1631, Sir William Russell petitions for royal favour in his struggles with the Muscovy Company

Sir William Russell Bart. SP 16/182 f. 50 (1631)

To the Kings most excellent majestie

The humble peticion of Sir William Russell knight and baronett treasurer of your majesties Navye

Most humbly shewing

That the petitioner heretofore for diverse yeares togeather trading as an adventurer in the Muscovy Company and finding that the said company made many bad debtes, tooke up much money at interest, and did cast up their stocke at gaine when in truth there was losse, the petitioner dealt plainelie with them and with all fidelitie did advise them to the contrary, and the said company still persisting in their former courses, the petitioner did take forth his stocke out of the said company and utterly refuzed to become an adventurer any longer with them, which the said company did take so offensively that they did not only take from the petitioner 28 pounds profitt in every 100 pounds of his adventure which other adventurers in the said company had, but did also in the name of a fine, or broake, take from the petitioner 20 pounds in every 100 pounds of his principall money so by him adventured in the said company, and the said company proceeding in their owne course of of trading, and having a stocke of 80000 pounds or thereaboutes great part thereof was lost and the new adventurers in the said company became greatlie indebted uppon their comon seale. … [Full transcription of the petition]

Report by Sandra Wiggins

In his petition Sir William Russell explained that he had traded as a member of the Muscovy Company but withdrew his stocks after witnessing their mismanagement. In response the Company took from him £28 in every £100 of his profits and £20 in every £100 of his initial investment. He claimed he lost a great part of his stocks, worth £80,000. The Company sought relief from King Charles’ father (James I), who imposed a levy on inactive members.  Russell, along with Sir Richard Smith and William Cater, petitioned the Privy Council for relief from this levy and the case went to the Court of Exchequer. Sir William asked the King to direct that the case be expedited.

On receipt of the petition the King directed the Committees for Trade to settle the issue and any future similar occurrence.

Sir William Russell

Russell (c1575-1654), 1st Baronet of Chippenham, was an English politician, the MP for New Windsor. His father was William Russell of Surrey, his mother was Joan Sanders, and his grandfather was Maurice Russell of Yaverland, Isle of Wight.[1]  He received a modest inheritance from his father of some property in Old Windsor and £20 cash and went into trade, and eventually became a prominent member of several large companies, including the Muscovy Company.  He was an agent of the Dutch in Russia in the early 1600s, leaving with the English ambassador, Sir Thomas Smythe following the death of Tsar Boris Godunov.

In 1612, he joined Thomas Smythe in the North West Passage Company and the following year was appointed to go with his wife’s brother-in-law, Sir John Meyrick, to the Romanov court but only stayed there briefly this time. From 1615, he was a director of the East India Company and in 1618 sold part of his stock in this company to finance buying the post of Treasurer of the Navy, paying a large amount of money which was rumoured to be an inducement towards a knighthood. He was actually knighted in April 1618. He was the sole Treasurer of the Navy from 1618-1627 and subsequently re-appointed in 1630 and continued to hold this post until 1639. He funded both the navy and the government via credit and loans with his considerable resources – he and Philip Burlamachi were the biggest funders at this time.

By 1625 his finances were becoming strained. England was preparing for war with Spain so the Exchequer was empty and Russell was not receiving any money from the government. However, he did equip the fleet in April to the sum of more than £34,000. He became the MP for New Windsor in 1626 but the refusal of this Parliament to vote additional resources was disastrous for him as he could not pay off the navy’s mariners. Following this, in December 1626, a mob of unpaid seamen broke his gate ‘and would have plucked him out by the ears had he not given them fair words’.[2] Although the city gave him a guard, he feared for his safety and relinquished the post of Treasurer of the Navy, although still remaining part of the organisation.

In 1628, he offered to lend the navy more than £95,000 to help pay off its arrears. However, later that year Parliament was considering various petitions against him for debt, including one from the Muscovy Company. He denied liability for the Company’s debts and he, along with other members of the Company, took the issue to the Exchequer. His fortunes took a turn for the better and, in 1629, he purchased a baronetcy and the following year was reinstated as Treasurer of the Navy with a better deal for himself than previously. The outcome of Russell’s petition is not known, but by 1631 he was no longer a member of the Muscovy Company. He carried out a vital role as the navy’s banker during the 1630s. He was the principal agent for the collection of ship money which was a major source of new funding for the navy and himself which meant he gained a much higher income as well as maintaining his other commercial interests.

