1570 England Prepares an Arctic Expedition

By 1575, Queen Elizabeth’s councilors, Dr. John Dee, Michael Lok, Martin Frobisher, Captain Christopher Hall, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, and Ambrose Dudley, 3rd Earl of Warwick, were telling her to concentrate on North America. Only five years earlier, David Ingram, Richard Browne, and Richard Twide completed their long walk along the New England coast. Rumors said that in Norembega, they found gold nuggets on the street the size of beans, silver plates in every household, and Indian chiefs riding crystal chariots. French explorer Jacques Cartier claimed that “Norembega was lush and green.”

No one seemed to know where Norembega was exactly – somewhere between Newfoundland and Florida. But promises of the crystal city gave Elizabeth a second reason to send ships to the Arctic seas besides looking for the Northwest Passage.

Most, if not all charts placed the entrance to the passage just west of Greenland. In the opinion of Jerry Brotton, who wrote A History of the World in Twelve Maps, Flemish cartographer Gerard Mercator’s Projection drawn in 1569 publicized the theory of a Northwest Passage more than anyone’s. It “revolutionized the way navigators crossed the oceans and is considered the most influential world map in history.”(1) Mercator drew the Strait of Magellan as well, which was discovered forty-four years earlier.

World Map by Gerardus Mercator, 1569.(2)

In spite of all the scientific charting, the Catholic Church still insisted the Earth was flat. Gerard Mercator was caught up in the controversy when he published this map. The Church accused him of heresy for showing the world as a sphere. Threat of prison forced Mercator to flee from Catholic Flanders to the Protestant city of Duisburg in modern-day Germany.

Mercator perpetuated the myth of the whirlpools and the four continents at the North Pole when he wrote, “The four canals … flow with such current to the inner whirlpool, that if vessels once enter they cannot be driven back by wind.” We know Mercator was influenced by the description of the North Pole in Inventio Fortunata, written c1365, because he wrote about it in a letter to English astronomer John Dee. Jumping ahead for a moment, in 1595, Mercator drew a map of the north pole following the book’s description.

Gerardus Mercator's Arctic Ocean, Septentrionalium Terrarum, 1595.(3)

Below is a comparison between Mercator’s version of the North Pole and the pole as Google displayed it in 2016. [The Latin term ‘pars’ in early mapmaking noted a partial indication of a landmass.]

Author’s tracing of Gerard Mercator’s map of the North Pole, 1595, and Google Map of the North Pole, 2016.

Many great minds and mariners will help Queen Elizabeth with her first major westward expedition:

John Dee worked behind the scenes. Born in 1527 and educated at Cambridge and Louvain(4) [the Catholic University in Belgium mentioned earlier], he was just six years older than the Queen. At Louvain, he studied with the Big Three cartographers: Gemma Frisius (1508-1555); Gerard Mercator (b. 1512, who attended Louvain fifteen years earlier); and Abraham Ortelius (the same age as he). While in the Netherlands, he acquired instruments and documents about navigation and geography that were still unavailable in England [such as the quadrant and cross-staff we showed you].

By 1553 [the year King Edward VI died and “Bloody” Mary ascended to the throne], he was advising the newly forming Muscovy Company on their explorations. For Queen Elizabeth’s new adventure, Dee will oversee the smelting operations, the conduct of the expeditions, and draft the instructions that govern the second and third voyages. He will later tutor the famous navigator John Davis, most remembered for his advocacy of the concept of a British Empire. Dee recognized that if England wanted to become a stronger international power than Spain, it was essential that she achieve maritime dominance, colonize new lands, and exploit their mineral resources.

Michael Lok [Loc or Locke] came from a family of London adventurers. He was a little younger than Dee, born around 1532. His father, Sir William Lok, was a leading merchant, knight, member of the ruling class, and Henry VIII’s personal mercer [the person who obtained all the kings textiles for clothing]. Michael was one of nineteen children. His brother, John Lok,(5) was the captain of a trading mission to Guinea in 1554, the first to engage in the slave trade for England.

Michael’s education and experience included time in the Low Countries [the Netherlands], where he apprenticed in trade. Following that, he worked in Spain, Portugal, and then Venice, conducting trade with the Levant. In 1559, he submitted a proposal to Queen Elizabeth’s Privy Council – she had been queen only one year – for the production of silk in England. They declined it. By 1571, he was an agent for the Muscovy Company in charge of trade with Russia.

