A Visit to Ivan the Terrible’s Muscovy

mqwcover (188x300)Kathy Lynn Emerson here, getting ready for the U. S. launch of Murder in the Queen’s Wardrobe at the beginning of March. Most of the book takes place in Elizabethan England, but the plot revolves around the desire of Russia’s Ivan the Terrible to marry an English “princess” and a number of scenes are therefore set in Russia, which was then more commonly known as Muscovy.

Sixteenth-century Russia was new territory for me. Pretty much all I knew came from reading Dorothy Dunnett’s The Ringed Castle. Fortunately, several English travelers left accounts of all they saw. Then, to my great surprise and pleasure, I discovered that the very house where English merchants lived in Moscow is still there. More than that, it has been turned into a museum and is set up to show what it was like in the time period I write about.

english_court (300x250)

The Muscovy Company was a joint stock company that had the monopoly on trade with Russia. They sent a fleet of ships from London to Rose Island (now Yagry Island) at the mouth of the Dvina River in May or June, bringing not only trade goods (broadcloth, kersey, pewter, wine) but also craftsmen, and sometimes a physician or an apothecary. Of course, what Ivan really wanted were weapons, but the queen preferred not to abet foreign wars. The Muscovy Fleet arrived back in England in August or September, loaded with furs, wax, honey, tallow, train oil (from seals), caviar, and tar. The furs were the big moneymakers and included black fox, sable, lynx, dun fox, marten, ermine, miniver, beaver, wolverine, gray squirrel, red squirrel, red and white fox, muskrat, white wolf, and white bear. Marten and miniver were the most prized furs. Englishmen from the company also established other bases in Russia, including one in Moscow. Ivan gave them a house in the city to serve as their headquarters and servants to look after their needs . . . and to spy on the foreigners. On occasion, Queen Elizabeth also sent an ambassador, but diplomatic relations were uneven at best. Ivan was not the most rational of monarchs and his nickname was well deserved. In 1578, for example, he ordered a deadly attack on all merchants from Livonia who were then living in Moscow. Dutch merchants residing in the same area of the city were burned out and assaulted right along with their neighbors. The same thing, or worse, could have happened to the English contingent, and they were well aware of that fact.


In a few cases, people from one country entered the service of the monarch of the other. Some of those apothecaries and physicians I mentioned were sent by Queen Elizabeth and did double duty as intelligence gatherers. Earlier, in the spring of 1559, Anthony Jenkinson of the Muscovy Company returned to Moscow from a trip to Bokhara bringing with him a captured Tartar girl he would then take back to England as a gift for Queen Elizabeth. Most histories say nothing more about this girl after her arrival at court in 1560, but I have my own theory about what happened to her. There are records, you see, of one “Ippolyta the Tartarian” at Queen Elizabeth’s court.

Scholars who take note of Ippolyta usually speculate that she was a child, a dwarf, or one of Queen Elizabeth’s fools because the queen stood as godmother at her christening in 1561 and gave her a “baby of pewter” as a gift in 1562. However, in 1564, Ippolyta is referred to as “our dear and well beloved woman.” It makes sense to me that she was christened because she’d converted to Christianity. As for the pewter baby, many grown women collected dolls, including Queen Jane Seymour. There are later records of livery, shoes, and other clothing given to Ippolyta and paid for by the queen. In 1564, even excluding the most expensive items—two gowns and a kirtle—the cost of these items came to over £15.

At least one Englishwoman traveled from London to Moscow. She was Jane Richards, English wife of Eleazar Bomelius, a Westphalian physician recruited by the Russian ambassador to England in 1570. He took his family with him when he became Ivan’s personal physician and when he fell out of favor in 1579 and eventually died in prison, Jane was left on her own. Ivan refused to let her return to her family in London until 1584.

If Ippolyta had still been alive in 1582-3, I would have loved to use her as a character in my novel, but the last record of her is in 1569, when a skinner was paid for five dozen black coney skins to fur her short damask cloak. I could and do use Jane.

Tsar Ivan receiving ambassadors from Europe

Tsar Ivan receiving ambassadors from Europe

In Murder in the Queen’s Wardrobe, the plot revolves around Tsar Ivan’s proposal to marry a specific Englishwoman, Lady Mary Hastings, the queen’s distant cousin. Not everyone was thrilled by this idea. For one thing, Ivan was already married at the time . . . to his fourth wife. Political factions at the English court also had conflicting views on the subject of any alliance with Muscovy.

The protagonist in Murder in the Queen’s Wardrobe is Rosamond Jaffrey (neé Appleton). Although illegitimate, she was raised and educated by the sleuth from my Face Down series, Susanna, Lady Appleton. Rosamond’s father, Lady Appleton’s late, unlamented husband, was a spy. So was the man Rosamond’s birth mother married. And Rosamond just happens to have learned to speak Russian from Lady Appleton’s very good friend, wealthy merchant Nicholas Baldwin, who spent time in both Russia and Persia as a young man and still has ties to the Muscovy Company.

Sir Francis Walsingham

Sir Francis Walsingham

Rosamond is asked to enter Lady Mary Hastings’s household in the guise of a waiting gentlewoman and report to Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham, on any suspicious conversations she overhears. The incentive? Rosamond’s husband is in Moscow and could be in considerable danger if the marriage alliance falls through. He faces another sort of danger when he meets Jane Bomelius. Meanwhile, back in England, murder is added to the mix, putting Rosamond in jeopardy, too.

In my next post (February 17), I’ll tell you more about Rosamond and what makes her uniquely suited to be both sleuth and spy in Murder in the Queen’s Wardrobe.

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10 Responses to A Visit to Ivan the Terrible’s Muscovy

  1. Gram says:

    Sounds good to me. Waiting for March.


  2. The meticulousness of your research is impressive. This will be a terrific read.


  3. Lea Wait says:

    I was lucky enough to get an advance copy … and, yes, it’s a terrific read! Great characters, believable plot … and fascinating details of Elizabethan (and Russian) life. Highly recommended!


  4. Fascinating stuff. Don’t you just love doing this kind of research? Wonderful history and culture. Thanks for this interesting post.


    • Hi, Susan. I do love the research . . . Sometimes too much. It’s hard to stop researching and start writing. And of course so much has to be left out or the story would slow to a crawl. Thank goodness for blogs. At least some of the leftovers, like Ippolyta, can still be shared.


  5. LD Masterson says:

    I love reading old English history. Very interesting post.


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