1578 - Sir Humphrey Gilbert’s Trial

In 1577, shortly after Francis Drake left for the trip that would take him around the world, and after Martin Frobisher came back from the arctic, Sir Humphrey Gilbert revisited the offer he had made to Queen Elizabeth to search for a Northwest Passage. Agreeing with Gerard Mercator, Gilbert thought Frobisher had stopped just short of entering the waterway. Gilbert’s second discourse, titled “a Discoverie for a New Passage to Cataia [Cathay],” laid out plans for a new search.

Sir Gilbert was the half-brother(1) of Walter Ralegh, the later famous knight. Ralegh [his preferred spelling] was nine or eleven years younger. His birth date is not known. Gilbert’s mother, Katherine Champernowne(2), had married Walter’s father, also named Walter Raleigh,(3) after his own father, Otho Gilbert, died. Here is a family tree to help you sort it out.(4)

In 1577, Gilbert was thirty-eight years old and a knight of the garter. Ralegh was either twenty-three or twenty-five and still proving himself. Queen Elizabeth surrounded herself with gentlemen scholars. The halls of her chambers reverberated with discussions and debates about diplomacy, history, and science, as well as the gentle arts of poetry, painting, and music. So, even though Gilbert and Ralegh were not nobility, they were, as courtiers, accepted by Elizabeth as part of her society. Gilbert went so far as to suggest to the Queen that she set up an Achademy [Academy] to educate the children of educated and creative men such as himself.

With this same spirit, Sir Gilbert wanted the finest scholars to assist him on his exploratory mission. He wanted mathematicians on his expedition to take care of ‘fortification, artillery, and mining.’ He also sought the advice of fifty-one-year old John Dee and young Richard Hakluyt. Hakluyt lectured on navigation and geography at Oxford College and the Middle Temple. The same age as Ralegh, he was also making his way in Elizabeth’s court. But he had a lot more money.

Feeling the disappointment of Martin Frobisher’s debacle, Elizabeth was all ears for Gilbert’s new plan. On June 1, 1578, she granted him a patent [permission to claim land for England] for “all lands beyond Greenland,” The patent will expire in 1584, six years later. It gave Gilbert the right “to discover, search, find out and view such remote heathen and barbarous lands, countries, and territories not actually possessed by any Christian prince or people… for the inhabiting and planting of our people in America.” If any foreign prince complained [in other words, if any other king proved he had already claimed those lands], Gilbert was to “make restitution” or be “put out of [the Queen’s] allegiance and protection.”

The investors were primarily Gilbert’s two full brothers, John and Adrian Gilbert, and his two half-brothers, Walter and Carew Ralegh. Queen Elizabeth had no idea how much freedom she had granted the brothers. Richard Hakluyt asserted that England had a more legitimate claim to Norembega than France because of John Cabot’s claim. But everyone, especially Elizabeth, knew how necessary it was to occupy her lands quickly or possession would be more than nine tenths of the rule.

According to Raphael Holinshed in his Chronicles of 1577(5), “ten sails of all sorts of shipping, well, and sufficiently furnished for such an enterprise, weighed anchor in the West Country and set to the sea.” The ‘West Country’ meant the counties of Cornwall, Somerset and Devon, known for their shipping fleets. The western port of Bristol was also included in that designation. The ships probably left from Plymouth in Devon.

Walter Ralegh commanded the Falcon, with the aid of Simon Fernandes, who served as his pilot. [Fernandez will participate on Ralegh’s later excursions and cause a lot of trouble(6).] The Falcon was the fourth largest of Sir Humphrey Gilbert’s fleet. She carried six or so gentlemen and seventy sailors and soldiers.

But the expedition was doomed to failure. Foul weather turned back all the ships except Ralegh’s Falcon. He and Fernandes pressed forward, intent on making the best of things by sailing to the West Indies to do a bit of privateering. The Falcon coasted south by Africa, hoping to meet up with the easterly currents and winds.

All the while, Ralegh and Fernandez kept a lookout for treasure-laden Spanish plate fleets heading to Spain from the West Indies and Mexico, even though they did not have a letter of marque from Queen Elizabeth. Spoils from such ships would make Ralegh, Fernandez, and Gilbert very rich. As usual, Queen Elizabeth would receive her one fifth of the booty, while the privateers and their crews got the rest.

The Falcon made it only as far as the Cape Verde Islands before “wont of victuals and other necessaries needful in so long a voyage” forced Ralegh to turn her around. On the way home he attacked, but did not conquer, a few French and Spanish ships – an action that would cause Sir Gilbert much grief soon after.

In the spring of 1579, Gilbert applied to Elizabeth’s Privy Council for approval for a new expedition. The Council said, “No!” pointing to Walter’s abuse of foreign ships during the previous attempt.

The Council had already been displeased by a previous incident when Humphrey and his brother, Sir John Gilbert, attacked a Spanish ship while in port at Dartmouth Harbour. On that occasion, the Council ordered the brothers to return the ship and the cargo of oranges and lemons they had stolen from it.

Not only did the Privy Council refuse Gilbert’s new application, but they told him and his brother John to “surcease from proceeding any further,” and “remain at home.” By that time, the Second Desmond Rebellion had broken out in Ireland, so Gilbert returned there to fight. Ralegh followed the next year with 100 soldiers.


  1. Katherine Champernowne was the daughter of Sir Philip Champernowne and Katherine Carew. Her aunt, Katherine Champernowne Ashley, nicknamed Kat, was Elizabeth’s governess and best friend. Katherine’s brother Arthure Champernowne also attended Queen Elizabeth as a courtier.
  2. Sometimes spelled Champernoun.
  3. Walter Ralegh of Fardell was from Devonshire, where his family had lived for at least 200 years. He had enough money to own at least one ship. He sired two boys with Katherine: Walter and Carew, and a daughter, Margaret, who apparently died young.
  4. Burke, C.B. LL.D., Sir Bernard. Genealogical and Heraldic History of the Landed Gentry of Great Britain & Ireland, Harrison, Pall Mall, Bookseller to The Queen and HRH the Prince of Wales, London, 1879
  5. Holinshed, Raphael; Reginald Wolfe; & William Harrison. Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, a comprehensive review of British history published in several volumes, printed by Reginald Wolfe in 1577 & 1587
  6. Some will blame Simon Fernandez for the plight of the Lost Colony of Roanoke, as you shall see.

Next article: Walter Ralegh, Founder of Virginia: His early years.