Wednesday, 11 April 2012

A Tsar-Studded Affair

Last week we came across a story in one of the Cathedral Library’s travel books which took us by surprise, and got us putting on our detectives’ hats again.  Few would expect to find a rakish Elizabethan Merchant Adventurer from Worcestershire hobnobbing with a Russian queen in the court of one of Ivan the Terrible’s protégés.  However, we had not reckoned on Mr William Barnsley of Bromsgrove...

In 1598, Boris Godunov was crowned tsar of Russia.  Boris came to prominence as a soldier during the reign of Ivan the IV (‘The Terrible’), becoming a member of his personal guard.  In 1581 he witnessed Ivan murder his own son and heir.  After Ivan’s death in 1584 Boris became regent for Fyodor I, Ivan’s second son, who was considered incapable of government.  When Fyodor died in 1598 no-one challenged Boris’s claim to the crown.  Although Boris had manoeuvred himself into an enormously influential position, there was still one problem: his wife.  The travel book says that,

Though he got several Advantages by this Marriage, he lost one that was more valuable than all the rest, which was his Quiet.  He was old and jealous, his Wife handsome and young: they quarrelled in a little time.

One of the causes of these quarrels was Mr William Barnsley, of Barnsley Hall in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire.  Alleged to have lived until the age of 126, Barnsley was a Merchant Adventurer, first dispatched to Russia to take advantage of Ivan’s tax exemptions for English traders.  There he became acquainted with Tsar Boris’s ‘handsome and young’ wife, Maria.  After a time Boris realised that the pair were growing ‘too familiar’ and banished Barnsley to Siberia.  The Worcestershire man reportedly spent twenty years in exile before being allowed back into society.  Despite this indignity, Barnsley ‘turned from the Protestant religion to the Russian, married a great fortune and lived at Moscow in splendour.’  He certainly landed on his feet!

We found Barnsley’s story in the 1748 edition of John Harris’s A Complete Collection of Voyages and Travels.  This work is a compilation of various earlier accounts of journeys across the globe, from Europe and Asia to Africa and America.  The chapter on the ‘Voyage to the North’ was taken from the work of a Frenchman, also a merchant, recorded at the end of the seventeenth century.
Russian Sleds in Siberia
From: A Journey into Siberia, Made by Order of the King of France,
by l'abbé Jean-Baptiste Chappe d'Auteroche (1770)

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