Sir Humphrey Gilbert


Sir Humphrey Gilbert (c. 1539 – 9 September 1583) of Devon in England was a half-brother (through his mother) of Sir Walter Raleigh and cousin of Sir Richard Grenville. Adventurer, explorer, member of parliament, and soldier, he served during the reign of Queen Elizabeth and was a pioneer of the English colonial empire in North America and the Plantations of Ireland.

Early life

Gilbert was the fifth son born to Otho Gilbert of Compton and Greenway, also Galmpton, and Devon, by his marriage to Katherine Champernowne. His brothers Sir John Gilbert and Adrian Gilbert, and his half-brothers Carew Raleigh and Sir Walter Raleigh, were also prominent during the reigns of Queen Elizabeth I and King James. Katherine was a niece of Kat Ashley, Elizabeth’s governess, who introduced her young kinsmen to the court. Gilbert’s uncle, Sir Arthur Champernowne, involved him in efforts to establish plantations in Ireland between 1566 and 1572. Sir Henry Sidney became Gilbert’s mentor, and he was educated at Eton and the University of Oxford, where he learned to speak French and Spanish and studied the arts of war and navigation. He went on to reside at the Inns of Chancery in London in about 1560–1561.

Gilbert’s mottoes, Quid non? (“Why not?”) and Mutare vel timere sperno (“I scorn to change or to fear”), indicate how he chose to live his life. He was present at the siege of Newhaven in Havre-de-grâce (Le Havre), Normandy, where he was wounded in June 1563. By July 1566 he was serving in Ireland under the command of Sidney (then Lord Deputy) against Shane O’Neill, but was sent to England later in the year with dispatches for the Queen. (See Early Plantations (1556–1576) and Tudor conquest of Ireland). At that point he took the opportunity of presenting the Queen with his A discourse of a discouerie for a new passage to Cataia (A Discourse of a Discovery for a New Passage to Cathay) (published in revised form in 1576), treating of the exploration of a Northwest Passage by America to Asia. Within the year he had set down an account of his strange and turbulent visions, in which he received the homage of Solomon and Job, with their promise to grant him access to secret mystical knowledge.

Gilbert was described as ‘of higher stature than of the common sort, and of complexion cholerike’. Certain contemporaries speculated that he was a pederast.

Military career in Ireland

After the assassination of O’Neill in 1569, he was appointed to the profitless office of governor of Ulster and served as a member of the Irish parliament. At about this time he petitioned the Queen’s principal secretary, William Cecil, for a recall to England – “for the recovery of my eyes” – but his ambitions still rested in Ireland, and particularly in the southern province of Munster. In April 1569 he proposed the establishment of a presidency and council for the province, and pursued the notion of an extensive settlement around Baltimore (in modern County Cork), which was approved by the Dublin council. At the same time he was involved with Sidney and the secretary of state, Sir Thomas Smith, in planning a large settlement of the northern province of Ulster by Devonshire gentlemen.

Gilbert’s actions in the south of Ireland played a significant part in the outbreak of the first of the Desmond Rebellions. A kinsman of his, Sir Peter Carew (another Devonshire man), was pursuing a provocative, and somewhat far-fetched, claim to the inheritance of certain lands within the Butler territories in south Leinster. The Earl of Ormond – a bosom companion of the Queen’s from her troubled youth and head of the Butler family – was absent in England, and the clash of Butler influence with the lawful authority of Carew’s claim created havoc.

Gilbert was eager to participate and, after Carew’s seizure of the barony of Idrone (in modern County Carlow), he pushed westward with his forces across the River Blackwater in the summer of 1569 and joined up with his kinsman to defeat Sir Edmund Butler, a younger brother of the Earl’s. Violence spread in a confusion from Leinster and across the province of Munster, when the Geraldines of Desmond went into rebellion. Gilbert was then created colonel by Lord Deputy Sidney and charged with the pursuit of the rebel James FitzMaurice FitzGerald. The Geraldines were driven out of Kilmallock, but returned to lay siege to Gilbert, who drove off their superior force in a sally, during which his horse was shot from under him and his buckler transfixed with a spear. After that initial success, he showed courage in striking out into rebel territory, and managed to march unopposed through Kerry and Connello, taking 30–40 castles without the aid of artillery.

During the three weeks of this campaign, all enemies were treated without quarter and put to the sword – including women and children – which explains, perhaps, the swiftness with which so many castles had been abandoned before Gilbert’s aggression. A particularly gruesome spectacle was devised by him to cow the rebel supporters:

The heddes of all those (of what sort soever thei were) which were killed in the daie, should be cutte off from their bodies and brought to the place where he incamped at night, and should there bee laied on the ground by eche side of the waie ledying into his owne tente so that none could come into his tente for any cause but commonly he muste passe through a lane of heddes which he used ad terrorem…[It brought] greate terrour to the people when thei sawe the heddes of their dedde fathers, brothers, children, kindsfolke, and freinds…

John Perrot used a similar practice at Kilmallock a few years later. Gilbert is also said to have sent Captain Apsley into Kerry to inspire terror.

