Sir Humphrey Gilbert
Gilbert, Sir Humphrey (1537–1583), explorer and soldier, was born in Greenway, near Dartmouth, Devon between January and May 1537, the second son of Otho Gilbert of Compton, Devon (d. 1547), landowner, and Katherine, daughter of Sir Philip Champernoun of Modbury, Devon. Following Otho Gilbert's death Katherine married Walter Ralegh (1496?–1581), a gentleman from Hayes Barton in the same county. Sir Walter Ralegh (1554–1618) was a child of this second marriage and was therefore Humphrey Gilbert's half-brother.
Education and early career
According to John Hooker of Exeter, the main source of information on Gilbert's early life, Gilbert was educated at Eton College and Oxford and then entered the service of Princess Elizabeth about 1554–5 through the good offices of his aunt Katherine Ashley, the future monarch's governess. In 1558 he attended New Inn, an inn of chancery. His military career began with a commission held during the Newhaven expedition of 1562–3. The earl of Warwick, his superior officer in this exploit, warmly praised Gilbert for the quality of his service. On his return to England Gilbert turned his attention to the possible discovery of a direct route by sea to the Far East, and in late 1565 he petitioned Queen Elizabeth for a commission to achieve this end. About this time, in the presence of the queen and some of the privy council, Gilbert advocated the case for a north-west passage over America to the Pacific in contradiction of Andrew Jenkinson, a supporter of the idea of a north-east passage. Accordingly he wrote the first version of his Discourse of a Discoverie for a New Passage to Cataia in 1566, a work that was published ten years later with a commentary by George Gascoigne and which subsequently featured in the first edition of Hakluyt's Principall Navigations. This treatise, as well as pointing out the damage that might be inflicted on Spanish and Portuguese interests if the English discovered such a route, also advocated the colonization of the New World by the English in order to alleviate vagrancy and poverty in the mother country. Gilbert's attempts to undertake this project were frustrated by the breakdown of negotiations with the Muscovy Company concerning the terms under which such an expedition would be undertaken.
Ireland, Westminster, and the Netherlands
In 1566 Gilbert began his notorious association with Ireland when he went to Ulster as a military captain to assist Henry Sidney, the lord deputy of Ireland, in the campaign to defeat Shane O'Neill. In the aftermath of O'Neill's assassination in 1567 Gilbert, as well as travelling between Ireland and England, became involved in the planning of plantation schemes in Ireland, one in Ulster and one with Sir Warham St Leger in Munster. Even later, in 1572, Gilbert and his uncle Sir Arthur Champernoun were petitioning Sir John Perrot, president of Munster, with plans for a plantation. However, the turmoil caused in 1569 by the uprisings of James fitz Maurice Fitzgerald and Edmund Butler ensured Gilbert's return to military action. In September 1569 he was made colonel of the army in Munster and became military governor of the province with a commission of martial law. With only 500 troops in the field Gilbert subdued a force perhaps eight times larger in six weeks. He forced the earl of Clancar, MacDonagh, and the white knight into submission in early December and James fitz Maurice Fitzgerald only narrowly eluded his grasp.
The ruthlessness of Gilbert's campaign, largely remembered for Thomas Churchyard's gory account of 1579 as well as Gilbert's frank and brutal letters from the field, has often tended to conceal the calculated political motivation of his intention to terrorize the Irish. The colonel on principle refused to recognize the rebels through direct or indirect contact. Neither would he give anyone protection unless they first submitted to him, swore an oath to the queen, and entered into pledges of good behaviour. According to Churchyard, those who submitted to Gilbert had to approach him through a lane marked by decapitated heads. He boasted of his disregard for the liberties of the chartered towns of Munster, stating 'that the Prince had a regular and absolute power, and that which might not be done by the one, I wolde do it by the other in Casez of necessitie' (Churchyard, sigs. Qi–Ri; TNA: PRO, SP 63/29, 82–3). Even as late as 1581 Sir Walter Ralegh, his half-brother, could assert that he 'never heard nor read of any man more feared than [Gilbert] is amonge the Irish nation' (Edwards, 2.12). In recognition of his service Gilbert was knighted by Lord Deputy Sidney in Drogheda in January 1570 and returned to England, citing pressing business as the cause of his absence. In the same year he married Anne Aucher, an heiress from Kent who bestowed considerable landed wealth upon him, wealth that Gilbert almost entirely consumed through supporting various maritime projects. The union produced six sons and a daughter.
Gilbert was returned to the parliament of 1571 as member for Plymouth. His most notable contribution to the Commons was an extremely unpopular speech defending the queen's prerogative against an attack on royal licences of purveyance previously made by Robert Bell. Having branded Bell 'an open enemy' Gilbert urged caution, stating that the queen might look to her own power and therefore find cause to suppress parliament for good. He cited continental European precedents to support this assertion. Gilbert was subsequently subjected to personal attack by Peter Wentworth and was denied right of reply by the house three times. Gilbert was later returned for Queenborough to the parliament of 1572–81, although it seems that he only attended the session of 1581. In 1571 he also became receiver-general of fines resulting from the enforcement of statutes prohibiting unlawful games and guaranteeing maintenance of armaments and horses for defence of the realm. His considerable favour in high places at this time is indicated by his co-operation with Sir William Cecil, the earl of Leicester, and Sir Thomas Smith in sponsoring William Medley's ill-fated alchemical project to change iron into copper.
