and cable for England's royal navy. In their letters to Queen Elizabeth I the company's merchants said proudly that the superb rope riggings brought from Russia were one of the pledges of the victory of the English Navy over the Spanish Armada in 1588. London traders were also fond of Russian flax, honey, window mica, knives and blubber oil, and of candle wax badly needed for illuminating populous English towns.


In return, the English shipped in broadcloth, wine, salt, sugar, paper, medical drugs, tableware of tin and luxury items. But what Ivan IV needed most of all was weapons and ammunition in the long Livonian war of 1558-1583 for Russia's access to the Baltic Sea. Accordingly, London merchants supplied him with gunpowder, sulphur, saltpeter, metal and other material essential for war making and, what was most important, they sent in expert masters conversant with the latest technical secrets.




For a century and so the Old English Court provided shelter to Britons visiting Moscow—royal ambassadors and tradesmen, priests and war mercenaries, apothecaries and artisans. The podvorye had a very convenient location in the fortified town district a few steps away from the Moskva, Moscow's principal waterway, and the Great Marketplace on Red Square. Cater-comer across the street was the spacious Gostiny Dvor, or arcades with Eastern and West European traders selling their merchandise. Quite nearby, between the English Court and the St. Barbara Church, was the Mint where, by the tsar's permission, Britons minted Russian coins from their silver whenever they needed Russian cash, thus solving the "currency exchange" problem.


One could reach the Old English Court by going up Varvarka Street past log fences and quack women doctors selling cure-all roots. Russian sentries met a visitor at the court's gate. Let in, he entered the courtyard pitted by horse hooves, with a ring of wooden structures all around. Standing in the middle was a tower mansion of white stone facing south, away from the street, toward the Kitaigorod city wall and the Moskva. To get to the main, "red" porch, our guest had to go round the chambers. His eye could catch a large orchard deep within the courtyard.


The most valuable things were kept in stone chambers put up by Ivan Bobrishchev which the English used as storerooms. Paper, money and costly items were stored there. Large storerooms in the cellars and in the attic led to the palatial chambers of the ground floor housing the Fiscal Chamber where merchants kept their treasury, held get-togethers of company members and formal receptions. As it was wont elsewhere in Russia, the English stayed for the night in warm wooden houses standing apart. They built their homes all by themselves, presumably in the traditional West European style. The Russians dubbed Britons "English Germans", because of their poor knowledge of Russian. You see, in Russian and some other languages the Germans were labeled "mute", "dumb", "speechless"—Nemets (pl. Nemtsi) in Russian, tysk in Swedish, Niemiec in Polish, that is speaking no language of the land they were in. The language barrier and different creeds made it difficult for Britons to converse with Russians, Muscovites in particular: the Moscow authorities were zealous in safeguarding in purity of the Orthodox faith and native customs, and prohibited Orthodox believers from entering foreign courts and colonies settled by people of "alien faith". The English residence in Varvarka street was in this sense like the

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famous ghetto in Nagasaki, the only settlement in 17th-19th-century Japan otherwise closed to foreigners, where foreign seamen were allowed to stay. But such Russian towns as Vologda and Archangel had more liberal ways than Moscow in dealing with the English, their commercial and cultural expansion.


Communicating with the Moscow nobility and merchants, and touring the country, Britons tried good and hard to learn Russian and local customs. Today their travel notes are a major source of knowledge about bygone Russia. The English chambers in Moscow thought to be erected jointly by Italian, Russian and English architects are a splendid example of international cooperation. Each in their way, they carried on traditions of their forefathers. Articles of Russian and West European furniture peacefully rubbed shoulders within living premises. Many Britons struck roots in Russia and stayed on, some for the rest of their life and often not of free accord. Bound up by numerous obligations, foreign masters in the tsar's service became lifelong hostages of the tsars.




The Muscovy Company directors were naive in hoping they would continue holding their sea trade monopoly in Russia; they tried to talk Moscow's rulers into keeping off traders from other countries. This stance ran counter to the interests of Russian tsars seeking to expand the range of their trade partners; they, the Russian tsars, had little, if any, regard for the erstwhile services rendered by English trailblazers.


Also, Moscow was cool about the trump English project of establishing direct trade with Persia through Russian lands. In time, overrating their initial success, Russian policy-makers tried to take control of oriental trade into their own hands, and in the 17th century the Muscovy Company gave up its attempts to lay a new route to India that could have linked the Northern (marine), Volga and Silk Routes. Meanwhile the young East India Company (1600-1858) succeeded in establishing direct ties between Britain and India, thus challenging the Portuguese domination in the Indian Ocean.


