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The English Search for a Northeast Passage to Asia Reconsidered: How ‘Flemish’ fishermen put the Edward Bonaventure in jeopardy on its return journey in 1554

  • Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam / Universiteit Leiden


In 1553 the Edward Bonaventure set sail from England with two other ships to search for a Northeast Passage to Asia. Eventually the ship made it to the White Sea and the captain of the ship, Richard Chancellor, reached Moscow where he met Tsar Ivan IV, ‘the Terrible’, at the Kremlin. In 1554 the ship returned to England but was ‘robbed by Flemings’, according to Richard Hakluyt. The discovery of a case file in the archives of the Great Council of Malines, the supreme court of the Netherlands in the sixteenth century, concerning the robbing of the Edward Bonaventure on its return voyage offers a new perspective on the spectacular first English expedition which resulted in the discovery of the North Cape and Anglo-Russian trade connections and diplomatic relations. Besides offering new knowledge on England’s pioneering voyage of 1553, this article explores possibilities and limitations of case files for historical research and offers a revealing example of political pressure on legal decision-making and shows that legal institutions were not necessarily the puppets of their rulers.
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The English Search for a Northeast Passage to
Asia Reconsidered: How ‘Flemish’ fishermen put
the Edward Bonaventure in jeopardy on its return
journey in 1554
Louis Sicking & C. H. (Remco) van Rhee
To cite this article: Louis Sicking & C. H. (Remco) van Rhee (2019) The English Search
for a Northeast Passage to Asia Reconsidered: How ‘Flemish’ fishermen put the Edward
Bonaventure in jeopardy on its return journey in 1554, The Mariner's Mirror, 105:4, 388-406, DOI:
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The Mariner’s Mirror 105:4 (November 2019), 388–406
© The Author(s). Published by Informa UK
Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group.*
The English Search for a Northeast Passage to Asia
Reconsidered: How ‘Flemish’ fishermen put the Edward
Bonaventure in jeopardy on its return journey in 1554
Louis Sicking and C. H. (Remco) van Rhee
In 1553 the Edward Bonaventure set sail from England with two other ships to search for a
Northeast Passage to Asia. Eventually the ship made it to the White Sea and the captain of the
ship, Richard Chancellor, reached Moscow where he met Tsar Ivan IV, ‘the Terrible’, at the
Kremlin. In 1554 the ship returned to England but was ‘robbed by Flemings’, according to
Richard Hakluyt. The discovery of a case file in the archives of the Great Council of Malines,
the supreme court of the Netherlands in the sixteenth century, concerning the robbing of the
Edward Bonaventure on its return voyage offers a new perspective on the spectacular first
English expedition which resulted in the discovery of the North Cape and Anglo-Russian trade
connections and diplomatic relations. Besides offering new knowledge on England’s pioneering
voyage of 1553, this article explores possibilities and limitations of case files for historical
research and offers a revealing example of political pressure on legal decision-making and shows
that legal institutions were not necessarily the puppets of their rulers.
Key words: Northeast Passage, discoveries, prize law, Anglo-Netherlandish relations, Russia,
Arctic, Richard Chancellor, Edward Bonaventure
In the summer of 1554 the North Sea witnessed a violent encounter between
40 or 50 herring busses from the Low Countries and the English ship Edward
Bonaventure.1 Although violent encounters occurred on a regular basis in the busy
North Sea, this case is unusual as the Bonaventure was not an ordinary ship. It
belonged to a group of three ships that had left England in 1553 in order to find a
north-eastern sea route to Asia. The three ships got into trouble along the northern
coast of the scarcely populated Kola peninsula, part of Russia. The crew of two of the
three ships, the Bona Esperanza and the Bona Confidentia, tried to spend the winter
at Kola, but perished from cold and exhaustion. The pilot major of the expedition,
1 Research by Louis Sicking within the context of the international research project
Maritime Conflict Management in Atlantic Europe, 1200–1600, financed by NWO (Netherlands
Organisation for Scientific Research) and the partner universities of Cantabrië (Santander), La
Laguna, La Rochelle and Nova Lissabon. See
research-projects/humanities/maritime-conflict-management-in-atlantic-europe. Research by C.
H. van Rhee within the context of the research programme Principles and Foundations of Civil
Procedure of the Ius Commune Research School.
* This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-
NonCommercial-NoDerivatives License (,
which permits non-commercial re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided
the original work is properly cited, and is not altered, transformed, or built upon in any way.
The English Search for a Northeast Passage to Asia Reconsidered 389
Richard Chancellor, had more luck since he reached the White Sea with the third
ship of the fleet, the Bonaventure, the largest of the three ships.2 By accident, he
reached the estuary of the Northern Dvina River, and from there Chancellor and
his crew travelled to Moscow. There he was received by Tsar Ivan IV, ‘the Terrible’,
(1530–84). The passage via the North Cape and through the White Sea to Russia,
discovered incidentally by Chancellor, would allow the tsar to trade directly with
western Europe without the intervention of others. Chancellor was well aware of
the opportunities that establishing direct trading contacts with Russia offered for
his principals. Therefore, the expedition of 1553, although it was a failure from
the perspective of its original goal, offered unexpected possibilities for commercial
success. Chancellor contributed to making Russia, via the northern sea-route, a
regular commercial destination. The expedition of 1553 was the first long-distance
voyage in which the city of London took part and which was run by a joint-stock
company. It was, moreover, a first breakthrough which had great consequences for
English overseas enterprise: endowed with a monopoly the Muscovy Company
that was founded after the 1553 expedition became the leading English supporter of
geographical enterprise and science for the next few decades.3
Until now, nothing has been known about the return journey of the Bonaventure
from Russia, apart from this statement by Hakluyt,
Anno 1554. the sayd shippe Edward Bonadventure (although robbed homewardes
by Flemings) returned with her company to London . . .4
The reason why the crews of the herring busses were identified as ‘Flemings’ in
this quotation is easy to answer. In the sixteenth century the indication ‘Flemings’
was used as pars pro toto for all inhabitants of the Low Countries.5 Fishermen
attacking a vessel may seem quite unusual but it must be realized that pre-modern
fishermen were tough men used to violence at sea in a period when the distinction
between peaceful seafarers and violent robbers did not exist except in contemporary
writing.6 Even though it is true that fishing boats were vulnerable to attack while
fishing, in periods of war they went fishing either accompanied by convoy vessels
or were armed themselves.7 What is more relevant for this article is that fishermen
themselves easily turned into pirates or privateers if circumstances forced them to or
offered a chance to make a profit. The Netherlands were no exception to this reality
in the North Sea, even though before the Dutch Revolt privateering was essentially
a secondary activity, taking place in conjunction with or as a corollary of fishing
and trading. It is no coincidence that the fishing towns of Dunkirk in Flanders
and Flushing in Zeeland produced privateers in periods of war. As is well known,
privateers easily overstepped the mark by attacking vessels which did not belong
2 Evans, Tudor Adventurers, 82; Andrews, Trade, Plunder and Settlement, 64–75.
3 Alford, London’s Triumph, 74, 76; Andrews, Trade, 68–9.
4 Hakluyt, The Principal Navigations, vol. 2, 265.
5 On the manner in which the Low Countries were referred to in the early modern period, see
Duke, ‘The Elusive Netherlands’, 10–38.
6 Pye, The Edge of the World, 189–90; Heebøll-Holm, et al., ‘Introduction’, 9–30.
7 For an iconographic example of fishermen defending themselves while under attack, see the
Panorama van Walcheren by Antoon van den Wijngaerde, about 1550. For an image of the relevant
detail see Sicking, La naissance d’une thalassocratie, 180.
