Sir Martin Frobisher

“Sir Martin Frobisher,” The Life of Sir Martin Frobisher, Knight: Containing a Narrative of the Spanish Armada, 1878, From The Library at The Mariners’ Museum, G246.F9.J7.

Martin Frobisher

1535 CE - 1594 CE


Primary Goal:

To search for the Northwest Passage in America.


Helped defeat the Spanish Armada and was knighted in 1588.

North America was sitting out there, a big, solid obstacle, blocking the way to the Pacific Ocean. That’s the way the English saw it, and in the 1570s and 80s, there was a flurry of maritime activity in an attempt to find their very own northwest passage through the North American continent; if they were successful, they could shave miles off the long southern routes the Spanish and Portuguese then dominated. While England's search had been off and on since John Cabot's voyage of 1497, their domestic and foreign problems (including a pesky reformation) kept them from conducting an organized search for a possible northwest passage until Queen Elizabeth's stormy reign had quieted down to a dull roar. Though a few intrepid Englishmen undertook voyages to Norumbega in the first half of the sixteenth century, including the misguided John Rut in 1527 and the ineffective tourist cruise of Richard Hore in 1536, it was not until a new generation of mariners grew up in the heady atmosphere of Elizabeth's glittering court that anyone made a serious effort to explore the chilly waters of the northwestern Atlantic for a passage to the East.

The search for a northern passage had been under the control of the "Merchants Adventurers of England for the Discovery of Lands, Territories, Isles, Dominions and Seignories Unknown," later known as the Muscovy Company, since its charter in 1553. The wisdom of men such as Sebastian Cabot and John Dee prevailed in the company and the initial voyages attempted under its authority were to the northeast, beginning with a voyage by Sir Hugh Willoughby in 1553. The northwest had to wait a bit longer.


“Sir Martin Frobisher,” Sir Martin Frobisher, 1928, From The Library at The Mariners’ Museum, G246.F9.M2.

Martin Frobisher was born a member of the country gentry in Pontrefact, Yorkshire in late 1539, but was raised by an uncle in London. Taking to the sea at an early age, Frobisher participated in many questionable ventures smacking of piracy before turning to the more gentlemanly sport of exploration in 1576. George Best, who sailed with Frobisher on his second and third voyages, wrote of the inception of Frobisher's plan to voyage to the northwest. Frobisher, "being persuaded of a new and nearer passage to Cataya then by Capo de buona Sperança, which the Portugals yerely use: he began first with himselfe to devise, and then with his friends to conferre, and layed a plaine plat unto them that that voyage was not onely possible by the Northwest, but also he could prove easie to be performed." According to Best, Frobisher worked on this plan for fifteen years before he completed it. Finally, "he repaired to the Court (from whence, as from the fountaine of our Common wealth, all good causes have their chiefe increase and maintenance) and there layed open to many great estates and learned men the plot and summe of his device." One such “great estate” was none other than that of Ambrose Dudley, Earl of Warwick, who brought the enterprise to the attention of Lord Burleigh, Elizabeth's treasurer, who with Michael Lok "persuaded the Muscovy Company to relinquish their yet unused right to northwestern exploration.” A group of merchant-adventurers much like those in the Muscovy Company subscribed to the expedition and after a failed start in 1575, the enterprise was ready to begin in early 1576.