Martin Frobisher

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Sir Martin Frobisher
Sir Martin Frobisher by Cornelis Ketel.jpeg
Sir Martin Frobisher by Cornelis Ketel, 1577
Bornc. 1535 or 1539
Altofts, Yorkshire, England
Died(1594-11-22)22 November 1594 (aged 55–59)
Plymouth, England
Occupation Seaman
Spouse(s)Dorothy Wentworth
Parent(s)Bernard Frobisher and Margaret York

Sir Martin Frobisher ( /ˈfrbɪʃər/ ; c. 1535 – 22 November 1594 [1] ) was an English seaman and privateer who made three voyages to the New World looking for the North-west Passage. He probably sighted Resolution Island near Labrador in north-eastern Canada, before entering Frobisher Bay and landing on present-day Baffin Island. [2] On his second voyage, Frobisher found what he thought was gold ore and carried 200 tons of it home on three ships, where initial assaying determined it to be worth a profit of £5.20 per ton. Encouraged, Frobisher returned to Canada with an even larger fleet and dug several mines around Frobisher Bay. He carried 1,350 tons of the ore back to England, where, after years of smelting, it was realised that the ore was comparatively worthless iron pyrite ('fool's gold'). As an English privateer, he plundered riches from French ships. He was later knighted for his service in repelling the Spanish Armada in 1588.


Early life

Martin Frobisher was probably born in 1535 or 1536, the son of merchant Bernard Frobisher of Altofts, Yorkshire, and Margaret York of Gouthwaite. [3] He was the third of five children when his father died prematurely in 1542. The family was left in the care of his uncle, Francis Frobisher. Little else is known of his early life in Yorkshire; his education appears to have been rudimentary. In hopes of better opportunity, young Frobisher was sent to London in 1549 to live with a maternal relative, Sir John York. [4] York was a wealthy and influential member of the Merchant-Taylor Company and had important connections in the royal government. [5] [6] [7]

In 1553, he sailed with Thomas Wyndham on the first English expedition to West Africa, comprising three ships and 140 men. The Englishmen were received in person by the Oba (King) Oroghbua of Benin City, who in turn traded with them and even extended them credit for 80 tons of pepper. [8] [9] Over two thirds of the ships' men died of heat or disease, [10] while Wyndham himself died at sea in the Bight of Benin, dying either of fever like most of the crew, or of drowning; in an inventory of 1590 a portrait of him by Hans Eworth is listed as being "Of Mr Thomas Wyndham drowned in the Sea returneinge from Ginney". [11]

Despite this setback, Frobisher returned to West Africa the next year as an apprentice merchant in an expedition to Portuguese Guinea organised and funded by Thomas Lok, under the command of his brother John Lok. [10] [12] Frobisher accompanied the landing party sent ashore at the town of Samma (Shamma) to trade with the Africans as a voluntary hostage or pledge, but during the course of this business the Africans abruptly ceased trading and held Frobisher. [13] The expedition abandoned the young hostage and went elsewhere to trade, eventually returning to England with a valuable cargo of gold, pepper, and ivory. His African captors then handed the boy over to the Portuguese at their trading post of Mina, where he was imprisoned in the castle of São Jorge da Mina. After nine months or so, the Portuguese authorities sent him to Portugal, whence he eventually made his way back to England about 1558. [14] [6] [15]

On 30 September 1559 Frobisher married a Yorkshire widow, Isobel Richard, who had a substantial settlement from her previous marriage to Thomas Richard (given also as Riggat, Ricard, or Rickard) of Snaith, [16] [17] as well as two young children. Little is known of their domestic life, but having spent all her inheritance to finance his ventures, Frobisher seems to have left her and her children by the mid-1570s; Isobel's death in a poorhouse in 1588 went unremarked by the ambitious captain. [18] [19]

Around 1560 or 1561, Frobisher first resolved to voyage in search of a North-west Passage as a trade route to India and China (then known as Cathay). [20] From 1563 to 1573 he gained experience in the rough and tumble of sea warfare in the English Channel, seeing a good deal of action as a privateer in association with John Hawkins and other English sea dogs who operated under sometimes questionable letters of marque. He seized five French prizes in May 1563. After serving some time in gaol for his part in despoiling the Catherine, which held tapestries intended for Philip II, in 1565 Frobisher purchased the Mary Flower and was soon cruising under various commissions, not always with due attention to their terms. [21] [22]