390 The Mariner’s Mirror
to the official enemy. For the Netherlands, ruled by the Habsburgs in the sixteenth
century, the main enemy was Valois France.8
The quotation comes from a letter incorporated in Richard Hakluyt’s Principal
Navigations, a letter dating from more than 30 years after the expedition took
place. In the letter, written by the English merchant Henry Lane and addressed to
William Sanderson, it is explained that the Bonaventure had navigated safely to ‘St.
Nicholas’ (today’s Severodvinsk in the Russian Federation, where the St Nicholas
monastery was situated) on the coast of the White Sea. The letter then continues with
the quotation just mentioned. Henry Lane wrote his letter because of Sanderson’s
intention to write a book on the English discovery of the Northeast Passage to
Russia. Lane had not participated in the first expedition of 1553, but he joined the
second expedition which set sail in 1555. He acted as an agent and, as a result, met
Richard Chancellor, who was the leader of the second expedition.
The letter is of importance as thus far it was the only known, but very short
report of the return journey of the Bonaventure.9 As Felipe Fernandez-Armesto
has emphasized, it was as important for explorers to find their way home as to
discover something new.10 This justifies attention on the capture of the Bonaventure
on its homeward journey, about which new information has been found in hitherto
unknown sources.
The aim of this article is twofold. First, it answers the question to which extent
the file from the Great Council can supplement our knowledge of the first English
expedition to find a Northeast Passage to Asia. Second, it demonstrates the
possibilities and limitations offered by judicial records to historians. In his recent
monograph on the first English expedition aimed at finding the Northeast Passage,
James Evans suggests that the Bonaventure may have been captured by using general
information on privateering and piracy in the North Sea in the sixteenth century.11
In this contribution the author’s views will be amended and supplemented with the
information on the actual capture in a case file in the archives of the Great Council
of Malines, which was the supreme court of the Netherlands at the time. The file
contains important information on the Bonaventure, on those having an interest
in the ship and the goods carried by it, as well as on the violent encounter on the
North Sea. The central research question is to which extent the file can supplement
our knowledge of the first English expedition to find a Northeast Passage, which
resulted in the visit of Richard Chancellor to the Russian tsar.
The case file in the archives of the Great Council of Malines provides new
information on the ‘pioneering voyage of 1553’, which has been considered ‘a staple
of British imperial history’ and ‘one of the boldest in English history’.12 It contains
further details about the capture of the Bonaventure by ‘Flemish’ fishermen.13 The
8 Sicking, ‘State and Non-state Violence at Sea’, 31–43, 34, 43; van Vliet, Vissers en kapers;
Sicking and van Vliet, ‘Our Triumph of Holland’, 337–64.
9 Evans, Tudor Adventurers, 225.
10 Fernandez-Armesto, Pathfinders, 44.
11 Evans, Tudor Adventurers, 226–7.
12 Ibid., 7.
13 The case file used for the present contribution is file 922 of the series Appeals from Holland
(BH) in the archives of the Great Council of Malines (GRM), currently in the General State
Archives of Belgium in Brussels (ARA). Most of the documents in this file are in Dutch and few in
The English Search for a Northeast Passage to Asia Reconsidered 391
file also contains information on subsequent litigation before the Admiralty court in
the town of Veere in Zeeland, and proceedings on appeal before the Great Council of
Malines. This information has previously escaped the attention of researchers.
The second aim of this contribution is to use the case to show the research
opportunities and limitations offered by judicial records to historians. Obviously,
the ‘prize papers’ in the archives of the High Court of Admiralty in The National
Archives, Kew, have triggered more interest in the use of judicial archives as
historical sources in recent years.14 These prize papers not only provide information
on the way prize cases were handled by the Admiralty Court, but they are also
relevant for further historical research, especially due to the correspondence and
other documents from the ships taken as a prize by the English. For those interested
in prize cases, obviously the archives of the admiralty courts will be the focus of
attention. It should be remembered, however, that other courts were also competent
to hear such cases. An example of such a court in the Low Countries is the Great
Council of Malines, which was competent for several Netherlandish provinces.
The Great Council served as a court of final appeal in prize cases submitted to the
Admiralty Court in the first instance.15
Several aspects of the taking of the Bonaventure will be discussed. First, the violent
encounter near Scarborough on the North Sea will be studied. Subsequently, the
diplomatic context of the taking of the Bonaventure will be sketched, focusing on
the marriage of Philip of Habsburg (later King Philip II of Spain) and Mary Tudor.
Third, the court cases before the Admiralty Court and the Great Council will be
described as well as the legal arguments exchanged in these cases. Next the focus will
be on courtesy at sea and the views of the litigating parties concerning the flag of the
Bonaventure, especially the question of whether the flag could be recognized as an
English flag. Finally, the goods stolen from the Bonaventure and their appraisal will
be discussed. However, first some additional information on the Bonaventure and
those having a direct interest in it will be provided.
The ‘Edward Bonaventure’ and its stakeholders
Bonaventure was a popular name for ships in the sixteenth century.16 Nevertheless,
that our case file concerns the Bonaventure that set sail in 1553, arriving eventually
in Russia, appears unmistakenly from references in the case file to a letter from the
tsar addressed to the king of England that was handed over to Richard Chancellor
after his visit to the Kremlin. This letter served as the basis for later diplomatic and
trade relations between the two countries. The parties that are mentioned in the case
file also leave no doubt concerning this matter. Parties are the stakeholders in the
expedition of 1553, i.e. London merchants and administrators.17 In the court records,
French. We follow the way the individual documents in the case file are identified in the relevant
calendar. The case file itself is referred to as BH 922.
14 Especially due to projects like ‘Dutch Prize Papers’ in the Netherlands, https://www.huygens. and, more recently, the larger ‘Prize Papers Project’ of the university
of Oldenburg in Germany,
15 Sicking, Neptune and the Netherlands,124, 441; Sicking and van Rhee, ‘Prijs, procedure en
proceskosten’, 337–57.
16 See for instance Sicking and Van Rhee, ‘Prijs, procedure en proceskosten’.
17 Alford, London’s Triumph, passim; Evans, Tudor Adventurers, passim.
392 The Mariner’s Mirror
the names of these parties are not rendered in English but in a Dutch variant as was
common in the sixteenth century, but they are easily recognizable.18
The representative of the stakeholders in the Bonaventure before the courts in
the Low Countries was the London merchant Thomas Francis, who acted in the
name of ‘knights’ Sebastian Cabot, Sir George Barne, Sir Andrew Judde, the London
aldermen David Woodroffe and William Chester, the pilot major Richard Chancellor,
the skipper or shipmaster Stephen Borough, and the ship owners and crew members.19
Unfortunately, we have not been able to identify Thomas Francis,20 but the litigants
represented by him are well-known. Sebastian Cabot was the son of John Cabot
or Giovanni Caboto who with a commission of King Henry VII had discovered
the coast of North America, from Bristol, in his quest to find a north-west route
to Asia in 1497. Sebastian, who had accompanied his father in 1497, returned to the
American coast twice, in 1504 and in 1508–9, unlike his father realizing that he had
not discovered a new passage to Asia but a new landmass, i.e. America.21 According
to James Evans, Sebastian Cabot acted as the source of inspiration for the expedition
of 1553 to find a Northeast Passage to Asia.22 Together with Cabot, Sir George Barne
belonged to the committee that had set up the expedition to the Arctic. In 1552–3
he was lord mayor of London and in 1555 he acted as one of the two aldermen-
consuls of the Muscovy Company.23 Sir Andrew Judde was very influential in the
Skinners’ Company, and like other fur traders he was a founding member of the
Muscovy Company. In 1550–1 he was lord mayor of London.24 David Woodroffe
was a haberdasher originating from Devon. William Chester was a draper, and David
Woodroffe and William Chester were aldermen of the city of London in 1554.25
Richard Chancellor acted as captain of the Bonaventure and as pilot general of the
fleet which was commanded by Sir Hugh Willoughby as captain general.26 Chancellor
was born in Bristol and thus grew up in a seafaring environment. He belonged to a
small group of Englishmen that combined practical maritime with mathematical and
astronomical skills, and was the first Englishman to master the techniques of ocean-
going navigation. Sebastian Cabot may have possessed such skills as well, since he
