Sir Edward Fenton
Sir Edward Fenton
(?? - 1603)
Fenton, Edward (d. 1603), soldier and sea captain, was the son of Henry Fenton of Stretton-le-Steeple, Nottinghamshire, and Cicely Beaumont of Coleorton, Leicestershire; the poet Sir Geoffrey Fenton was his brother. At an unknown date between 1578 and 1582 he married Thomasina, daughter of Benjamin Gonson, the former treasurer of the navy [see under Gonson, William]; they had no children. In 1566 he served as a soldier with Sir Henry Sidney in Ireland during the suppression of Shane O'Neil's rebellion. Three years later Henry Bynneman published his Certaine Secrete Wonders of Nature, a translation of Pierre Boaisteau Launay's Histoires prodigieuses (1567). This, and his earlier association with Sidney, brought Fenton to the attention of Sidney's brother-in-law Ambrose Dudley, earl of Warwick. At the end of 1574 Warwick became one of the leading promoters of Martin Frobisher's north-west passage project, and in 1577 it was probably his influence that secured Fenton's place in the second voyage to Baffin Island as captain of the bark Gabriel, with wages of £8 per month. On 12 August 1577, in his only reported action during the expedition, Fenton led his men in a mock skirmish against demonstrations by an Inuit party seeking to recover three of their abducted compatriots.
In 1578 a much larger expedition to Baffin Island was organized to recover large quantities of supposedly gold bearing ore from sites on the northern shores of Frobisher Bay. Fenton was appointed lieutenant-general—in effect, Frobisher's second in command—and governor of a proposed colony of 100 men, intended to remain on Baffin Island during the winter of 1578–9. This would have been the first English settlement to be established outside Europe; however, the loss at sea of parts of a prefabricated blockhouse, and of provisions intended for the colonists, made its abandonment inevitable. On the outward passage, separated from the fleet during storms, Fenton's ship Judith endured weeks of danger from icebergs and appalling weather but reached the appointed landfall some ten days before Frobisher. Somewhat jealous of Fenton's abilities, Frobisher subsequently challenged his authority over the common mariners, and seems to have encouraged their insubordination to him. On 24 August, as the expedition prepared to return to England, Fenton supervised the construction of 'Fenton's watch-tower', the first English stone-built structure on the North American continent:
to prove what the vehemencie of winde and weather would do therwith this winter, to thende, that if the nexte yere habitacion shoulde be performed there, that then by this litle begynninge, a juste occasion and experiment should given how we shoulde deale in building greater howses. (Magd. Cam., Pepys Library, MS 2133, 55)
Three days later Fenton and Thomas Morris, master of the ship Frances of Foye, were the first Englishmen to observe Cyrus Field Bay, having walked across country from the northern shore of Frobisher Bay.
Following the return of the expedition the enterprise collapsed in the face of burgeoning debts and the failure of assayers to find any precious metals within the New World ore. In the following year Fenton was employed in Ireland once more, as an aide to the English commander Sir William Pelham (a former Frobisher adventurer) during the pacification of the Fitzmaurice rebellion. Between 16 October 1579 and 28 September 1580 he wrote several letters directly to Francis Walsingham and, upon one occasion, to Lord Burghley, providing information upon the campaign. A letter of 10 June 1581 from Sir Henry Wallop to Walsingham reports the murder of one James Fenton, possibly a cousin, enticed into an ambush by Sir Owen O'Sullivan's wife. By that time it seems that Edward himself was in England once more, perhaps having returned when Pelham was superseded as English commander by Lord Grey, and was involved in a new oceanic project. The earl of Leicester, Francis Drake, and others formed a syndicate to take advantage of the queen's support for the Portuguese pretender, Dom Antonio. The fortifying of Terceira in the Azores was considered, as was a descent upon the Spanish main. Too provocative for Elizabeth and Lord Burghley, the project was abandoned in the autumn months. However, a less contentious scheme went forward, whereby an expedition would sail to the Far East to initiate English trade with states friendly to Portugal and resurrect Drake's Moluccas connections. Fenton had some responsibility for the preparations in 1581 (though Drake apparently did not want him to sail in the voyage), and assisted its appointed leader, Martin Frobisher, to equip and man the ships.
