Britain and Russia 450 Years of Contact: Paul Dukes Looks at the Ups and Downs of the Relationship between the Land of the Lions and That of the Double-Headed Eagle

By Dukes, Paul | History Today, July 2003 | Go to article overview

Britain and Russia 450 Years of Contact: Paul Dukes Looks at the Ups and Downs of the Relationship between the Land of the Lions and That of the Double-Headed Eagle


Dukes, Paul, History Today


THE BEGINNINGS WERE accidental. In 1553, an expedition was sent from London under the Arctic navigator Sir Hugh Willoughby with the aim of finding the northeast passage to the Indies. An accompanying letter from Edward VI (r.1547-53) asked all those in authority '... in all places under the universal heaven' to consider that:

   ... the God of heaven and
   earth greatly providing
   for mankind, would not
   that all things should be
   found in one region, to
   the end that one should
   have need of another, that
   by this means friendship
   might be established
   among all men, and every
   one seek to gratify all.

Willoughby perished along the way in the White Sea, but his deputy Richard Chancellor led the survivors down to Moscow where they were cordially received by Ivan the Terrible (r. 1533-84). Following a second visit to Russia by Chancellor in 1555, Ivan sent an ambassador, Osip Nepea, back to Britain not only to develop commercial relations but also to investigate possibilities for the purchase of arms and the hire of craftsmen. Sadly, on the return journey, Chancellor was drowned off the north-east coast of Scotland in November 1556. Nepea survived the disaster, though he lost the precious gifts he had brought with him either in the shipwreck or at the hands of the nearby 'rude and ravenous people', as the chronicler Hakluyt described them. (Bishop Lesley was kinder in his History of Scotland, c. 1571 but not published until 1578, observing that Nepea was 'well entertained by the countrymen.') Ivan's ambassador managed to reach London and to consolidate relations with Edward VI's successor Mary. Later, a correspondence developed between Elizabeth I and Ivan the Terrible, the Tsar going so far as to propose the mutual right of asylum to his English counterpart, and even marriage, if not with the Virgin Queen herself, then with one of the ladies of the court. Trade was developed by the Muscovy Company from 1555, the ships employed against the Spanish Armada in 1588 being furnished with naval stores from Russia. One of the first literary descriptions of Muscovite Russia was by George Turberville complaining that 'the cold is rare, the people rude', even that 'if I would describe the whole, I fear my pen would faint.' He thus set a negative tone that has no doubt persisted.

A later Russian ambassador carried on negotiations with a representative of James VI of Scotland, just before the crowns of England and Scotland were united in 1603. The story of the seventeenth century featured two new dynasties. The Stuart James VI and I went so far as to contemplate the acquisition of a large slice of Russian territory in 1611 when the state virtually fell apart during a civil war, accompanied by foreign intervention, that became known as the Time of Troubles. The project was presented to him as:

   the greatest and happiest overture
   that ever was made to any King of this
   realm, since Columbus offered King
   Henry VII the discovery of the West
   Indies.

Henry Brereton, in his Newes of the Present Miseries of Russia occasioned by the late Warre in that Countrey, published in 1614, wrote of an invasion in 1610 of Russia by a Swedish army, including English, French and Scots, that:

   ... though they came as a friend, and
   for their aid, yet who can stay an army
   from spoil and rapine, which the
   unhappy Russian found true in the
   pursuit of this bloody war.

But the election of Tsar Mikhail Romanov (r.1613-45) marked the start of a new consolidation.

Surprisingly, perhaps, although the Stuarts came to power in a peaceful manner, James's son Charles I was himself involved in a civil war. A Russian ambassador, G.S. Dokhturov, who arrived in London in August 1645 to report the death of Mikhail and the accession of his son Aleksei (r.1645-76), gained some clear impressions of the troubles being experienced by the English and Scots. …

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