The First Brexit

A portrait of the young Elizabeth commissioned by Henry VIII and painted by Richard Scrots.


When Elizabeth acceded to the throne in November 1558 she began to plan her coronation, which took place in Westminster Abbey on 15 January 1559. She ruled a deeply divided country and had to take great care not to offend either side. The coronation mass was said in both Latin and English and George Carew, the dean of the Chapel Royal, performed the elevation of the bread and wine. In a carefully rehearsed scene, she silently refused and stepped back. Her attempts to find a middle way between the two creeds would prove futile during the next few months.

Two weeks after her Coronation, she was informed that when the news of Mary’s death reached the King of France, he announced that his daughter-in-law was the true Queen of England. He even changed his coat of arms to include England within his possessions. Mary Queen of Scots, her half-sister and wife of the Dauphine, was already plotting to take her throne.

England was tired of the pendulum swings of power, especially religious power. They were happier to be free to worship without the tyranny of Rome. She was the only legitimate heir to the throne and she was Protestant, but most important of all she was popular. People who had met her told of a bright, witty, though strong willed, young woman.

She had not exactly snubbed the offer of marriage with Philip, but she had not reacted warmly to it either. Because of Mary and Philip, England was still technically at war with France. Not an easy situation considering that England was practically bankrupt and suffering from inflation. The army and navy were in disrepair and disillusioned. She could not afford to defend herself, let alone fight somebody else’s wars. The declaration from the King of France meant that England’s enemies now had one foot in Calais and the other in Scotland. To make matters worse, in March 1559 Philip signed a treaty with the French king Henry II to end a long running conflict between the two countries, and unite them against Protestantism.

More trouble was arriving by ship every day. All the exiled Protestants and Calvinists were flooding back into England and stirring up religious bigotry, eager to settle old scores and root out those who had persecuted them when Mary was on the throne. In an effort to forestall any bloodletting, Parliament passed two laws; the act of supremacy making Elizabeth Supreme Governor of the Church of England, and the act of uniformity of 1559 which outlined what form the Church should take. The new bishops began to re-establish the Book of Common Prayer that Mary had abolished.

In 1492 Isabel and Ferdinand of Spain had found a fabulous source of revenue in the New World by sponsoring Christopher Columbus when nobody else would. Their investment had paid off handsomely, and both Spain and Portugal began to reap huge profits from the New World.

In 1494 at the Treaty of Tordesillas they split the entire world outside Europe between Portugal and Castile by a north–south line drawn down the Atlantic Ocean; Spain had the Americas, and Portugal dominated the trade routes to Morocco and Guinea. The overland trade routes to the east were in the hands of the Ottoman Empire. The big prizes had already been taken by the most powerful nations, leaving England isolated.

Luther had divided Western Europe at a time when another threat was gnawing at its eastern boarders. The tapestries that hung in the Whitehall Palace when Mary married Philip depicted a great victory against the Moors, who were expanding their empire and encroaching into Christian lands. Around the Mediterranean, ports and villages had been raided by the navy of Suleyman the Magnificent, who captured Tunis in 1534 deposing its French supported ruler, Mulay Hassan.

Charles had to defend Spain’s territories so he raised an armada to recapture Tunis and stop the French extending their alliance with the Ottoman Empire. 400 ships with 30,000 Spanish German, Italian and Portuguese soldiers set sail on 14 June 1535. The city fell in July leaving 30,000 Islamic dead, but releasing 20,000 Christian slaves. The tapestries were sent to England to intimidate the English with the might of the Hapsburg Empire and its victory against all heretics. Using the gold from the conquered Incas and Aztecs to fund the war in the east, Spain was asserting herself as the most powerful country in Europe and the defender of Catholic Christianity. 

England was a poor neighbour to Europe, and struggling with a religious schism that threatened to boil up into civil war. Meanwhile, her enemies grew more threatening with every passing week. England had neither lands nor trade alliances, and was led by a 25 year-old virgin handmaiden queen.

The Muscovy Company seal dated 1555.

When she had been crowned, young Elizabeth had inherited a business plan which had been formulated during her father’s reign, and followed by later royal occupants of the throne. In 1527 an English trader called Robert Thorne watched from his offices in Seville as staggering amounts of gold from the Americas was being unloaded at the docks and stored in the Torre de Or. He wrote to King Henry VIII and advised that the only way to break the vice-like grip of Spain on the Americas was to look for a north-east passage to reach the unexplored treasures of the orient. 

