- Historic Sites
The Elizabethans And America
“To push back the consciousness of American beginnings, beyond Jamestown, beyond the Pilgrims, to the highwater mark of the Elizabethan Age” -- Part One of a New Series.
April 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 3
Dyer, courtier and poet, a favorite with the Queen and evidently a charming man, is a characteristic figure in these concerns. A Somerset man by origin, his father, steward in Henry VIII’s household, got considerable grants of monastic lands there when the going was good. The father built up a large estate, which the son spent on court life. Edward Dyer was a good friend to Dee, whom he visited at his house along with Leicester and Philip Sidney. Dyer helped to circulate the appeal at court for funds to back Frobisher’s first voyage in quest of the Northwest Passage. Among the courtiers who subscribed were Leicester, Warwick, Walsingham, and Sidney; among the merchants, Sir Thomas Gresham, Anthony Jenkinson, Michael Lok, Alderman Bond. Frobisher made a promising reconnoiter of the channel between Greenland and the coast of Labrador, and came back with specimens of supposedly auriferous ore.
The second voyage was then a larger and more enthusiastic affair, the Queen herself becoming much the largest shareholder, with a venture of £1,000—no doubt mainly represented by a ship of hers. Lord Admiral Clinton, Sir William Winter of the Navy Board, Walsingham, and the Earl of Pembroke made large investments (from £175 to £100); the Queen’s cousin, her Lord Chamberlain Hunsdon, Dyer, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, Philip Sidney and his sister, the Countess of Pembroke, made smaller investments (of £50 and £25). On the return of the ships laden with ore, of which there were optimistic reports, the court circle very much increased its stake for the third voyage, sent forth in 1578. The Queen increased her venture to £1,350—and was anxious that the voyage should be pressed forward. Pembroke increased his stake; so did Walsingham and Philip Sidney—which neither of them could well afford. Others came forward—the gambling young Earl of Oxford for a large sum, all of which he lost; Hatton, Cumberland, Ralph Lane, even John Dee, subscribed for a £25 share. Lord Burghley put himself down for £100, but he did not pay up.
The cold eyes of King Philip, who watched from that small study in the Escorial so much of what was going on all over the world, were upon the venture. He was much concerned at this incursion into his New World. He urged his ambassador in London, Mendoza, to make every effort to obtain a chart of Frobisher’s voyage, though his own opinion was “it is difficult to believe that in so cold a region there can be any richness of metal.” Mendoza replied that he was hopeful of obtaining a chart through his spies. After several long talks with “these people” at court, he found that “the only way for me to keep my temper is to bear in mind that I am one of the school of the Duke [Alba] and a soldier of his.” At an audience of the Queen, she adroitly raised the issue of Philip’s denial of toleration in the Netherlands as the cause of his troubles there, and asked sensibly, “What did it matter to your Majesty if they went to the Devil in their own way?”
Mendoza’s reply was the shocked reaction of Spanish orthodoxy: these things were ordained of God, it was not in the power of princes to restrict religion, that is, Catholicism, etc. However, in September he was able to send on a chart of the voyage, which came safely to Philip’s hand, along with some of the ore. After prolonged assays, it all turned out to be of no value, the voyages a dead loss. Philip could well afford to laugh—except that he was never known to laugh openly. Baffled in that direction, the English were not now going to give up; they turned to others.
The fact was that the conflict with Spain for a share in America was coming into the open and, joined with that over the Netherlands, whose freedom was indispensable to England’s security, brought on the war. Drake’s voyage round the world announced the arrival of a new power on the world scene; it immensely raised the prestige of England on the threshold of the conflict, and helped to produce it—as the Queen knew it might, and took the risk.
The more one knows about that wonderful voyage, the more wonderful it becomes. What Bartholomew Dias had done in rounding the Cape, Vasco da Gama in crossing the Indian Ocean, Magellan in spanning the Pacific, Drake accomplished in one voyage, and came home safe to Plymouth Sound. The first English circumnavigator of the globe, he became the greatest celebrity of the day, with an aura about him for friend and foe alike. The Golden Hind, the ship of perhaps some 150 tons in which he accomplished it, was laid up at Deptford, and was one of the regular sights of London until she fell apart. It is pleasant to think that out of her timbers were made a chair that now reposes in the Bodleian Library and a table that stands in Middle Temple Hall.
In addition to the riches she brought back in her hold for the Queen—nearly half a million in specie—Drake came back with an immense amount of new information about the wonders of the world, about America, the Pacific, the possibilities opening up for the English in the Far East. No wonder the Queen was closeted alone with him for hours, day after day, on his return. He presented to her the logbook of the Golden Hind, the daily record of that marvelous journey during the three years 1577–80. What would we not give to possess it today—treasure-trove of the age we would value more than anything, except, say, the letters of Shakespeare? This precious book disappeared, along with many other treasures of the Crown, either in the deplorable civil war, or the fire at Whitehall in 1698—along with the maps and charts of the New World, Cabot’s among others, that used to hang, suggestive to the imagination, in the Queen’s privy gallery.