The death of Richard Chancellor

Shortly after 10 November 1556 a terrible storm struck the long North Sea coast of Aberdeenshire. Darkness fell early. And at Pitsligo, on the south-eastern corner of the Moray Firth, winds howled and tore at the ropes anchoring an English ship, the Edward Bonaventure, and pummelled her with rearing waves.


Under the captaincy of Richard Chancellor, the Edward had already survived horrendous conditions on her route back towards Britain from the North Cape – the northernmost tip of Scandinavia. Her men had watched as two of their fellow ships, which had already spent months locked in the Arctic ice, buckled beneath the ‘wrought seas’, claiming the lives of all those on board. For months she had traversed the North Sea, battling unfavourable conditions, until she finally arrived at a remote strip of coastal Scotland.


Then, of course, this was a foreign country (as it may be now). This wasn’t the Highlands, where the authority even of the Scottish government barely ran, but it was a long way from the capital in Edinburgh. On board were not only a huge quantity of valuable merchandise – £20,000 worth, or over £5 million worth today – but also Osip Napea, the man who would be the first ambassador from Russia to England.


There was no shelter on this exposed, rocky coast, as the weather deteriorated once more. Martens and hawks which were gifts from the Russian Tsar to the English Queen ran, or flapped, in terror, as their cages reeled and plunged in the darkness. A hideous, tearing crash could be heard above the screaming wind as a hole was ripped by rocks in the ship’s flank and the vessel heeled.


As the Edward broke up, Chancellor, Napea and others managed to escape into their ship’s boat, though that too was soon tossed and capsized by the savage waves. While a few managed to make it to shore – Napea himself among them – Chancellor was lost, as was his son, a boy in his early teens who was sailing for the first time as an apprentice on a long-distance voyage. The trading company in London lamented, when it learned, what it called this ‘heavy news’.


In part because he was relatively young when he died, Richard Chancellor is not a familiar name to the English today, as are other pioneering mariners who followed him: men like Sir Francis Drake, or Sir Martin Frobisher. But he should be. He is an unsung hero of English seafaring – the country’s first modern navigator, a mathematician, a maker of instruments to measure position on the Earth by the sun and the stars. It was Chancellor, who, as Chief Pilot, was the effective leader of the great voyage of 1553 which discovered a new sea route to the Russian Empire of Ivan the Terrible. It was always him, in whom, as was written shortly afterwards, ‘great hope for the performance of this business rested’.


A man who helped him to prepare, John Dee, later fondly recalled the time he had spent with a man he called ‘the incomparable Richard Chancellor’ – who he hailed, rightly, as ‘worthy of eternal good fame and grateful memory’. Others acclaimed this ‘excellent young man’ who was ‘no less learned in all mathematical sciences than an expert pilot’.


It was his talents and reputation which had created a buzz of excitement among London merchants prior to the voyage. It was he who embraced what seems now a startlingly modern and scientific way of thinking, who demanded that assertions be supported by evidence from the senses. He is not now remembered as he should be, because he had the misfortune to die young.


There is no ‘Sir’ before his name. But he was a very great man nonetheless, who already, in his short career, achieved much, and who would surely have gone on to achieve much more.