The Muscovy Company's deserts happened to be eclipsed more and more by new discoveries and brilliant adventures. However, the business activity that had petered out in the quagmire of Moscow palace intrigues perked up in the wide expanses of the New World, and the proceeds gained from the trade with Russian Muscovy were invested into the Virginia Company set up in 1606, one that founded the first towns in the British colonies in what was to become the United States.


The new, 17th century ushered in dramatic events in Britain and Russia alike—the Short and Long Parliaments and the dethronement of King Charles I in England, and the Times of Troubles that engulfed Russian between 1605 and 1613 with the death of the last tsar of the Ruerik dynasty (Feodor) and his successor Boris Godunov. A new dynasty, the Romanovs, distantly related to the Ruerik kin, came to power.* Queen Eliza-



See: O. Bazanova, "Cradle of the Romanov House", Science in Russia, No. 2, 2008.-Ed.

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beth died childless and left no heirs to the throne. She was succeeded in 1603 by James I (1603-1625), son of Mary Stuart. Both the Romanovs and the Stuarts ascended to the throne by sheer chance and, lacking the authority of the older dynasties, they resorted to force. Although at first they imitated some interest in the Parliament and the Assembly of the Lands (in Russia), their children—King Charles 1 and Tsar Alexei Mikhailo-vich, the "most pacific one"—betrayed their real appetites. In England Karl I's attempt to foist autocracy failed miserably—deposed by Long Parliament, he was beheaded, and that country plunged into civil strife for another 20 years. In Russia the despotic rule of the tsar triggered a series of terrible urban revolts, including the Salt Mutiny of 1648, that frightened the tsar so much. But "the most pacific" Alexei Mikhailovich managed to placate the outburst of popular wrath by preparing, in great haste, a code of laws, the famous Assembly of the Land Code (1649), presenting to his subjects the long-sought "law and order" and, in passing, serfdom. The news about the execution of King Charles I in January 1649 rubbed the tsar the wrong way. He broke off diplomatic relations with the new-fangled English republic then and there, and ordered that all Britons resident in Russia should wind up their businesses and leave Russia immediately. On being recompensed for the loss of real estate, Muscovy Company merchants left the Old English Court and other courts where they had been staying for almost a hundred years. The Varvarka pod-vorye came into the possession of Ivan Andreevich Miloslavsky, a boyar related to the tsar. But it is owing to this sad episode that we owe the circumstantial inventories of the court—the chambers, orchard, homes, stables and other structures. The Moscow officials, who made these registers, drew the real image of the English podvorye, its "portrait" so to speak, for generations to come.




The Old English Court changed many hands afterwards. In the early 18th century, under Tsar Peter I (Peter the Great), one of Russia's first mathematical schools was instituted there. By that time the new, Baltic route from London to St. Petersburg had come into being, and it was much more convenient than the old, arctic route. And the English merchant company was back in Russia, in St. Petersburg, the new Russian capital; now it was the Russia Company. It made good headway in the following two hundred years, up until the 1917 revolution, when it had to curtail its activities. The Russia Company is still there in London, now mostly concerned with philanthropic matters.


Meanwhile the old chambers in Varvarka, buried under layers of topsoil and later-day structures, stages a spectacular comeback in the 1960s. The outstanding architect and restorer Pyotr Baranovsky (1892-1984), wrought this miracle: as ground was being cleared for the Rossiya Hotel on the Zaryadye grounds, and old tenement houses pulled down, Baranovsky detected premises of the 16th century under the ground floor of the Foreign Literature Library. There could be no doubt that he hit upon the chambers of the Old English Court, judging by oldtime plans. Sifting the tell and debris, the architect was stunned: one of the oldest civil structures of the capital swung into view.


It cost quite an effort to save the relict chambers and restore them. A museum was set up there. It happened in the 1990s when new Russia started restoring friendly ties with Great Britain, and the forgotten pages of history came alive. The exposition of the "Old English Court" Museum tells a wondrous saga of Russo-English relations in the 16th and 17th centuries, and of the history of the manorial estate. The furnishings recreated in its chambers take us back to those times. In October 1994 Queen Elizabeth II was the first to cross the threshold of the restored chambers—Her Majesty wished to pay a personal tribute to daredevil pathfinders who risked to blaze the sea route to Russia.


The Old English Court chambers are alive with the ghosts of merchants, mariners and savants, the restive vagabonds, the "rolling stones", as they were once called in Good Old England. Some of them could have cut nice figures for Shakespeare. In this day and age, too, they can tell us of their adventures, discoveries and blunders by word of mouth, with the help of museum guides, thus blazing the trail of live cross-country communion.

Опубликовано на Порталусе 29 августа 2021 года

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