This book tells the story of English relations with Russia, from the 'strange and wonderfull discoverie' of the land and Elizabeth I's correspondence with Ivan the Terrible, to the corruption of the Muscovy Company and the Elizabethan regime's censorship of politically sensitive representations of Russia. Focusing on the life and works of Giles Fletcher, the elder, ambassador to Russia in 1588, it explores two popular themes in Elizabethan history: exploration, travel and trade and late Elizabethan political culture. The book draws together and analyses the narratives of travel, the practicalities of trade and the discourses of commonwealth and corruption that defined English encounters in late sixteenth century. In the early stages of English mercantile contact with Russia, diplomatic negotiations took shape in the wake of developing trade relations and were made up of a series of ad hoc embassies by individuals. The embassy of Giles Fletcher in 1588, however, represented a change in diplomatic tack. Fletcher's writing of Russia reveals some shared Elizabethan images of the land on Christendom's periphery and fundamentally how Russia was used as a site to reflect on themes of cultural development, commonwealth, trade and colonisation. The extensive use in Fletcher's text of the language of anti-popery points to resonances with the anxieties that riddled the political and religious consciences of late Elizabethan England. His work engaged in cajoling the commonwealth to think with the image of Russia.
This introduction presents an overview of the key concepts discussed in the subsequent chapters of this book. The book addresses the lacunae by analysing Giles Fletcher's voyage, experience and works on Russia within the context of late Elizabethan humanist discourse and the domestic and foreign politics of the 1580s and the 1590s. It examines the records of the Muscovy Company, comprising instructions to the company servants, correspondence between governors, company agents and ambassadors and the day-today aspects of mercantile affairs in Russia and at home. The book discusses the 'commonwealth' culture cultivated within the Muscovy Company to cope with the challenges presented by travel, exploration and trade in a foreign and far-off land. It then examines briefly the relationship between Fletcher's early manuscript treatise and Richard Hakluyt's first edition of The Principall navigations, the most extensive compilation of English exploration, travel and trade documents of the early modern period.
English mercantile and diplomatic encounters with Russia, 1553–88
Felicity Jane Stout
The early history of the Muscovy Company was one of risk and exploration, negotiation and trade, commonwealth and corruption. The Elizabethan government and the company were primarily interested in gaining and retaining advantageous trading privileges in Russia and Persia, rather than forging offensive alliances with far-away princes. Thomas Randolph was successful on the mercantile front, but less so in deflecting Ivan IV's desire for an Anglo-Russian entente. Ivan was outraged by Elizabeth's blasé response to the 'great affairs' of alliance, accusing her of focusing solely on mercantile affairs and suggesting that she was ruled entirely by her merchants. The English venture to discover a northern passage to Cathay was originally proposed by Robert Thorne in 1527 and later by his business partner Roger Barlow in 1540. Differences in English and Russian attitudes towards the delivery of titles of rulers posed a continuing threat to the smooth running of diplomatic relations.
This chapter examines Giles Fletcher's embassy to Russia by exploring how his own personal history framed his particular experience there and influenced his negotiations at the Muscovite court. Fletcher's life, career and writings consistently demonstrated his commitment to the Elizabethan commonwealth and to reformed religion. All of Elizabeth's ambassadors to Russia had to deal with both the political and mercantile; both royal commissions and the affairs of the company. Fletcher's first ambassadorial mission in his own right was undertaken in May 1587 to Hamburg in order to negotiate the restoration of the Merchant Adventurers' trade rights. Muscovy Company governors and ambassadors, such as Fletcher, hoped to retain English civility abroad, as well as the company's lucrative trading privileges, in a far-off and uncivil land. The foreign emissaries reported the sequestration on arrival in Muscovy, which Daniel Printz von Buchau noted during his embassy to the Russian emperor in 1578.
Giles Fletcher's ambition in the early 1590s to write a Latin history of the queen's reign may also have been guided by a deep-seated belief in the role of the poet to counsel the monarch and commonwealth. Richard Pipes surmises that Richard Hakluyt must have had access to an early draft of Fletcher's text, which was still in the process of being created when Hakluyt was collating his work for publication in the autumn of 1589. The most obvious changes to the text as it developed over the period 1589 to 1591 are represented by the additions of geographical and historical information. Fletcher was acutely aware of the literary style of the popular generic mode of cosmography. A significant difference between the printed edition of 1591 and the earlier manuscript versions of the text was Fletcher's treatment of the subject of the Tartars, the nomadic tribes on Russia's borders.
Giles Fletcher analysed every aspect of Russian society in order to show the extent of the degradation of the land under tyrannical government. The Russian parliament existed like everything else in the emperor's realm, purely to reinforce the tyrannical power that the emperor wielded over his people, under the thin guise of civil 'commonwealth'. Fletcher's positive depiction of the Tartars and his suggestion that they were antagonistic towards the Russian religion because of Russian corruption reveals an underlying axiom of his treatise. Scythians had been completely dissuaded from Christianity because of their hatred of Russian falsehood and corruption, pointing to Fletcher's last word. In contrast to the popular images used to represent Russia as idolatrous or spiritually barren by Western Europeans in the period, Fletcher's assertion of God's providence at work in the country sheds a different light on Russia's situation.
This chapter considers Giles Fletcher's key arguments in relation to discussions of late Elizabethan politics, suggesting that Fletcher's text resonated with popular representations of tyranny whether Spanish, French, Scottish or even English tyranny. His depiction of Russia's parliament provided further explication of how corrupt forms of counsel detrimentally affected the commonwealth. Fletcher's evident support for a mixed-estate view of government, through his critique of the Russian parliament, offers an indication of where he may have placed himself politically in relation to the late Elizabethan regime. He used the pervasive language of anti-popery to describe the Russian church and to record how Russian Orthodox religious practices and doctrines resembled some of the worst abuses of 'popery'. The extensive use in Fletcher's text of the language of anti-popery points to resonances with the anxieties and concerns that riddled the political and religious consciences and contexts of late Elizabethan England.
This chapter traces the controversial printing history of The Russe Common Wealth and the reaction of the Muscovy Company and the Elizabethan regime to Giles Fletcher's text. It also explores Fletcher's love poetry of the 1590s, detailing a capricious, cruel and tyrannical lover in the image of his beloved Licia and a chilling depiction of the historical tyranny presented through the medium of Richard III's ghost. The chapter considers whether Fletcher's depiction of Russia and his later love poetry had any effect on his career prospects and fortunes as an aspiring citizen-subject of the Elizabethan crown. It was Fletcher's contemporary circumstances and his critical view of the world in general and the English commonwealth in particular that provided the political edge to his poetry. As Fletcher's contemporaries disclosed, the threat of censorship was palpable and the position of the late Elizabethan poet was precarious.
Thinking with Russia, writing English commonwealth
Felicity Jane Stout
The fluid representations, themes and meanings found in Giles Fletcher's texts problematise the later historiographical boundaries that have been imposed on the history of early modern Anglo-Russian relations, as mercantile, diplomatic or ethnographic. Fletcher's writings sit comfortably and yet distinctively within the various accounts of sixteenth-century English encounters with Russia. Lord Burghley's act of suppression confirmed the politically sensitive nature of Fletcher's text as well as the regime's tyranny over the freedom of expression. The analysis of Fletcher's diplomatic reports, his published work of counsel for commonwealth and his love poetry has revealed the importance of recognising the individuality and variety of Elizabethan representations of Russia. The response of the Muscovy Company promulgated a particularly hostile reading of Fletcher's text, as a work with the potential to destroy the continuation of amicable and lucrative relations with Russia.