According to the Dictionary of National Biography , the first direct notice of Frobisher apparently is an account in the State papers of two interrogations in 1566, "on suspicion of his having fitted out a vessel as a pirate". On 21 August 1571 Captain E. Horsey wrote to Lord Burghley from Portsmouth that he "has expedited the fitting out of a hulk for M. Frobisher"; this is the earliest mention of Frobisher being in the Crown's employ. Burghley, then chief minister of the Queen, became Lord High Treasurer in 1572. [23] From the latter part of 1571 to 1572 Frobisher was in the public service at sea off the coast of Ireland. [24] [25]

First voyage

Greenwich Palace, from a window of which Queen Elizabeth waved to the departing ships (by an unknown artist) Greenwich Palace (anonymous).jpg
Greenwich Palace, from a window of which Queen Elizabeth waved to the departing ships (by an unknown artist)

In 1574, Frobisher petitioned the Privy Council for permission and financial support to lead an expedition to find a north-west passage to "the Southern Sea" (the Pacific Ocean) and thence to Cathay. [26] Some of its members were intrigued by his proposal, but cautiously referred him to the Muscovy Company (also called the "Russia Company"), an English merchant consortium which had previously sent out several parties searching for the North-east Passage around the Arctic coasts of Norway and Russia, and held exclusive rights to any northern sea routes to the East. [27] In 1576, Frobisher persuaded the Muscovy Company to license his expedition. With the help of the company's director, Michael Lok (whose well-connected father William Lok had held an exclusive mercers' license to provide Henry VIII with fine cloths), [28] Frobisher was able to raise enough capital for three barques: Gabriel and Michael of about 20–25 tons each, and an unnamed pinnace of ten tons, with a total crew of 35. [29] [30] Queen Elizabeth sent word that she had "good liking of their doings", and the ships weighed anchor at Blackwall on 7 June 1576. As they headed downstream on the Thames, Elizabeth waved to the departing ships from a window of Greenwich Palace, while cannons fired salutes and a large assembly of the people cheered. [31] [32]

On 26 June, the little fleet reached the Shetland Islands, where it stopped to repair a leak in Michael's hull and repair the barques' water casks. The ships hoisted sail the same evening and set course westwards, sailing west by north for three days until a violent storm rose and pounded them continuously through 8 July. [33] On 11 July, they sighted the mountains of the southeastern tip of Greenland, which they mistook for the non-existent island called 'Friesland'. Crossing the Davis Strait, they encountered another violent storm in which the pinnace was sunk and Michael turned back to England, [34] but Gabriel sailed on for four days until her crew sighted what they believed was the coast of Labrador. The landmass was actually the southernmost tip of Baffin Island; Frobisher named it "Queen Elizabeth's Foreland". [35]

The ship reached the mouth of Frobisher Bay a few days later, and because ice and wind prevented further travel north, Frobisher determined to sail westwards up the bay, which he believed to be the entrance to the North-west Passage, naming it Frobisher's Strait, [36] to see "whether he might carry himself through the same into some open sea on the back side". [37] Gabriel sailed north-westwards, keeping in sight of the bay's north shore. On 18 August, Burche's Island was sighted and named after the ship's carpenter who first spied it; [38] [39] there the expedition met some local Inuit. Having made arrangements with one of the Inuit to guide them through the region, Frobisher sent five of his men in a ship's boat to return him to shore, instructing them to avoid getting too close to any of the others. The boat's crew disobeyed, however, and five of Frobisher's men were taken captive. [40]

After days of searching, Frobisher could not recover the insubordinate sailors, and eventually took hostage the native man who had agreed to guide the Englishmen to see if an exchange for the missing boat's crew could be arranged. The effort was fruitless, and the men were never seen again by their fellows, [41] but Inuit oral tradition tells that the men lived among them for a few years of their own free will until they died attempting to leave Baffin Island in a self-made boat. [42] Frobisher turned homewards, and was well received by the Queen when he docked in London on 9 October. [43] Among the things which had been hastily brought away by the men was a black stone "as great as a half-penny loaf" which had been found loose on the surface of Hall's Island off Baffin Island by the ship master, Robert Garrard, who took it to be sea coal, of which they had need. [44] [45] Frobisher took no account of the black rock but kept it as a token of possession of the new territory.