Lok’s friendship with Dee, and later Richard Hakluyt – who was more than twenty years younger than he – grew through their mutual interest in charts and information about travel. Lok will invest heavily in Elizabeth’s arctic adventure. He was certain that the discovery of the passage to the Orient would uncover a fortune in gold and other precious metals.

Martin Frobisher will serve as the admiral of the Queen’s fleet. He implied in an interview he was born in 1539, but research by his biographer, James McDermott, indicates Frobisher’s birth was as early as 1535. He lived as a child in his family’s ancestral home, Altofts, near Wakefield in the West Riding of Yorkshire. The family had migrated there from Scotland via the Welsh Border country centuries earlier. Nothing, not even a ruin, remains of the home today, but the hamlet of Altofts, surrounded by the River Calder, is a large-ish village.

Frobisher was one of at least five children of Bernard Frobisher and his wife Margaret Yorke of Gowthwaite. Bernard died in 1542, when Martin was between seven and twelve, leaving the care of his wife and children to his brother Francis Frobisher. Francis served as Recorder and Mayor of Doncaster in Yorkshire, twenty-two miles from Altofts. He was somewhat better placed in society than his brother Bernard. He had married Christiana Hastings, the daughter of Sir Brian Hastings, the Sheriff of Yorkshire. Sir Hastings was a friend of William Fitzwilliam, 1st Earl of Southampton and Lord Admiral of England. [The Earls of Southampton play a big role in future articles.]

In 1549, Martin’s uncle packed him off to London, a three-day journey via the Great North Road [built by the Romans]. There he joined the household of his maternal uncle, John Yorke, a successful merchant-tailor, financier and trader – and father of ten sons and three daughters. As early as 1530, John Yorke had joined the Merchant-Taylors Company trading in Antwerp [the Netherlands] and Calais [France]. By the time Frobisher joined his home at Walbrook, Yorke was associated with John Dudley, 2nd Earl of Warwick (c1527-1554), brother of Robert Dudley and Ambrose, 3rd Earl of Warwick, whom we will speak of later.

John Dudley served on King Edward VI’s Privy Council. One night the king dined at Yorke’s house, and, on the spot, knighted him. Shortly after, Sir Yorke became Under Treasurer of the Tower Mint and was elected Sheriff of London.

After four years in Sir Yorke’s household – Frobisher was sent to sea and launched into the world of international trade. He was between fourteen and eighteen years old. For the next few years, a new family played an important role in his life, the Lok family. Frobisher met both John and Michael on one of his early expeditions.

Martin Frobisher became an accomplished navigator and sometimes pirate. He was also listed as a ‘gentleman.’ But, in contrast to Dee, Hakluyt, and Lok, he was not a scholar. In fact, he was barely literate. Tall and well built, he had a violent and undisciplined temper. It might have been because of this that John Yorke sent him to sea at an early age. Frobisher’s zealous nature got him in trouble during the 1560s when he crossed the line between piracy and privateering. He was accused of treason after helping the Irish Catholic cause.

By the time Frobisher set out on the first of his three missions to the arctic in 1576, he had moved to the shipping port of Portsmouth and was between thirty-seven and forty-one years old. He was younger than the other investors. The Queen thought his bold abilities as a commander might be useful, and they will be. His bad reputation also made him expendable. The Queen considered that an asset because traveling to the arctic promised to be a risky venture.

Christopher Hall will serve as the captain of Frobisher’s flagship, the Gabriel, and play a major role in all three voyages. He learned his trade while in service to the Muscovy Company. A cautious and diligent man, Hall will counter Frobisher’s contrariness. The two will often disagree. Hall was favored by Michael Lok over Frobisher. After the Arctic enterprise fails, Lok and Hall will gang up against Frobisher and accuse him of embezzling funds that were intended for the expeditions. However, Hall’s failure in the Arctic and in later expeditions to Africa and South America will ultimately drive him to alcoholism and ruin.

Ambrose Dudley, 3rd Earl of Warwick, was the brother of Queen Elizabeth’s first favorite courtier Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester. Ambrose and Robert were the brothers of the 2nd Earl of Warwick, John Dudley. Like John Davis, Ambrose, Robert, and probably John were tutored by John Dee. Dee, most likely, was responsible for bringing Ambrose Dudley into the venture.