In the early 1570s Gilbert wrote a tract entitled The erection of an achademy in London for educacion of her maiestes wardes, and others the youth of nobility and gentlemen. This aimed to secure the education of wards and the younger sons of gentlemen in 'matters of accion meet for present practize, both of peace and warre'. Gilbert asserted that 'suche as governe Common weales ought rather to bend themselves to the practizes thereof, then to the bookish Circumstances of the same' (Gilbert, 1–12). For that reason the cursus envisaged by Gilbert not only contained the usual rhetorical and physical exercises advocated by sixteenth-century pedagogues, but also advocated the study of natural philosophy in an empirical manner, the teaching of surgery, and the application of mathematics to the study of warfare by land and sea. Gilbert's views on the teaching of humanities and letters aimed at the immersion of the student in what he termed 'Chivallric pollicy'. He envisaged that the academy would produce a host of capable and vigorous crown servants. Other innovations recommended by Gilbert included the provision of a copyright library and the publication of findings, in the vernacular, stemming from the institution's studies and research.
From July to November 1572 Gilbert led a force of 1100 supposed volunteers to Flushing in an expedition, with clandestine royal approval, to support the Dutch states against the Spaniards. After a period spent skirmishing with the Spanish garrison and unsuccessfully besieging Goes, Gilbert returned to England in pretended disgrace. During the next five years he predominantly attended to his personal concerns in Devon, Kent, and London. But in 1577 he seized the opportunity afforded by increasing hostility at court towards the Spanish empire to put proposals before Elizabeth for a scheme to 'annoy the King of Spayne' by destroying the Spanish and Portuguese fishing fleets of Newfoundland and establishing an English colony in the West Indies in order to plunder Spanish shipping.
Gilbert receives letters patent
On 11 June 1578 Gilbert became the recipient of letters patent that entitled him for six years to search out 'remote heathen and barbarous landes' not already in the possession of a Christian prince, which, when found, he and his heirs could have, hold, occupy, and enjoy forever. Gilbert was to wield legislative and jurisdictional power in these lands as well as the right to grant tenures to colonists licensed to leave England. His continued and various attempted applications of this royal grant constitute the dominant motif of the remainder of his life. However, his plans to capitalize upon the letters patent by immediately embarking upon an expedition were successively stalled until November 1578. Disagreements between Gilbert and Henry Knollys, a participant in the proposed voyage, led to a split within the fleet from the start. As a result Knollys left with three ships the day before Gilbert set sail with the remaining seven. The motive and course of this venture is unknown. D. B. Quinn suggests that Gilbert aimed to fulfil his aforementioned ambitions in the West Indies. Although little is known of the details of Gilbert's voyage, it is certain that he was back in England by the end of April 1579.
In the summer of that year Gilbert, under commission, patrolled the southern coast of Munster with three ships to ward off James fitz Maurice Fitzgerald's anticipated return to Ireland with continental allies. This service proved particularly costly as his sailors, once their pay had ceased, absconded with two ships causing him losses of £2000. Gilbert subsequently attempted to generate revenue by farming out privileges under his patent to others: for example he handed over all rights to discoveries above the fiftieth line of latitude to John Dee. However he ran into trouble with the privy council for using his patent to issue licences to transport victuals out of England; in truth, he only had the right to issue licences to transport victuals to lands he had himself discovered.
Gilbert next used his letters patent in November 1582 to gather a joint-stock mercantile company around him in Southampton in order to support his planned maritime venture. The members of this corporation were to have exclusive rights to freedom of trade with whatever lands might be gained under his patent, and landowning privileges in those newly discovered areas. At the same time Gilbert entered into agreements with a group of Catholics led by Sir George Peckham and Sir Thomas Gerrard to enable them to set up a colony in the New World, thus evading England's increasingly severe recusancy laws. Originally intending to accompany them on their voyage Gilbert assigned them at least 8,500,000 acres in the Americas for their proposed settlement in 1582–3. This scheme foundered largely because of the privy council's requirement that the departing Catholics should pay their recusancy fines before leaving the realm.