Michael Lok said that Frobisher, upon his return to London from the Arctic, had given him the black stone as the first object taken from the new land. Lok brought samples of the stone to the royal assayer in the Tower of London and two other expert assayers, all of whom declared that it was worthless, saying that it was marcasite and contained no gold. Lok then took the "ore" to an Italian alchemist living in London, Giovanni Battista Agnello, who claimed it was gold-bearing. [46] Agnello assayed the ore three times and showed Lok small amounts of gold dust; when he was challenged as to why the other assayers failed to find gold in their specimens, Agnello replied, "Bisogna sapere adulare la natura" ("One must know how to flatter nature"). [47] Ignoring the negative reports, Lok secretly wrote to the Queen to inform her of the encouraging result, [48] and used this assessment to lobby investors to finance another voyage. [49] Subsequently the stone became the focus of intense attention by the Cathay enterprise's venturers, who saw in it the possibility of vast profits to be derived from mining the rocky islands of Meta Incognita; [50] gossip spread in the court and from there throughout London about the gold powder Agnello was supposedly deriving from the rock. [51]

Second voyage

In 1577, a much bigger expedition than the former was fitted out. The Queen lent the 200-ton Royal Navy ship Ayde to the Company of Cathay (Frobisher's biographer James McDermott says she sold it) and invested £1000 in the expedition. [43] [52] Prior to 30 March, Frobisher petitioned the Queen to be confirmed as High Admiral of the north-western seas and governor of all lands discovered, and to receive five per cent of profits from trade. It is unknown if his request was ever granted. Michael Lok, meanwhile, was petitioning the queen for his own charter, by the terms of which the Company of Cathay would have sole rights to exploit the resources of all seas, islands and lands to the west and north of England, as well as any goods produced by the peoples occupying them; Frobisher would be apportioned a much smaller share of the profits. Lok's request was ignored and a charter never issued, nor was a royal license granted, creating corporate ambiguity that redounded to the Queen's benefit. [53] [52]

Besides Ayde, the expedition included the ships Gabriel and Michael; Frobisher's second-in-command aboard Ayde was Lieutenant George Best (who later wrote the most informative account of the three voyages) with Christopher Hall as master, while the navigator Edward Fenton was in command of Gabriel. [54] The learned John Dee, one of the preeminent scholars of England, acquired shares in the Cathay Company's venture, [55] and instructed Frobisher and Hall in the use of navigational instruments and the mathematics of navigation, as well as advising them which books, charts, and instruments the expedition should purchase. [56] The fleet left Blackwall on 27 May and headed down the Thames, ostensibly having, per the instructions of the Privy Council, a maximum complement of 120 men, including 90 mariners, gunners and carpenters to crew the ship, as well as refiners, merchants, and thirty Cornish miners; [57] [58] this figure included a group of convicts to be expatriated and put to use as miners in the new lands. Frobisher had exceeded the assigned quota of crewmen by at least twenty men, and perhaps by as many as forty. Letters from the Privy Council were waiting for him at Harwich, however, commanding him to trim the excess; consequently he sent the convicts and a number of seamen ashore at the harbour on May 31, and set sail northwards to Scotland. The fleet anchored at St Magnus Sound in the Orkney Islands on 7 June to take on water, and weighed anchor that evening. It enjoyed fair weather and favourable winds on its passage across the Atlantic, and "Friesland" (southern Greenland) was first sighted on 4 July. [43] Hall and Frobisher each attempted landing in the ship's boat, but were driven back by fog and the certain knowledge of unseen ice in the water before them. [59]

The Inuit 'Calichough' or 'Kalicho'. Watercolour by John White Kalicho.jpg
The Inuit 'Calichough' or 'Kalicho'. Watercolour by John White

