Born: 1539, near Wakefield, England

Died: 22 Nov 1594, Plymouth, England

Buried: 14 Jan 1595, St. Giles, Cripplegate, England

Father: Bernard FROBISHER

Mother: Dau. YORK

Married 1: Isabel RICHARD 30 May 1559, Snaith, Yorkshire, England

Married 2: Dorothy WENTWORTH ABT 1551 / 1564, Scrooby, Nottingham, England

Sir Martin Frobisher

by Cornelis Ketel

Bodleian Library

The sixteenth child of Bernard Frobisher of Altofts, was born either at Doncaster or Altofts in Yorkshire and belonged to a family which came originally from Wales.

At an early age he was sent to a school in London and placed under the care of a kinsman, Sir John York, who in 1544 placed him on board a ship belonging to a small fleet of merchantmen sailing to Guinea. His early years were spent in voyages to the coast of North Africa and to the Levant. By 1565 he is referred to as Captain Martin Frobisher, and in 1571/2 as being in the public service at sea off the coast of Ireland.

As early as 1560 or 1561 Frobisher had formed a resolution to undertake a voyage in search of a North-West Passage as a trade-route to India and China (referred to at that time as Cathay).

It took him fifteen years to gain the necessary funding for his project. He received a license from the Muscovy Company to search for the Northwest Passage. In 1576, mainly by help of Ambrose Dudley, Earl of Warwick, he was put in command of an expedition of small ships. It consisted of two vessels, the Gabriel and Michael (the Gabriel of 25 tons and the Michael of 20 tons), and a pinnace of 10 tons, with an aggregate crew of 35.

He weighed anchor at Blackwall, and, after having received a good word from Queen Elizabeth I at Greenwich, set sail on 7 Jun, by way of the Shetland Islands.

In a storm, the pinnace was lost and the Michael abandoned, but on 28 Jul the Gabriel sighted the coast of Labrador.

Some days later the mouth of Frobisher Bay was reached, and because ice and wind prevented further travel north, Frobisher determined to sail westward up this passage (which he conceived to be a strait) to see whether he mighte carrie himself through the same into some open sea on the backe syde.

Butcher's Island was reached on 18 Aug, where the expedition met some of the local natives. Five of Frobisher's men were decoyed and captured, and never seen again. After vainly trying to get back his men, Frobisher turned homewards, and reached London on 9 Oct.

Among the things which had been hastily brought away by the men was some "black earth", and just as it seemed as if nothing more was to come of this expedition, it was rumored abroad that the apparently valueless "black earth" was really a lump of gold ore. It is difficult to say how this rumour arose, and whether there was any truth in it, or whether Frobisher was a party to a deception, in order to obtain means to carry out the great idea of his life.

The story, at any rate, was successful. The next year a much bigger expedition than the former was fitted out. The Queen lent the ship Aid from the royal navy and provided 1000 towards the expenses of the expedition. A Company of Cathay was established, with a charter from the crown, giving the company the sole right of sailing in every direction but the east. Frobisher was appointed high admiral of all lands and waters that might be discovered by him.

Frobisher was accompanied in his second and third voyages by Edward Fenton, brother in law of John Hawkins.

On 26 May 1577 the expedition, consisting, besides the Aid, of the ships Gabriel and Michael, with boats, pinnaces and an aggregate complement of 120 men, including miners, refiners, etc., left Blackwall, and sailing by the north of Scotland reached Hall's Island at the mouth of Frobisher Bay on  17 Jul. A few days later the country and the south side of the bay was solemnly taken possession of in the Queen's name.

Several weeks were now spent in collecting ore, but very little was done in the way of discovery, Frobisher being specially directed by his commission to defer the further discovery of the passage until another time. There was much parleying and some skirmishing with the natives, and earnest but futile attempts made to recover the men captured the previous year.

The return was begun on 23 Aug, and the Aid reached Milford Haven on 23 Sep. The Gabriel and Michael later arrived separately at Bristol and Yarmouth.

Frobisher was received and thanked by the Queen at Windsor. Great preparations were made and considerable expense incurred for the assaying of the great quantity of "ore" (about 200 tons) brought home. This took up much time, and led to considerable dispute among the various parties interested.

