Life of Sir Martin Frobisher

Martin Frobisher’s father died when Martin was a child and he was sent to London and placed in the care of Sir John York, a distant relative. York set him on a maritime career. From 1554 onwards, Frobisher took part in yearly expeditions to Guinea, North Africa and the Levant. In 1556 it appears he had decided to go into business for himself, because he was hauled before a court to answer charges that he had fitted out a vessel for piracy.During the 1560s, Frobisher preyed officially on French shipping in the English Channel. He had a privateering license from Queen Elizabeth I. His exploits brought him to the Queen’s attention. In 1566, Sir Humphrey Gilbert wrote a book arguing that there must be a north-west passage over the top of America to China and to the east. Frobisher was the man chosen to see if the theory was correct. An expedition was organised under the patronage of the Earl of Warwick, with financial backing from Queen Elizabeth, Burghley, Walsingham and Leicester. Frobisher set out on three voyages to the unknown lands north of Labrador (1576 – 1578). In 1576, he crossed the Atlantic with three small ships, but just missed the mouth of the Hudson River. Instead he reached Labrador, and planted the English flag on an island he named “the Countess of Warwick Island” in the strait which subsequently became known as Frobisher Strait.

Some of his crew brought home some black stones which were thought to contain gold (on the say-so of an Italian alchemist). Frobisher’s later expeditions to the same area in 1577 and 1578 concentrated on the search for gold. When the ores Frobisher brought back from his third voyage turned out to contain neither silver nor gold, his financial backing collapsed, and he was forced to abandon further expeditions. Frobisher never found the north-west passage. The expeditions weren’t entirely wasted. The ore was used to mend a road in Dartford.

George Best, who was the captain of one of the ships in Frobisher’s expeditions wrote ‘A true discourse of the late voyages of discovery, for the finding of a passage to Cathay by the Northwest, under the conduct of Martin Frobisher’. It describes how they tried to communicate with the Eskimos by sign language to find out if they had eaten the five sailors the Eskimos had captured from the previous year’s expedition.

In 1585 King Philip of Spain made the unwise move of instructing the Corregidor of Biscay to seize every English ship in Spanish-controlled ports, as retribution for English support for the rebellion in the Netherlands. Hundreds of English sailors were captured and the merchant community suffered great losses. One ship got away in time and its captain brought the news to England. (He also brought the unfortunate Corregidor of Biscay, whom he had nabbed in the confusion of his escape).  Queen Elizabeth sent Sir Francis Drake to obtain restitution. Frobisher sailed as admiral of the London contingent. They set out on 14th September with a flotilla of 30 ships, ostensibly for the north Spanish coast. But Drake’s true objective was the West Indies. After some attacks on the Spanish coast, the fleet switched direction and sailed for the Canaries which they plundered. Then they launched their ships across the Atlantic. They surprised and capturing San Domingo, the Spaniards’ richest city in the West Indies, and extorted a ransom of 25,000 ducats as the price for handing it back. In February, they fell on Cartegena on the mainland, burnt its shipping and exacted a ransom of 110,000 ducats. Then they sailed to Florida and destroyed Fort St Augustine. Finally, they sailed to Sir Walter Raleigh’s colony in Roanoke, rescued the disappointed colonists and took them back to England. They reached England in the summer of 1586, carrying a fortune in ransom money, plundered merchandise, furniture, guns and all the church bells they had been able to lay their hands on.

Philip of Spain claimed the crown of England. This claim was based on two grounds: first, his descent from the house of Lancaster and, second, on Queen Mary having supposedly ceded her right to the English succession to him in her will. In fact, although Mary had written to the Spaniards promising to make such a will – presumably to save the country for Catholicism – the will was never made. Instead, Elizabeth, her Protestant younger sister followed her on the throne.In 1588 the Spanish Armada sailed for England under its commander Medina Sidonia. It was not intended to be a naval campaign. King Philip had an invasion army, commanded by the Duke of Parma, massed on the coast of the Netherlands. The role of the Armada was simply to meet the army and ferry it over the English Channel. But its role was obviously crucial. As the Armada passed through the English channel into the North Sea, Medina Sidonia came so close to the English shore that he saw the beacon fires on the hills. But when he saw the English fleet snaking out from Plymouth harbour ahead of him, he immediately withdrew to the relative safety of the continental coast. Harried all the way by the nimbler English ships, he stayed immobilised off Calais, which proved to be a serious mistake.

The English fleet was commanded by Charles, Lord Howard of Effingham, with subsidiary squadrons under Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Hawkins. Frobisher commanded the Triumph. He was knighted on board by Lord Howard in the early days of the battle. Howard had to prevent Sidonia embarking the Duke of Parma’s army. The immobility of the Spanish fleet gave him the opportunity to take the initiative and deliver his master stroke. During the night of 28th July, he sent eight ships blazing with pitch into the enemy fleet. The Spanish galleons had been anchored close together for protection and could not manoeuvre to avoid them. There was complete confusion. On the next day, the Spanish fleet tried to escape towards Dunkirk. A running battle developed into the decisive battle of Gravelines in which Drake, Hawkins and Frobisher played the most prominent part. The English ships had vastly better cannon than the Armada. They raked the Spanish ships at will, beyond the range of the Spanish guns. This was a new tactic. The Spanish were frustrated by the English refusal to grapple and board – the traditional naval tactic since Roman times – which would have enabled the Spanish to turn their superior military strength to advantage. The English victory was complete. Howard did not call off the chase till the Armada had fled as far north as the Firth of Forth. To return to Spain, Sidonia had to take the remnants of the Armada right round the British Isles. He lost sixty three ships, or half the Armada. The English lost no ships.

Over the next six years Frobisher commanded various English naval squadrons on basically piratical expeditions against the Spaniards. In 1589, Frobisher and the Earl of Cumberland set out from Plymouth for the Azores with a privately funded squadron. The plan was to intercept the annual Spanish treasure ships returning to Spain from the West Indies, Brazil or the Rio de la Plata. They missed the main prize but took other valuable prizes. In 1590, Frobisher set out again, this time with Sir John Hawkins, but King Philip was sufficiently alarmed to forbid the West Indies treasure ship to set sail at all that year.

In 1594, Frobisher was fighting the Spanish again, but this time nearer home. He was mortally wounded in a battle with a Spanish force off Brest on the west coast of France.

Frobisher’s Barbican connection is that a fair amount of him is buried in St Giles’ Churchyard. But St Andrew’s Church at Plymouth ended up with his heart and entrails.

He is more famous in Canada than in England, and his voyage of discovery to Frobisher Bay has been commemorated on Canadian stamps. They have even named a rose after him.