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This English beast dwells in the Armoury Chamber of the Kremlin …

A silver sculpture of a panther (some say leopard – doctors differ). Three feet high – claws, teeth, tongue and tail. There seems to be a harp-like structure to it, but maybe that’s just me. And note the face under the left forepaw.

The piece was made circa 1600 and is part of a collection of English silverware – goblets, wine vessels, jugs, salt-cellars – amassed by the Russians in the 16th and 17th centuries.

The collection was exhibited in London in 2006 and is considered the most important surviving group of English silver from that period. Why? Because pieces like this were melted down at a furious rate in the mid-17th century, during England’s civil war and the Commonwealth government under Oliver Cromwell.

How did the sculpture end up in the Kremlin?

We start with Richard Chancellor, an English adventurer appointed in 1553 as pilot-general of a small expedition to find a north-east sea passage to India and China. The expedition was led by Sir Hugh Willoughby, and the aim was to expand England’s trade routes and alter the continental trade cartels.*

Provision had been made for an eighteen month voyage, but Chancellor discovered before departure that much of the food had rotted and the wine casks were leaking. He had to make do: the little fleet of three ships set sail for the north on May 20, and was separated by “terrible whirlwinds” at the Lofoten Islands off the arctic coast of Norway.

Two of the ships crossed the Barents Sea and landed on Novaya Zemlaya, but on their return became trapped in ice in Lapland. The ships were retrieved by Russian fishermen in the following year, when it was found their crews – including Willoughby – had perished from the cold.

Chancellor continued his lonely voyage into the further reaches of the Barents Sea and dropped anchor in the estuary of the Dvina River in Russia.  He led a party on foot through 600 miles of frozen land, and was granted an audience with the emperor at Moscow.

The emperor? Ivan the Terrible, the first tsar of all Russia.

Ivan the Terrible (1530-1584)

The tsar addressed a trading licence to King Edward VI, but only after Chancellor had presented him with the first of many gifts to be borne by English diplomats over the following century.

Here’s an excerpt from the account of the expedition published by Hakluyt (note the “Great Commander of Silence” – very eastern):

Now after that they had remained about twelve days in the city, there was then a messenger sent unto them to bring them to the king’s house … being entered within the gates of the court, there sat a very honourable company of courtiers, to the number of one hundred, all apparelled in cloth of gold down to their ankles, and therehence being conducted into the chamber of presence, our men began to wonder at the majesty of the Emperor.  His seat was aloft in a very royal throne, having on his head a diadem or crown of gold, apparelled with a robe all of goldsmith’s work, and in his hand he held a sceptre garnished and beset with precious stones … On the one side of him stood his Chief Secretary, and on the other side the Great Commander of Silence, both of them arrayed also in cloth of gold; and then there sat the Council, of one hundred and fifty in number, all in like sort arrayed, and of great state … Master Chanceler, being therewithal nothing dismayed, saluted and did his duty to the Emperor after the manner of England, and withal delivered unto him the letters of their King Edward VI.  The Emperor having taken and read the letters, began a little to question with them, and to ask them of the welfare of our king, whereunto our men answered him directly and in few words.  Hereupon our men presented something to the Emperor by the Chief Secretary, which at the delivery of it put off his hat, being before all the time covered; and so the Emperor having invited them to dinner, dismissed them from his presence …at the last the messenger cometh, and calleth them to dinner.  They go, and being conducted into the Golden Court (for so they call it, although not very fair), they find the Emperor sitting upon a high and stately seat, apparelled with a robe of silver, and with another diadem on his head; our men, being placed over against him, sit down … The Emperor, when he takes any bread or knife into his hand, doth first of all cross himself upon his forehead.  They that are in special favour with the Emperor sit upon the same bench with him, but somewhat far from him; and before the coming in of the meat the Emperor himself, according to an ancient custom of the Kings of Muscovy, doth first bestow a piece of bread upon every one of his guests, with a loud pronunciation of his title and honour in this manner, “The Great Duke of Muscovy and Chief Emperor of Russia, John Basiliwich (and then the officer nameth the guest), doth give thee bread,” whereupon all the guests rise up and by-and-by sit down again.  This done, the Gentleman Usher of the hall comes in with a notable company of servants carrying the dishes, and having done his reverence to the Emperor, puts a young swan in a golden platter upon the table, and immediately takes it thence again, delivering it to the carver and seven other of his fellows to be cut up, which being performed, the meat is then distributed to the guests with the like pomp and ceremonies.  In the meantime, the Gentleman Usher receives his bread and talketh to the Emperor, and afterward, having done his reverence, he departeth.  Touching the rest of the dishes, because they were brought in out of order, our men can report no certainty; but this is true, that all the furniture of dishes and drinking vessels, which were then for the use of a hundred guests, was all of pure gold, and the tables were so laden with vessels of gold, that there was no room for some to stand upon them.

Chancellor returned home in the spring of 1554 to find that the king had died, but his achievements led to the full establishment of the first great joint stock venture in England: the Muscovy Company managed to keep a monopoly on English trade with Russia until 1698.

In 1555 Chancellor retraced his voyage, but on the return leg his ship, the Edward Bonaventure, sank in Aberdour Bay on the north-east coast of Scotland. He went down with the ship, along with most of his crew, although the tsar’s ambassador – the first appointed to England – did make it to shore. Chancellor left behind two young sons.

And that’s how the Kremlin’s collection of English silver began.

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*The DNB has a brief description of Chancellor’s life (caution: reliable source but it takes a while to load). Try the wikipedia biog instead.

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