Meantime the faith of the queen and others remained strong in the productiveness of the newly discovered territory, which she herself named Meta Incognita, and it was resolved to send out a larger expedition than ever, with all necessaries for the establishment of a colony of 100 men. Frobisher was again received by the Queen at Greenwich, and her Majesty threw a fine chain of gold around his neck.

On 31 May 1578 the third expedition, consisting in all of fifteen vessels, left Harwich, and sailing by the English Channel on 20 Jun reached the south of Greenland, where Frobisher and some of his men managed to land. On the 2 Jul the foreland of Frobisher Bay was sighted. Stormy weather and dangerous ice prevented the rendezvous from being gained, and, besides causing the wreck of the barque Dennis of 100 tons, drove the fleet unwittingly up a new (Hudson) strait. After proceeding about 60 miles up this "mistaken strait", Frobisher with apparent reluctance turned back, and after many buffetings and separations the fleet at last came to anchor in Frobisher Bay.

Some attempt was made at founding a settlement, and a large quantity of ore was shipped. Too much dissension and discontent prevented a successful settlement. On the last day of Aug the fleet set out on its return to England, which was reached in the beginning of Oct. The ore apparently was not worth smelting. This ended Frobisher's attempts at the North-West Passage. His patron, Michael Lok, was ruined, but Frobisher's seafaring career continued.

In 1580 Frobisher was employed as captain of one of the Queen's ships in preventing the plans of Spain to assist the Irish insurgents, and in the same year obtained a grant of the reversionary title of clerk of the royal navy.

In 1585 he commanded the Primrose, as vice-admiral to Sir Francis Drake in his expedition to the West Indies. In 1588, when the country was threatened with invasion by the Spanish Armada, Frobisher's name was one of four mentioned by Charles Howard of Effingham, Lord High Admiral, in a letter to the Queen of "men of the greatest experience that this realm hath", and for his signal services in the "Triumph", in the dispersion of the Armada, he was knighted. The Queen granted to him for a money payment Finningley Grange, which had originally belonged to the Priory of Mattersey. It is impossible to say whether the naval hero saw much of his Nottinghamshire possession.

Frobisher made Whitwood his chief residence, and there married, as his second wife, Dorothy, widow of Sir William Widmerpoole, a daughter of Lord Wentworth. Other members of the family appear to have been in the naval service at this time, for there occur the names of Young Martin Frobisher and Captain Frobisher.

According to the parish register, a Francis Frobisher was baptized at Finningley in 1589, and a year afterwards a Martin Frobisher was also christened, receiving his name after that of his famous relative. These were the sons of Francis Frobisher, of the Grange, who was the grandson of another Francis, Recorder of Doncaster, and was buried there in the 29th Queen Elizabeth. From this it would appear that the Grange had been held by the family prior to the time when the seaman obtained possession of it by purchase from the Queen. The State Papers throw some light on this transaction, for a certificate is there produced of a payment of 948 17s. 32 d., by Sir Martin Frobisher, for the Manor of Whitwood, in Yorkshire, and Finningley Grange, Notts.

He found, however, little leisure for a country life, and in the spring of the following year he was sent by Sir Walter Raleigh with a squadron to ravage the Spanish coast and hold the attention of the Spanish fleet while efforts were made to intercept the merchant vessels laden with bullion on their way from Panama. He died in Nov 1594, from the effects of a wound received while leading an attack by sea against Fort Croyzan, near Brest, then in the hands of the Spaniards.

Sir Martin Frobisher

by M. Van der Gucht (engraver)


The hero does not seem to have become rich by all his adventures, for he had a difficulty in settling for his newly-acquired properties, and after his decease there was a re-grant of Whitwood and Finningley to Peter Frobisher, his cousin and heir, on payment of 500, the estates having been forfeited by Sir Martin through default in payment of that amount. Finningley remained in the family until the end of the seventeenth century, when the Harveys of Ickwell Bury, in Bedfordshire, became the possessors of it.

to Bios Page to Home Page