The age of exploration saw European powers come to dominate the world - through empire and enterprise. By the 12th century European nations had begun to explore and discover new worlds. England, with its vastly superior navy and equally unrelenting merchant-explorers, emerged as a superpower by the 1600s.
According to the book, 'The Sea and Civilisation: A Maritime History of the World' by scholar Lincoln Paine, the European economy was transformed by the interconnecting of river and sea trade routes between the 12th and 15th centuries.
By then Europe had become one of the world's most prosperous trading networks. However, the leading European nations - France, the Netherlands, and England were left without a sea route to Asia - either through Africa or South America.
As it became apparent that no route to Asia existed through the Americas, Europeans turned to the possibility of a passage through northern waters. The Muscovy Company was an enterprise that was at the forefront of England's influence through exploration and trade in the Northwest Passage; it opened England's trade with Russia.
The Company of Merchant Adventurers, later became known as the Muscovy Company, was the first major chartered joint-stock company in history, paving the way for companies such as the East India Company to emerge.
East by Northwest: A route to China led to Russia
Explorer-merchants Richard Chancellor, Sebastian Cabot, and Sir Hugh Willoughby established the Company of Merchant Adventurers to New Lands in 1551 in search of the Northeast Passage to China. The Company's mission was to find a new northern trading route connecting Cathay (China) and the Spice Islands (the Moluccas, now part of Indonesia).
Sebastian Cabot was appointed the governor of the company and a royal charter was prepared for the company under King Edward in 1553. 240 explorers purchased shares at $25 each (adjusted for modern times).
Sir Willoughby led the Company's first expedition in search of the Northeast Passage to China in May of 1553. Three ships were outfitted for the expedition. Richard Chancellor was in charge of the ships Edward Bonaventure and Bona Confidentia, while Willoughby was onboard the ship Bona Esperanza.
The ships were separated in the North Sea during a storm, and although two of them reunited, the other sailed around North Cape and along the Kola Peninsula in the extreme northwest of Russia; it eventually arrived in the White Sea in August.
Two ships returned to Novaya Zemlya, Russia, and attempted to winter on the coast of Lapland. Sir Willoughby's fate took a horrifying turn after every crew member in his ship died allegedly from cold and hunger. It was later discovered that they died of Carbon Monoxide poisoning.
Richard Chancellor crossed the White Sea. The size of Chancellor's Western-built ship astounded the local fishermen. On the Northern Dvina river, he arrived at Nikolo-Korelsky Monastery's harbour. The area had only recently been annexed by the Grand Duchy of Muscovy, and when Tsar Ivan the Terrible learned about Chancellor's arrival, he invited him to Moscow for an audience at the royal court.
Since Muscovy did not yet have a secure link to the Baltic Sea at the time, and almost all of the region was disputed by the neighbouring forces of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Crown of the Kingdom of Poland, and the Swedish Empire, the Russian Tsar was pleased to open sea trading routes with England and other nations.
Richard Chancellor returned to the White Sea in March of 1554 and arrived back in London in the autumn, bearing a letter from Tsar Ivan to the English king, welcoming trade between the two Christian nations. By this time King Edward had died and Queen Mary was ruling in England.
Muscovy Company: A Russo-English affair
Queen Mary I of England renamed the Company of Merchant Adventurers to New Lands the Muscovy Company in 1555 and in the same year, Richard Chancellor returned to Russia. The Muscovy Company became a vital diplomatic connection between Muscovy and England, and the isolated Muscovy respected it greatly.
Richard Chancellor received a variety of rights for the business in Russia upon his arrival at Ivan's court, including free passage, control of English settlement, and freedom from detention.
One year later, in 1556, Chancellor set sail for England, accompanied by Osip Nepeya, the first Russian ambassador to England. Chancellor's ship was shipwrecked off the coast of Scotland after being caught in a sudden storm. Chancellor drowned. However, Nepeya made it to the coast and was kidnapped by the Scots. He was held captive for a few months before being released to flee to London.
Following Richard Chancellor's death in 1556, Anthony Jenkinson succeeded him as the Muscovy Company's chief trader. Jenkinson himself embarked on two major journeys.
When Muscovy was losing badly in the Livonian War in 1567, Tsar Ivan IV asked Jenkinson to contact Queen Elizabeth I of England about a marriage proposal, allowing the Russian ruler to leave the country if it became necessary.
After struggling to reach an agreement, Ivan IV was forced to conclude a ceasefire with the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1570. Ivan IV, who had been angered by English demands to close Russian trade to other European nations, revoked the company's right to free trade and navigation down the Volga in 1571.
Jenkinson returned to Moscow in 1572 to try to reclaim the company's rights, which he largely succeeded in doing. However, there was a noticeable cooling in Anglo-Russian relations. The Muscovy Company and Russia remained at odds until the end of the sixteenth century when the anti-English courts of Fyodor Ivanovich and Boris Godunov reigned supreme.
Trading to whaling and expanding
In 1577, Queen Elizabeth I granted the Muscovy Company a whaling monopoly charter. In the early 17th century, the company's main and most lucrative whaling grounds were centered around Spitsbergen, Norway; and the company's royal charter of 1613 granted a monopoly on whaling in Spitsbergen - based on an assertion that Hugh Willoughby had found the land in 1553. The English initially attempted to push out rivals, but after a few years, they only could ensure access to the waters south of the Arctic islands.
The Muscovy Company had dispatched another expedition to explore the Northeast Passage shortly after Chancellor's death in 1556 - led by Steven Borough. He was able to sail through the Kara Gates, a strait in the Arctic Ocean that links the islands of Vaygach and Novaya Zemlya in northern Russia.
The company sent Henry Hudson on two separate voyages to find the Northeast Passage in 1607 and 1608. Both voyages were a disaster.
Fading away to the Dutch domination
In response to the company's supposed patronage of the Parliamentarians in the English Civil War, in 1646 Tsar Alexei I revoked the Muscovy Company's exemption from Russian customs.
Alexei I expelled all English merchants from Russia except for the city of Archangel after the execution of Charles I of England in 1648. The restoration of Charles II of England in 1660 resulted in a temporary thaw in relations between England and Russia; however, Andrew Marvell's embassy in 1664 was unsuccessful in restoring the Muscovy Company's previous benefits.
In the meantime, Dutch merchants replaced the English as the dominant traders in Russia. Nevertheless, the company held a monopoly on English-Russian trade until 1698, when it lost its privileges due to political opposition
Until 1698, the Muscovy Company used to have a monopoly on trade between England and Muscovy – modern day Moscow, and it proceeded to trade until the Russian Revolution of 1917. The corporation has been a charity since 1917, and is functioning in Russia.