18 The same is true for geographical names in the court records.
19 BH 922, c, 3.
20 We were unable to find a Thomas Francis in the Calendar of State Papers which can be identified
with the Thomas Francis in this article. Nor did we find a Thomas Francis in Dietz, The Port
and Trade, nor in the source publications on the Anglo-Dutch trade: Smit (ed.), Bronnen tot de
geschiedenis, vol. 2. There was a Dr Thomas Francis, physician, who was an Oxford scholar in the
1560s and who lived in London, but we do not think he can be identified as the Thomas Francis in
the case file.
21 Evans, Tudor Adventurers, 13–20.
22 Ibid., 242.
23 Ibid., 61, 242, 255; Alford, England’s Triumph, 77–8, 236.
24 Evans, Tudor Adventurers, 242; Alford, England’s Triumph, 236. https://www.british-history.
25 Evans, Tudor Adventurers and Alford, England’s Triumph, do not mention Woodroffe and
Chester in connection with the 1553 expedition. Beaven, The Aldermen of the City of London,
22–44. . See also Westell,
The Inside Story, 18; Alford, England’s Triumph, 88.
26 Alford, England’s Triumph, 71. Evans, Tudor Adventurers, 73.
The English Search for a Northeast Passage to Asia Reconsidered 393
had lived and worked for most of his career in Spain, where he could have been
instructed in these matters. They both embraced the belief that personal experience
was more important than accepted knowledge.27
Stephen Borough from Devon was 27 years old at the beginning of the expedition.
He had been sailing for more than a decade at the time. Like Chancellor, he took
an interest in the intellectual side of seafaring and acted as Chancellor’s master, i.e.
the second in command. Borough’s younger brother, William, was only 16 years
old and joined as a regular mariner to gain experience.28 On the second voyage to
Russia Stephen Borough, passing the North Cape, commented that he had named
that Cape ‘North Cape’ on his earlier voyage.29 Stephen and William Borough would
become the most important pilots of the Muscovy Company after Chancellor’s
death in 1556. They profited from the lessons of John Dee, who collaborated closely
with Chancellor after the latter’s return from Russia in 1554.30 The case file has thus
allowed us to formally determine the stakeholders of the Bonaventure.
A violent encounter
The violent encounter between the Bonaventure and the herring busses took place
in the North Sea off Scarborough on 4 August 1554.31 The steersmen of the busses
originated mainly from the town of Flushing and the village of Zoutelande on the
island of Walcheren in Zeeland.32 At the moment of the encounter, there were not
only a large number of Netherlandish herring busses present, but according to the
Netherlandish fishermen also an unknown number of English fishing vessels.33 The
fishermen claimed in court that the Bonaventure was riding at anchor with dropped
sails at a distance of one or two miles from their vessels.34 How this situation
culminated in a violent encounter does not become clear from the records. Both the
fishermen and the crew of the Bonaventure claimed that the opponent party had
initiated the attack. The fishermen succeeded in taking the English ship, after several
herring busses – about eight on each side – had navigated next to the Bonaventure.35 A
total of around 40 fishermen,36 jumped aboard the ship and overpowered the English
crew of about 35 souls,37 took the ship’s flag from its standard, tearing it to pieces and
tramping on it – something that was later denied by the fishermen – while uttering all
kinds of abusive language.38 The English crew was taken from the ship and distributed
among the herring busses, three or four per buss. They were threatened to be put
overboard.39 The fishermen started plundering the Bonaventure, which was carrying
27 Evans, Tudor Adventurers, 50–1, 74–6, 125, 326.
28 Ibid., 82, 90, 326; Andrews, Trade, Plunder and Settlement, 69.
29 Evans, Tudor Adventures, 132.
30 Alford, England’s Triumph, 131; Andrews, Trade, Plunder and Settlement, 69–72.
31 BH 922, c, 3, 15. Cf. Evans, Tudor Adventurers, 226–8, who presumes that a pirate vessel or
privateer attacked the Bonaventure.
32 BH 922, i, 5, 9.
33 BH 922, i, 8; BH 922, l, 3; BH 922, F, 17.
34 BH 922, c, 6.
35 BH 922, c, 4.
36 BH 922, F, 30.
37 Evans, Tudor Adventurers, 85, mentions 37 crew members. BH 922, F, 10 mentions 50 crew.
38 BH 922, c, 4, 12.
39 BH 922, c, 4.
394 The Mariner’s Mirror
luxurious clothing, other merchandise, money, and victuals such as meat, fish and
(Spanish) wines.40 However, when the fishermen discovered the Bonaventure was
English, and when they were informed that the captain and senior merchants had left
the ship in Newcastle with a letter from the tsar addressed to the English king, they
changed their mind. The crew of the Bonaventure were released, taken back to their
ship and allowed to depart. However, the merchandise and other goods that had
been stolen was not returned.41 According to the steersmen of the herring busses,
they had not been able to prevent their crew going aboard the Bonaventure, because
they were occupied with navigating their ships, as the encounter took place at dusk.42
After the encounter, the fishermen continued to catch herring. Some of the goods
that was stolen from the Bonaventure was sold in Holland, Zeeland, Brabant and in
Scarborough,43 for a price that was according to Francis ‘much too low’,44 without
contacting the Admiralty Court in Veere, something the fishermen were obliged
to do according to the relevant Admiralty Ordinance.45 According to the English
merchants and ship owners, a representative of the Veere Admiralty, the bailiff of
Flushing, was only informed of the events in the North Sea when it became clear that
a lawsuit would be started by Thomas Francis as representative of the English ship
owners, merchants and other stakeholders.46
Diplomatic context: a Habsburg family party
When Thomas Francis initiated the lawsuit before the Admiralty Court of the
Low Countries in the autumn of 1554,47 relationships between England and the
Netherlands were dominated by the marriage of Mary Tudor and Philip, son of
emperor Charles V, on 25 July 1554.48 Emperor Charles V was lord of the various
provinces of the Low Countries, and as a result of the marriage he achieved his
political goal of encircling France, with England and the Low Countries in the north,
Burgundy and the German empire in the east, and Spain, Lombardy and Sardinia in
the south.49
40 BH 922, c, 4–5, 21; BH 922, F, 29–30. The value of the merchandise was according to Francis
more than 851 pounds sterling, whereas the victuals valued according to him 99 pounds sterling.
The merchandise the Bonaventure was carrying can only be reconstructed partly, since the
inventory of these goods submitted in court is missing. We find, among other things, the following
items mentioned: a silk steersman’s robe, most likely with fur lining, valued at 14 Flemish pounds
groot according to Francis, a second silk one most likely with fur lining valued at 10 Flemish
pounds groot, a male skirt with fur lining (‘rok’) valued at 4 Flemish pounds groot, ‘juwelery’ and
white cloth (‘laken’) (BH 922, c, 21, 26, 28).