By 1553 the collapse of the English cloth trade had forced traders to seek new trade-routes. During Edward’s reign, his advisers had instigated a novel idea with the mission of the “Discovery of Regions Dominions and islands unknown.” A grand title for an organization that only had a vague idea where it wanted to go. Their ultimate destination was Cathay, the Anglicisation of the name given to China by Marco Polo, but rather than sail around the horn of Africa in the Antarctic Ocean, they planned to sail east through the Arctic North Atlantic.

They financed their voyage through a joint-stock Company which was set up during Edward VI’s reign. 250 subscribers, some of whom were Edward’s advisers, each put in £25 to raise the £6,000 for the expedition, which was led by Richard Chancellor. The two ships sailed past Greenwich Palace and fired a salute to the dying King Edward. Willoughby, on the second ship, was lost on the coast of Lapland, and he and his frozen crew were found the following summer.

Chancellor had better luck. He ended up in the White Sea on Russia's North West coast, from where he traveled south to Moscow by sleigh and met with the Tzar of Russia, Ivan the Terrible. He made the best of a bad lot by arranging a trade deal between Russia and England, returning to London in the summer of 1554. During the time he had been away, Mary and Philip had occupied the throne, and other ships of the Merchant Adventurers had gone south and found lucrative trading in gold, pepper, ivory and slaves on the West African coast. Philip frowned on their enterprise; by Spanish treaty, that was the trading area of Portugal, and the English were to be discouraged from going there. Instead, Mary urged the traders to go north to seek their fortunes, and in 1555 she granted them the Charter of the Merchants of Russia. It was the first ever charter of a joint stock company and later on, during Elizabeth’s reign, it came to be known simply as the Muscovy Company. 

A map of Jenkins journey south from Moscow in 1558.


While Mary and Philip were preparing for their wedding, a young man was on Muscovy business 4,000 miles away in Bukhara, (in modern-day Uzbekistan) as a guest at the court of Abdullah Khan II, the Islamic khanate’s Shabanid ruler. His name was Anthony Jenkins.

Though unknown now, he was famous in his own time as an explorer and trader in cloth. He was born in Market Harborough and spent part of his apprenticeship in the Netherlands. In 1546, he left England and traveled through Europe to North Africa. By November 1553 at the age of 24, he had reached Aleppo, one of the oldest cities in the world.  Standing at the end of the silk route, which brought fine silks and spices from Iran and India, the city had come under the rule of the Ottomans in 1517 and quickly attracted Jewish, Armenian and Italian traders. Within a few decades, it had come to equal Venice as a trading centre.

While Jenkins was in Aleppo, the city was visited by an army on its way to a war. Sultan Suleyman I marched 80,000 of his troops past the city on their way to a campaign against the Persian Safavid Empire and its ruler Shah Ismail. Jenkins watched them pass and detailed the bright costumes as only a cloth merchant could. The cavalry wore scarlet, whilst the infantry wore yellow velvet. The Sultan’s elite fighting corps, the Janissaries, wore silk and their distinctive Couculucia caps; the famed Turkish bork hats like a French hood with great plumes which waved like a meadow in the wind as the ranks marched past.

Jenkinson did not know it at the time, but he was witnessing as big a religious schism in Islam as his own country was facing with Catholicism. This was the Sunni Ottomans’ third campaign against the Shi’a Safavid Empire, in a centuries-old feud over control of the umma, the Muslim community after Mohammad’s death in 632.

News of the feud between the two branches of Islam reached Europe in 1501, and France, Venice, Portugal and even the Pope sent letters of support to Shah Ismail in his war against their enemy the Ottoman Empire. The Venetian merchants in Damascus wrote to the Shah saying that “This would be an opportune moment to form an alliance among the Christian princes and Persia in the most holy war to throw the Turk out of Europe.”

The Portuguese believed that the Shah would support their cause against Ottoman attacks on their trading ships in the Indian Ocean. Venice had the same problem with the Ottoman navy in the Eastern Mediterranean; an alliance would be very beneficial.

Jenkinson was a business man of the first degree, and within weeks of watching the Sultan pass Aleppo with his army he had wheedled his way to getting an audience with him. Jenkins must have been an excellent salesman because he came out of the meeting with a trade agreement that would normally only be granted to heads of state.

The terms of his contract were that he could “lade and unlade his merchandise wheresoever it shall seem good unto him” and totally free of “any other custom or toll whatsoever” anywhere in the Ottoman Empire. Without any credentials, or even being able to speak Turkish, he had pulled off the deal of the century. Suleyman even sent letters to the French and Venetians “not to intermeddle or hinder his affairs.”

