Voyages of Discovery – Elizabethan Explorers

Voyages of Discovery

The Elizabethan period was one in which the major European powers were engaged in many voyages of discovery. The discovery of the Americas had opened up new lands to explore. There was a desire to find faster, more economical, routes to the far east. Explorers became famous and their work has had a lasting legacy.

The Elizabethan period came as exploration of the seas and New World was emerging as one of great importance. For centuries Europe had traded with the far east, though through middle-men. The discovery of the Americas and then the first circumnavigation of the globe made exploration of economic importance. Now it was known that ships could travel around the globe, the race was on to find the fastest routes and discover new lands.

Voyages of Discovery: Map of Drake's circumnavigation of the world. Image from Wikimedia commons

The Spanish and Portuguese empires were the first to colonise the New World of the Americas. Following this the Dutch, French and English sought to explore themselves. North America offered the Elizabethans several things. First, it was unsettled land. No Europeans had colonised it as yet. Elizabeth’s court granted Sir Walter Raleigh the rights to colonise. This attempt at a first North American Colony can be read here.

North America also offered hope. If it was possible to sail around the toe of South America, was the same true of the North? Could shipping make its way through river systems and emerge on the other side of the New World? If either of these were possible, it would speed up trade with Asia.

Searches for the Northern Passages

1497 John Cabot discovered Newfoundland

1553 Sir Henry Willoughby sets sail with 3 ships in search of a Northeast Passage. Only one ship survives, making contact with the Muscovite court of Ivan the Terrible having reached the port of Archangel.

1555 Richard Chancellor, who had sailed under Willoughby, returns to Russia and establishes the Muscovy Company.

1576 Sir Martin Frobisher sets sail in search of a Northwest passage. He fails to find one, landing instead in Greenland and Canada.

1585 John Davies uses Greenland as a stepping stone into the Northern seas. He fails to find a passage through but sails further north than any other Englishman had done previously.

At the same time as these men were sailing in search of a Northern Passage, people continued to seek out new lands. In 1577, Sir Francis Drake set sail. He was searching for new lands in the Southern Oceans. On his voyage he plundered gold from the Spanish. His voyage led him to becoming the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe. He returned to England and fame in 1580.

North America

1583 Newfoundland was claimed for England by Gilbert.

Raleigh was commissioned to establish a colony in North America. This was attempted by Sir Humphrey Gilbert, on Raleigh’s behalf, at Roanoke Island. The first colony was started in 1585. This was abandoned the following year. In 1587 a further 117 colonists were sent to reestablish the colony. Among these settlers was Elizabeth Dare, who gave birth to the first English child born in the Americas. This colony vanished without trace though, an English ship visited in 1591 and found the site abandoned.

Colonisation of the Americas was delayed due to the Spanish Armada. It resumed following the English victory.

Africa and the Slave Trade

In 1562 John Hawkins began a trade that is now thought of as horrific and inhumane. Hawkins realised that he could profit from triangular trading. He bought or captured native Africans. Then he sailed to Spanish colonies and sold them as slaves. The Spanish needed workers, Hawkins could provide them. From the New World he could return to England with goods that would reach a high price. With the three stopping points this became known as triangular trade and continued until the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1807. The trade did cause some friction with the Spanish and was sometimes linked with the privateers.

Northern Europe

In 1598 the Baltic Sea became open to British shipping. Prior to this a monopoly on trade had existed with only the Hanseatic League able to trade there. With the league losing their monopoly, the ships of British merchats could enter the Baltic and trade.

Principles of Colonisation

Richard Hakluyt wrote several pieces on the principles of colonisation. These were presented to influential people such as Sir Walter Raleigh. His work spanned the reigns of Elizabeth and James I. It was his book, The Principal Navigations, Voyages and Discoveries of the English Nation (1589), that influenced the development of Virginia.


British History – Elizabethan Era – Tudors (KS2)

British Library – Exploration and Trade in Elizabethan England

BBC – Revision guide, explorers – Elizabethan explorers and colonisers – Article and resources on Sir Francis Drake

Elizabethan Era - Homepage

England in 1588: Society and GovernmentReligious SettlementChallenges to Elizabethan Religious Settlement
Mary, Queen of ScotsPlots and Rebellions in the Elizabethan AgeAnglo-Spanish Relations in the Elizabethan Age
Spanish ArmadaEducation, Culture and LeisureElizabethan Poor Law
Voyages of DiscoverySir Walter Raleigh and the Virginia Colony

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