Mysteries of the Old English Court: Exploring medieval Moscow

July 26

The Old English Court, which is now home to a branch of the Museum of Moscow, is one of the oldest civil structures in the city. This miraculously preserved gem of Russian medieval architecture has undergone many makeovers. At one point it was completely abandoned and lingered on the verge of demolition. Re-opened by Soviet restoration artist Pyotr Baranovsky, the building regained its original appearance in the 1970s.

Co-authored by and the Mosgortur tourist agency, this brief will take you on a tour of the Old English Court. You will find out who owned the building at various times and what has remained unchanged since the early 16th century.

Luxury real estate in medieval Moscow

Wealthy merchant Ivan Bobrishchev was the first owner of the courtyard that surrounds this remarkable stone building. Not much is left of his own house, which was built in the 1510s: the only remaining parts are a basement laid with white stone with barrel-shaped vaults (the oldest part of the Old English Court) and reconstructed upper living quarters.

Civil stone buildings were extremely expensive in 16th century Moscow and therefore quite rare. The only similar stone structures built before that time that still remain standing include the Palace of the Facets in the Kremlin (late 15th century) and the Romanov Boyars’ Chambers located nearby in Varvarka Street (late 15th – early 16th century).

We don’t know much about Bobrishchev himself. He is said to be a descendant of a family of merchants who made a fortune by trading goods to Surozh (now Sudak), a major commercial centre of the Republic of Genoa in Crimea. The neighbouring cathedrals of Saint Varvara the Martyr and Saint Maxim the Blessed were built on the funds invested by Bobrishchev’s fellow merchants – Surozh traders who also owned some land in Varvarka Street.

Artistic reproduction of the Old English Court. Photo courtesy of the Museum of Moscow

According to the 1514 chronicle, “all churches were built by the master Aleviz Fryazin.” Aleviz Fryazin, also known as Aleviz the Old or Aloisio da Carcano, was a prominent Italian architect who was invited to Russia by Ivan III. It was around this time when foreign masters started working in the country and the Russian language acquired the word “palaty” (“chambers”), which stemmed from either the Latin “palatium” or the Italian “palazzo”, meaning “palace”.

Bobrishchev owned more than one stone building, which is where he stored his valuables and merchandise. His property was also comprised of wooden residential structures and various facilities, in addition to a fruit orchard by the river. The location of the property itself points to the fact that the owner belonged to the commercial elite: only extremely wealthy Muscovites could afford to settle by the Kremlin and Red Square (a major market place), on the one hand, and by the Moskva River pier, which was used for delivering goods by water or ice, on the other.

Nobody knows how the prosperous merchant’s story ended. Possibly, he had no heirs. The next time “guest Ivan Bobrishchev’s property” receives mention in written sources was in the 1550s, when it was already considered one of the Tsar’s assets.

Searching for Arctic route to China

By the beginning of the 16th century, during the Age of Discovery, all the major trading routes in the world to America, India and China crossed the Atlantic Ocean. The Spanish and the Portuguese, with the Pope’s approval, divided the world into areas of influence and controlled these routes. After the fall of the Byzantine Empire, the Turks, the enemy of Christian Europe, took over the land routes to the East. All these circumstances forced English sailors to look for alternate routes to reach overseas treasures and avoid open confrontation with major sea powers.

England had yet to become the Ruler of the Seas. It would still be more than 80 years before the crushing defeat of the Iinvincible Spanish Armada would occur, which would change the balance of power in the world arena, and slightly less before the second round-the-world journey in history by Francis Drake. English sailors acquired both their experience and their necessary skills by sailing in harsh conditions to the shores of faraway Muscovy. But, as fate would have it, their first visit happened completely by accident.

Like Columbus in his search for an unknown route to India, three ships departed from the British Isles in May 1553. The Bona Esperanza, Bona Confidentia and Edward Bonaventure began their search for a northern sea route to the East. Once they had sailed around Scandinavia, the ships got caught in a severe storm. Two crews several months later would die during their winter stopover. And only Edward Bonaventure and captain Richard Chancellor were able to continue their voyage. The ship soon crossed the White Sea and reached the mouth of the Northern Dvina River where it cast anchor near the Nikolo-Korelsky Monastery.

