1574 Richard Grenville’s Southwest Route

During the 1570s, Queen Elizabeth had more to worry about than the Catholic Protestant struggles in Ireland. She was busy helping the Walloons [Flemish Protestants] and the Huguenots [French Protestants] fight against the Catholic Spanish under King Philip II of Spain in the Netherlands. And she worried that Philip and the Pope were trying to assassinate her and replace her with the Catholic queen, Mary Queen of Scots [which they were]. But efforts to find a passage to the riches of the Far East moved forward.

In 1565, Venetian cartographer Paolo Forlani had charted North America highlighting Giovanni Verrazzano’s claim to New France for Francis I. He drew the Northwest Passage and the polar sea as one and the same thing, labeling the waterway ‘Mare Setentrionale in Cognito’ [Northern Unknown Sea]. He illustrated two entrances or passages to the sea: an eastern entrance through the ‘Mare Congelato’ [Frozen Sea], and a western passageway through the ‘Streto de Anian’ [Strait of Ania].

‘Ania’ was Marco Polo’s name for the eastern end or province of Asia. And the ‘Strait of Anian’ was the centuries-old name for the waterway, today’s Bering Strait, between the eastern coast of China and the land to the west [on some maps named California]. The Portuguese probably learned about the strait from the Arabs, who learned about it from the Chinese.

North America by Paulo Forlani, Italy, 1565.(1)

But not until 1572, did English mariner Henry Hawkes report the Spanish discovery of the Strait of Anain to the English.

Elizabeth’s scientific councilors were considering two alternatives for reaching India by sailing west:

  1. Through the Arctic Seas north of North America.
  2. Through the Strait of Magellan at the tip of South America and through the Pacific.

Richard Grenville of Devonshire, whom we met in the article about the Desmond Rebellions, thought he could master the southern route.

Grenville was eleven years younger than the Queen and a contemporary of Francis Drake. As mentioned, he was a second cousin-twice-removed of Humphrey Gilbert through Gilbert’s father.(2) And even though he was not related to Gilbert’s half-brother, Walter Ralegh, they grew up around each other in Devonshire. [Ralegh was ten years younger.]

Grenville was brought up as a seafarer. His father, Sir Roger Grenville, was the captain of Henry VIII’s flagship, the Mary Rose, and perished with her when she sank in the Solent in 1545. Captain Roger Grenville was closely associated with John Hawkins’ father, William Hawkins, who, you will remember, was the first Englishman to reach South America. Grenville grew up knowing John Hawkins, who was ten years older. Grenville’s fate at sea will be tied to Hawkins’ favorite ship, the Revenge.

After Roger Grenville’s death, Richard’s mother, Thomasine Cole, remarried into the Arundel family. The Arundels will play a prominent role in the establishment of both Jamestown and New England. [Many Arundels remained Catholic.]

At eighteen years of age – after already killing a man, for which he was pardoned(3), Richard Grenville inherited numerous estates in Devon. He also inherited his father’s position as Lord of the Manor for the port town of Bideford, his principal residence. His ancestors had held that title since 1126. Richard married Mary St. Leger (c1543-1623) in 1565. He was twenty-three and she was about twenty-two. They had at least four sons and one daughter.

In 1566, Grenville joined a posse of young and related men from Devon to help Emperor Maximilian in Hungary fight the Ottoman Turks. [The Devon men included Henry Champernowne, Philip Budockshide and William Gorges, whom you will hear more about later.] Peace was called between Sultan Solyman the Magnificent and Emperor Maximilian in 1568. By 1569, Grenville had joined Warham St. Leger, Sir Henry Sidney, and cousin Humphrey Gilbert in Munster fighting the Desmond rebels.

Richard Grenville invested a great deal of his wealth in Ireland with hopes of establishing his own plantation. But when Warham St. Leger was ousted, and the First Desmond Rebellion ended, Grenville returned to Bideford. As mentioned, he will not return to Ireland for twenty years. He spent the next few years developing Bideford. The port was well situated on the Bristol Channel along the shipping route between Bristol and London known as the Kings Road. Eventually he transformed the small fishing village into an important trading port.

