How the English once planned to seize the Russian North

Kira Lisitskaya (Photo: Public domain)
When he was expanding diplomatic relations with England, the first Russian tsar, Ivan the Terrible, could hardly have anticipated that, shortly afterwards, his “partners” would want to turn part of the Tsardom of Muscovy into their own colony.

The English set foot on Russian soil for the first time on August 24, 1553. The ‘Edward Bonaventure’ ship belonged to an English trading company known as the ‘Mystery and Company of Merchant Adventurers for the Discovery of Regions, Dominions, Islands, and Places Unknown’ and Richard Chancellor was its captain. The ship entered the mouth of the Northern Dvina and moored not far from the Nikolo-Korelsky Monastery, 35 km from Arkhangelsk. From there, Chancellor went to Kholmogory and then on to Moscow, where he handed Ivan the Terrible a letter from King Edward VI. From that moment on, the tsar allowed the British to trade in Russia (read more here.)

Chancellor's reception in Moscow by Ivan IV.

In 1555, they opened an office in the capital - the Old English Yard. Also at that time, the ‘Mystery and Company of Merchant Adventurers’ became the ‘Muscovy Company’.

English trading stations appeared in Kholmogory, Vologda and Moscow. In 1569, the company was granted the greatest possible privileges:

- duty-free trade throughout the Tsardom of Muscovy,

- trade with the Near East via Russia,

- the opening of iron and rope factories in the country,

- the circulation of English coinage in Moscow, Novgorod and Pskov. 

Russian historian Nikolai Kostomarov describes these events in his book ‘Essay on the Trade of Muscovy in the XVI and XVII Centuries’. The English actively imported flax, hemp, rope, resin, tar, cured pork fat, mast timber, furs, wax, honey, animal hides, leather, potash, butter and caviar from the Russian North (read more here).

Moscow. Old English Yard.

Ivan the Terrible wanted to make England his “strategic partner”, which explains his considerable hospitality. With the beginning of the Livonian War (1558-1583), ships of the Muscovy Company supplied Russia with saltpeter, sulfur, lead and tin; they also brought English engineers and doctors to Russia.

And, in 1570, Ivan the Terrible even wooed Queen Elizabeth I, trying to secure political asylum for himself in London in the event of defeat in the Livonian War. He also intended to form a military alliance with the English, but Elizabeth I ignored this overture, as she did his proposal of marriage (read more here).

After the Livonian War, other foreigners were also allowed to trade in northern Russia. As for the English, they could no longer freely cross Russian territory on their way to Persia and China. Nevertheless, the Muscovy Company enjoyed the privilege of extensive duty-free trade until the middle of the 17th century.

The Time of Troubles and new opportunities

Even under Ivan the Terrible, agents of the Muscovy Company provided the English Court with services in the field of military and economic intelligence: They recruited, bribed and blackmailed Russian merchants and officials, according to Soviet historian Viktor Virginsky.

The ‘Time of Troubles’ ensued (1598-1613), bringing with it a dynastic crisis, popular uprisings and interventions by Poland and Sweden. All this opened up fresh opportunities for the English to extend their influence in Russia. For instance, John Meyrick, head of the Muscovy Company, personally obtained promises of an extension of his company’s privileges, first from False Dmitry I (the self-proclaimed "son" of Ivan the Terrible) and then from his successor on the throne, Vasily Shuisky.

When, in 1611, Swedish troops, recruited by Shuisky to crush his rival, False Dmitry II, seized the lands of Novgorod (northwestern regions of modern-day Russia), the English calculated that the time was right to “seize” the Russian North.

In the latter half of 1612, a dispatch was sent to London with a detailed account of events in Russia. The probable author of the document was Captain Thomas Chamberlain.

Plan for the establishment of an English protectorate

The text of the proposal asserted that in the North, which was untouched by war, “the people themselves […] are willing and even by necessity compelled to cast themselves into the arms of some prince that will protect them and to subject themselves to the government of a stranger, seeing they have none left of their own fit to undertake it”.

Mangazeya Ostrog with a settlement. Reconstruction based on the excavations of M.I. Belov.

Furthermore, certain representatives of Russia’s northern regions had already held talks on the subject with an agent of the English company in the Summer of 1611 (this was evidently Meyrick). The authors of the proposal assured King James I that he had “motive enough […] to embrace the defense and protection of this people, upon such conditions as may both secure and caution the liberty of trade we have there already and open it further”. They asked for an authorized emissary to be dispatched to the North to conduct talks with the local population about concluding a treaty on the basis of either sovereignty or protection. 

“If his Majesty may have an offer of the sovereignty of that part of Moscovia which lyeth between the Archangel and the river Volga, with the tract along that river to the Caspian or Persian sea or at least the commands and protection of it, with liberty and assurance of that trade, it will be 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,” the document stated. 

The authors proposed that the English army be sent to these territories for the preservation of order - and that this army should be maintained by the Russian population. And local agents of English companies were to act as operators, as it were, for the stockpiling of commodities and foodstuffs.

The English plan remained a secret for three centuries

While the document was being considered by King James, detachments of “volunteers” willing to act against the Polish interventionists on the side of the Tsardom of Muscovy began to be formed. In reality, their aim was to gain access to Arkhangelsk. On the advice of Prince Dmitry Pozharsky, the head of the Volunteer Army giving short shrift to the Poles on Russian territory, the English volunteers were not permitted to go to the North. Meanwhile, the Polish interventionists were driven out of Moscow in October 1612 and, in January 1613, Michael Romanov ascended the throne.

Before the appointment of Mikhail Feodorovich Romanov to the tsardom.

When, in May 1613, John Meyrick and his Muscovy Company colleague William Russell were appointed special ambassadors of the king and authorized to conduct negotiations with the inhabitants of the Russian North, their mission had already lost its purpose. Michael Romanov had been acknowledged as ruler throughout the country, including its northern regions. 

Then Meyrick, who had been in Arkhangelsk since the summer, hurried to convince the new tsar that rumors that the English intended to establish a protectorate were untrue. He managed to salvage his reputation as a diplomat and even to act as mediator in drawing up the Treaty of Stolbovo, ending the Russian-Swedish War of 1610-1617. Meyrick left Russia for good in 1621 and, in 1629, became governor of the Muscovy Company.

In 1649, Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich Romanov restricted the Muscovy Company’s trading rights in Russia to Arkhangelsk. It lost its monopoly privileges in 1698 as part of Peter the Great’s reforms.


The English plans to take advantage of the ‘Time of Troubles’ to “subjugate” the Russian North were unknown until 1914. The Chamberlain plan was discovered in British archives by a Russian historian named Inna Lubimenko. In 1914, she published the full text in the article titled ‘A Project for the Acquisition of Russia by James I’.

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