VI. Oxford and the Frobisher voyages

On page 187 Nelson writes: "Not only was Oxford's offer of £1000 accepted, but he bought up £2000 of Michael Lok's investment of £5000. Unable to raise cash, Oxford raised credit in the form of a bond." And on page 188: "Oxford made a partial escape from his indebtedness by the simple expedient of not producing his £3000 in full: on 30 November he was listed as still owing £450." His source for the latter information is * CSP Colonial  1513-1616 *, No. 105. Here Nelson is not in error, he is simply dishonest. A somewhat fuller quote from the same document: 'Names of Aventurers who have not paid their parts for the third voyage to the North-west. The total amount, 4,115l. includes 460l. due from Michael Lok, 450l. from the Earl of Oxford, Martin Frobisher 270l.,, Sir Thos. Gresham 180l....' Practically none produced the full sum, which WAS NOT THE ORIGINAL SUM (here there's no dishonesty on Nelson's side, it is simply total ignorance). BTW, Lord Burghley is reported never to have paid a penny on his investment. The list of the arrears at the end of the third expedition is long.

All what Nelson states here is right as to the numbers, but it is at the same time completely wrong because he does not understand the numbers, because he has probably not looked into one of the many lists Michael Lok kept. And because he neither understands how a 16th- and 17th-century joint-stock company worked nor how a 16th- and 17th-century aristocratic society worked. It didn't work the same way as a modern joint-stock company.

"It is to be noticed, further, that in all these cases the capital was divided into shares. To understand the position, it should be noted that the share, 'portion' or 'part' was dealt with in a less complex form than is customary at the present time. In a modern company... what is fixed is the denomination of the share, while the number of shares will vary with the progress of the undertaking. In the first Elizabethan companies, on the contrary, what was fixed was the number of shares; AND THE SUMS, CALLED UP ON EACH OF THEM, INCREASED FROM TIME TO TIME. [my emph]. Thus, if further capital were needed, it was provided in the early company by adding to the sums already called up..." (William Robert Scott. * The Constitution and Finance of English, Scottish and Irish Joint-Stock companies to 1720 *, Vol. I: * The General Development of the Joint-Stock System to 1720 * , Cambridge: at the University Press. 1912, p. 44).

In other words, the original investment was regularly augmented proportionally. This can also be seen from Michael Lok's lists. For instance, one list mentions Burghley, Sussex, and many others, all with £25. In a later list all these shares have doubled to £50. It does not mean that they had paid in an additional £25, it means that the sum had been augmented in the course of the enterprise.

The following may partly (only partly) illustrate that. We should heed the title in which is stated "freight". Not the total amount of the investment is listed. This amount was regularly augmented for several costs, he the cost of freight.

The list is printed in full in * Three Voyages * . Exactly the same source: No. 105. Here an extract from the list [ * Colonial, 105, Dom. Eliz. cxxxvj *, No. 56]:


  1) The Lord High Treasurer 50
  2) The Lord High Admiral 50
  3) The Earl of Sussex 50
  4) The Earl of Warwick 50
  5) The Lord of Hunsdon 25
  6) Sir Francis Knollys 25
  7) The Earl of Oxford 200
  8) The Earl of Pembroke 60
  9) The Countess of Sussex 25
10) The Countess of Warwick 25
11) Sir Henry Wallop 25
12) Sir John Brocket 25
13) Sir Philip Sidney 25
14) Sir William Pelham 25
15) Mr. Thomas Randolph 25
16) Edward Dyer 15
19) Martyn Ffurbisher (Frobisher) 50
24) John Dee 15
25) Sir Thomas Gresham 65
40) Michael Lok 220

Such additions, "cessements" (assessments) for freight, weights or buildings were generally made in proportion to the share. Oxford's total share must have exceeded by far his original investment of £3,000 and when at the end his debt was £450, he must have paid in a considerable proportion not of the original £3,000 but of to what this original investment had become through several successive additions.

Another list the sums of which must come close to the total due at the end of the three Frobisher voyages:

The £450 are also mentioned in Three Voyages but the source given is [Colonial, 100. State Papers. Dom. Eliz, cxxx. No 16].


  1) The Lord High Treasurer 118
  2) The Lord High Admiral 118
  3) The Earl of Sussex 118
  4) The Earl of Warwick 118
  5) The Earl of Leicester 11 3s. 4d.
  6) The Lord of Hunsdon 57 10s.
  7) Sir Francis Knollys 57 10s.
  8) The Earl of Oxford 450
  9) The Earl of Pembroke 172 10s.
10) The Countess of Pembroke 28 15s.
11) The Countess of Sussex 57 10s.
12) The Countess of Warwick 57 10s.
12) The Ladie Anne Talbot  
13) Sir Henry Wallop 57 10s.
14) Sir Thomas Gresham  230
15) Sir Lionel Duckett 28 15s.
16) Sir William Wynter  
17) Sir John Brocket 57 10s.
18) Mr. Philip Sidney 57 10s.
19) Edward Dyer          28 15s.
20) William Pelham 57 10s.
21) Thomas Randolph 57 10s.
41) Martyn Furbisher (Frobisher) 115

Neither has Nelson any idea of how a courtly aristocratic society worked. Most aristocrats died highly indebted, not because they were spendthrifts but because an aristocrat had to be liberal, had to spend a lot. It was not just his own prestige which was based on this principle, it was the legitimation of their class as a whole. The Earl of Sussex in 1583, Sir Francis Walsingham in 1590, the Earl of Salisbury in 1612, etc. died highly indebted. But their credit depended upon their influence and favor at court. And this favor depended on their behavior (perhaps best seen in Henry VII's "recognizances"). Oxford's financial decay was not only the result of his extraordinary spending. Probably the Earl of Leicester spent as much as he, if not more. But Leicester remained in favor for the greatest part of his life. Not so Oxford.

There are a few other errors in this chapter. However, they pale almost into insignificance against those mistakes which result from his basic ignorance.

On page 187: "Oxford got into the game with a £25 investment in a second expedition." He gives no source. From Lok's lists it is clear that Oxford came in after the second expedition.

On page 188: "The expedition, in which Frobisher had been replaced by Edward Fenton, set out at the very end of May 1581." Two lines later: "On 1 October 1581 Frobisher wrote to Leicester...". In October 1581 Frobisher was still in command. Fenton, of course, set out in May 1582.

These errors are small. But some people would organize a big noise around them.

© Robert Detobel