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Our Merchant Navy really began to develop in the fifteenth century. As trade and commerce expanded the merchants of the day began to travel overseas looking for new products and new markets. The sixteenth century saw the voyages of exploration by famous Elizabethan seamen and navigators; famous names which included Francis Drake, Walter Raleigh and Martin Frobisher. We usually regard these men as historical heroes, but in many respects a lot of their exploits bordered on piracy. However, they set forth into the unknown in tiny ships and tribute must be paid to their bravery without which England would never have become a great sea power.

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Richard Chancellor (d. 1556), British navigator, was, in 1553, appointed captain and pilot major of an expedition under Sir Hugh Willoughby to find a North-East passage to India. With Willoughby in the Bona Esperanza and himself in the 160-ton Edward Bonaventure, and accompanied by the Bona Confidentia, the three ships were towed down the Thames on 22 May 1553 and past the Royal Palace of Greenwich, the ship's companies being dressed in sky-blue cloth and saluting the king as they passed. However the final departure from England was delayed until July, the ships reaching the Lofoten Islands in August when, after a stay of three days, they continued their northward voyage. As they prepared to round the North Cape, they encountered a severe storm and became separated. After waiting seven days at the rendezvous Chancellor went on alone and reached the White Sea where he landed and visited Ivan the Terrible in Moscow. This led to the founding of the Muscovy Company designed to stimulate trade between England and Russia. During a second voyage in 1555 he called at Arzina, where Willoughby and his men had succumbed to an Arctic winter, and collected the body of his former chief, together with his papers and goods. Returning from a third voyage in 1556, during which he had embarked a Russian ambassador to England, his ship was wrecked off Petsligo, Aberdeen, and Chancellor was drowned together with most of his crew.

Martin Frobisher
Martin Frobisher (c 1535 - 1594) was of England's greatest Elizabethan seamen and one of the first explorers to seek the Northwest Passage to the Far East. Born around 1535 in Altofts, Yorkshire, he spent his early years in London. In 1544 he became apprenticed as a cabin boy and quickly learned to demonstrate his daring and skills as a seamen. He steadily rose through the ranks and was promoted to captain in 1565. On 7th June 1576, set sail on what was the first expedition by an Englishman to seek out the Northwest Passage. Three small ships sailed from England, the Gabriel , the Michael and a small unnamed pinnace which was lost in a storm. The Michael deserted shortly afterwards but the Gabriel continued alone and eventually arrived at the mouth of a bay which Frobisher believed was the entrance to the Northwest Passage. The bay was actually on Baffin Island and is now known as Frobisher Bay. He then returned to England and brought with him samples of black earth which were rumoured to contain gold. In 1577 another expedition financed by Elizabeth 1 set sail for Canada but neither this nor a subsequent voyage were successful in finding valuable ores or establishing colonies. However, Frobisher remained in the Queen's favour and in 1585, as vice admiral on the Primrose, he accompanied Sir Francis Drake on an expedition to the West Indies for the purpose of raiding the Spanish colonies. In 1588 he played a valiant role in the defeat of the Spanish Armada and was rewarded with knighthood. After trying to retire in Yorkshire for a year, in 1592 he commanded a fleet equipped by Sir Walter Raleigh and set about harrying Spanish merchant ships that were transporting gold from Panama. In November 1594 Frobisher was participating in the relief of Fort Crozo near Brest in France when, on the 22nd, whilst engaging the Spanish fleet, he was mortally wounded and later died in Plymouth.

Sir Humphrey Gilbert (c.1539-83) was a half brother of Sir Walter Raleigh and lived at Compton, near Dartmouth, Devon. His early career was spent soldiering in France, Holland and Ireland where he was knighted for his services. However, his lifelong ambition was to seek out the North-West passage to Cathay and in 1576 published his famous 'Discourse' on the subject. His patience was rewarded when, in 1578, he was granted a charter by Elizabeth I for such a voyage. not only to search for the passage but also to establish a colony in Newfoundland where he was to be the Governor. His first expedition got no further than the Cape Verde Islands where it was set upon by the Spaniards.
When the money and credit ran out Gilbert returned to soldiering for a short while but in 1583, with Raleigh's help and by "selling the clothes off my wife's back", he was able to finance another expedition. He sailed from Plymouth in June 1583 in the Delight accompanied by the Ark Royal, which had been provided by Raleigh, the Swallow, the 10 ton Squirrel and vessel in the flotilla, the Golden Hind. The Ark Royal soon left the group and returned home on the pretext of sickness. The remainder reached St John's, in Newfoundland where, on 5th August 1583, after taking possession of the territory, Gilbert set up the first English colony in North America .
Gilbert, in reality, was a god-fearing academic and not being a leader of men found it difficult to impose law and order. After sending the Swallow back to England with the sick and disillusioned he set sail in the Squirrel and led the others southwards to explore the coast. On 29th August the Delight was lost when she ran aground and two days later the Golden Hind and Squirrel set course for home. When the ships reached the Azores they encountered fierce storms and on clearing one of them Gilbert was seen sitting in the stern of the Squirrel reading a book. As the Golden Hind closed within earshot Gilbert cheerfully called across "we are as near to heaven by sea as by land". Captain Hayes, commanding the Golden Hind, later reported the loss of the Squirrel. 'The same Monday night, about twelve, the frigate [Squirrel] being ahead of us in the Golden Hind, suddenly her lights were out...in that moment the frigate was devoured and swallowed up of the sea.' Gilbert perished with the remainder of his crew.

Edward Fenton (d. 1603), commanded the Gabriel in Martin Frobisher's second voyage in search of the Northwest passage in 1577, and in the following year was second-in-command of the third expedition for the same purpose, sailing in the Judith. In 1582 he was selected to command a trading expedition into the Indian Ocean and eventually to China, with instructions to discover, if possible, a western entrance to the Northwest passage. This expedition got no further than Brazil because of quarrels among the officers, and in fact returned to England with many of them in irons. In the battle against the Spanish Armada in 1588, Fenton commanded the English ship Mary Rose.

Luke Fox (Foxe) - (1586-1636) was born in Hull and went to sea at an early age and in 1606 offered his services for an expedition to Greenland but was rejected. Having the desire to undertake Artic exploration in 1629 he successfully petitioned the king for money to finance an expedition to seek out the North-West passage. He was provided with the pinnace Charles and a crew of twenty-two men by the Admiralty and set sail from Bristol in 1631. When he reached Frobisher Bay he worked his way along the north shore of the Hudson Strait until he arrived at Coates Island where he began his search for the passage. He spent some time making observations in the channel which bears his name but when the winter ice began to close in he decided to return home without achieving his objective.

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