Local residents welcomed the unexpected guests with open arms. While the crew settled in for the winter, Captain Chancellor continued on, covering almost 1,000 kilometres on land. In January 1554, he met with the young Russian Tsar Ivan IV (who will later be named Ivan the Terrible) in the Kremlin. The foreign guest would spend eight months in Moscow. He went home with promises of cooperation from Ivan IV, who needed diplomatic and trade partners in Europe and therefore offered the English free trade in Russian cities.

London immediately responded to the generous offer. The Moscow Trade Stock Company was founded in 1555. The new market attracted not only traders but also English aristocrats. Reportedly, members of the stock company included six lords, one earl, 22 knights, 13 esquires, eight aldermen and eight gentlemen.

This is how for almost 150 years, the White Sea served as Russia’s gateway to Europe. Due to a series of military conflicts with its neighbours (1558-1583 Livonian War), Russia’s land-based route to the West and access to the Baltics were inaccessible. During Ivan the Terrible’s final years, a village called Novokholmogory sprung up near the site of the Englishmen’s first landing. This village eventually grew into the city of Arkhangelsk.

Portrait of Ivan the Terrible and Elizabeth I on display at the Old English Court Museu

Ivan the Terrible’s favourite Englishmen

In 1556, Ivan IV granted the Moscow Trade Stock Company a vacant merchant’s property in Zaryadye, which became the English Court. Later it would be named “old” after the Englishmen obtained one more court in 1636 by the Ilyinskye Vorota (Gates) near the modern Polytechnic Museum.  

The house was expanded haphazardly, with very little planning whatsoever, which resulted in the two existing structures being merged together. The building was comprised of its main chambers - the Treasury Chamber and a kitchen, as well as a basement, an attic, ladder-type crossings, an entrance hall and porches. This design completely took shape after a fire during the Time of Troubles when the court caught fire after an artillery attack on Kitai-Gorod in 1612. One extraordinary feature of the Old English Court building is a hoisting device for lifting heavy items to the attic with a double-lid hatch on the southern façade. The device was very common in Western European architecture although, completely unheard of in the medieval Moscow.

Cross-section of the chambers. Photo courtesy of the Museum of Moscow

During subsequent diggings near the western façade, archaeologists discovered a rare find – a complete set of 16th century furnace ceramic tiles with floral and animal-themed ornaments. With these tiles, the restoration of the furnace in the Treasury Chamber was complete. Remnants of Russian wall chests with wooden covers were also restored. To restore the belt-shaped vaults, artists referred to the vault design of the Aleksandrovskaya sloboda, which was built around the same time.  


The only known map of the court happens to be included in one of the earliest maps of Moscow, Peter’s Map, published in Amsterdam in the early 17th century, with descriptions in Latin. On Peter’s Map, the building is labeled “Aula Anglorum Moskuae negotiantium” which means “the court of English merchants in Moscow.”

The British imported woolen cloth to Moscow as well as much-needed goods for Ivan IV, who was constantly waging war, including weapons, gun powder, ammonium nitrate, sulphur, copper, lead, tin metal and other ammunition components. In turn, the great British Navy was built upon Russian materials such as shipbuilding timber, sail cloth and industrial hemp. The latter was such good quality that the Moscow Trade Stock Company soon posted seven ropemakers to organise local production for the English fleet. For quite a long time, the English fleet was equipped with Russian hoisting gear.

Such products as wax, lard, butter, honey, caviar, linen and furs were also in high demand in England. Courtesy of the English, Europe picked up the trend for using muscovite, also called isinglass or common mica. It was cheaper and had higher shock resistance than contemporary glass and, therefore, could be used for horse carriage windows and portable lamps.

Dozens of references to Muscovites, or Russians, in William Shakespeare’s writing are another indication of England’s interest in the faraway land. The playwright, who witnessed the era of early relations between Russia and England, mentions Russians in several of his plays, including Love’s Labour’s Lost, Measure for Measure, Henry V, Macbeth and The Winter’s Tale.

