Sir Humphrey Gilbert lived in Redcross Street. Redcross Street is now buried under the Barbican estate; in fact its route is exactly under Gilbert house to which Sir Humphrey gave his name. You may never have heard of Sir Humphrey Gilbert unless you are an aficionado of Elizabethan history or science fiction.
In Catholic Europe of the 16th century England was regarded as a rogue state — the North Korea of its day — and the characters we revere as adventurers, such as particularly Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh, were generally regarded as pirates in the richer courts of Europe. Sir Humphrey was a typical Elizabethan adventurer: brave, impetuous, ambitious, obsessive, vicious and slightly crazed.
Gilbert was born in 1537 into an aristocratic family in Devon. Sir Walter Raleigh was his half brother. He followed a conventional course of education for a young aristocrat: Eton, Oxford University, the Inns of Court, and the army. At the age of 26 he was fighting in Normandy. Three years later he joined a campaign against the Irish. He was sent back to England to deliver dispatches to the Queen, and he took the opportunity to present Queen Elizabeth with his pet plan for discovering a quick route to China across the top of North America. His book was called “A Discourse Of A Discovery For A New Passage To Cataia” (Cataia, or more usually Cathay, being the name used for China). Discovering the fabled Northwest Passage to China was his particular obsession.
China was an enormous and rich market for Europe but it could only be reached by hazardous sea journeys round the tips of Africa and India. The route was largely controlled by the hostile forces of Spain and Portugal. England’s geographical position meant that its only chance of participating in this market was if it could find an alternative sea route. Many alternatives were tried. Some English explorers were trying to find the “Northeast Passage” across the top of Russia to India and China. Gilbert favoured the idea of the Northwest Passage across the top of the American continent and then into the China sea. (The Northwest Passage was finally discovered by the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen in 1906.)
Of course, if it were possible to reach China by travelling west then that would have given England a distinct commercial advantage due to its position. But Gilbert may have spoiled his chances of organising an officially sponsored expedition by producing another book, this time claiming to have had visions in which Solomon and Job paid him homage and promised to give him secret mystical knowledge. Despite this, or maybe because of it, he was soon packed off to Ireland again, this time as Governor of Ulster, and as a member of the Irish parliament.
Gilbert soon became embroiled in an effort by some English opportunists to claim estates in the south of Ireland. Gilbert led forces south and then found himself surrounded by superior Irish forces. There was no doubting his bravery: he led a cavalry charge against the superior enemy forces, in which his horse was shot out from under him and a spear pierced his shield. But he broke the enemy force and carried on to take 30 to 40 castles despite not having any artillery. Perhaps the reason he was so successful in capturing castles without much of a fight was that he adopted the practices of Tamerlane in dealing with anyone who put up a fight. Everyone he captured was killed, including women and children, and their heads cut off and lined up in parallel rows through which representatives of the local population had to walk in order to negotiate with the English general. Gilbert was knighted in 1569 for his military successes.
In 1570, at the age of 33, Gilbert returned to England and married Anna Aucher. They were to have six sons and a daughter. He became a member of Parliament for Plymouth and became involved in various commercial projects. His main business interest was an alchemy project, trying to turn iron into copper and lead into mercury. Everyone was at it. Lord Burleigh and Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, had their own alchemy businesses in London. The three of them got together to petition Queen Elizabeth to set up a college to study the subject.
Gilbert had made his fortune in Ireland, but now he took up again his interest in the Northwest Passage project, and he devoted much of the rest of his life and most of his fortune on it. He backed the expedition of Martin Frobisher (after whom Frobisher Crescent in the Barbican is named) to Greehland. He arranged his own an expedition in 1578 in search of the Northwest Passage, accompanied by his half brother Walter Raleigh, and they set off from Plymouth to America. But the small fleet was forced back to England long before it reached America. The truth was that he was more of a soldier than a mariner.
In 1579 he and Raleigh were given the job of intercepting a Spanish fleet which was heading for Ireland with weapons and supplies for the Irish rebels in Munster. Gilbert set sail in June 1579 but there was a thick fog and heavy rain off Land’s End, and he promptly got lost. Not unreasonably, Queen Elizabeth began to question whether Gilbert knew anything about navigation. Meanwhile, the Spanish quietly sailed into an Irish port. Gilbert and his ships got blown to the Bay of Biscay and only limped into the Irish port in October. He was clearly frustrated by the experience. He beat up one local gentleman as soon as he got of the ship, then picked a fight with another and killed him with his sword, right there on the quayside.
Stuck in Ireland, Gilbert’s thoughts turned again to the Northwest Passage, and he persuaded a number of Catholics to finance an expedition to America where they could create new homes for themselves. Raleigh who was an experienced mariner accompanied the expedition in ‘The Golden Hind. Gilbert captained his ship ‘The Squirrel’. They set off with five ships in the summer of 1583 and this time made it to Newfoundland. Gilbert claimed the territory on behalf of the English crown, and this may be the first land claimed for England in North America. The idea of settlement was a complete failure. There were no supplies and no way for the settlers to survive long term. The fleet set off back to Ireland. Gilbert managed to run The Squirrel aground fairly soon after departure as a result of ignoring the advice of his officers. The Squirrel was considered unsafe for sailing, and Gilbert transferred for while to The Golden Hind. So when they encountered heavy waves in mid-Atlantic the senior officers tried to persuade Gilbert to go back on board the Golden Hind, but he refused. The Squirrel went down with all hands. The last time he was seen, he was sitting at the back of the ship with a book in his hand. His last words, shouted to the Golden Hind, were “We are as near to Heaven by sea as buy land!” It sounds grand but it does not appear anyone knows what he meant exactly.
However, the story does not necessarily end there. Since no one actually saw Gilbert and his ship go down, there were various stories, even immediately after his death, as to what had become of him. According to Stuart Gordon’s ‘Fire In The Abyss’ (1983) Sir Humphrey didn’t drown at all – he was snatched off the sinking ship by the United States Navy and taken through time to the 20th century, where he reappeared with his sword in hand on the deck of a submarine. Another version is given by Phillip Jose Farmer in ‘The Gate Of Time’ (1966), in which Gilbert was not plucked into the future, but sideways into an alternate universe. He sails The Squirrel back to England, only to find it is not England but Blodland, a Viking country which had resisted conquest by the Romans and the Normans.