Guildhall Library Manuscripts Section


Russia Company


 

The history of the Russia Company begins in 1553, when a group of Londoners, said to number 240, financed an expedition to discover the north-east passage to Cathay. The expedition had mixed motives. It hoped to copy the success of the Spanish and Portuguese in discovering new markets, and especially that of the Portuguese in bringing gold and spices from the East Indies. It also hoped to discover new markets for the export of English cloth, a trade then in decline. The north-east passage was important because it would be free of Portuguese interference. Either way, the voyage failed in its original purpose, for the crews of two of the three ships froze to death during the northern winter. However the third ship, the Edward Bonaventure, under the command of Richard Chancellor, found safe anchorage in the mouth of the Dvina. Chancellor was then invited to Moscow, where Tsar Ivan IV agreed to allow English merchants to come and trade. The voyage thus led to the establishment of direct trade with all the Russias.

 

The Russia Company was formally incorporated by royal charter on 26th February 1555 as the ‘marchants adventurers of England, for the discovery of lands, territories, iles, dominions, and seigniories unknowen, and not before that late adventure or enterprise by sea or navigation, commonly frequented’. The Company quickly became known as the Russia Company, or Muscovy Company, or Company of Merchants Trading with Russia. The charter gave the Company a legal and corporate basis for its activities, and a monopoly. Ivan IV also granted privileges to the Company before the end of 1555, although their precise nature is disputed. However in practice the Company’s monopoly of English trade with Russia included the rights to trade without paying customs duties or tolls, and to trade in the interior. The Company’s principal imports from Russia were furs, tallow, wax, timber, flax, tar and hemp. Its principal export to Russia was English cloth.

 

The Company in London appointed agents or ‘factors’ in Russia, hence the term ‘British Factory’ for the group of British agents. The headquarters of the Factory until 1717 was Moscow, when it removed to Archangel. In 1723 the Factory moved again, this time by Imperial decree, to St Petersburg. The Company also appointed a chaplain to the Factory in Russia, and he naturally moved with the Factory, although he continued to visit Moscow to minister to British residents. With the expansion of trade in the 19th century, the number of trading posts maintained by the Company grew to include Archangel, Cronstadt, Moscow and St Petersburg.  So too did the number of chaplains.

 

Since 1917 the Russia Company has operated principally as a charity and has given grants to English chaplaincies working within Russia. Several members of the current Court are direct descendants of families which traded in the British Factory in St Petersburg.

 

The early records of the Russia Company perished in the Great Fire of London in 1666. However the surviving material, including minutes of the Court of the Company from 1666, is now deposited at Guildhall Library, and available for research by the public without prior formality.

 

For further details, see TS Willan, The Muscovy Merchants of 1555 (Manchester University Press, 1953); TS Willan, The Early History of the Russia Company, 1553-1603 (Manchester University Press, 1956); and AG Cross, “Chaplains to the British Factory in St Petersburg, 1723-1813”, European Studies Review 2, no 2 (1972), pp125-142. Copies of all of these are available at Guildhall Library.

 

Information about the chaplaincy in Moscow can be found on their website.

 


Captions to items in the three display cases

Case 1     Origins

 

The history of the Russia Company begins in 1553, when a group of Londoners financed an expedition to discover the north-east passage to Cathay. The expedition had mixed motives. It hoped to copy the success of the Spanish and Portuguese in discovering new markets, and especially that of the Portuguese in bringing gold and spices from the East Indies. It also hoped to discover new export markets for English cloth, a trade then in decline. The north-east passage would be free of Portuguese interference. Either way, the voyage failed in its original purpose, for the crews of two of the three ships froze to death during the northern winter. However the third ship, the Edward Bonaventure, under the command of Richard Chancellor, found safe anchorage in the mouth of the Dvina. Chancellor was then invited to Moscow, where Tsar Ivan IV agreed to allow English merchants to come and trade. The voyage thus led to the establishment of direct trade with all the Russias.