41 BH 922, c, 5. Evans, Tudor Adventurers, 228, presumed ‘a deal was done’, as substantial losses
of goods or men are not mentioned in the surviving records.
42 BH 922, c, 8, 12, 20; BH 922, F, 12, 21–22.
43 BH 922, c, 16, 26. Due to adverse wind some fishermen had to enter the port of Scarborough.
44 BH 922, c, 17.
45 BH 922, c, 5, 16. On the 1488 and 1540 Netherlandish Admiralty Ordonnances, see Sicking,
Neptune and the Netherlands, 63–88, 122–31.
46 BH 922, c, 6, 13, 16.
47 BH 922, b.
48 On this marriage, see e.g. Samson, ‘A Fine Romance’; Rodriguez Salgado, The Changing Face
of Empire, 79–85; Postma, Viglius van Aytta, 72–3.
49 Parker, The Grand Strategy of Philip II, 147.
The English Search for a Northeast Passage to Asia Reconsidered 395
The encounter of the fishermen from Zeeland and the Bonaventure took place
during the fifth Franco-Habsburg War (1551–6), one of a series of six wars between
the house of Habsburg and the Valois, the French royal family. These wars had been
fought mainly in Italy – that is why they are also known as the Italian Wars – but
in 1547 the emphasis shifted to north-western Europe.50 Even though the political
situation between France and England was unstable in 1554, the two countries were
not at war at that time.51
Legal historians from various parts of Europe have claimed that in late medieval
and early modern Europe, diplomatic and political considerations played a major
role in deciding prize cases.52 Although direct evidence is often lacking, indirect
indications are abundant when specific prize cases are studied in their political and
diplomatic context.53 In the case of the Bonaventure, we have uncovered a document
demonstrating how contemporary monarchs and other authorities interfered in the
decision of such cases. The relevant document is a letter written by Mary of Hungary,
the regent of the Low Countries and sister of Charles V, dated 20 November 1554,
and addressed to the admiral in Zeeland. In the letter Mary explains that the English
king, her nephew Philip of Habsburg, had informed her in a letter dated 26 October
1554 about the taking of the Bonaventure by Netherlandish subjects.54 Philip asked
his aunt for the return of the ship and its cargo. Philip may have been informed about
the return of the Bonaventure by those who had disembarked at Newcastle, and he
may even have received the letter from the tsar that was in their possession. Some
of the goods carried by the Bonaventure were most likely meant to be delivered to
Philip and therefore he would have had a direct interest in the case. Mary asked her
admiral, Maximilian of Burgundy, for restitution of ship and cargo, as well as for a
suitable punishment of those who had taken the Bonaventure. She also demanded
the arrest of the most prominent fishermen who had been involved in the attack,
one of them being Cornelis Eeuwoutsz from Flushing.55 The admiral would have to
question those who could be arrested in such a manner that they would reveal the
names of their accomplices. He would have to determine as well what had happened
with the goods that had been taken from the Bonaventure. According to rumours,
the largest part of these goods had been transported to Flushing. The admiral would
have to bring the responsible fishermen before the law and the English had to be
indemnified for their damages in order to make sure that King Philip had not further
reasons to complain. Mary also asked her admiral to provide her with information
50 Shaw, Italian Wars.
51 Loades, The Tudor Navy, 159.
52 See e.g. Roelofsen, Studies, 7–8; Sicking and van Rhee, ‘Prijs, procedure en proceskosten’;
Wijffels, Alberico Gentili and Thomas Crompton, 15; Wubs-Mrozewicz and Wijffels, ‘Diplomacy and
Advocacy’, 1–53; van Nieuwenhuize, ‘Prize Law’, 142–61 and Allain, ‘International treaties’, 162–76.
53 See e.g. Sicking and van Rhee, ‘Prijs, procedure en proceskosten’, and Sicking and van Rhee,
‘Prize law, procedure and politics’, 302–22.
54 Although the name Bonaventure was popular, the identity of the ship the letter is referring to
cannot be mistaken since Cornelis Eeuwoutsz is mentioned in it. He is one of the fishermen from
Zeeland. ARA Brussels, Aud 1659/2 fos 328–329. GRM BH 922.
55 Two skippers are called ‘Cornelis Eeuwoutsz’, i.e. Cornelis Eeuwoutsz Slobbe and Cornelis
Eeuwoutsz Harderloot; here and below it is unclear which is referred to unless their last name is
mentioned specifically.
396 The Mariner’s Mirror
on the steps that would be taken and this would enable her to inform Philip on the
This Habsburg family party, about which further details are lacking, shows that
a court in the country of origin of the privateers or other sea robbers – here the
Admiralty Court in Veere represented by the admiral – was pressured by the regent
to bring her subjects before the law, to punish them and to indemnify those who had
been damaged. Since the Admiralty Court issued a positive judgement for the English
on 31 August 1555,57 one may ask whether this judgement can be viewed as the
execution of the orders of the central government of the Low Countries in Brussels.
Whatever the answer may be, it is obvious that Philip of Habsburg interfered, most
likely due to the special importance of the Bonaventure and its cargo.
On 31 August 1555 the Admiralty Court in Veere ruled that the fishermen should
return the goods that had been taken from the Bonaventure. If these goods could
not be recovered, the fishermen had to indemnify the English. They were declared
severally liable but were allowed to take recourse against each other afterwards. The
English, in their turn, needed to swear that the goods they were claiming had indeed
been taken from the Bonaventure and that the value of these goods as specified by
them was correct. The fishermen were ordered to pay the costs of the lawsuit. Their
counterclaim for damages was denied.58 The procurator general was ordered to start
proceedings to safeguard the interests of the sovereign.59 The specific reasons for
the judgement cannot be reconstructed, since as a rule judgements on the European
continent did not contain reasons during the early modern period.60
The lawsuit at the Admiralty Court did not take long. The English submitted
their claim in Veere on 7 December 1554,61 and the judgement followed nearly nine
months later on 31 August 1555. This time period could have been shorter if the
Admiralty Court had not needed more than five months to issue a judgement after
the parties had concluded their case in court and submitted it for judgement.62 Here
it should be mentioned that the length of proceedings before the Admiralty Court
varied considerably. In a case started in 1535 judgement was rendered six years later
in 1540.63 In 1547, on the contrary, two prize cases and a case concerning the appraisal
of goods were each terminated within a few weeks.64 Cases that were brought before
the Great Council of Malines lasted on average two to three years. Obviously, there
56 Mary of Hungary to Maximilian of Burgundy (Brussels 20 Nov. 1554), ARA Brussels, Aud.
1659/2, fos 328–329: ‘faisant administrer aux Anglois endommaigés si bonne et briefve justice que
ledit sr Roy en puist avoir contentement’. Summarized in Tyler (ed.), Calendar of Letters, 100,
document no. 107.
57 BH 922, c, 34.
58 The counterclaim was for an amount of 124 Flemish pounds groot and the revenue of the
herring that they had not been able to catch due to the encounter at sea. BH 922, c, 14.
59 BH 922, c, 33–34.
60 Wielant, Practijke civile; Wielant, Briève Instruction en causes civiles; van Rhee, ‘The Role of
European Superiour Courts’, 373–85.
