The Muscovy Company (also called Russian Company or Muscovy Trading Company, Russian: Московская компания), was a trading company chartered in 1555. It was the first major English joint-stock trading company, the precursor of the type of business that would soon flourish in England, and became closely associated with such famous names as Henry Hudson and William Baffin. The Muscovy Company had a monopoly on trade between England and Muscovy until 1698 and it survived as a trading company until the Russian Revolution of 1917. Since 1917 the company has operated as a charity, now working within Russia.
The Muscovy Company traces its roots to the Company of Merchant Adventurers (in full: 'Mystery and Company of Merchant Adventurers for the Discovery of Regions, Dominions, Islands, and Places unknown') founded in 1551 by Richard Chancellor, Sebastian Cabot and Sir Hugh Willoughby, who decided to look for the Northeast Passage to China.
The first expedition of the Company of Merchant Adventurers was led by Willoughby, who seems to have been chosen for his leadership skills and unfortunately had no prior nautical or navigational experience. Chancellor would function as the navigator of the small fleet, which consisted of three ships: the Bona Esparanza under Willoughby, the Edward Bonaventure under Chancellor and the Bona Confidentia. The fleet departed from London on 10 May 1553, but near the Lofoten islands the ships were caught in a storm and Chancellor's ship was separated from the other two.
Willoughby eventually crossed the Barents Sea and reached Novaya Zemlya. He spent some time sailing along the coast, then turned south towards Scandinavia. However at the mouth of the Varzina river on the coast to the east of present-day Murmansk the ship became trapped in ice. Willoughby and the crew were not prepared for the cold, and after a few desperate failed attempts to find help he and his men froze to death in the extreme cold of the northern winter. The following year the ship, laden with frozen corpses, was discovered by Russian fishermen.
Chancellor was luckier. He penetrated the White Sea, where the local fishermen were amazed by the great size of his Western-built ship. He reached the harbour of Nikolo-Korelsky Monastery on the Northern Dvina river, near the present-day Arkhangelsk which would be eventually founded in 1584 to service the growing trade. The region had just recently been added to Muscovy, and when Czar Ivan IV heard of Chancellor's arrival, he immediately invited the exotic guest to visit Moscow for an audience at the royal court.
Chancellor made the journey of over 600 miles (over 1000 kilometres) to Moscow through snow and ice covered country. He found Moscow large (much larger than London) and primitively built, most houses being constructed of wood. However, the palace of the tsar was very luxurious, as were the dinners he offered Chancellor. The Russian tsar was pleased to open the sea trading routes with England and other countries, as Russia did not yet have a safe connection with the Baltic Sea at the time and the almost entire area was contested by the neighbouring powers of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Swedish Empire. In addition, the Hanseatic League had a monopoly on the trade between Russia and Central and Western Europe. Chancellor was no less optimistic, finding a good market for his English wool, and receiving furs and other Russian continental goods in return. When he returned to England in 1554, he had letters from the czar with him, inviting English traders and promising trade privileges.
The Company of Merchant Adventurers renamed itself the Muscovy Company, and in 1555 Chancellor left for Russia again. The Muscovy Company began to serve as an important diplomatic link between Muscovy and England, and was especially important for the isolated Muscovy. When Chancellor returned to England one year later in 1556, he was joined by the first Russian ambassador to England, Osip Nepeya. However this is where Chancellor's luck finally ran out. Off the Scottish coast, his ship was caught in a sudden storm and shipwrecked. Chancellor drowned, but Nepeya managed to reach the coast, where he was taken hostage by the Scots for a few months before being able to travel on to London.
Chancellor was succeeded as the main trader of the Muscovy Company by Anthony Jenkinson, who made two important voyages himself - one trying to reach Cathay overland from Moscow, eventually stopping at Bukhara, the other, between 1562 and 1579 to establish overland trade routes through Russia to Persia. In 1567, when Muscovy was faring badly in the Livonian War, Jenkinson was asked by Czar Ivan to sound out Queen Elizabeth I of England as a marriage prospect, providing possible refuge to the tsar if he was forced to flee the country. The negotiations yielded no results, and Czar Ivan was soon forced to sign a ceasefire with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
The English Muscovy Company was chartered by Queen Elizabeth I in 1577. The primary and most profitable whaling grounds of this joint-stock company came to be centered around Spitsbergen in the early 17th Century. Initially the English tried to drive away competitors; but after a few years, they claimed only the waters south of these Arctic islands.
A further voyage undertaken by the Muscovy Company shortly after Chancellor's death, was another attempt to complete the Northeast Passage, led by Stephen Burrough. He managed to sail through the "Kara Gate", as the strait between Vaygach and Novaya Zemlya is known.
In 1646, English merchants were expelled from Muscovy, but trade reopened on the restoration of Charles II in 1660, when it was also reorganized as a regulated company. It enjoyed important privileges until 1649 and a monopoly on the English Russia trade until 1698, when it losts its privileges due to political opposition.
In the mid 1770s, subsidies for whaling ships flying the English ensign were increased. Import tariffs and other economic restrictions limited access to British harbors for non-British ships and non-English whaling products. This led to a ten-fold increase in the English whaling fleet. These Arctic gains were diminished by the fourth Anglo-Dutch wars (1780-1784) and the Napoleonic Wars (1795-1802; 1803-1813). In 1816, there were 146 English whaling ships in the coastal waters of the Arctic; and the numbers of English whalers continued to dwindle for the next two decades. In the 1840s, the British government ended subsidies, ceding the market to the American whalers and others.
The Company continued in existence until the Russian Revolution of 1917. The company headquarters (called the Old English Yard), built during the reign of Ivan IV not far from the Moscow Kremlin, were visited by Queen Elizabeth II in 1994.