 

The Russia Company was formally incorporated by royal charter on 26th February 1555 as the ‘marchants adventurers of England, for the discovery of lands, territories, iles, dominions, and seigniories unknowen, and not before that late adventure or enterprise by sea or navigation, commonly frequented’. The Company quickly became known as the Russia Company, or Muscovy Company, or Company of Merchants Trading with Russia. Ivan IV also granted privileges to the Company, although their precise nature is disputed. In practice, the Company held a monopoly of English trade with Russia, including the rights to trade without paying customs duties or tolls, and to trade in the interior. The Company’s principal imports from Russia were furs, tallow, wax, timber, flax, tar and hemp. Its principal export to Russia was English cloth.

 

 The earliest surviving Court minute book of the Russia Company, 1666/7 to 1682. The volume is open to show the oaths of the Treasurer and Secretary, and the beginning of the freeman’s oath. [Guildhall Library Ms 11741/1]

 

Transcript of the charter of Philip and Mary dated 26th February 1554/5 incorporating the Russia Company. The original charter is believed to have perished in the Great Fire of London. [Guildhall Library Ms 11894]

 

Map of Russia, c.1700, showing Moscow and Archangel. St Petersburg was not founded until 1703/4. Extracted from E Y Ides, Three Years Travels from Moscow Over-land to China (London, 1706). [Guildhall Library Printed Books, Bay H 8.4, no.8]

 

Case 2     19th-Century St Petersburg

The late 18th and early 19th centuries saw a dispute between the Russia Company in London and the British Factory in St Petersburg over the appointment of the chaplain in St Petersburg. The Reverend L K Pitt was elected by the Factory in 1799, but the Company considered that it alone had authority. The Factory in 1802 resolved to  … consider the appointment of the chaplain, as unconnected with the rights of the Russia Company”. [Guildhall Library Ms 31781/2]

Mr Pitt continued as chaplain in St Petersburg, while The Reverend George Porter was the Company’s appointee. The matter was still unresolved in January 1813, when the minutes of the Company record a letter from the Factory suggesting a reconciliation. [Guildhall Library Ms 11741/10]

  

Table of dues payable to the Russia Company on goods imported after 10th April 1835. [Guildhall Library Ms 11749/1, no.20]

 

 Sixth annual report of the Committee of the British School at St Petersburg. [Guildhall Library Ms 11749/1, no.158]. The final paragraph lists the clothes required and includes “6 day Shirts, 3 Night Shirts, 3 p[ai]rs Drawers (if usually worn) ….”.  

  

Letter from the Company’s agent in St Petersburg, December 1837, recording the fire in the Winter Palace. [Guildhall Library Ms 11749/1, no.26]

 

  

Case 3     The English Church in Moscow

 

The Russia Company was the patron of Anglican churches in Moscow, St Petersburg, Cronstadt and Archangel.

 

In 1825 a chapel was opened in Princess Prozorowski’s house, and known as the British Chapel, Moscow. A chaplain was also appointed. Land for a permanent church was purchased in 1829, and a building completed at the beginning of 1830. In January 1885 a new church was consecrated, whose official designation was now the British Church of St Andrew, Moscow. The chaplain was appointed by the Russia Company, subject to approval by the subscribers to the chaplaincy. The Company also paid part of the costs.

 

Transcript of the register of christenings, marriages and burials in Moscow, open at the pages for 1706-10. The transcripts were sent to the Bishop of London’s registry in December 1816. The Bishop had jurisdiction over Anglicans overseas who had no other bishop. [Guildhall Library Ms 11192B]

 

Minute book of the subscribers to the Anglican church in Moscow, 1900-16. It is open at the meeting of 17th December 1902, with entries for the Poor Fund and the need for accommodation for unemployed governesses. [Guildhall Library Ms 11751A]

 

Albumen print of St Andrew’s House, c.1908. This was founded in 1904 for governesses and other ladies. The house, grounds and furniture were presented to the British community in Moscow by Mrs Jane McGill. [Guildhall Library Ms 11751B]

 

Architect’s sketch design of the exterior of the proposed British Church of St Andrew, Moscow, 1882. This was constructed between 1882 and 1884.

[From Guildhall Library Ms 11751C]

 

Photograph of the interior of the first permanent British Chapel, Moscow. This opened for divine service on 1st December 1829, and the last service was held on 11th April 1882. [From Guildhall Library Ms 11751C]

 

Hand-coloured albumen print of the British chapel in Archangel, 1877. [From Guildhall Library Ms 11756] 


Last updated August 2007

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