From the start problems emerged between two principal factions. The Drake party, largely consisting of men who had sailed in the circumnavigation, anticipated a reprise of that voyage's depredations upon Spanish possessions. The merchants who invested were opposed to this. With Burghley's backing, they placed their own personnel in the ships and attempted to curb any unwelcome initiative on the part of the expedition's commander once at sea. Refusing to accept these intrusions, Frobisher stepped down on or before 27 February 1582, and Fenton was appointed in his place. His fleet consisted of the Galleon Leicester, commanded by Fenton himself, with his cousin by marriage, William Hawkins the younger, as lieutenant-general; the queen's ship Edward Bonaventure, commanded by Luke Warde; and two barks, the Francis (John Drake) and the Elizabeth (John Skevington). Inclement weather prevented the dispatch of the expedition in February 1582 as originally intended. The ships did not depart from Southampton until May, far too late to avoid contrary winds in the southern Atlantic.
It was to be a disastrous voyage. As early as 31 October 1581, while Frobisher was still the appointed expedition leader, Fenton had written to him to complain of Hawkins's youthful indiscretions. From the beginning of the voyage this and other clashes resulted in greater shipboard discord than was usual even in that extremely factious age. 'Drake's men' urged war upon Iberian vessels, the merchants wanted only trade; Fenton, torn between the two, and with the authority of the broad seal of England behind him, gradually lost both judgement and self-control. By the time that the vessels reached the coast of Africa, he was exhibiting symptoms of paranoia, and announced an intention to seize and fortify St Helena, and to make himself 'king' there—not a wholly ridiculous plan, given that he had a well-armed expedition and the island was uninhabited, but entirely against the letter and spirit of his orders. He also behaved with extreme arrogance in pacifying outbreaks of discord in the ships. However, some form of armed neutrality among the leading officers was reimposed, and the ships pressed on south-westwards, making the coast of Brazil in November, where the mariners were rested and the ships reprovisioned. At a fateful meeting of officers on 20 December the irreconcilable aims of the various parties could be ignored no longer. The Drake faction wished to pass through the Strait of Magellan, the merchants held out for the Cape of Good Hope (as their instructions stipulated). The following night the bark Francis deserted. At St Vincent, a sea fight with Spanish ships broke any vestigial sense of purpose among the English fleet. Luke Warde's Edward deserted after the battle; the Galleon Leicester and Elizabeth moved northwards to Spirito Santo, where, after briefly attempting to negotiate a trade treaty with the governor, the Englishmen precipitously departed, fearing Portuguese treachery. Following the collapse of a ludicrous, but mercifully brief, plan to pass on to Newfoundland, the two ships returned to England. They came to the Downs on 29 June 1583, by which time Fenton had placed William Hawkins in irons, following a fight between them in which knives had been drawn.
Humiliated by the fiasco Fenton did not have employment again until 1588 when, with some distinction, he commanded the queen's ship Mary Rose during the Armada campaign. In 1589 his brother-in-law Sir John Hawkins obtained for him the post of deputy treasurer of the navy, which he discharged without undue prominence. He appears to have lived at Deptford from that time onwards, and died there in 1603. He was buried at St Nicholas's Deptford. A memorial to Fenton in the church, erected by his nephew by marriage, the earl of Cork, is tactfully kind to his memory, praising his services in the north-west voyages and in 1588 without mentioning the débâcle of 1582.
Extant sources provide no positive opinions of Fenton. Henry Oughtred, Leicester's merchant-partner in the Moluccas project, wrote: 'his experience is verye small his mind hyghe ... thrall to the collycke and stubborn' (Taylor, 27). Richard Madox, chaplain in the Galleon Leicester, called him 'colorik and bas' (Donno, 142), while George Barne, a leading Muscovy merchant who helped to organize the voyage, was reported to be similarly unimpressed: 'The master [Christopher Hall] towld me Alderman Barne thowght our generaul but a folish flattering fretting creeper and so I fear he wil prov' (ibid., 139). Only Luke Warde's account of the voyage of 1582, which Richard Hakluyt reproduced in the 1589 edition of Principall Navigations, is generally neutral regarding Fenton's performance and character, although even he was moved to refer to the ordeal as a 'troublesome voyage'. However, Michael Lok consistently portrayed Fenton as the injured party in his clashes with Frobisher, and it is clear that his weaknesses of temperament disguised genuine ability. He was undoubtedly cultured and observant, and his ships' logs and journals of 1578 and 1582 show him to have been a brave, active, and accomplished navigator. As second in command to Frobisher he exhibited considerable initiative, courage, and tact; perhaps it was only the corrupting weight of too much authority that was eventually to pervert these qualities. If so, he was by no means the only Elizabethan sea commander to be so stricken.