Martin Frobisher: Elizabethan Privateer

Martin Frobisher: Elizabethan Privateer

by James McDermott


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Adventurous and willful, the swashbuckling Martin Frobisher was both a brave sea-commander who served Elizabeth I with distinction and a privateer who single-mindedly pursued his own interests. This highly entertaining biography provides the first complete picture of the life and exploits of Frobisher—from his voyages in search of the fabled Northwest Passage to his courageous resistance to the Spanish Armada and his exploits as privateer and sometime pirate. The book explores Frobisher’s vigorous personality and its manifestation in the turbulence of his career and his impact on others. It also illuminates the robust world of maritime enterprise in England in the sixteenth century, when the shifting objectives of the Elizabethan age brought together felons, merchants, and great officers of state.

James McDermott, a leading authority on Martin Frobisher and the Northwest Passage, offers a riveting account of the explorer, based on all extant manuscript and documentary sources. McDermott sets aside the distortions of Frobisher’s popular reputation as a hero and offers instead a richly detailed portrait of a fascinating but flawed man whose ceaseless search for wealth and fame defined his extraordinary life.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300204766
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 03/06/2001
Pages: 528
Product dimensions: 6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

James McDermott is an independent scholar and former special adviser to the Canadian Museum of Civilization’s Meta Incognita Project.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Early Life

Like much else in Martin Frobisher's life, its beginning is a matter of some uncertainty. He was born at his family's ancestral home of Altofts: a small manor in the parish of Normanton, near Wakefield in the West Riding of Yorkshire, the name of which suggests pre-Danelaw origins. Much later, he implied his birth-year to have been 1539, but recent research casts doubt upon this. In 1538, Thomas Cromwell instituted a national system of parish registration of births and deaths, to replace ad hoc arrangements that had relied entirely upon the varying diligence of individual parish priests. As a member of a prominent local family, Martin's name would have appeared in the new Normanton parish register had he been born in that year or later. Since it did not, he was almost certainly born earlier, perhaps as early as 1535/6, given the chronology of later events.

    No record of the manorial properties which comprised Altofts has survived. Its possession brought a local magistracy and, no doubt, a seat at the sheriff's peripatetic table; but the estate has long vanished, having been partitioned and sold off very soon after Martin's death. The hamlet of Altofts is now a large village, half-lost among the motorways and sprawling conurbations of West Yorkshire, its discreet identity preserved only by a fortuitous loop in the river Calder that almost surrounds it. Upon the most detailed maps of the area, symbols commemorate dismantled railways, disused opencast scourings and other tokens of a recent, industrial past, but of Altoft's more distant manorialdignity there is not the slightest memorial. 'What's past, and what's to come is strewn with husks and formless ruin of oblivion' is a truth that reasserted itself with particular swiftness upon the house of Frobisher, perhaps even before the sentiment itself was set down, barely six years after this story closes.

    The provenance of the name Frobisher has not been established definitively, but it has been suggested that the persistence of the form 'Furbisher' into the sixteenth century may commemorate the French fourbisseur, or sword-cutler. As the earliest known ancestor of Martin Frobisher was a professional soldier, this remains a plausible assumption. The family first settled in West Yorkshire sometime during the fifteenth century; prior to that, it had resided in lands around Chirke in the Welsh Border country, the gift of Edward I to John Frobisher (b. circa 1260), a Scot who had served in the English army during the Welsh campaigns. Thurstan Frobisher (b. 1420), was the first of the family to cross the Pennines eastwards; his son, John, married Joan, the daughter of Sir William Scargill, steward of Pontefract Castle, through whom the manor of Altofts appears to have devolved upon the Frobisher family. Since that time, successive generations of the family had held it continuously in fee from the Crown, and cemented the foundations of their estate by further judicious marriages — most notably, that of Martin's uncle, Francis Frobisher, to Christiana, daughter of Sir Brian Hastings, Sheriff of Yorkshire; a man who included among his acquaintances William Fitzwilliam, Earl of Southampton and Lord Admiral of England.

    Martin Frobisher's mother was Margaret, née Yorke, of Gowthwaite. She bore at least five children who survived into adulthood; these were, in probable order of birth, John, David, Martin, Jane and Margaret. Her father, Sir John Yorke, was either the father or uncle of his name sake, Sir John Yorke of London: the notable merchant-taylor, financier and Iberian trader. Of Martin's own father, Bernard Frobisher, there is little extant information. He died prematurely in August 1542, leaving no known obligations but the care of his wife and children to his elder brother, Francis: farmer of the manor of Altofts, Recorder of Doncaster and Mayor of that borough in 1535.