Gilbert’s attitude to the Irish may be captured in one quote from him, dated 13 November 1569: “These people are headstrong and if they feel the curb loosed but one link they will with bit in the teeth in one month run further out of the career of good order than they will be brought back in three months.

In time, Ormond returned from England and called in his brothers, which caused the Geraldine resistance to weaken. In December 1569, after one of the chief rebels had come in to the government and confessed his treason, Gilbert received his knighthood at the hands of Sidney in the ruined Fitzmaurice camp, reputedly amid heaps of slain gallowglass warriors. Fitzmaurice stayed out in rebellion (only coming in to submit in 1573), and one month after Gilbert’s return to England he retook Kilmallock with 120-foot, defeating the garrison and sacking the town for three days, leaving it “the abode of wolves“.

Member of parliament and adventurer

In 1570 Gilbert returned to England, where he married Anne Aucher, who bore him six sons and one daughter. In 1571 he was elected to parliament as a member for Plymouth and in 1572 for Queenborough and controversially argued for the crown prerogative in the matter of royal licenses for purveyance. In business affairs, he involved himself in an alchemical project with Smith, whereby iron was to be transmuted into copper and antimony, and lead into mercury.

By 1572 Gilbert had turned his attention to the Netherlands, where he fought an unsuccessful campaign in support of the Dutch Sea beggars at the head of a force of 1500 men, many of whom had deserted from Smith’s aborted plantation in the Ards of Ulster. In the period 1572–1578 Gilbert settled down and devoted himself to writing. In 1573 he presented Elizabeth I with a proposal for an academy in London, which was eventually put into effect by Sir Thomas Gresham upon the establishment of Gresham College. Gilbert also helped to set up the Society of the New Art with Lord Burghley and Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, both of whom maintained an alchemical laboratory in Limehouse.

The rest of Gilbert’s life was spent in a series of failed maritime expeditions, the financing of which exhausted his own fortune and a great part of his family’s. He backed Martin Frobisher’s trip to Greenland, which yielded a cargo of a mysterious yellow rock, subsequently found to be worthless. In pursuit of one of his own projects, he sailed from Plymouth for North America in November 1578 with 7 vessels in his fleet, which was scattered by storms and forced back to port some 6-months later; the only vessel to have penetrated the Atlantic to any great distance was the Falcon under Raleigh’s command.

In the summer of 1579, Gilbert and Raleigh were commissioned by the lord deputy of Ireland, William Drury, to attack his old foe, the rebel James Fitzmaurice Fitzgerald, by sea and land and to intercept a fleet expected to arrive from Spain with aid for the Munster rebels. At this time Gilbert had three vessels under his command: the Anne Ager (or perhaps, Anne Archer or Aucher – named after his wife) of 250 tons, the Relief, and the Squirrell of 10 tons. The latter vessel, a small frigate, was notable for having completed the voyage to America and back inside three months under the command of a captured Portuguese pilot.

In pursuit of his Irish commission, Gilbert set sail in June 1579 after a spell of bad weather, and promptly got lost in fog and heavy rains off Land’s End, an incident that caused the Queen to doubt his seafaring abilities. His fleet was then driven into the Bay of Biscay, and the Spanish soon sailed into Dingle harbour, where they made their rendezvous with the rebels. In October he managed to put into the port of Cobh in Munster, where he delivered a terrible beating to a local gentleman, smashing him about the head with a sword. He then fell into a row with a local merchant, whom he slew on the dockside.

Gilbert was one of the leading advocates for a north-west passage to the land of Cathay (present-day China), noted in great detail for its abundance of riches by Marco Polo in the 13th century. Gilbert made an elaborate case to counter the calls for a north-eastern route. During the winter of 1566 he and his principal antagonist Anthony Jenkinson (who had sailed to Russia and crossed the country down to the Caspian Sea), argued the pivotal question of polar routes before Queen Elizabeth. Gilbert claimed that any north-east passage was far too dangerous: “the air is so darkened with continual mists and fogs so near the pole that no man can well see either to guide his ship or direct his course.” By logic and reason a north-west passage must exist, and Columbus had discovered America with far less evidence; it was imperative for England to catch up, settle in new lands and thus challenge the Iberian powers. Gilbert’s contentions won support and money was raised, chiefly by the London merchant Michael Lok, for an expedition. The fearless Martin Frobisher was appointed captain and left England in June 1576, but the quest for a north-west passage proved fruitless: he returned with a cargo of black stone and an Inuit.


It was assumed that Gilbert would be appointed President of Munster after the dismissal of Ormond as lord lieutenant of the province in the spring of 1581. At this time Gilbert was member of parliament for Queenborough, Kent, but his attention was again drawn to North America, where he hoped to seize territory on behalf of the crown.

The six-year exploration license Gilbert had secured by letters patent from the crown in 1578 was on the point of expiring, when he succeeded in 1583 in raising significant sums from English Catholic investors. The investors were constrained by penal laws in their own country, and loth to go into exile in hostile parts of Europe; thus, the prospect of an American adventure appealed to them, especially when Gilbert was proposing to seize some nine million acres (36,000 km²) around the river Norumbega, to be parcelled out under his authority (although to be held ultimately of the Crown).

