Book Review: Tudor Adventurers
Keeping Up with the Tudors
By James Evans
Pegasus Books, 2014
“The voyage in search of a north-east passage to Asia in 1553,” writes James Evans in his impressive history-writing debut, Tudor Adventurers, “organised by Sebastian Cabot, and led by Sir Hugh Willoughby and Richard Chancellor, was one of the boldest in English history” – and, he rightly adds, it deserves to be better known. The heart of Tudor Adventurers is his attempt to rectify that imbalance by telling the story of Willoughby and Chancellor, and he does a rousingly successful job.
That joint voyage, inspired and organized by “the brilliant, enigmatic and divisive navigator” Sebastian Cabot and undertaken by veteran seaman Chancellor and courageous dilettante Willoughby, eventually brought their small group of ships to the mouth of the Varzina River estuary, the White Sea, and the Kremlin of Tsar Ivan the Terrible, and when writing empathetically about the valor of his main characters, Evans quite rightly stresses: “It is desperately hard, in the twenty-first century, to grasp the magnitude of what these men attempted. They sailed away from family and friends, into waters that were wholly unknown.”
Evans indulges in a very dramatic you-are-there flavor of popular history in order to convey something of that magnitude in all its immediacy, so his readers can get a sense of what it was like to wrestle these primitive vessels into the open ocean:
On each ship, shouts came first from the captain, then, more loudly, from his bosun – unless he used a whistle. Two seamen climbed nimbly to the yard on the forward mast to release the foresail. Then, more shouting, before, to the accompaniment of a throaty shanty, the crew hoisted the heavy main yard: ‘Haul all and one, Haul all and one, Haul him up to us, Haul him up to us.’ The mainsail was unfurled and ‘sheeted home’ – that is to say, the ropes attached to its lower corners were drawn tight and secured. Topsails were set and hauled taut, and, in the stern the mizzen was hoisted and adjusted. A strong, invigorating pull was felt as the wind filled the canvas. As they picked up speed, the ships lifted and rolled faster on the swell.
Willoughby and Chancellor were eventually separated, and their two branches of the expedition experienced some similar hardships (bad provisioning, bad navigation equipment, merciless, monstrous weather) and very different fates. Chancellor and his men made their way to the court of the notorious Russian Tsar, who threw lavish banquets in their honor. Evans uses a good deal of poetic license and probable supposition in order to capture the strangers-in-a-strange-land feel of the reception:
Outside, the thick snow and the pale, almost white stone of the Kremlin palaces and cathedrals reflected any light from the moon or the stars. Crushing through the powder that was cleared from frequently used paths and stairs, the men’s alcohol-scented breath formed thick clouds in air that was stingingly cold.
Sir Hugh, in the story’s alternate plot, faces the relentlessly worsening weather in “the cooling waters of the Varzina” as they come face-to-face with the essential fears of all far voyagers:
As the weeks passed, conditions became dramatically worse. The hours of daylight dwindled and the temperature fell. Remaining on board ship, rather than attempting to make shelters on land, the men listened nervously to the freezing north-easterly winds which blew snow and ice across the water and rattled the rope in the rigging. Before long, most of their days were spent below deck, in near darkness, listening to the weather and to the angry creaking of the ship timbers as they were squeezed by the expanding ice. Always there was the underlying fear and uncertainty: how bad would things get?
As a simple well-told nautical thriller, Tudor Adventurers would already be an immensely satisfying read, but Evans generously pads out his story with equally-skillful bigger-picture details about the shifting political and cultural landscape of Tudor England, the touch-and-go backdrop against which professional navigators and explorers like Cabot, Chancellor, Drake, and company had to contend. And while some choices of emphasis in this bigger picture may strike some readers as puzzling (a book on Tudor-era seafaring that mentions seals twice as many times as it mentions poor Martin Frobisher? No wonder the man hardly ever smiled), the end result is a much-needed update to Foster R. Dulles’s Eastward Ho! from almost a century ago.