On his return to England, he was praised by the company, and at the age of 27 Mary and Philip gave their assent for him to lead an expedition of four ships north into the White Sea and thence to Moscow, to arrange trade with Ivan the Terrible. He arrived in Moscow in December and waited for an audience with the Tsar.

On Christmas day 1557 he sat down for a banquet with officials and visiting dignitaries from all over Europe. Within minutes, he was told that he would be granted unfettered access to the Caspian Sea and Persia. Ivan had recently conquered Kazan and Astrakhan, Muslim khanates that had controlled the Volga Delta and Caspian Sea. The way was open to trade with Persia and even China. The Tsar had no trade routes west from Moscow; Hostile Poland, Lithuania and Livona blocked his access to the low counties. If England wanted to trade with the east, then this dangerous torturous route was the only way.

Jenkins left Moscow on George’s day 1558 and traveled south-east with two English companions and a translator. They reached Kazan, where they picked up the River Volga and sailed south. They traveled by boat, horse then camel through lands ravaged by plague and made desolate by the Tsar's army. By July, they had reached Astrakhan, 60 miles from the Caspian Sea. The following month, he reached the Caspian Sea and had reached Bukhara in present day Uzbekistan. Four hundred miles of mountains now stood between him and trade with China and India. He had found little to trade on the way through mostly desolate countries.

Indian and Jewish clothiers had a lively trade in silks and cotton cloth and the road before him led to warmer lands where he would struggle to sell English heavy woolens and cloth. For a while, he contemplated going on to China, but finally decided to return to England empty handed. He had been the first Englishman to reach the Caspian Sea, which was no small feat. 

There was another reason that he decided not to press on. The sectarian divisions between his Muslim hosts made the possibilities of trade difficult if not impossible. Wars were often and cruel. Small warlords ruled, and constantly changed the political stance on the border between Russia and Persia. On 8 March 1559, he began to retrace his steps to Moscow. After crossing the Caspian Sea, he raised the red and white flag of St. George, which had never been seen so far east before. By autumn 1560 Jenkins was back in England to report to his backers that there was some trade if they could exploit the constant wars between the Sunni and Shi'a. To his surprise, he discovered that England had a new Protestant Queen.


Elizabeth was informed of his progress, and took little convincing to approve another expedition to establish a trade route with Persia. When she took the throne eight months earlier, she had inherited a three hundred thousand pound trade deficit. Creditors were threatening to re-possess English assets abroad.

The second expedition led by Jenkins followed the same route, but with diplomatic hold-ups that frustrated Jenkins. Worse was to come. When he did reach the imperial capitol Qazvin in November 1562, there had been a change of Shah. The leader that Jenkins had arranged his deals with was dead, and Shah Tamasp now ruled. He was kept waiting for days and when he finally met the Shah the ruler was distinctly cold. The conversation turned to Jenkin’s religion and despite nimble evasion Jenkins was forced to admit that he and his country followed the teachings of Jesus. The Shah proclaimed him an unbeliever and ordered him out of his palace.

Unknown to Jenkins, the constant warfare of the region had produced an uneasy peace between the Shah and the Ottomans and he was trapped between the two. While Jenkins had been kept waiting to see the Shah, the powerful Ottoman envoys had concluded trade agreements with the Shah, and he was loath to endanger them by giving this unbeliever access. Abdullah Khan, the Shah’s cousin, who knew of Jenkins, intervened on his behalf and he was allowed to leave the city with his life, but it was a very close escape.

Jenkins never went back, but other English traders stepped into the breach and during the next twenty years, there would be five more expeditions led by Jenkins successor, Arthur Edwards. He succeeded where Jenkins had failed, and gained trading privileges from the Shah. Muscovy stock, which cost £25 in 1553 were now worth £200. Jenkins returned to Russia twice more before retiring a very rich man around 1585.

By this time, things had changed in England, and other opportunities for trade were becoming available.  

This Orient Isle, by Jeremy Brotton 

Much of the above and the following chapter was taken from Jeremy's book. I have covered only a fraction of his story of  Elizabethan exploration and the unsung heroes of  her enterprising traders. Jeremy tells a much more exiting and detailed tale than I do, and I recommend that you read his book. (He is responsible for the title First Brexit, which is a very good analogy to the present day Brexit.)