61 BH 922, b.
62 BH 922, c, 31–33.
63 Roelofsen, Studies in the History of International Law, xix–xxiii.
64 Sicking and van Rhee, ‘Prijs, procedure en proceskosten’.
The English Search for a Northeast Passage to Asia Reconsidered 397
were cases which differed: some only took one month, whereas others could last as
long as 20 years.65 The Admiralty Court, therefore, seems to have provided justice
much more quickly than the Great Council, although it should be mentioned that
the number of court cases that have been preserved from the Great Council is much
higher than the few cases that have been preserved from the Admiralty Court in
The letter from Mary of Hungary does not seem to have increased the speed
of litigation, nor resulted in the court disregarding its usual way of dealing with
prize cases. This may have been due to the fact that the admiral himself also had an
interest in the case and, therefore, in a proper procedure since the fishermen had
disregarded the Netherlandish Admiralty Ordinance which stated that the taking
of a ship should be reported in order to allow the Admiralty to determine whether
it was to be classified as a just prize. After all, ten per cent of the prize had to be
paid to the Admiralty. Furthermore, the admiral was also lord of Flushing and had
to take care that cases involving his subjects were carefully investigated. The latter
was relevant since the lawsuit involving the Bonaventure concerned at least two
of the admiral’s subjects, the namesakes Cornelis Eeuwoutsz Slobbe and Cornelis
Eeuwoutsz Harderloote. These fishermen were suspected of playing a major role in
the taking of the Bonaventure.
On 10 December 1554 the Admiralty Court ordered that during the lawsuit the
fishermen should remain in the town of Veere. This would obviously have caused
them great losses and therefore they asked for bail, which was set at 1,500 Flemish
pounds groot.67 They were, however, forbidden to leave the island of Walcheren
since the court stated that this island would serve them as their prison.68
As soon as the Admiralty Court issued its judgement, the fishermen announced
that they would file an appeal against it at the Great Council of Malines.69 We have
not been able to uncover a final judgement of the Great Council. The last known
document relating to the case is dated 4 February 1559. Before that date the fishermen
had delayed the proceedings by submitting two petitions, asking the Great Council
to deviate from the ordinary procedural rules. Whether the delay was also due to
the changing political and diplomatic circumstances cannot be proven, even though
these changing circumstances were favourable to the fishermen. After Mary Tudor
died on 17 November 1558, the Habsburg family relations that linked England to
Spain and the Low Countries came to an end. Philip was crowned king of Spain and
succeeded his father as lord of the Netherlands, but his kingship in England ended
with the death of Mary. The resulting enthronement of the protestant Elizabeth I in
1558 resulted in worsening relationships between the Habsburgs and Albion.70
65 van Rhee, Litigation and Legislation, 342.
66 Much of the archives of this court have disappeared. Sicking, Neptune and the Netherlands,
67ponden groten Vlaems’. There are 240 groten to the Flemish pound.
68 BH 922, b, 1.
69 BH 922, c, 34; BH 922, d.
70 Things also worked the other way around, when the Great Council requested the monarch
for guidance. In an example from 1557 the council asked Philip II if cargo transported on neutral
ships from the Low Countries to France could be considered a just prize. ARA Brussels, GRM
Registers inv. no. 148, fos 87v–88v.
398 The Mariner’s Mirror
Who was responsible for the violence at sea?
The major legal argument in the case file, which does not contain many such arguments,
is that both according to the ius commune and according to natural law, he who is
subject to an attack may rightfully defend himself.71 Much time was, consequently,
spent on the question of who had initiated the hostilities. Thomas Francis claimed that
the fishermen had launched the attack even though such hostilities were legally not
allowed due to the good alliance, confederation and friendship between the Emperor
and the king of England.72 He also stated that it was unlikely that a single ship as the
Bonaventure would attempt to attack between 40 and 50 herring busses since such
an imbalance of power could not be overcome.73 The fishermen, however, argued
that the Bonaventure was a warship and stated that around eight years previously
(this must have been in or around 1546) a ship of war had successfully attacked 200
fishing vessels.74 Nevertheless, according to Thomas Francis the Bonaventure had
been fired at by the herring busses first and as a result two English crewmen had died
and one crewman was severely injured.75 After the shooting, the Bonaventure was
approached by eight herring busses on each side. Francis stated that the fishermen
jumped aboard the English ship and started to plunder. He held that after the crew of
the Bonaventure had been distributed among the herring busses, they were robbed
of their clothes as if they had been enemies.
The steersmen of the herring busses denied that they were the first to attack.76
They stated that the Bonaventure could not be regarded as a merchant ship, since it
was heavily armed and carried little merchandise, and a considerable number of the
crew consisted of French, German, Scottish, English and other sailors, something
that Francis denied.77 They claimed that they were afraid that the Bonaventure was an
enemy vessel from France, a country that was at war with the Low Countries. They
also held that the ship was accompanied by one or two smaller boats and, therefore,
they feared it was a ship of war. After all, ships of war were usually accompanied by
a sloop that could be used in an attack.78 A witness stated that there were no convoy
ships in the neighbourhood in order to protect the fishermen, which was an extra
reason for concern.79
According to the fishermen, the situation was threatening since a ramp (schans)
had been erected on the upper deck (coebrughe) of the Bonaventure. Additionally,
the crow’s nests had been furnished with lances, stones and other weaponry, and
71 BH 922, c, 6, 11.
72 BH 922, c, 3.
73 BH 922, c, 15, 18, 25. A witness stated that he was present when the skipper (overste) of
the Bonaventure was questioned in the herring buss of Cornelis Eeuwoutsz about the violence
committed by his ship against the large number of herring busses. The skipper declared that he
would have ‘played another game’ with the fishermen if the number of herring busses had been
seven or eight (BH 922, k, 1; BH 922, F, 26).
74 BH 922, c, 19; BH 922, j, 1; BH 922, F, 23–24.
75 BH 922, c, 15. BH 922, c,at 4, mentions that three English crew members died.
76 BH 922, I, 7.
77 BH 922, c, 11, 18.
78 BH 922, i, 18. See also BH 922, c, 15; Knighton and Loades (eds), The Anthony Roll, 82, 84,
86, 90.
79 BH 922, i, 9; BH 922, F, 18.
The English Search for a Northeast Passage to Asia Reconsidered 399
the foresail had been raised. The fishermen claimed that the Bonaventure was thus
equipped as a ship of war or as a privateer. It was heading for the fishing vessels
together with its sloop. The captain or the pilot (Richard Chancellor or Stephan
Borough) was standing on deck with an iron ring collar around his neck and a
broadsword in his hand, while at the back of the ship a flag with fleurs-de-lis had been
raised. The Bonaventure subsequently started its attack, its crew members behaving
like ‘roaring lions’,80 and fired with heavy arms in the direction of the herring busses,
hitting and damaging several busses, their masts, sails and cables, as well as injuring
crew members; Cornelis Eeuwoutsz, steersman, and some of his crew are specifically
mentioned. According to the fishermen, the crew of the Bonaventure also threatened
that they would come aboard the fishing vessels.81
Later, in the lawsuit before the Great Council, the fishermen provided an
additional reason why they were afraid and should not be considered as the initiators
of the attack. If they had the intention to plunder, they could have attacked the
large number of unarmed English fishing vessels that were in the neighbourhood and
not the Bonaventure.82 They added that their response to the apparent threat of the
Bonaventure was understandable, taking into consideration information that they
had acquired about the situation at sea. They were informed by a Flemish fishing
vessel, most likely after the encounter with the Bonaventure, which does not make
the argument very convincing, that it had been followed by two French enemy
ships.83 Furthermore, after entering the port of Scarborough, also after the encounter
with the Bonaventure, one of the fishermen was informed by a skipper from the
Baltic that he had been attacked by the Bonaventure, loosing 50 bales of flax.84
It is interesting that the steersmen of the herring busses tried to distance themselves
from their crew, and this gave rise to another legal argument. They claimed to have been
occupied in navigating their vessels and to have been unable to prevent their crew from
boarding the Bonaventure since the encounter between the English and the fishermen
took place at dusk, and lasted up to three hours. When fighting was over, the steersmen
felt unable to force their crew to return the spoils of the encounter to their rightful owners,
but obviously, they stated, they had not wanted their crew to plunder the Bonaventure.