The Catholic investment didn’t work out – partly because the Privy Council insisted that the investors pay their recusancy fines before departing, partly because of efforts by Catholic clergy and Spanish agents to dissuade their interference in America – but Gilbert did manage to set sail with a small fleet of five vessels in June 1583. One of the vessels – Bark Raleigh, owned and commanded by Raleigh himself – had to turn back owing to lack of victuals. Gilbert’s crews were made up of misfits, criminals and pirates, but in spite of the many problems caused by their lawlessness, the fleet did manage to reach Newfoundland.

On arriving at the port of St. John’s, Gilbert found himself temporarily blockaded by the fishing fleet under the organisation of the port admiral (an Englishman) on account of piracy committed against a Portuguese vessel in 1582 by one of Gilbert’s commanders. Once this resistance was overcome, Gilbert waved his letters patent about and, in a formal ceremony, took possession of Newfoundland (including the lands 200 leagues to the north and south) for the English crown on 5 August 1583. This involved the cutting of turf to symbolise the transfer of possession of the soil, according to the common law of England. The locals presented him with a gift of a local dog, whom he named Stella for the North Star. He claimed authority over the fish stations at St. John’s and proceeded to levy a tax on the fishermen from several countries who worked this popular area near the Grand Banks of Newfoundland.

Within weeks his fleet departed, having made no attempt to form a settlement, due to lack of supplies. During the return voyage, Gilbert insisted on sailing in his hardy old favourite, HMS Squirrel. He soon ordered a controversial change of course for the fleet. Owing to his obstinacy and disregard of the views of superior mariners, the ship Delight ran aground and soon sank with the loss of all but sixteen of its crew on one of the sand bars of Sable Island. Delight was the largest remaining ship in the squadron (an unwise choice to take the lead in uncharted coastal waters) and contained most of the remaining supplies. Later in the voyage a sea monster was sighted, said to have resembled a lion with glaring eyes.

After discussions with Edward Hayes and William Cox, captain and master of Golden Hind, Gilbert had decided on 31 August to return. The wind was in their favour as they sped back to Cape Race in two days and were soon clear of land. Gilbert had injured his foot on the frigate Squirrel and, on 2 September, came aboard Golden Hind to have his foot bandaged and to discuss means of keeping the two little ships together on the voyage. Gilbert refused to leave Squirrel, while the vessels continued on the Atlantic crossing. After a strong storm, they had a spell of clear weather and made fair progress: Gilbert came aboard Golden Hind again, visited with Hayes, and insisted once more on returning to Squirrel, even though Hayes insisted she was over-gunned and unsafe for sailing. Nearly 900 miles away from Cape Race near the Azores, they encountered high waves of heavy seas, “breaking short and high Pyramid wise”, said Hayes.

On 9 September, Squirrel was nearly overwhelmed but recovered. Despite the persuasions of others, who wished him to take to one of the larger vessels, Gilbert stayed put and was observed sitting in the stern of his little frigate, reading a book. When Golden Hind came within hailing distance, the crew heard him cry out repeatedly, “We are as near to Heaven by sea as by land!” as he lifted his palm to the skies to illustrate his point. At midnight the frigate’s lights were extinguished, and the watch on Golden Hind cried out that, “the Generall was cast away“. Squirrel had gone down with all hands.

It is thought Gilbert’s reading material was the Utopia of Sir Thomas More, which contains the following passage: “He that hathe no grave is covered with the skye: and, the way to heaven out of all places is of like length and distance.


  • Gilbert was father to Ralegh Gilbert, who was to become second in command of Popham Colony. One of his later relatives was the architect C. P. H. Gilbert.
  • Gilbert was part of a remarkable generation of Devonshire men, who combined the roles of adventurer, writer, soldier and mariner – often in ways as equally loathsome as admirable. AL Rowse wrote of him:

Gilbert was certainly an interesting psychological case, with the symptoms of disturbed personality that often go with men of mark, not at all the simple Elizabethan seaman of Froude’s Victorian view. He was passionate and impulsive, a nature liable to violence and cruelty – as came out in his savage repression of rebels in Ireland – but also intellectual and visionary, a questing and original mind, with the personal magnetism that went with it. People were apt to be both attracted and repelled by him, to follow his leadership and yet be mistrustful of him.

He was outstanding for his initiative and originality, if not for his successes, but it is in his efforts at colonisation that he had most influence. Ireland ended up as a brutal disaster (although Ulster and Munster were in time colonised), but the American adventure did eventually flourish. The formality of his annexation of Newfoundland eventually achieved reality in 1610; but perhaps of more significance was the reissue to Raleigh in 1584 of Gilbert’s patent, on the back of which he undertook the Roanoke expeditions, the first sustained attempt by the English crown to establish colonies in North America.

  • Gilbert Sound near Greenland was named after him by John Davys.
  • At Memorial University of Newfoundland, a court of the Burton’s Pond Apartments are named “Gilbert Court” in his honour.



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