Since the loss of the Search & Rescue helicopter, R116, on March 14th, and the search for the crew-two have been recovered while two remain lost-my mind has been returning to a passage from a book by one of my favourite authors.

Dorothy Dunnett wrote a series of historical novels that followed an adventurer through the 16th century just prior to the Elizabethan Golden Age of Discovery. In The Ringed Castle he, Lymond, travels with and establishes a deep friendship with an historical character, the explorer Richard Chancellor. A native of Bristol, student of John Cabot and John Dee, Chancellor discovered a way to Moscow via The White Sea, established trading relations between England & Russia, whose trade route with Europe had previously been monopolised by the Hanseatic League, and founded the Muscovy Company  in 1555. Chancellor visited Moscow twice. The first time, in 1552, he was second in command of a fleet of three ships sponsored by Edward IV to discover the North East Passage. Two of those ships disappeared with their commander, Sir Hugh Willoughby. Their ships and bodies were found on the Lapland coast by Russian hunters the following spring. The second voyage in 1555 was sponsored by Queen Mary I. It was on returning to England, bringing Willougbys’ two ships home along with an envoy from the court of Ivan the Terrible, that disaster struck. Of Willoughbys’ ships, one sank and the other disappeared for good. Of Chancellors’s ships only The Philip & Mary made it to London. The Edward Bonaventure was wrecked at Pitsligo Bay on the Scottish Coast. The Tsar’s envoy and others survived (including Lymond, Dunnetts’ fictional adventurer). Chancellor and his son Christopher were lost.

It was Dunnett who kept this story in my mind. She was also a painter and her writing creates vivid pictures. Her account of Chancellors’ death, beautiful, vivid, yet with the hard, cool edge laced ever so delicately with a touch of wry humour, travels beyond the shore where our imagination ceases. Notwithstanding Dunnetts’ stab at medieval coastal folk, who, on remote shores, must have relied on shipwrecks to survive, it now returns to me as a tribute to all of those who have left home to travel over the lightening sea never to return…

Although the fishing boats searched, for their own venal reasons, for quite a fair length of time, no man that night or any other laid hands on Richard Chancellor, Grand Pilot of the Muscovy Fleet, or his beloved son, Christopher.
Long before then, they had moved out of the bay, at first tangled kindly together, and later alone, out of sight of each other, but with the same broad and harmonious current bearing them east.
Over the lightening sea lay the path Chancellor had discovered, and the door he had opened, expending on it a sovereign order of courage in an element exacting of courage, for he sailed from home, and not towards it.
The way he had found opened for him, and his long-studied seas with dignity gave him his bier. And in the morning he was accorded the crown of dead men, to see the sun before they are buried, and he set out with shoes on his feet as do the Muscovites, for he had a long way to go.


References & Further Reading

Dunnett, D., (1971), The Ringed Castle, New York:Vintage Books.

Evans, J. (2013), Merchant Adventurers: the Voyage of Discovery that Transformed Tudor England, London:Weidenfeld & Nicholson

Wikipedia, (2017), Richard Chancellor,[online[, available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Chancellor [accessed 22/04/2017].


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