    Thus the path of the Frobishers' advancement to solid second- or third-string county stock had been unremarkably steady. By the early decades of the sixteenth century their pretensions to gentility required a coat of arms, described much later as 'ermine on a fesie ingrayled between three griffons heads erased, sable, a greyhound cursant, argent, colared ules lyned or'; but this minor — and entirely conventional -self-indulgence apart, it does not seem that they had ever aspired to more than local prominence. There is no evidence that they were a particularly well-travelled clan, nor even that their interests habitually extended beyond the bounds of the West and South Ridings (though Francis Frobisher himself- perhaps by right of his judicious marriage — was to be appointed to the Council of the North at Elizabeth's accession, and would serve upon it at least until 1562). Had Bernard Frobisher not died as a relatively young man, there is no reason to assume that any of his sons would have pushed their horizons out beyond those of their forefathers. Nor does the traumatic occasion of his death appear to have brought any immediate dislocation in his immediate family's circumstances; for several years thereafter, Altofts remained the centre — perhaps the entirety — of the young Martin's world: a place in which, probably, he was happy. He left it at a relatively early age, but there is no evidence that he did so willingly. His later marriage to a local girl, and his acquisition of properties thereabouts, suggest that the memories and associations of his childhood continued to exert a powerfully centripetal effect, even across oceanic distances.

    Without a witness to these formative years at Altofts, we may only speculate upon their nature. The ward of a country gentleman — even one who enjoyed a substantial local reputation — would not have been placed too often in the path of great men or events, though the family's social status would have required its boys to be raised to a certain standard. It is reasonable to assume that Martin acquired the most basic skills of the rural gentleman: horse-riding, elementary sword-play and the minor degree of literacy that compulsory attendance at divine service encouraged were all requirements that preceeded — even obviated — the need for a more formal education. Perhaps, had he remained at Altofts, he would have begun to understand the rudiments of estate management also; but not upon an estate that was ever intended to be his own. Francis Frobisher was clearly a man of some means, yet as fond or as dutiful a surrogate for his brother as he tried to be, it is unlikely that either his purse or estate could stretch to accommodate indefinitely the needs of six extra mouths. His guardianship of his dead brother's family was a Christian duty and he obliged it, but only until provision could be made for them elsewhere. What that provision was for Martin's siblings is, and will probably remain, unclear: their lives are almost entirely obscure, save where they briefly converge upon that of their famous brother. In the case of Martin himself, there seems to have been little agonizing on Francis's part. He quickly used the occasion of his sister's death in 1549 to transfer responsibility for the boy to the maternal line. Martin was packed off to London, probably at some time during the same year, to learn a trade in the household of his mother's kinsman, Sir John Yorke.

    Many years later, it was claimed that a lack of suitable schools around Altofts had forced this removal. This is plausible, but not entirely convincing. The dissolution of monastic foundations did not appreciably reduce the number of school places; most of the abolished chantry establishments were immediately reinstituted as grammar schools under Edward VI's patronage, and West Yorkshire did not otherwise suffer unduly from a lack of resources. The claim may have been intended retrospectively to address and absolve a different issue — that of Martin Frobisher's abiding semi-literacy. The sparse surviving examples of his written style indicates that whatever schooling he received was to make very little mark upon him. Conversely, the weighty evidence of his fiery and unpredictable temperament makes it very likely that the true reason for his translation to the Yorke household was Francis Frobisher's urgent need to place his nephew where his robust and unintellectual energies could be diverted into practical channels. Whether the choice of London was one of several options or a final resort cannot be determined; what is clear is that opportunities for advancement for a willing young man were much more plentiful there than in the West Riding of Yorkshire, and that the London Yorkes were well placed to identify them.