According to Thomas Francis, however, the fishermen had acted as one group (cum
multitudinem). They claimed that the steersmen were severally liable (insolidum)85
since sailors have to follow the orders of their masters.86 This was denied by the
steersmen, who stated that they were not responsible for the acts of their crew. They
held that if the court would decide that the fishermen were liable, each would only
be liable for the damage caused by himself (pro rata).87
80 BH 922, c, 30.
81 BH 922, c, 7–8, 11; BH 922, i, 6; BH 922, A, 2, 4; BH 922, F, 6–7, 12–13.
82 BH 922, i, 8; BH 922, F, 17.
83 BH 922, i, 9; BH 922, F, 18.
84 BH 922, A, 6.
85 BH 922, c, 5.
86 BH 922, c, 15–17, 27. The 1551 Maritime Ordinance, repealed in 1563, emphasizes that the
crew should follow the orders of the skipper. The ordinance does not state explicitly that this
results in his liability for the acts of his crew members, even though this may have been true by
implication; Lameere (ed.), Recueil des ordonnances, 163–77, especially 171–5.
87 BH 922, c, 10.
400 The Mariner’s Mirror
The Englishmen also held that the group of fishermen could be defined as sea
robbers (spoliateur ende zeerover). This argument centred on the fact that instead
of sailing the Bonaventure to Zeeland and notifying the Admiralty in Veere, they
remained at sea with the spoils of the ship. The English rightfully maintained that
this was against the provisions of the Netherlandish Admiralty Ordinance of 1540,
and especially its article 6. This article provided that goods taken at sea should be
reported to the admiral, allowing the admiral to decide whether or not these goods
could be defined as a good prize. Those who did not act in the prescribed manner
would be guilty of theft and would be punished accordingly.88
The English claimed that the goods taken from the Bonaventure should be
restituted. If these goods could not be recovered, the fishermen were liable to
indemnify the English according to the value indicated by them in a document
submitted to the court, a document that is unfortunately missing in the case file. The
English also requested that the representative of the sovereign (i.e. the procurator-
fiscal) would join them,89 most likely since the interests of the sovereign had been
injured by not reporting to the admiral.
The fishermen denied the statements of the English and even claimed that the
contested goods should be used to indemnify them for the damage incurred during
the encounter.90 In their view, not only physical damage to the fishing vessels needed
to be compensated, but also damage caused by the fact that they had not been able
to catch herring during part of their time at sea. They claimed that, consequently,
each ship had caught five lasts less than usual.91 After the encounter the herring
had disappeared. As with the English, the fishermen requested a representative of
the sovereign to join them, apparently because they also felt that the sovereign’s
interests had been harmed, but this time by the English. They claimed that the goods
taken from the Bonaventure belonged to the treasury (fiscus) since the English were
responsible for breaking the peace.92
It should be emphasized here that obviously the real circumstances cannot be
uncovered. It is, however, certain that the Bonaventure was a heavily armed merchant
ship, much better equipped with artillery and weapons than most other merchant ships
would have been.93 Therefore it may have been true that the fishermen considered it
a ship of war, although it should be remembered that it was in their interest to put
an emphasis on this in their pending lawsuit. Under ordinary circumstances, such a
ship would have been the first to attack, which may have caused the fishermen to
be nervous since they suffered more often from privateers and pirates.94 However,
it seems unlikely that the Bonaventure on its return journey from Russia would act
in the manner described by the fishermen, since its safe return must have been top
priority, never mind the hardships the crew of the Bonaventure would have been
subject to at that stage in their voyage. Whatever may be true, however, this case
88 BH 922, c, 16–18.
89 BH 922, c, 6.
90 BH 922, c, 9.
91 BH 922, c, 10, 14.
92 BH 922, c, 11.
93 On the arms carried by the Bonaventure: Evans, Tudor Adventurers, 86–8, 228.
94 Sicking, Neptune and the Netherlands, 132–204; van Vliet, Vissers en kapers; Sicking and van
Vliet, ‘Our triumph of Holland’, 337–64.
The English Search for a Northeast Passage to Asia Reconsidered 401
demonstrates that cooperation between fishermen could result in the capture of a
large ship like the Bonaventure. This was facilitated by the fact that the herring busses
were armed. According to the fishermen they had been ordered by their sovereign
to carry arms, armed herring busses being no exception in Holland and Zeeland.95
Courtesy at sea and showing the flag
The fishermen stated that the Bonaventure refused to lower its sails in honour of
the Emperor when requested to do so. Lowering sails was, again according to the
fishermen, the usual method of showing that a ship originated from a friendly power
and not from enemies of the Emperor.96 The skipper of the Bonaventure, Stephen
Borough, stated, however, that before setting sail he had been ordered never to lower
his sails as a mark of courtesy.97
Another problem was the fact that according to the fishermen the Bonaventure
carried a flag with fleurs-de-lis. The fishermen stated that they were ordinary
fishermen and that they could hardly distinguish between a French and an English
flag.98 The fleurs-de-lis and the aggressive behaviour of the Bonaventure had
frightened them. The English, however, claimed that their flag, also described in the
records as the flag of the king of England (although it is unclear if the same flag was
meant) was large and contained a red cross that was clearly visible.99 In addition they
argued that it was unlikely that fishermen, who do their business at sea every day,
would be unfamiliar with the English flag.100 The fishermen replied that even if this
might be the case, flags could not be trusted since ships of war and privateers often
carried flags that were not their own in order to use them as bait.101
This not only demonstrates that paying courtesy at sea and showing the flag
was considered to be important in the sixteenth century, but also that privateers
and enemy ships used it as a manner to cheat their victims.102 Interestingly, the
Netherlandish Ordinance on Navigation of 1550 mentions the abuse of flags as well
and forbade ships to carry two sets of flags if the monarchs of the individual sets
were at war with each other. This was different if the flags ended up on a particular
ship as war booty and if they were not used as a means to cheat other sailors.103
The spoils of the ‘Bonaventure’ and their appraisal
When on board the Bonaventure, the fishermen started plundering the ship. As
stated above, money, luxurious clothing, further merchandise and other goods were
stolen, among which were four guns. Food as well as Spanish wines with a value of
99 pounds sterling are also mentioned. The wine was consumed on the spot, and
the fishermen stated in their defence that the amount of wine that went missing
95 BH 922, c, 6. Flemish fishermen, whose ships were smaller than those from Holland and
Zeeland, preferred being protected by convoy ships. Sicking, Neptune and the Netherlands, 197.
96 BH 922, c, 8; BH 922, i, 7; BH 922, A, 3; BH 922, F, 9.
97 BH 922, l, 2; BH 922, F, 26.
98 BH 922, c, 20.
99 BH 922, c, 15.
100 BH 922, c, 27.
101 BH 922, c, 30; BH 922, F, 22–23.
102 See also Evans, Tudor Adventurers, 226–7.
103 Art. 28 of the 1550 Ordinance. Lameere (ed.), Recueil des ordonnances, 11.
402 The Mariner’s Mirror
according to Francis was too high when taking into consideration the number of
fishermen that had boarded the Bonaventure – claimed to be between 36 and 40 men
and the time they spent on the ship, i.e. one night only.104
The fishermen also contested the value of the other goods carried by the
Bonaventure and taken away by them, especially the value of the clothing.105 They
claimed that sailors like the men on the Bonaventure did not use expensive clothes.
