1568 Humphrey Gilbert’s Proposal

As England’s economy improved, Queen Elizabeth paid more attention to the exploration and exploitation of North America. Her scientists, navigators, geographers, and captains encouraged her to take possession of the western lands John Cabot had claimed for England in 1497. They wanted to continue Cabot’s search for an alternative passage to the riches of the east.

In an earlier article, we showed how cartographers had been promising a northwest passage since the early days of map making. In the atlas that Portuguese cartographer Diogo Homem created for Queen Mary of England in 1554, he drew the islands Cabot explored, as well as the islands the Portuguese Corte-Real brothers surveyed in 1500 and 1501. Homem drew the islands as a cluster at the northern tip of North America, with nothing but water to the west. You will see its similarity to Girolamo Verrazzano’s map of the New World drawn in 1529. The chart shows an easily-found path to the Eastern Sea between the islands and Greenland.

Author’s tracing of Diego Homem’s map of the North Atlantic from his Atlas, England, 1554-1555

Just three years later, in 1558, a well known official of the Venetian Republic named Nicolo Zeni [Zen or Zeno] wrote a book claiming that in the 1380s [over a hundred years before Columbus and Cabot], his great-great-great-grandfather and great-great-great-granduncle explored the Northern Atlantic as far as Newfoundland. This trip may have been the survey carried out for King Edward III of England. Zeni included the chart shown below of his ancestors’ discoveries. Once again, a ship could easily wiggle through the islands at the tip of North America to reach the sea beyond.

Chart of the Navigation of Nicolo and Antonio Zeni, 1380, by Niccolo Zeni, 1558, Venice.(1)

Some of Zeni’s islands are easy to identify: ‘Islandia’ is Iceland. ‘Scocia is Scotland. ‘Engranelant’ meant ‘the northernmost region of the world that is completely covered with snow.’ But ‘Frisland’ is a mythical island. This error will cause English explorer Martin Frobisher to think ‘Greenland’ was a place called ‘Frisland.’

Meanwhile, the French and the Spanish were busy.

The earliest records of English fishermen searching the Arctic seas for new fishing grounds are dated from this period. Mariners who traveled there brought home skins of white bears and horns of unicorns. The Arctic was a mysterious place. It attracted the needle on a compass.

It took a pamphlet written by Humphrey Gilbert to finally convince Queen Elizabeth to take action. Gilbert had been in the Queen’s service since he was a teenager. His great-aunt, Katherine Champernowne Ashley, was Queen Elizabeth’s governess and best friend. Elizabeth called her ‘Kat.’ Gilbert’s mother, Katherine Champernowne, was Kat’s niece. Gilbert shared his mother with his half-brother, the later famous Sir Walter Ralegh.(3)(4) [We will hear a lot about the Champernownes.]

Gilbert participated in the siege on Le Havre, Normandy, in 1563, during the Wars of Religion in France [Catholics versus the Protestant Huguenots]. He served under Ambrose Dudley, 3rd Earl of Warwick, who we will hear more about later. Gilbert was wounded during the siege, but recovered.

In 1566, Gilbert’s uncle, Sir Arthur Champernowne, introduced him to the plantation efforts going on in Ireland. Arthur sent Gilbert to Ireland to help Henry Sidney, Lord Deputy of Ireland squelch the Irish Catholic rebellions [which we will explain in the next article]. Sidney sent Gilbert back to England at the end of the year carrying dispatches for the Queen.

In 1568 [some say as early as 1565], twenty-nine-year-old Humphrey Gilbert wrote a proposal to Queen Elizabeth offering to finance a trip to explore the Northern American continent for a route through to Cathay. The proposal was appropriately titled, A Discourse of a Discoverie for a New Pasage to Cataia [stet].

In addition to the charts mentioned earlier, Gilbert based his premise on the writings of Sebastián Cabot and cartographer Abraham Ortelius, who, in turn, had followed the notes of Giovanni Verrazzano, Jacques Cartier, Gerard Mercator, and Johannes Schöner.

Typus Orbis Terrarum by Abraham Ortelius, 1564.(5)

In his discourse, Gilbert quoted from men who claimed to have sailed through the Northwest Passage.(6) One was a “gentleman of Victoria, Spain” named Saluaterra, who Gilbert met while in Ireland. Gilbert’s commander, Sir Henry Sidney, was present at the interview and confirmed the testimony. Saluaterra was in turn quoting the Basque friar-turned explorer from Mexico, Andrés de Urdaneta (1498-1568) mentioned above, who had in 1566 explored the Pacific. More than eight years earlier [c1559], Urdaneta claimed to have traveled from the Mar del Sur into Germany [the Netherlands] through a northwest passage. Saluaterra had met up with Urdaneta in Mexico, where Urdaneta showed to Saluaterra “a sea card [sea chart] made of his own experience and travel on that voyage, wherein was plainly set down and described this northwest passage.” The map “agreed in all points with Ortelius’ map.”