Gilbert's final voyage
With the support of the Southampton company Gilbert finally left Plymouth with a fleet of five ships—the Delight, the Bark Ralegh, the Golden Hind, the Swallow, and the Squirrel—on 11 June 1583. An eyewitness account of this, Gilbert's final voyage, was written by Edward Hayes, captain and owner of the Golden Hind. According to Hayes, the intention of the voyage was to make for Newfoundland and then move southwards along the coast. The Bark Ralegh, however, lacking sufficient victuals, returned to port within two days. By the end of July Newfoundland had been sighted. On 3 August Gilbert entered the harbour of St John's, facing down opposition from the Newfoundland fishing fleet by showing his letters patent. He landed two days later and claimed the harbour and all land within 200 leagues' radius of it in Queen Elizabeth's name, in accordance with his commission of 1578, thus establishing the first English possession in the New World since John Cabot's expedition in 1497. Soon afterwards the arms of England engraved in lead were hoisted nearby on a wooden pillar. Gilbert imposed his authority on the local fishing fleet by leasing out drying grounds to them in fee farm, securing promises that they would pay him a rent.
Gilbert then set out on 20 August with the Squirrel, the Delight, and the Golden Hind on a reconnaissance trip southwards along the coast to reach Sable Island where, it was thought, livestock might be found. The Swallow remained in the hands of sailors who refused to follow Gilbert any further, preferring to return to England as soon as possible. On 29 August the Delight struck aground and sank, taking mineral specimens from Newfoundland and some newly charted maps with it. The crews of the remaining ships then insisted on returning home. According to Hayes, Gilbert was, by contrast, optimistic, anticipating generous royal support for a broader-based voyage to the Americas in the future. However, about midnight on 9 September 1583, and having encountered a fierce storm around the Azores, the Squirrel, with Gilbert on board, was engulfed by the sea. According to Hayes, Gilbert was last seen standing on deck with a book in his hand. His final words, shouted over to the Golden Hind, were 'We are as near to heaven, by sea as by land' (Hakluyt, 3.679–97).
Reputation and posterity
Gilbert's posthumous fame as a pioneer and mariner owes much to the innovative nature of his patent of 1578 and Hakluyt's inclusion of both Hayes's eyewitness account and Gilbert's work on the north-west passage in his 1589 edition of Principall Navigations. Ironically, even Elizabeth remarked that Gilbert was 'of not good happ by sea' (Quinn, 1.82). Certainly his picturesque death prevented his return to England as a disgraced and demoralized debtor and gave him something of the allure of a tragic hero, an image enhanced by the fact that the personal mottoes he assumed were Quid non? ('Why not?') and Mutare vel timere sperno ('I scorn to change or to fear') . Late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century treatments of Gilbert's life, notably those by J. A. Froude and William Gosling, stressed this adventurous aspect of his personality, casting him as the 'father of English colonization' (Gosling, 9). D. B. Quinn's thorough work on Gilbert, although stressing his status as pioneer of English transatlantic projects, places more weight on Gilbert's being symptomatic of the social context and economic pressures of his time.
This understandable maritime emphasis has, however, meant that contemporary assertions that he was a man of considerable intellectual sophistication have often been neglected. Thomas Churchyard, George Gascoigne, and William Camden all paid tribute to his intellectual capabilities. Hooker, in particular, highlighted Gilbert's interest in 'studies pertaining to the state of government' (Hooker, 133). Certainly the tenor of his views about the nature of his authority in Munster in 1569, coupled with his daring interventions in the parliament of 1571, indicate that Gilbert was a 'prerogative man', one who had a fundamental belief that all authority within the realm ultimately belonged to the monarch. Moreover, marginalia to Gabriel Harvey's copy of Livy's Discourses refer to Gilbert's reading Livy in the company of Sir Thomas Smith, whose pursuits included the examination of forms of government. The resulting debate compared the forward strategy of Marcellus to the cunning delaying tactics of Quintus Fabius Maximus. Gilbert, recently returned from suppressing rebellion in Ireland, argued for Marcellus. However, he eventually yielded to Sir Thomas Smith's advocacy of Fabius. Significantly, the somewhat Machiavellian conclusion Harvey reached, having heard them debating, was that 'each [is] as indispensible as the other in his place. There are times when I would rather be Marcellus, times when Fabius' (Grafton and Jardine, 40–42). Gilbert also had a lively interest in the occult which is best shown by an account, in the first person, of 'straung visions' he witnessed between 24 February and 6 April 1567. These tumultuous and violent visions, laden with dragons, angels, and books of archaic lore, reflect intriguingly on his psyche. Perhaps the most telling detail of these hallucinations is that of Gilbert, splendidly dressed and fully armed, receiving the homage of both Solomon and Job who promise him access to secret mystical information.
Gilbert's sexuality was a matter of contemporary speculation; both Sir Thomas Smith and Medley indicate that he may have been a pederast. In physical appearance he was, according to John Hooker, 'of higher stature than of the common sort, and of complexion cholerike' (Hooker, 132). His difficulties, though inspiring the loyalty of those who served with him, as attested by both Sir Roger Williams and Edward Hayes, proved to be a grave impediment to his success in both maritime and military exploits. Although many contemporaries pointed to his courage, intelligence, and enthusiasm, they also indicated that he was indiscreet, abrasive, and financially imprudent.