On 8 July, presented with no opportunity to land, Frobisher set his course westwards. The ships were caught almost immediately in severe storms and separated, each of them lowering their sails for long intervals. They continued this way for several days, tracking before the wind until the weather cleared on 17 July and the fleet was able to regroup, a testament to the skill of the masters. A sailor aboard Ayde spied Hall's Island at the mouth of Frobisher Bay the same evening. The next day, Frobisher and a small party landed at Little Hall's Island in Ayde's pinnace to search for more samples of the black ore acquired originally by Robert Garrard, but found none. On 19 July, Frobisher and forty of his best men landed at Hall's Island and made their way to its highest point, which he dubbed Mount Warwick in honour of the Earl of Warwick, one of the principal investors in the expedition. There they piled a cairn of stones to mark possession of the new land, and prayed solemnly for the success of their venture. [60]

Several weeks were now spent in collecting ore, but very little was done in the way of discovery, Frobisher being specially directed by his orders from the Company of Cathay to "defer the further discovery of the passage until another time". [61] There was much parleying and some skirmishing with the Inuit, and earnest but futile attempts were made to recover the five men captured the previous year. The expedition's return to England commenced on 23 August 1577, and Ayde reached Milford Haven in Wales on 23 September. Gabriel and Michael later arrived separately at Bristol and Yarmouth. [62] [63]

Frobisher brought with him three Inuit who had been forcibly taken from Baffin Island: a man called Calichough, a woman, Egnock, and her child, Nutioc. [64] All three died soon after their arrival in England, [65] [66] Calichough dying from a wound suffered when a rib was broken unintentionally during his capture and eventually punctured his lung. The Inuit's names are reported elsewhere as Kalicho, Arnaq and Nuttaaq. [67]

Frobisher was received and thanked by the queen at Windsor. [68] Great preparations were made and considerable expense incurred for the assaying of the great quantity of "ore" (about 200 tons) brought home. This took much time [69] [26] and led to disputes among the various interested parties. [63]

Third voyage

Printed text in German telling of Martin Frobisher's third voyage Zentralbibliothek Zurich - Merckliche Beschreibung sampt eygenlicher Abbildung eynes frembden unbekanten Volcks - 000003625.jpg
Printed text in German telling of Martin Frobisher's third voyage

Meanwhile, the Queen and others in her retinue maintained a strong faith in the potential productivity of the newly discovered territory, which she herself named Meta Incognita [70] [63] (Latin: Unknown Shore). [71] It was resolved to send out the largest expedition yet, with everything necessary to establish a colony of 100 men. [72] Frobisher was again received by the queen, [62] whereupon she threw a chain of fine gold around his neck. [73]

The expedition consisted of fifteen vessels: [74] the flagship Ayde, Michael, and Gabriel, as well as Judith, Dennis or Dionyse, Anne Francis, Francis of Foy and Moon of Foy, Bear of Leycester, Thomas of Ipswich, Thomas Allen, Armenall, [75] Soloman of Weymouth, Hopewell, and Emanuel of Bridgwater. [76] [73] There were over 400 men aboard the ships, with 147 miners, 4 blacksmiths, and 5 assayers in the crew. [77]

On 3 June 1578, the expedition left Plymouth and, sailing through the Channel, on 20 June reached the south of Greenland, where Frobisher and some of his men managed to land. On 2 July, the foreland of Frobisher Bay was sighted. Stormy weather and dangerous ice prevented the rendezvous, and, besides causing the wreck on an iceberg of the 100-ton barque Dennis, drove the fleet unwittingly up a waterway that Frobisher named 'Mistaken Strait'. He believed that the strait, now known as Hudson Strait, was less likely to be an entrance to the North-west Passage than Frobisher Bay ('Frobisher's Strait' to him). [78] [79] After proceeding about sixty miles up the new strait, [80] Frobisher with apparent reluctance turned back, and after many buffetings and separations, the fleet at last came to anchor in Frobisher Bay. During this voyage, the vessel Emanuel claimed to have found the phantom Buss Island. [81]

Some attempt was made at founding a settlement, and a large quantity of ore was shipped, but dissension and discontent prevented the establishment of a successful colony. On the last day of August, the fleet set out on its return and reached England in the beginning of October, although the vessel Emanuel was wrecked en route at Ard na Caithne on the west coast of Ireland. [82] The ore was taken to a specially constructed smelting plant at Powder Mill Lane in Dartford; assiduous efforts to extract gold and further assays were made over five years, but the ore proved to be valueless iron pyrite [83] and was eventually salvaged for road metalling. The Cathay Company went bankrupt and Michael Lok was ruined, being sent to debtors' prison several times. [84]