In 1641 Parliament asked him for £20,000 to repair the fleet but Russell refused this time and this was seen as a betrayal by someone who had ‘gotten their heads to be crowned with coronets and have in a short space heaped up vast estates’.[3] He was shunned by Parliament at the beginning of the Civil War but the King gave him back the post of Treasurer of the Navy, jointly with Sir John Pennington. He appears not to have played any part in the Civil War although his eldest son was a parliamentary colonel. He died intestate in 1654 and is buried in Chippenham. A monument in his memory was erected in the parish church in Burwell in 1663.[4]

The Treasurer of the Navy was the Senior Commissioner of the Navy Board during the period 1564-1660 and, as such, controlled and directed all Naval finance.[5]

The Muscovy Company, also called the Russia Company, was an English trading company chartered in 1555 which held a monopoly of Anglo-Russian trade. It was set up by the navigator and explorer Sebastian Cabot and other London-based merchants and was the first joint-stock company ever with 201 shareholders, including Elizabeth I.[6]  The earliest records of this company perished in the Great Fire of London in 1666.[7]

Philip Burlamachi

Philip Burlamachi was a major financial ‘middleman’ for Charles I and also the inventor of the concept of a central clearing bank. In 1621, working on behalf of City of London merchants, he collected money from foreign merchants to pass on to the Privy Council. He also financed the East India Company. The money he lent to the King in the 1620s was not returned to him and he finally went bankrupt in 1633. He died in 1644. Sir William Russell and Philip Burlamachi were the two most prolific and important individual lenders to the government during the early 17th century. Burlamachi was born in 1575 in Sedan, France, but the family originally came from Lucca in Tuscany.[8]

Sir Thomas Smythe

Sir Thomas Smythe (or Smith) was an English merchant, politician and colonial administrator. He was a special ambassador to Tsar Boris Godunov in 1604, the first Governor of the East India Company, and Treasurer of the Virginia Company from 1609-1621. He financed several Elizabethan-era trade ventures and voyages of exploration in the early 17th century. He was accused of being part of the Essex Rebellion and was imprisoned in the Tower of London, but following the death of Queen Elizabeth he was released and subsequently knighted by James I.[9]

Sir John Meyrick

Sir John Meyrick (or Merrick), Russell’s wife’s brother-in-law was also an English merchant in Russia and became the English ambassador to Russia during the reign of Tsar Boris Godunov.[10]  Russell’s first wife was Elizabeth Cherry, the daughter of Sir Francis Cherry, a wealthy member of the East India and Muscovy Companies who was also an English ambassador to the Russian court in the late 16th century and was knighted by Elizabeth I in 1604.[11]

Chippenham Manor

Chippenham Manor was held continuously by members of the Russell family during the 17th century after it had passed by marriage to Thomas Gerard’s daughter Elizabeth in 1622 – she had married William Russell in 1618. Russell also bought Stetchworth Manor in 1622 and had a house in Tower Street and an official residence in Deptford, so had amassed a considerable portfolio of property. Elizabeth Gerard died in 1626 and Russell married again, for the third time, in 1628.[12]

Tower Street

Tower Street ran east/west in the south east part of the city of London and close to the Tower of London, it was renamed Great Tower Street and is still the same today. During this period, it was a vibrant hub of trade with merchants and officials carrying out their business in houses, taverns and coffee shops. It was also at the heart of London’s maritime community as it was near the Thames, the Navy Office, Customs House and the wharves. The street was lined with fine houses of traders and professionals.[13]


[1] ‘Sir William Russell, 1st Baronet, of Chippenham’, Wikipedia,  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sir_William_Russell,_1st_Baronet,_of_Chippenham. See also: Thrush, Andrew. “Russell, Sir William, first baronet (c. 1575–1654), merchant and naval administrator”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 23 Sep. 2004, https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/24343.

[2] RUSSELL, Sir William (c.1575-1654), of Tower Street, London, Deptford, Kent and Chippenham, Cambs’, Andrew Thrush and John P. Ferris (eds.), The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1604-1629 (2010), http://www.histparl.ac.uk/volume/1604-1629/member/russell-sir-william-1575-1654.

[3] ‘RUSSELL, Sir William’, The History of Parliament.

[4] ‘RUSSELL, Sir William’, The History of Parliament.

[5] ‘Navy Board’, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Navy_Board   

[6] ‘Muscovy Company’, Encyclopaedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Muscovy-Company.

[7] ‘Russia Company’ Guildhall Library, Manuscripts Section, https://archives.history.ac.uk/guildhallmanuscripts/russia.htm.

[8] ‘Philip Burlamachi’, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philip_Burlamachi.

[9] ‘Thomas Smythe’, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Smythe.

[10] ‘John Meyrick (ambassador)’, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Meyrick_(ambassador).

[11] ‘Francis Cherry (diplomat)’, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francis_Cherry_(diplomat).

[12] ‘Sir William Russell, 1st Baronet, of Chippenham’, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sir_William_Russell,_1st_Baronet,_of_Chippenham.

[13] ‘Streets of London: Tower Street’ http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/london/3661501.stm.


This report is part of a series on ‘Petitioners in the reign of Charles I and the Civil Wars’, created through a U3A Shared Learning Project on ‘Investigating the Lives of Seventeenth-Century Petitioners’.