Stephen Borough


Transcribed by David Carter 2018

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Stephen Borough was born in Northam in 1525, and learned his sea-faring abilities at Appledore, becoming one of Britain’s greatest navigators, and a pioneer of English exploration. At that time, it was thought that there might be a shorter route to the Far East, across the top of Russia instead of going all the way around South Africa. Stephen Borough was recruited by London merchants to go and find this route. He made the first of two voyages in 1553, and although he failed to find it, he did set up trading links with Ivan the Terrible, and founded an overseas trading company, called the Muscovy Company. If he had succeeded in finding a new route, no doubt his name would be far more celebrated. He went on to become the Chief Pilot of England, and one of the Masters of Ordnance for the Navy. He is buried at Chatham, where a plaque in the church records his North Devon origins.
(Taken from the Illustrated History of Appledore, vol.2, by David Carter, 2008)

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Although the county of Devon produced a greater number of nautical adventurers in the sixteenth century than all the rest of England together, few of these worthies have had any biographical justice done to their memory. Among these the name Stephen Burrough, one the most enterprising and successful navigators of that age, deserves particular notice. 

He was born near Appledore, Devon, on the 25th of September 1528. Of his early history or parentage we know nothing more than that went to sea when he was very young. The first mention of Stephen Burrough is in the relation of the first voyage of Sir Hugh Willoughby, for the discovery of the North East Passage to China, in the year 1553. This enterprise was undertaken by the advice of the great navigator, Sebastian Cabot, who was the governor of the Merchant Adventurers associated for the discovery of new lands. The members of this company having raised six thousand pounds among themselves, in shares of twenty-five pounds each, fitted out three ships, the Bona Esperanza, of 120 tons, the Edward Bonaventure, 160 tons; and the Bona Confidenza, of 90 tons. Sir Hugh Willoughby, as the admiral, had the command the first; Richard Chancellor was made captain of the second; and William Jefferson, Stephen Burrough, and Cornelius Durfurth, were masters of the third. To each of these vessels were added a pinnace and a boat. 

On the 18th of May in the above year, these adventurers sailed from Gravesend, but did not get clear of England till some weeks afterwards. On the 14th of July they made Heligoland, and next day some islands, where the inhabitants who were making hay treated them with great hospitality. On the 30th they sailed from thence, still keeping the land in view, till they reached the North Cape, off which on the second of August, they encountered such a tremendous storm, that in the morning when the weather cleared up, the Edward Bonaventure could not be seen, and was concluded that she had foundered. The two remaining vessels endeavoured to make Wardhnys, on the coast of Norway, according to the engagement that had been previously entered into in case of a separation. In this design, however, they were disappointed, and at length, as the Confidenza made much water, it was resolved to seek a harbour where she might be repaired. No convenient place could be found for their purpose, till the 18th of September, when they came to an anchor in a river or harbour called Arzina, in Russian Lapland. 

Forster in his history of Northern voyages and discoveries, says "that as soon as Sir Hugh Willoughby had got sight of this land, the Bona Confidenza, Captain Durfurth, was separated in another storm, and returned to England." This, however, is a mistake, for both ships being locked in ice, the crews all perished, either through want of fuel or by the scurvy. Stephen Borrough escaped the dreadful fate of his friends by having, on what account is not stated, removed into the Edward Bonaventure, as assistant master to Captain Chancellor. That commander was so fortunate as to reach Wardhnys, where after waiting eleven days for the arrival of his associates, he weighed anchor, with the resolution of prosecuting his voyage. 

Some natives of Scotland then in Norway, would have dissuaded him from his perilous enterprise at such a season of the year, but nothing could frighten him from his purpose, and his companions all expressed their determination to share his fate. In the pursuit of his course towards that unknown part, of the state of which he was in search, he sailed until he arrived at a place where was no night, and where the sun shone continually upon the surface of the ocean. With the benefit of this perpetual light he came at last into vast bay, one hundred miles in breadth. 

Having sailed far along the shore, he gave orders to drop the anchor; and soon perceiving a small fishing vessel, he went into a boat and rowed towards it; the fishermen fled, but were quickly overtaken, when they prostrated themselves, and with gestures expressive of terror gazed at the ship. Pleased however, with the courteous manner in which they were treated the strangers, they hastened on recovering from their fright to the shore where they informed the inhabitants of the arrival of the visitors and of their friendly deportment. 

In a second interview it was discovered that the country was named Russia or Muscovy, governed by the great Duke, Ison Bazilerich; and that the harbour at which they now were, was called St. Nicholas, at the mouth of the Dwina. Upon this, Captain Chancellor told the natives that he and his associates were the servants the King of England, who had sent them to deliver presents the Grand Duke, and to trade on amicable terms with his subjects. He concluded with the offer of money and desired that might be supplied with provisions. In consequence of this, the governor and several other persons of authority ventured on board the ship, where after some consultation, the chief promised to satisfy the immediate wants of the English, but declined all overtures of commerce, until he should be made acquainted with his sovereign's will and pleasure. 