Detail of Typus Orbis Terrarum by Abraham Ortelius, 1564.(7)

Gilbert noted in his report how secretive other nations were about their discoveries. “Urdaneta stated that he had communicated an account of the discovery to the king of Portugal [Sebastian I], and that the king charged him not to make it known to any nation because, ‘if the English knew it, it would greatly hinder both the king of Spain [Philip II], and me [Sebastian I].’”

Gilbert continued with a second testimony. “…one Thomas Cowles, an English seaman of Badminster in Somersetshire, made an oath that being of some six years before [c1563](8) in Lisbon, he heard one Martin Chacque, a Portuguese mariner, read out of a book that he had published six years before [c1557], that twelve years before that [c1545], he, Chacque, the author of it, had set out of India for Portugal in a small vessel of the burden of about eighty tons, accompanied by four large ships. Chacque’s small ship was separated from the four large ships by a westerly gale [wind coming from the west]. After sailing among a number of islands, Chacque entered a gulf that conducted him into the Mare del Sur in the 59th degree of latitude near Newfoundland. From whence [there] he proceeded without seeing any more land until he fell in with the northwest part of Ireland, and from thence to Lisbon, where he arrived more than a month before the other four ships with which he set out [the other ships that traveled the longer route under the South American continent].”

Gilbert also quoted scientific observations about oceans to support his theory. Scientists of the day had concluded that “the shallower the seas, the nearer the land.” Therefore, since the waters beyond the west coast of Ireland became deeper, they must lead to the Mare del Sur on the other side of America. Furthermore, tides moving in the westerly direction must pass through a strait to empty in the Mare del Sur because, if there were no strait, the tides would be beaten back by the opposition of the American landmass.

Humphrey had moral arguments as well. He suggested to the Queen that the new settlements on the strait could be settled by “such needy people of our country that now trouble the commonwealth, and through wont [lack] here at home, are forced to commit outrageous offenses, whereby they are daily consumed with the gallows.”

Cleaning London of its poor and criminals, and taking advantage of their cheap labor, will become a common goal for many monied men [wealthy investors] in future colonization. However, as we shall learn from the experience of the Popham Colony in today’s Maine, and the Jamestowne Colony in Virginia – both in 1607 – such plans work against colonization efforts rather than for them.

In return for his investment, Gilbert asked the Queen to grant him a monopoly over the passage’s use and twenty-five percent of the custom fee for any ships that sailed through the strait [a toll].

Elizabeth denied Gilbert’s request, possibly because Sebastián Cabot, the first governor of the Muscovy Company, had claimed that the company held the rights to exploring the west because of his father’s, John Cabot’s, voyage. [Sebastián Cabot had died in 1557.].

More probably, the Queen wanted Humphrey Gilbert to return to Ireland, where he had previously been successful, though violently so, subduing Catholic Irish rebels. He was appointed governor of Ulster Province, and selected to sit in the Irish House of Parliament. He petitioned Elizabeth’s principal secretary, William Cecil, several times to allow him to return to England ‘for the recovery of my eyes,’ but again, his wishes were denied.


  1. Zeni, Niccolo. Map of the north Atlantic, Venice, 1558. {{PD-90/it}} Map in the public domain for USA and Italy. Birmingham Public Library, Birmingham, Alabama. High resolution file available at [http://cdm16044.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/ref/collection/p15099coll3/id/836]
  2. The town was named after the Empress of Byzantium, Helen, Constantine’s mother. Story in Crossing the Ocean Sea.
  3. According to Burke’s Landed Gentry, Sir Richard Grenville was certainly the cousin of Humphrey Gilbert. Grenville’s great-great-grandfather, Otho Gilbert (1417-1494), was Humphrey Gilbert’s great-grandfather. (Elizabeth Gilbert and Sir Thomas Grenville married). Less authentic sources state that Walter Ralegh’s grandparents were Wimond Ralegh and Jane Grenville, and that this Jane Grenville was the woman of that name who was the daughter of Jane  – , Thomas Grenville’s second wife after Elizabeth Gilbert. That would make Ralegh’s grandmother Jane Grenville a step-cousin several times removed from Grenville. [See the tree below. Click on the tree for a hi-rez pdf of the same.]
  4. Walter Ralegh himself preferred this spelling over Walter Raleigh.
  5. Ortelius, Abraham. Atlas. Holland, 1564. {{PD-old}} Public domain for USA and Holland. Image source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:1572_Typus_Orbis_Terrarum_Ortelius.jpg
  6. Memoirs of Sir Martin Frobisher, Knight. 153601594, NEHGS Register Vol 3. No. 1. Pages 9-22, Jan. 1849.
  7. Ortelius, Abraham. Atlas. Holland, 1564. {{PD-old}} Public domain for USA and Holland. Image source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:1572_Typus_Orbis_Terrarum_Ortelius.jpg
  8. The date was calculated from the date of the publication of Gilbert’s discourse in 1576.

Gilbert, Grenville, and Ralegh family trees. Click on the image to download a hi-rez pdf of the same.


Next article: Complications in Ireland distract the British from America.