Anglo-Spanish War

Sir Martin Frobisher (British School, Dulwich Picture Gallery) British - A Man, called Sir Martin Frobisher Kt - Google Art Project.jpg
Sir Martin Frobisher (British School, Dulwich Picture Gallery)

Finding his reputation as an adventurer-explorer damaged following the disastrous outcome of the Cathay Company venture, and that his services in that line were no longer required, [85] Frobisher sought other employment. He applied to a major shareholder in the Arctic enterprise, Sir William Wynter, one of the Queen's most trusted naval commanders, who was leading a fleet of four heavily armed vessels to Ireland under orders to put down the Desmond rebellion against the English Crown. Frobisher secured an appointment as captain of the Foresight and sailed in early March 1580; in November, he participated in the Siege of Smerwick at Dingle, [86] a rocky promontory on the southwestern shore of Kerry, where the Emanuel had wrecked two years previously. [87]

Frobisher joined Francis Drake on his 1585 raids of Spanish ports and shipping in the West Indies as vice-admiral of Drake's fleet, appointed to that position by the Queen; his flagship was the Primrose. [88] Shortly after the voyage began, Frobisher was admitted to a select group of advisors to Drake (together with Christopher Carleill, Nichols, and Fenner). On 20 July, 1588, the Spanish Armada set sail from Corunna in Galicia with the purpose of escorting the Army of Flanders, led by the Duke of Parma, to invade England. Sir Francis Walsingham sent a dispatch to Whitehall stating that the Armada had been sighted in the chops (entrance) of the Channel that day. [89] When the two navies first engaged, [90] [91] Frobisher was in command of Triumph , the Royal Navy's largest ship, leading a consort of the ships Merchant Royal, Margaret and John, Centurion, Golden Lion and Mary Rose. [92]

Spanish Armada

Following a council of war, Lord Howard, the Lord High Admiral of the Fleet, reorganised the English fleet into four squadrons. [93] Frobisher was made commander of one of these and assigned Triumph, as well as Lord Sheffield's White Bear, Lord Thomas Howard's Golden Lion, and Sir Robert Southwell's Elizabeth Jonas, all heavily armed vessels. [94] On the morning of 21 July 1588, Frobisher in Triumph, Drake in Revenge, and Hawkins in Victory attacked the seaward wing of the Spanish defensive formation, damaging San Juan de Portugal, the ship of the Armada's vice-admiral, Juan Martínez de Recalde, and forcing his rescue by galleasses from the Bizcayan squadron. Later that day Frobisher and Hawkins engaged Pedro de Valdez, commander of the Andalusian squadron, who did not yield his ship, Nuestra Señora del Rosario (Our Lady of the Rosary), until Drake came to their assistance the next morning, [95] much to his rival Frobisher's consternation. [96] Three days later, the English fleet was reinforced by Lord Seymour's channel patrol of thirty-five or forty sail, and Frobisher assumed command of his newly formed squadron. [24] [97]

Frobisher's squadron was close in shore at dawn on 25 July, the only one landwards of the Armada that morning; the sea was dead calm when he engaged the Duke of Medina Sidonia's flagship San Martín and gave her another pummeling like that of a few days past. A breeze rose from the south-west, however, allowing several Spanish galleons to move in and save their flagship. The other English ships withdrew in time, but Triumph was caught on the lee shore off Dunnose cape on the Isle of Wight, and more than thirty Armada ships bore down upon him. Frobisher used his boats to manoeuvre Triumph with good effect and managed to escape when the wind shifted again, allowing him the weather gage. [98] [99]

Frobisher was knighted 26 July for valour by Lord Howard aboard his flagship Ark Royal, alongside Sheffield, Thomas Howard, and Hawkins. [100] [101] Two days later the English launched eight fire ships into the midst of the Armada at its moorings, forcing its captains to cut their anchors; [102] the decisive action was fought 29 July on the shoals off Gravelines, where Frobisher, Drake, and Hawkins pounded the Spanish ships with their guns. Drake's squadron gave Medina Sidonia's flagship, San Martin, a single broadside and moved on; Frobisher, directly behind him in the English line, stayed with the San Martin at close range and poured cannon shot into her oaken flanks, but failed to take her. Five Spanish ships were lost. [103]

