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An English Arctic Expedition: 1553

James Marshall-Cornwall describes a Tudor adventure, ultimately unsuccessful: Willoughby perished on the Kola peninsula; Chancellor reached Moscow and was received by Ivan the Terrible.

In 1527 Robert Thorne, a London merchant and also a cosmographer, pointed out to Henry VIII that the English were being outstripped by their commercial rivals, the Spaniards and Portuguese, in overseas expansion, which had brought them enormous wealth from exploiting the natural resources of newly discovered regions.

Thorne suggested that English merchants might short-circuit their rivals by exploring quicker routes to ‘Cathay’, India and the Spice Islands through a North-east or North-west Passage across the Arctic seas north of the Asian or American continents. This would cut out the long and hazardous voyages round the Cape of Good Hope or Cape Horn. Henry VIII was not interested, being preoccupied with other matters, political and matrimonial.

The subject was again raised some twenty-four years later in the reign of Edward VI by an eminent and experienced navigator, Sebastian Cabot, born in Bristol in 1474. His father, Giovanni Caboto, a Venetian, was also a noted navigator who had spent months in 1497 in exploring the Atlantic coast of America, from Labrador to Florida, on behalf of Henry VII, in a vain search to find a North-west Passage to the Indies.

His son, Sebastian, who had accompanied his father on that voyage, now thought it might be possible to find a North-east Passage to ‘Cathay’ round the Arctic coast of Russia, and enlisted the help of a number of London merchants in this project. The result was the establishment on December 12th, 1551, of the ‘Mysterie and Companie of the Marchanls Adventurers for the discoverie of Regions, Dominions, Islands and places unknown’. Sebastian Cabot, now aged seventy-seven, was elected ‘Governour’ of the Company.

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