In 1571, Grenville represented the county of Cornwall in Parliament alongside his step-half-brother, the future explorer Walter Ralegh, who represented Devon. Grenville subsequently served as high sheriff of Cornwall.

But, in spite of his political success, Richard Grenville preferred life at sea over the “sedentary quiet of a senatorial life.” He envied the Basque and Spanish, who busily explored the Southern Sea. He wanted to be among those who were looking for the “abundant gold, brazil wood, elephants, rare fruits, aromatic trees, spices, and medicinal herbs” that Marco Polo had promised were found in Cathay, Cipango, and the islands to the south. Every year, a new discovery was reported on the docks of London.

On March 22, 1574, Grenville submitted a petition to Queen Elizabeth proposing he sail the route through the Strait of Magellan. After exploring the Southern Sea he would return home through the Strait of Anain and the Northwest Passage, sailing south of Greenland and Iceland to England.

Grenvillle admitted that his proposed route would take longer than sailing both ways through the Northwest Passage. He reasoned, however, that he would be traveling through “more temperate zones” while the northern route was frozen. He argued that he could explore the Southern Sea during good weather, whereas the proposed northwestern routes would mean arriving in the Southern Sea when the weather was cold. “Was it not better to sail a known route rather than a dark, misty, and dangerous unknown one?” he asked. Furthermore, “since God granted Portugal the East, Spaniards the West, and France the north, then it was England’s turn to claim the South.” He would take control of both the Strait of Magellan and the Strait of Anain for England.

An enthusiastic list of adventurers signed up to fund Grenville’s expedition: Alexander Arundell [his half-brother], Thomas Digges [a mathematician, geographer, and the son-in-law of Warham St. Leger], Martyn Dare, Esquire [probably a relation of the Dares who later settled Roanoke], Sir Arthur Champernowne [Humphrey Gilbert and Walter Ralegh’s uncle], and William Hawkins Jr. (1519-?) [John Hawkins’ brother]. William Hawkins was extremely involved in maritime merchant activities in Plymouth. Of the sixteen ships registered there, he owned thirteen. He owned more property in the town than any other citizen.

Grenville began fitting out his ships. His flagship, the Castle of Comfort, carried 240 tons. Grenville had purchased her in 1573 in partnership with William Hawkins. She was built in the 1560s as a private warship, armed for the Guinea trade. She carried more armament than the Golden Hind Francis Drake will sail around the world between 1577 and 1580.

A Spanish spy reported to King Philip II that Grenville’s “well fitted and sound” fleet could carry 1500 men, soldiers, and sailors, 500 of whom would be gentlemen. The spy thought Grenville planned to attack the Spanish dominions in Central and South America. [Historians think that report was exaggerated.]

In 1574, Elizabeth gave her permission to Grenville on the condition that he first render service to the Earl of Essex in Ireland. But before he could do so, a new alarm went off. King Philip of Spain had sent more ships to fight in the Netherlands. Elizabeth took back her promise to Grenville, saying she needed his ships to help ward off the Spanish. She prevented Grenville from leaving the country because she wanted him, as the representative of Cornwall, to supervise the building of defenses in the ports there, as well as in the county of Devon. Grenville was to take a muster [head count or inventory] of available men, horses, and arms in Cornwall and Devon in case she needed them in the Netherlands.

The fickle Queen had also changed her mind. In her effort to make peace with King Philip, she decided to honor the Spanish monopoly of the South Seas [even though Francis Drake will break that honor three years later]. Grenville’s venture was forgotten about. Eventually, he disbanded his fleet. Richard Hakluyt did not even include Grenville’s proposal in Voyages and Discoveries. But thanks to his step-cousin Walter Ralegh, Grenville will get to fly again.

Next article: The Mythical Norembega


  1. North America by Paolo Forlani, published 1565. Republished 1566 by Venetian Bolognino Zaltieri who purchased plates from Forlani. {{PD-old}} Public Domain. Image source: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-scotland-20617685. High resolution available at Birmingham Public Library, Birmingham, Alabama. [http://cdm16044.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/singleitem/collection/p15099coll3/id/25/rec/1]
  2. See the family tree below. Click on the image for a hi-rez pdf of the same.
  3. This fact was something else that Richard Grenville and John Hawkins had in common.