V. Oxford and the Fenton Expedition

Oxford, according to Nelson, would have invested "in a venture similar to Drake's, this time to the tune of £500." (p. 188) Nelson follows Captain Ward in his biography of Oxford - both are most probably wrong. But as in the case of the bark * Talbot *, Eva G.R. Taylor's edition (1959) of the documents of the Fenton expedition was not available to Ward. Instead of looking into this book, Nelson takes over Ward's mistake.  It may be questioned whether Oxford, eventually, was an adventurer in this expedition.

Sure, Oxford's name is on a list of adventurers, but it is absent from another such list, which was also made by Arthur Atye, Leicester's secretary, several months later, after Frobisher had renounced his command.

  1. In list A, with Oxford, the main ship is still named after her original owner "the Galleon Oughtred"; in list B, without Oxford's name, she is simply called "the Galleon". But we know that she was later renamed into "the Galleon Leicester" and alternately "the Bear Galleon", the bear being Leicester's heraldic animal.
  2. In list A the value of this ship is estimated at £5,000; in the list B the value is exactly fixed at £6,035 and 10s.
  3. In list A it is stated that the ship "Mary Edwards" is to be valued by alderman Martin. But this ship did not sail. The ship which sailed is that mentioned in list B, the "Edward Bonaventure", valued exactly at  £3,457 and 5s.
  4. It may be ruled out that so many adventurers appearing for the first time in list B would have been forgotten in list A: Lord Burghley, the earl of Shrewsbury, sir Thomas Heneage and four more.
  5. It can also be ruled out that Oxford's substantial contribution of £500 would have been forgotten in list B.

From the comparison of the two lists it becomes obvious that list A was a provisional list and list B (without Oxford) the definitive one. Ward can, Nelson cannot be excused not to have seen that. Another name had disappeared in list B, that of the customer (receiver of customs) Thomas Smith. This Thomas Smith, also an adventurer in other expeditions of the time, seems to have trusted Frobisher, but not Fenton. Smith paid his contribution of £200 to Frobisher personally (in October 1581), not to Leicester's secretary (* Colonial Papers *, No 158). "William Hawkins [elder brother of Sir John Hawkins] and Thomas Smith, Customer of London, who were among the most active speculators of their age." (Quinn, * Voyages of sir Humphrey Gilbert *, Vol. I, p. 46). In December 1582 customer Smith was an adventurer in Gilbert's expedition (Ibid., Vol. II, p. 332). It is plausible to assume that Thomas Smith withdrew after Frobisher had renounced his command (about February 1582).

Oxford was also an enthusiastic backer of Frobisher. On 1 October 1581 Frobisher wrote to Leicester:

"Here is no answer come from my L. of friends here, as yet I have not more need Sir Francis Walsingham, nor any of the rest but my L. of Oxford, who bears me in hand; he will buy the Edward Bonaventure, and Mr. Bowland & I have offered fifteen hundred pounds for her, but they hold her at eighteen hundred." (Taylor, Fenton, p. 19)

It should be noted that at this time it was still believed that the discovery of the passage to Cathay was the main objective of the expedition. It also seems reasonable to construe Oxford's and Thomas Smith's withdrawal as an implicit approval of Frobisher's decision to resign his commandership.

As to the motives of Frobisher's resignation, there can be no doubt.

It followed shortly after he had received instructions from the Privy Council. "Frobisher, who swore he had  in 1576 seen the 'capes' (extremities) of Asia and America on his right hand and his left was justifiably suspected of a wish to view them from the Pacific side." (Taylor, p. 54-55, n. 9). Thus, Frobisher would have sailed along the Westafrican and then along the Southamerican westcoast, turned northeast in the direction of Alaska along the Northamerican westcoast, to enter the NW Passage from the northeast. The passage in question (* Colonial Papers *, No 187):

 "Not to pass to the north-eastward of 40º latitude at the most, 'because we will that this voyage shall be only for trade and not for the discovery of the passage by the Northeast to Catays.'"

Thereupon Frobisher resigned. And this was probably the reason for Oxford's and Thomas Smith's withdrawal.

In the light of Frobisher's attitude regarding the change of objective of the expedition of 1582, we can believe Captain George Best that Frobisher was primarily interested not in gold but in "greater matters", the discovery of a passage in the north. "And because it was assuredly made account of, that the commodity of mines, there already discovered, would at the least countervail in all respects the adventurers' charge and give further hope and likelihood of greater matters to follow..." (* Voyages *, p. 226). This was probably also Oxford's main interest. The next expedition, of John Davis, in which Oxford invested was purely exploratory. And we may also conclude that he spoke true in his letter: "understanding of the wise proceeding & orderly dealing for the continuing of the voyage for the discovery of Cathay by the Northwest, which this bearer my friend Mr Frobisher has already very honorably attempted..."

It was a general aristocratic attitude. It was their social role to invest in undertakings which were not purely mercantile but were thought to serve the commonwealth. This attitude is stressed and supported by an impressive array of statistics in Theodor K. Rabb's * Enterprise & Empire, Merchant and Gentry Investment in the Expansion of England, 1575-1630 * (

Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1967), the reading of which would have spared Nelson some other inept comments of his own making. Captain Best himself writes that it was the profit-seeking attitude of the merchants which had so long delayed the expedition; only after some courtiers, most prominently the Earl of Warwick, had begun to back Frobisher became the expedition possible.

© Robert Detobel