The English set up merchant villages in Moscow, Kholmogory, Vologda, Yaroslavl and other cities. These trade missions were considered belonging to the oprichnina (special administrative elite, armed forces created by Ivan the Terrible) and thus under direct custody of the Tsar himself. It was with the Tsar’s permission that the British travelled down the Volga to Persia. They were also granted permission to search for iron ore at the Vychegda River and use their silver to mint Russian coins in Moscow because locals did not trust foreign money.

The Russian Tsar was set on forming a military and diplomatic alliance with the reigning Queen Elizabeth I – but never succeeded. Ivan the Terrible expressed interest in becoming relatives with the House of Tudors, a desire that was met with outcry from Russian boyars (according to one theory, it was the reason for the monarch’s violent death in 1584). When the English ambassador in Moscow learned about the Tsar’s demise and rushed to the court, he was greeted with the words “Your English Tsar is dead.”

Ivan the Terrible’s successor’s, Feodor I, did not hold the British in high regard and soon deprived them of the privileges granted by his father. Relations between the two nations improved again during Boris Godunov’s reign. Godunov was often called “the fosterer of the English.” The Russians and the English enjoyed mutually beneficial links until 1649 when Moscow was shocked by the news that revolutionaries had executed Charles I of England.  

“His Royal Majesty, our glorious Tsar received a message that the English people have committed an evil crime and have killed their King Charles. For doing such an evil thing, you are no longer welcome in the State of Moscow,” with these words Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich ousted the British from the country and took away the trade company’s property, including the Old English Court in Zaryadye.

After English merchants

None of the subsequent owners of the Old English Court owned the building for a longer period than the British merchants. Boyar Ivan Miloslavsky settled in the building in the second half of the 17th century. The Miloslavsky family elevated itself thanks to Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich’s first wife, Maria Miloslavskaya. The year she died the estate’s ownership was transferred to the Ambassadorial Chancery. Several years later, Metropolitan of Nizhny Novgorod’s metochion was housed in the building.

In 1720, Peter the Great founded one of Moscow’s first arithmetic schools in the old English chambers. The school, even though it did not exist for very long, it  still had an impact on the building’s appearance as the kitchen windows were enlarged to let in more light.

The medieval chambers literally vanished in the early 19th century. Before the 1812 fire, the new owner, Yekaterina Melas, rebuilt them to add more height and width. Decorations in the then popular Empire style were added to the façade on the side of Varvarka Street. By the mid-century, the Old English Court, which by then had adopted the look of a commercial house, was completely unrecognisable. Not long before World War I, the association of the Treugolnik Russian-American rubber factory intended to replace it with an eight-story high-rise. The project was approved in July 1914. If not for the war, the antique chambers would have disappeared without a trace.

Yekaterina Melas’s house. 19th century. Photo courtesy of the Museum of Moscow

In Soviet times, the Old English Court was considered a lost cause and the decrepit building was used by various offices and as communal housing. In 1948, the All-Union State Foreign Literature Library moved into the building (it was dubbed “Razinka” since Varvarka Street had been renamed Stepana Razina Street) and English speech was spoken there again.

During the construction of Rossiya Hotel in the 1960s, the hidden historical landmark was threatened once again. The plan was to build in its place an overpass for tourist buses. Mistakenly considered to have no value, the structure was subject to demolition when architect and restoration artist Pyotr Baranovsky came to the rescue of this masterpiece of medieval architecture. He examined the library rooms and concluded that the building is based upon a much older core structure dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries.

The Old English Court before restoration. 1960s. Photo courtesy of the Museum of Moscow

The historical foundation of this landmark was uncovered during its 1968‒1972 restoration. De-mining experts involved in the works used directional charge to chop away everything that was redundant – carefully, step by step, in order to preserve the valuable core. Eventually, the original building structure from the times of English merchants was restored.

Restoration. 1960s. Photo courtesy of the Museum of Moscow

In 1994, the Old English Court Museum in the building was presented to he public, the opening ceremony of which was attended by Queen Elizabeth II. The museum’s interactive exhibition brings life to the old merchant house and introduces visitors to the science, trades and practical skills of the people who lived in the Age of Discovery.


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