According to them, this was especially true for seamen sailing for Russia, since
these sailors were usually poor men who could only care for their families with
difficulty.106 Apparently, already at this stage the fishermen or their counsel had
become knowledgeable about details of trade with Russia.107
The restitution of some of the missing goods was not realized without much effort.
Some fishermen who refused to comply were arrested by the bailiff of Flushing.108 A
bailiff of the Admiralty was sent to the most important towns and villages of the isle
of Walcheren, including Middelburg, Veere, Flushing, Westkapelle and Zoutelande,
where he officially announced that within a period of one week all goods from the
Bonaventure had to be deposited with the Admiralty, i.e. with the vice-admiral,
Philip of Beveren, lord of Fontes.109 There, an inventory would be drawn up.
Unfortunately, the goods that were ultimately deposited with the Admiralty – fur,
clothing, cloth, flag standards, sails and weapons110 – were considerably damaged
and they were consequently valued less than they would have done in their original
state.111 It was sheer luck that Chancellor’s astrolabe, which was also recovered, was
still in its original state.112
The Englishmen contested that some of the goods that were deposited with the
Admiralty had been taken from the Bonaventure.113 This was, for example, true for a
recovered lodestone, a magnetic stone that was used to magnetize early compasses; the
second one that was deposited with the Admiralty was an ordinary stone and of much
lower value than the one stolen from the Bonaventure.114 The captain, alias pilot, who
according to the case file was also a compass maker – definitely Richard Chancellor
himself – would never make a journey such as the one to Russia with useless lodestones
since ‘the whole ship and its cargo are dependent on a good compass and this requires
high quality lodestone’. The English held that the stone had been deposited secretly
with the Admiralty in order to hide the true value of the missing lodestone.
104 BH 922, F, 29–30.
105 BH 922, c, 10.
106 BH 922, F, 31.
107 Trade between the Low Countries and Russia has been the subject of many studies, for
example, Wijnroks, Handel tussen Rusland en de Nederlanden; Wijnroks, ‘Anglo-Dutch Rivalry
in Russian Trade’, 413–32; Veluwenkamp, Archangel. Nederlandse ondernemers in Rusland
(Amsterdam, 2000).
108 BH 922, c, 13.
109 BH 922, c, 21–22. The vice-admiral was a half-brother of Maximilian of Burgundy, i.e. the
admiral. Sicking, Neptune and the Netherlands, 103.
110 BH 922, c, 22.
111 BH 922, c, 22, 28.
112 BH 922, c, 28.
113 BH 922, c, 23.
114 BH 922, c, 29. The lodestone that was missing was according to Francis and his compatriots
very valuable, ‘was van zulcken valeur dat die opheffen zoude twee onchen ysers’ (BH 922, c, 28).
The English Search for a Northeast Passage to Asia Reconsidered 403
The goods were valued on 2 March 1555 in the vice-admiral’s house in Veere.
Present were two judges of the Admiralty Court, a court clerk, Thomas Francis and
his assistant Robert Masse, their lawyer Albert Slock, several steersmen of the herring
busses and their lawyers Anthonis Trabel en Appollonius Lievensz. The appraisers
were Jan Constant, auctioneer of household effects; Mayken Dierixdochter, a female
sworn appraiser and clothes merchant; Jan Welffartsz, sworn city messenger and
appraiser; Elais Jacobsz, hawker; Matheus van Roye, fur worker; Willem Dierixz,
cabinet maker; and Adriaen Willemsz, silversmith. This variety of appraisers further
informs us about the cargo of the Bonaventure. During the meeting the parties agreed
on the appraisal to take place, the results of which had to be validated by themselves
later. On the same day, the appraisers completed their task.115 Unfortunately, the
case file does not contain an inventory of the goods nor the appraisal.
For a long time, little was known about the return journey of the Bonaventure after
the failed first English attempt to find a Northeast Passage to Asia. After centuries
of silence, documents preserved in the archives of the Great Council of Malines,
the highest court of the Low Countries, helped us to uncover detailed information
on the Bonaventure, its stakeholders – among whom Sebastian Cabot and Richard
Chancellor – and cargo. It also informs us about what happened when the ship was
nearly back at its home port of London in August 1554. After the captain and senior
merchants had left the ship in Newcastle to inform the English king, both about its
return and the visit to the tsar in Moscow, the Bonaventure was taken by fishermen
from the Netherlands off the coast of Scarborough.
The information derived from the documents in the archives of the Great Council
needs a critical evaluation. Obviously, the documents were used in a prize case,
first before the Admiralty Court in Veere and on appeal at the Great Council. The
information provided is meant to strengthen the case of the party by whom the
documents were submitted, so in that sense it is ‘coloured’. In the present case this
is especially problematic since the documents that have been preserved all belong
to the case file of the fishermen; the file of Thomas Francis is missing and may
have been collected by the lawyer when the lawsuit came to an end. Nevertheless,
important new information has been retrieved which provides a clear picture of
what happened in the North Sea and afterwards when the English started litigation
in the Low Countries to recover the goods taken by the fishermen. The reader is
informed about the stakeholders and the equipment of the Bonaventure and about
its cargo. The fact that part of the crew had left the ship in Newcastle before it got
into trouble most likely means that the royal court was informed about the return of
the ship before it finally reached London. The significance of the expedition of the
Bonaventure is emphasized by the English king, Philip of Habsburg, contacting the
regent of the Low Countries, Mary of Hungary, in order to have the fishermen made
responsible for their acts at sea.
It may be surprising that a merchant ship was attacked by fishermen. Usually,
fishermen themselves were the victims of privateering and piracy. What is worse, the
fishermen ignored the Netherlandish Admiralty Ordinance which stated that the
115 BH 922, c, 23–25.
404 The Mariner’s Mirror
taking of a ship had to be reported to the Admiralty Court in Veere. Initially, the
central government in Brussels put pressure on the admiral to give the English their
due as soon as possible. Emperor Charles V and regent Mary of Hungary were keen
on preserving good relationships with England, i.e. with their son and nephew King
Philip and Queen Mary. The judgement of the Admiralty Court was indeed positive
for the English, but not only for them. Such a positive judgement was also in the
interest of the admiral himself since it was against the rules that the taking of ships
remained unreported. Such behaviour would undermine the authority of the admiral
and would prevent him imposing a ten per cent tax on prizes that were declared good
prizes by him.
The judgement of the Admiralty Court was immediately appealed by the fishermen
at the Great Council of Malines. This shows that the political circumstances, which
were originally more positive for the English than for the fishermen, did not deter
them, or their lawyer, from bringing a costly lawsuit at the summit of the judicial
hierarchy in the Netherlands. On appeal, the fishermen seem to have aimed at
delaying the procedure, since they submitted two petitions in order not to be bound
by specific procedural rules aiming at expedient litigation. The delay may have been
beneficial for their case since the political circumstances changed during litigation.
The death of Mary Tudor in 1558 meant that Philip of Habsburg lost the shared
English crown, and that the protestant Elizabeth I succeeded to the throne. The
Habsburg relationship with the English deteriorated, whereas the Habsburgs and
France concluded the Peace of Cateau-Cambrésis in April 1559. These developments
may have benefitted the fishermen, although much remains unclear since we have
not been able to identify a final judgement from the Malines court in this case.
In sum, the case file studied provides interesting additional information about the
first English expedition to find a Northeast Passage to Asia. The seamanship and
interest of Richard Chancellor in nautical instruments, including the astrolabe that
was stolen, is strongly expressed. Moreover, the study of the case file has made it
clear that judicial institutions such as the Admiralty and the Great Council were not
merely puppets of politics and diplomacy. The technical procedural rules allowed
them to operate to a certain extent independently of the monarch, and it is crystal
clear in the above case that they made use of this possibility.