The governor who had dispatched a messenger to court with the news of the arrival of the foreigners, was too prudent to inform Chancellor that the residence the Grand Duke, was at the distance of fifteen hundred miles. After some weeks had elapsed, he judged it necessary to be explicit, in order to account for the delay of which the English commander frequently complained. This explanation, instead of depressing, raised the spirits of the captain, and accordingly he came to the resolution of going in person to Moscow, which design the governor approved and assisted. On the way he met the courier who delivered to him letter, in which he was invited to repair the imperial court with his associates. 

After residing at Moscow twelve days, Chancellor was admitted to a public audience in a full and splendid court, where the Emperor received him graciously, as well as the presents and the letter of Edward VI, of which he was the bearer. A sumptuous entertainment followed, at which the captain, attended his associates, had a seat opposite the royal presence. During his abode in the capital, Chancellor was engaged in several conferences with the ministers of state, the result of which was the settlement of a trade between England and Russia. Everything being satisfactorily adjusted, the captain and his company returned to Archangel, where they spent the winter. 

During this interval, Edward VI died; but the letter which Chancellor brought from the Muscovite Monarch on being delivered to Queen Mary, was received with great pleasure, and preparations were immediately ordered for another expedition. No particulars of this second voyage are recorded, except that Chancellor had the title and commission of Grand Pilot of the Fleet. His reception at Moscow was no less gracious than before; and after obtaining a grant of patents to the English, by which they were to enjoy the freedom of commerce throughout the whole empire. These privileges were afterwards considerably augmented. Upon this basis was founded the Russia Company, which was incorporated in the first year of Philip and Mary, Sebastian Cabot being the first governor. 

A third voyage to Archangel followed shortly after this, but it proved unfortunate two of the ships were lost on the coast of Norway, while the Edward Bonaventare, commanded by Captain Chancellor, in which were the Russian Ambassador, and sixteen attendants, after beating about at sea several weeks, struck upon a rock and went to pieces. Chancellor less anxious for his own life than to preserve the passengers assisted them into the boat, and was the last that left the wreck. Unable, however, to reach the shore, he and several of the mariners perished by the sinking of the boat which was overloaded. The ambassador and three or four Russians very narrowly escaped the same fate but lost all they had brought with them from their own country, including the valuable presents with which they had been entrusted by their sovereign. 

Stephen Burrough experienced a second deliverance on this occasion, for by being engaged a distinct enterprise, he bore no part in the last disastrous voyage of his friend and associate Richard Chancellor. Being considered, and justly the most scientific navigator of his age, he was pitched upon by Cabot to command a ship called the Searchthrift, fitted out in the Thames, at the charge of the Russia Company, for the prosecution of further discoveries in the northern seas. Everything being ready, the ship dropped down from Ratcliffe to Gravesend, where on the 27th of April 1556, Sebastian Cabot went on board, and was very liberal to the seamen, also to the poor, whose prayers he desired for the success of the voyage. After this he gave a very grand entertainment at the Christopher in Gravesend and, says Burrough, in his journal, "for the very joy he had to see the towardness of our intended discovery, the good old gentleman entered into the dance himself." 

After passing the North Cape, our voyager went in company of some small Russian vessels, to 68 degrees minutes, of North latitude. From thence they sailed in a more easterly course, and at length reached Nova Zembla, and the strong straits to which the Dutch navigators subsequently gave the name of Waygate, from two words in their language, signifying windy, and an opening or a strait. Finding it impossible to advance any further on account of the violence of the winds, the quantity of the ice, and the darkness of the nights, though it was only the middle of August, Burrough determined to return and spend the winter in Colmogori; this he did contrary to the advice of the Russians, who spoke much to him in favour of the river Ob, and concerning the great numbers of merses, or sea horses to be met with there; in Nova Zembla not a human being was to be seen, but the English caught there many birds, besides which they met with some white bears, and foxes of the same colour. On the main land were the Tamorides, a heathen nation, who living near the neighbourhood river Petschosa, were even at that period subject to Russia, and were tolerably peaceable and friendly, while those on the river Ob were of a hostile, cruel, and ferocious disposition. 

Having wintered in Russia, Burrough returned in 1557 to the Thames, without sustaining any loss in his perilous adventure. After this he made many voyages to the northern regions, till he was made a comptroller of the royal navy; he then settled at Chatham, where in the churchyard was formerly to be seen a very flat stone with the following historical inscription, which has long since been obliterated: 

"Here lieth buried the bodie of Stephen Borough, who departed this life the 14th day of July, in the yeare of our Lord 1584. He was born at Northam in Devonshire, the 25th of September 1525, He in his lifetime discovered Muscovia in the Northerne Sea Passage to St Nicholas, in the yeare 1553. At his setting foorth of England he was accompanied with two other shippers, Sir Hugh Willoughby being admiral of the fleete, who with all the company of the said two shippes, were frozen to death in Joppia the same winter after the discovery of Roussia, and the coastes thereto adjoining, to wit, Joppia, Novia Zembla, and the country of Smaoias, &c. He frequented the trade to St Nicholas yearlie as chief pilot in the voyage, until he was chosen for one of the fowre principall masters in ordinarie of the Queen Majesties Royal Navy, where he continued being employed, as occasion required, in charge of sundrie sea services, till the time of his death.”

[Transcribed from the North Devon Journal: Thursday 10th January 1833, page 4, col. d]

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