25th June 2003. Route to Muscovy.

This evening President Putin of Russia attended a dinner at the Guildhall, London in 2003. The last Russian, as opposed to a Soviet Head of State, to experience this hospitality, was Tsar Alexander II back in 1874, who had a choice of twenty-two courses which included seven desserts.(1)

That impressive menu was headed: ‘Reception By the Corporation of the City of London of his Imperial Majesty, The Emperor of All The Russias, at the Guildhall’ followed by the date: in 2003 it just said ‘Menu’.

Map of Muscovy by Anthony Jenkinson and Gerard de Jode. 1593.

The President was here to celebrate 450 years of trade links with Britain, and marked the day when Richard Chancellor accidentally discovered the northern route to Russia, via the White Sea, which led to the formation of the Muscovy Company in 1555. (2)

The history of Arctic exploration goes back to 14th September 1553 when Sir Hugh Willoughby of Risley, the Arctic explorer, sailed into a bay near to the present border between Finland and Russia. His chief pilot was Richard Chancellor, under the auspices of what was later to be called the Muscovy Company, to find a north-east route to Cathay (China).

Seal of Muscovy Company founded by Richard Chancellor, Sebastian Cabot and Sir Hugh Willoughby.

In the 15thc the Cabots and Columbus journeyed largely unnoticed, and Geography where taught, was based on the out-of-date ‘disc’ maps which displayed Britain as the ‘utmost corner of the West’, instead as the island outpost ideally placed to become the intermediary between the old world and the new.

The greatest mathematicians of the day were thus to produce by the latter part of the 15thc a Nautical Almanack and Manual of Navigation. But we lagged behind however in these matters for Britain, down to the time of Henry VII, was anything but a maritime people.

The oldest arithmetic books were simply Ready-Reckoners. Commerce implied ships and this implied navigation, and the ability to set a course by compass and chart.

Checking a position by even the simplest observation of a star something more than arithmetic was needed. The ship-master must be familiar with the measurement of angles.

Navigation was primitive, so two Cambridge scholars, Robert Recorde, John Dee and Richard Chancellor were brought to London  to give the most up to date training in the science of navigation that Europe could provide; thus, ‘Shooting the Sun’ began to replace ‘Rule of Thumb’.

The ability was now needed to fix the latitude of the sun and to understand the solar declination which alters daily. Thus astronomy-‘shooting the stars’ for navigation, acquired a practical significance.

By the time Henry VIII had died in 1547, a group headed by the Duke of Northumberland had embraced the project of discovering a short Arctic passage to Cathay, and accepted that maths theory was fundamental to technical advance in navigation: the beneficiaries were the Muscovy and later trading companies.

(1) May 18th 1874.

(2) The City’s first commercial links with Russia were established when Tsar Ivan IV granted a charter to the company giving it the monopoly of English trade with Russia.





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About colindunkerley

My name is Colin Dunkerley who having spent two years in the Royal Army Pay Corps ploughed many a barren industrial furrow until drawn to the 'chalk-face' as a teacher, now retired. I have spent the last 15 years researching all aspects of life in Britain since Roman times.

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