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Habsburg family pulled strings to bring raiders of English North Cape expedition to justice

Richard Chancellor, the English Willem Barentsz, discovered the North Cape during the first English expedition to attempt to find a northeast passage. But the ship, the Edward Bonaventure, was ‘robbed by Flemings on its return in 1554.’ Historian Louis Sicking and legal expert Remco van Rhee found the details of this attack in archives in Brussels.

In 1553 – over 40 years before Barentz’s expedition would strand on Nova Zembla – the Edward Bonaventure set out from England accompanied by two other ships to find a northern passage to Asia. The ship reached the White Sea, and Chancellor travelled on by horse-drawn sleigh to Moscow, where he met the tsar, Ivan the Terrible. The ship returned to England in 1554, but was robbed on the way by ‘Flemings,’ if we are to believe English writer Richard Hakluyt (1553-1616). This story now has a fitting sequel following a discovery by historians Louis Sicking (Leiden University and VU Amsterdam) and Remco van Rhee (Maastricht University). They found a fascinating file in the archives of the Great Council of Mechelen, the highest court in the 16th-century Netherlands.

The route taken by the expedition of the Edward Bonaventure, during which Richard Chancellor discovered the North Cape.
The route taken by the expedition of the Edward Bonaventure, during which Richard Chancellor discovered the North Cape.

North Cape

This first English expedition resulted in the discovery of the North Cape and direct trade and diplomatic relations between England and Russia. Chancellor returned to England in 1554 with a letter from the Tsar to the English monarch. This was Mary Tudor, who was married to Philip of Habsburg (who would go on to become Philip II of Spain) from 1554 to 1558. Apart from Hakluyt’s story about the ship being ‘robbed by Flemings on its return in 1554,’ little was known about the Bonaventure’s return.

Habsburg family affair

Sicking and Van Rhee found court documents that were initially used by the Admiralty in the Zeeland town of Veere and then in an appeal at the Grand Council of Mechelen. These documents revealed that it wasn’t ‘Flemings’ that had attacked the ship but fishermen from Zeeland. They also showed that Philip of Habsburg put pressure on the lord of the Netherlands to have these fishermen sentenced by the Admiralty. The lord of the Netherlands at that point was Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor and Philip’s father and predecessor. Philip also put pressure on his aunt, Mary of Hungary, governor of the Netherlands and sister of the Emperor. This was prompted by the ship’s stakeholders: Sebastian Cabot, son of John Cabot, who discovered America in 1497, Richard Chancellor, captain of the Bonaventure and pilot of the expedition, and Stephen Borough, who gave the North Cape its name. Important men therefore.

Puppet courts?

The file also includes details about the Bonaventure’s cargo and the violent encounter with the fishermen from Zeeland. ‘For instance, that Chancellor’s astrolabe, an instrument needed for navigation, was stolen,’ says Sicking. But it was the information about Philip of Habsburg’s interference that caught the researchers’ eyes. ‘Our research reveals the political pressure put on the courts – in effect it was a Habsburg family affair. But it also shows that the courts were more than just the puppets of their rulers.’

Louis Sicking and Remco van Rhee will present their findings during the ‘Maritime Conflict Management in the Atlantic, North Sea and Baltic’ conference, which will take place in Amsterdam and Leiden on 24 and 25 May 2019.

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