    To any fourteen-year-old country boy, removal to London would have been a daunting prospect. As the kingdom's premier urban sprawl and the focus of almost all political, social and economic vitality, the city did not so much eclipse other centres of population as provide an entirely different form of social continuity. It was — though successive kings had struggled to prevent it — the closest English equivalent to the semi-independent urban polities of the European mainland. Those who lived within its walls, or in the proto-suburbs that had begun to spread north and west from the medieval heart, regarded themselves as citizens first and subjects only a distant second thereafter. This was a community of self-belief that was not diluted by the extreme social and economic disparities endured by almost 150,000 souls inhabiting an area of less than two square miles. To be of the city was to enjoy rights of ancient liberties — ephemeral in fact but vital in presumption — that had been secured over centuries of alternating struggle and accommodation with the Crown, and defended more than once with the blood of its beneficiaries. The peculiar polity that had grown from such ancient strifes was unique in English society. Londoners owed their loyalties to the king no less than any rural swineherd, yet they had a civic government that was as often a creditor upon royal resources and goodwill as it was the corporate expression of their fealty. What this exceptionalist state represented to individual Londoners depended entirely upon personal circumstances: at one extreme, it meant nothing more than the right to dwell in the gutter of one's choosing; for a few, as we shall see, it provided the possibility for collaborations in which new and frightening opportunities for advancement or ruin might be tested. For one recent addition to the City's population in 1549 — the young Martin Frobisher — the translation represented a sea-change in circumstances so profound that his time in Yorkshire seems almost inconsequential in shaping his future nature and ambitions. It is only in London — or rather, from London — that we begin to understand something of that process.

    The means by which the boy came to the City are not known. He may have shipped in one of the hundreds of tiny vessels that plied their coastal trade between the rivers Humber and Thames, if his uncle Francis was willing to pay the relatively expensive fare for excess cargo. If not, the slower, more dangerous but cheaper three-day passage along the great North Road would have brought him south, with overnight stops, probably at two or more of the venerable coaching towns — Grantham, Huntingdon, Biggleswade or Ware — en route. At the City walls, no doubt he would have needed to have been directed to Walbrook, the riverside ward in which Sir John Yorke's home was situated. The prior arrangements concluded between Francis Frobisher and Yorke in respect of the boy remained a private family matter, as did the nature of his welcome at his new home; but it is unlikely that either offered false reassurance of easy times to come. His uncle, it will become clear, was not a man to indulge the idle pursuits of the would-be gentleman; nor was he over-burdened with sentimental affections, least of all to those come upon the charity that kinship demanded. As a poor cousin, the boy was at best a burden; as a resource, he had at least the potential to repay the outlay upon his daily bread. How that resource was realized in the short term is, again, a matter for speculation. Martin may have received further schooling — though to little effect, given his lack of aptitude. Some attempt may have been made to teach him the rudiments of book-keeping (his later accounts for disbursements of money during the north-west enterprise suggest he was familiar with, though not competent in, its techniques). Perhaps he also received a cursory introduction to the protocols and subtleties of merchandising, if only in watching his patron and associates at their business. Most probably, however, he was immediately put to those physical tasks which required minimum of initiative or supervision — loading and unloading goods or running errands for his uncle — until some better use could be made of him. For almost four years, the boy served the house of Yorke in this modest way, and left no account of the experience. There can be little doubt, however, that like many Londoners of widely divergent talents, he was waiting upon something more. It may be too convenient to assume, as has often been the case, that he was always intended for the sea; but human beings, like liquids, usually find their own level. The brashness and aggression that he displayed all too frequently in later life suggest that even as a youth, he entertained few of the normal fears and uncertainties that provide a necessary balance to more introspective natures. His final recorded statement, set down some forty-five years later, recalled the imminent dread of battle (and, possibly, his own death) with no more fearful anticipation than 'it was tyme for vs to goa through with it'. This quality of imperturbability, as it became apparent to his uncle, may have rendered any further estimation of his character and talents entirely unnecessary. To go to sea required a modicum of courage and little else; station and presumption deferred to ability in its egalitarian vastness and in turn were marked by it. For those seeking fame, or fortune, or placement for a superfluous nephew, it had always been an attractive recourse; but during these years, it would prove to be a particularly felicitous highway. In the absence of a more voluble witness to Martin's early life, we cannot know precisely where his own ambitions lay (if indeed he ever rationalized them); yet whatever he anticipated, circumstance and possibility strongly converged at the water side to which he had been brought by necessity. At that moment, there was a young king upon the English throne, an old certainty of profit dissolving and new occasions — dimly perceived but palpable nevertheless — to lay out some money to good effect. Here, upon London's principal artery, the means and will to realize such opportunities had begun to gather.

Women Designers in the USA 1900 | 2000

Edited by Pat Kirkham


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