Ambrose Dudley inherited his title as the Earl of Warwick in 1561 after John died. Ambrose will keep the title until his death in 1590. He had been serving the crown as Master of Ordnance for England since 1573. He also sat on the Privy Council. Ambrose’s third wife, Anne Russell, was one of Queen Elizabeth’s closest friends. The couple were introduced by Robert Dudley. At their marriage, which was “an extraordinary court event with tournaments and banquets,” the Earl of Leicester gave the bride away in the Queen’s presence. [Anne was the daughter of Francis Russell, 2nd Earl of Bedford, who was also Francis Drake’s ‘godfather’.]

Ambrose helped Elizabeth’s efforts in France during the War of Religion at the time Humphrey Gilbert was fighting there. He will become the principal patron of Frobisher’s 1576 expedition, even though he will only invest £50.

In 1576, while Sir Humphrey Gilbert fought and struggled in Ireland, his discourse and world map were published, supposedly without his approval. Martin Frobisher and Michael Lok, who had been planning a voyage of their own for two years, read a copy.

Even though Abraham Ortelius indicated a very wide North American continent, Frobisher, Lok, Dee, and Gilbert underestimated how wide it was. As shown on the maps of Diogo Homem and Giralamo Verrazzano, they assumed Cathay was close on the other side of the passage. Even Gerard Mercator, a good friend of John Dee, who worked closely with all European navigators to obtain the most current information for his maps and charts, encouraged this theory. Mercator estimated the trip across the continent over the top of the world to be only some 300 miles. It is actually more than 3500 miles.

All this speculation will lead Martin Frobisher to take three trips to the Canadian Arctic in search of the illusive passage.

We have various sources of information about his trips. They all differ.

  1. Richard Hakluyt, in his anthology Voyages and Discoveries, published an account by Dionyse Settle that described the first voyage in 1577. Settle’s book was considered a “best seller” in London.
  2. George Best, one of Frobisher’s captains, published an account titled: A true discourse of the late voyages of discovery, for the finding of a passage to Cathay, by the Northwest, under the conduct of Martin Frobisher General. But even though this account has been referred to more than the others, historians doubt its accuracy.
  3. Christopher Hall, captain of the Gabriel, wrote a third account, which has been considered more accurate.(6)

In addition, historians have included the oral history of the Inuit Indians of Nunavut and Baffin Island in Canada. Not only did the Inuits pass down the stories of Frobisher’s visits from generation to generation, but they retained collections of artifacts that the Englishmen left behind, such as oak building boards and tools.

Michael Lok did not travel with Martin Frobisher, however during testimonies at hearings after the voyages, he related second-hand descriptions of the journeys. He, along with James Beare (the principal surveyor of the expedition) and others, created maps that help us locate the lands Frobisher claimed to have discovered.

Once upon a time, more maps existed. But Elizabeth and her Privy Council often censored their maps. They worried constantly about Spanish spies. What maps they did have were well hidden. Some too well. Many were lost. In fact, the precise location of Martin Frobisher’s fort on Baffin Island, referred to as Meta Incognita, was lost from his own contemporaries, a confusion that lasted for two to three hundred years.

For this web book, we have combined all the available stories into one account.

Next article: Martin Frobisher’s First Expeditions to Find the Northwest Passage


  1. Bering, Henrik. “Projecting Power, a review of the book, A History of the World in 12 Maps by Jerry Brotton,” The Wall Street Journal, p. C6, November 23-24, 2013
  2. Mercator, Gerardus. World Map, Holland, 1569.{{PD-old}} Public domain. Image source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mercator_1569_map_small.jpg
  3. Gerardus Mercator’s Arctic “Septentrionalium Terrarum description,” 1595, first state from his posthumously published atlas, Atlantis pars altera.{{PD-Old}} Public Domain. Image source: http://libweb5.princeton.edu/visual_materials/maps/websites/northwest-passage/mercator.htm
  4. Sometimes spelled Leuven.
  5. John Lok was the great-great-great-grandfather of the philosopher John Locke (1632-1704).
  6. The account published by NEHGS.


  1. The UK-based arm of the Canadian Museum of Civilization’s Meta Incognita Project, called the Archival Research Task Force [ARTF].
  2. A subsequent book titled Martin Frobisher, Elizabethan Privateer, by James McDermott. McDermott, James. Martin Frobisher, Elizabethan Privateer, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2001.
  3. “Memoirs of Sir Martin Frobisher, Knight, 1536-1594,” NEHGS Register Vol 3. No. 1. Pages 9-22, Jan. 1849.