And what happened to the Bonaventure? In 1555 it left London again and set
sail for Russia, now as part of the Muscovy Company chartered by King Philip and
Queen Mary. Richard Chancellor was again in command of the ship, which now
formed part of a fleet of four ships. The return journey in 1556 was disastrous for
Chancellor: he and part of the crew, among whom his eldest son, lost their lives when
the ship foundered on the Scottish coast. The Russian ambassador, Osip Nepea, who
was travelling aboard the Bonaventure, survived narrowly, but the goods carried by
the ship ended up with the coastal population.116 Nevertheless, the basis was laid for
diplomatic and trade relations between England and Russia.
Louis Sicking is the Aemilius Papinianus professor of history of public international
law at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. He lectures on pre-modern history at the
University of Leiden and currently directs the international research project Maritime
116 Alford, England’s Triumph, 82–3. Evans, Tudor Adventurers, 282–7.
The English Search for a Northeast Passage to Asia Reconsidered 405
Conflict Management in Atlantic Europe, 1200–1600, funded by the Netherlands
Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO).
C. H. (Remco) van Rhee is a professor at the faculty of law at Maastricht University
in the Netherlands. He specializes in the comparative history of courts and civil
litigation, as well as in modern comparative law.
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Full-text available
The Elusive Netherlands: the Question of National Identity in the early Modern Low Countries on the Eve of the RevoltThe idea of the Burgundian-Habsburg Netherlands having any sort of national identity is usually met with understandable scepticism. The constitutional obstacles to the construction of such an identity were formidable, not least the piecemeal formation of the Burgundian dynastic state, whose prince owed homage to the kings of France and to the Holy Roman Emperor for their territories, and some of whose subjects could still seek justice in ‘foreign’ courts . Not surprisingly the early modern Low Countries baffled foreigners, but even those thoroughly familiar with the region did not know whether it belonged to ‘Gallia’ and ‘Germania’, and in particular how the Habsburg Netherlands related to an entity as vague as ‘Nider teutschelant’. The rich yet problematic nomenclature for the Low Countries testifies to these difficulties, which were aggravated by the protean configuration of the Habsburg state and by uncertain relationship between ‘Dutch’ and ‘Teutsch zung’. The state-building activities of Charles V certainly did not resolve the political and cultural confusion, but by 1555 these had helped to foster a stronger consciousness of the Low Countries as a distinctive political community, especially in the ‘core’ provinces. On the eve of the Revolt this found expression, ironically, in the emerging opposition to the presence of Spanish soldiers and to the central government’s religious policy.
The juridical conflict concerning the merchant vessel De Vriendschap, boarded and inspected by the English in the spring of 1745, reflects the difficulty in respecting international treaties and the imperatives of war. After becoming a neutral power in the eighteenth century, the Dutch Republic tried to preserve its commercial shipping under the motto ‘free ship, free goods’, drawing on old treaties such as that concluded with England in 1674. The aim was to bag the freight and at the same time to prevent the nations at war from declaring the cargoes of Dutch merchants ‘bonne prise’. During the War of Austrian Succession, the situation in the Mediterranean deteriorated around 1744–1745, when the increasingly exasperated English seized neutral merchantmen carrying merchandise for France. Very different actors then intervened and imagined pragmatic solutions for complex tangles. A direct negotiation at the highest level led to the repudiation of the Admiralty of Port Mahon.
According to Halvard Leira and Benjamin de Carvalho, the decision of European states to establish consulships in foreign ports was responsible for the intertwinement of diplomacy and privateering at the end of the seventeenth century. Based on a case study – the arrest of Swedish prizes in the Netherlands in 1644 – this contribution will explain that the connection of diplomacy, privateering and prize law existed long before states appointed consuls to control the activities of their own privateers. Already in the first half of the seventeenth century, the state’s direction of foreign policy, the activities of diplomats and military and political developments decided the outcome of prize cases. Governments always had to make compromises between the implementation of prize law and the maintenance of their political interests.
Against the background of the Northern Seven Years’ War, a Dutch fleet carrying salt from France to the Baltic was arrested in 1564 by the Danish authorities in the Sound, and only allowed to proceed after declaring under oath that they would not sell their cargo to Denmark’s enemy. Afterwards, having reached the Baltic, the fleet encountered a Swedish man-of-war which (according to the Dutchmen) forced them to sail to Stockholm, where the salt was sold at a fixed price. The fleet then sailed to Danzig, where the ships and goods were seized. The incident appears to have played a part in the closure of the Sound to Dutch trade by the Danish Crown, which tried to put pressure on the rulers of the Netherlands for their support in his war efforts. A practical solution to the diplomatic crisis was worked out in setting up a trial opposing the king of Denmark to the skippers of the seized ships before the municipal authorities of Danzig, a city under the overlordship of the King of Poland, who was allied to Denmark in the war against Sweden, while Danzig itself endeavoured to avoid any direct involvement in the warfare. The lawsuit followed the format of civil law procedure. The memorandum and rejoinders, together with a consilium to which a subscriptio by several law professors of Louvain was added, document how a political and diplomatic dispute could be defused and managed through quasi-judicial proceedings and legal arguments. An interim decree of the Danzig authorities discharged the Dutch skippers (1565) and that provisional outcome was eventually confirmed by the king of Poland’s final decision (1567).
The present article discusses the case of Jacques du Gal, a French merchant, and the Netherlands privateers, Claes de Doot and Meeus Pietersz. The former departed from the harbour of Dieppe in France with one vessel, headed for Scotland. During this journey, on the open seas, Du Gal bought an English ship, denoted in the records as the Mary Dertenny. This ship had been taken by the Scottish privateers Jehan Edinestone and Jehan Gourlat. Near the Scottish coast, the ships of Du Gal were boarded by De Doot and Pietersz. After the latter had returned with their prizes to their harbour of origin, Vlissingen in the Low Countries, the Admiralty Court of Veere took jurisdiction of the case. It decided that Du Gal's own ship should be returned to him, but it declared that the Mary Dertenny was good prize. On appeal, however, the Great Council of Malines, the then supreme court of the Low Countries, ruled that De Doot and Pietersz should also return the Mary Dertenny to Du Gal. The case of Du Gal v. De Doot and Pietersz is of interest, not only because it contains detailed information on the costs and the procedural steps to be taken before the Admiralty Court in a prize case, but also because it proves that, apart from legal arguments, diplomatic considerations may have been of importance when deciding prize cases before courts of law.
England and Spain's close ties of kinship had bound the royal houses together stretching back to the thirteenth century. In the later sixteenth century, English interest in Spanish culture, history, and politics had intensified precisely during the period when political relations had deteriorated into war. The perception of closeness and filiation ran parallel with enmity and hate. This study demonstrates the complexity of diplomatic and cultural exchange, assimilation, competition, and cooperation that characterized the intricate alliance between England and Spain. It examines England and Spain's shared cultural heritage and the trade agreements and dynastic marriages that had linked them closely by blood. Special attention is given to Philip II's entry into London in 1554 as the new English king, a pivotal moment in the rivalry between the two countries. While popular hostility and fear of Spanish domination certainly contributed to the conflict surrounding the marriage of Philip and Mary, the most difficult issue for the royal couple was the household drama in which the parties on each side sought their own prestige and commercial and political advantage. Perhaps this moment of international diplomatic relations demonstrates above all the delicate balance between honesty and deception, admiration and jealousy, cooperation and rivalry, love and hate that can be found in any close relationship.