Hugh Willoughby

Died in 1554 CE


Primary Goal:

To find the Northeast Passage to China.


The narrative written by Richard Chancellor led to the development of the Muscovy Company.

Josif Hamel wrote about Willoughby in the work, England and Russia, and that many knew Hugh Willoughby “as a man of good birth, well-known on account of his military merit, and distinguished by a stately and imposing exterior.” Willougby’s father Henry was knighted and given the title of Banneret after supporting King Henry the VII in the Dutch and Irish wars. Hugh Willoughby fought in the Scottish campaigns, was married to Jane Strelly and had one son, Henry.

But, on May 10, 1553, he was also put in command of an expedition to find the Northeast Passage to China. The trip was sponsored by a group of London merchants who were led by Sebastian Cabot. The merchants fitted out three ships, the Bona Esperanza (commanded by Willoughby), the Edward Bonaventure (commanded by Richard Chancellor), and the Bona Confidentia (commanded by Cornelius Durfoorth). Each ship contained trade goods, mostly English wool cloth, in hopes of opening trade with Russia and China. The ships carried provisions for eighteen months, which included sour beer, hard biscuit, salt pork, and cheese. As they sailed north past Norway that May day, they lost contact with the Edward Bonaventure. Willoughby and Durfoorth continued on and are believed to have reached Novaya Zemlya, but the Bona Confidentia, commanded by Durfoorth, began having problems and reached, historians think, the mouth of the Varzina River on September 18, 1553. The two ships wintered in the area and all died. Some historians believe they died from the cold and starvation, and one modern source believes they succumbed to carbon monoxide positioning. A year later, fishermen found the ships and the remains of the crewmen, along with Willoughby’s logbooks.

Meanwhile, Chancellor, on the Edward Bonaventure, made it to the Russian mainland and was given audience with Tsar Ivan IV. The Tsar gave Chancellor permission to trade throughout Russia. He returned to England in 1554. Chancellor then wrote about his travels and, based on his information about Russia and trade possibilities, the Muscovy Company was formed.