Following this defeat of the Spanish fleet, the Revenge was engaged in harassing Spanish shipping and it was Frobisher's flagship in 1590 when he commanded the efforts to intercept Spanish treasure galleons. [104]

Later life

In 1590, Frobisher visited his native Altofts and found himself welcomed in the homes of the peers and landed gentry of Yorkshire county as an honoured guest. He paid particular attention to a daughter of Thomas, 1st Baron Wentworth, Dorothy Wentworth, (1543 – 3 January 1601), recently widowed by the death of her husband, Paul Withypool of Ipswich; [105] [106] [107] sometime before October she became Frobisher's second wife. In November 1591, he purchased from the Queen the leasehold of the manor of Whitwood in Yorkshire for an unstated sum, and of Finningley Grange in Nottinghamshire, which had belonged to the Mattersey Priory, for £949. [108] Frobisher made Whitwood his chief residence, befitting his new status as a landed proprietor, but found little leisure for a country life. [109]

The following year Frobisher took charge of an English fleet sent out to blockade the Spanish coast and rendezvous with the Spanish treasure fleet; it was fitted out by investors including the Queen, the Earl of Cumberland, Sir Walter Raleigh and his brother, and John Hawkins. Raleigh and Cumberland were the principal organisers of the expedition, and on 28 February Raleigh was commissioned to lead it; the Queen, however, was not eager to send her current favourite off to sea, and he, no great lover of sea life and with no experience in the command of fleets, recommended Frobisher take his place. The fleet was divided into two divisions, with Frobisher's squadron patrolling the waters off the coast of Portugal near the Burlings, while Sir John Burgh (Borrough) and John Norton's squadrons sailed for the Azores where they captured a rich prize, the Madre de Deus , much to the discomfiture of Frobisher when he learned the news. [110] [111]

In September 1594, Frobisher led a squadron of ships that besieged Morlaix and forced its surrender. [112] The following month he was engaged with the squadron in the siege and relief of Brest, where he received a gunshot wound to his thigh during the Siege of Fort Crozon, [113] a Spanish-held fortress. The surgeon who extracted the ball left the wadding behind and an ensuing infection resulted in his death days later at Plymouth on 22 November. [114] His heart was buried at St Andrew's Church, Plymouth, and his body was then taken to London and buried at St Giles-without-Cripplegate, Fore Street. [115] [116]


Plaque in St Giles-without-Cripplegate, London St Giles-without-Cripplegate, London 05.JPG
Plaque in St Giles-without-Cripplegate, London


A Parker-class flotilla leader destroyer was named HMS Frobisher during construction but was named HMS Parker when launched in 1915. It was scrapped in 1921.

The Royal Navy Hawkins-class cruiser HMS Frobisher was named after him. It was scrapped in 1949.

A SR Lord Nelson class steam locomotive was named after him.

Frobisher Crescent, part of the Barbican Estate in London, is named after Frobisher. [117]

A stained glass window placed in memory of him is located in All Saints' Church, Normanton, near his birthplace in Altofts, West Yorkshire.

Martin Frobisher Infants School in Altofts is named after him. One of the four houses at Spratton Hall Preparatory School, Northamptonshire is named after him.

A portrait of him can be found at Normanton Train Station.


Frobisher Bay in Nunavut is named after him. This was also the former name of Nunavut's capital, Iqaluit, from 1942 until 1987. The city's airport was Frobisher Bay Air Base from 1942 to 1963, and Frobisher Bay Airport from 1963 to 1987, before being renamed Iqaluit Airport.

An early version of Thanksgiving was celebrated after the safe landing of Frobisher's fleet in Newfoundland after an unsuccessful attempt to find the Northwest Passage. [118]

A shrub rose is named after Martin Frobisher. [119]

The small settlement of Frobisher, Saskatchewan, and Frobisher Lake, in northern and southern Saskatchewan, respectively.

A number of roads bear Frobisher's name:

See also


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