The Tudors and the Age of Exploration

March 22, 2012 § Leave a comment

            David B. Quinn in his article titled “Present state of studies on the rediscovery of America in the 15th century”[1] gives rise to the fact that the exploration of the American continent was not exclusively Portuguese and Spanish. When Henry VII became king, England was already very late on exploration. Bartolomeu Dias was about to sail around the tip of Africa in 1488 and Christopher Columbus was already considering reaching the Indies by crossing the Atlantic Ocean. Portugal and Spain were the unopposed rulers of the sea and the self-declared masters of every place they set foot on. On that matter they were backed by the Pope who, in 1494, divided the whole world in two parts for Spain and Portugal to explore. This declaration, the Treaty of Tordesillas, left out all other countries, which weren’t quite ready to enter the race for exploration yet. However all of them will ignore this partitioning of the world to conquer any territory they can. The accidental discovery of the Western Indies by Columbus and of the American continent a few years later led to a new problem: going round America to reach the Indies. That’s when Henry VII decided to step in and thus got England involved in the exploration of the world.

            We can therefore ask ourselves how the Tudors were involved in the exploration of America and what impact it had on the relations between England and Spain since it was a challenging of what had been granted to His Catholic Majesty at the Treaty of Tordesillas.

            We shall first study the early explorers and the entering of England in the Age of Discovery, then, the continuation of coastal exploration and its exploitation, and finally the effects of it on English foreign relations.


            The quest for the North West Passage to the Orient began in 1497 when Henry VII commissioned the Italian navigator John Cabot.

            Cabot, a well-travelled Venetian man, was convinced that he could find the route to the Indies after Columbus discovered the first American islands. Cabot tried to convince Bristol merchants to finance his expedition. After years of rejection upon rejection, he decided to turn to Henry VII, not expecting much from a king known for being a miser. Henry, though not very enthusiastic about exploration, gave Cabot letters in which he vouched for the Venetian navigator and granted him ownership (under authority of the crown of England) of whatever he would find. But Cabot still could not find financial support and eventually left for the New World aboard a small ship carrying 18 men. He brought back news that he had found a new continent and that its waters were very rich in cod, a point that greatly appealed Britons who until then had to fish in the very dangerous areas around Iceland. What Cabot found has yet to be clearly identified but is thought to be Newfoundland or perhaps even the Canadian shore. There was no inland exploration but Cabot sailed along the coast for a few weeks and claimed the discovered land for England. Henry VII gave new honours to Cabot in reward for his precious discovery and thus facilitated Cabot’s ability to find funding, notably from the Bristol Society of Merchant Venturers. Cabot’s second trip was undertaken with five large ships, one paid for by the king and the other four by merchants but Cabot and his fleet disappeared into the unknown never to return.

            The results of his discovery remained modest: mostly a new area for fishermen to exploit. It would be a long time before real exploration began in North America.  Nevertheless his trip had aroused an urge to explore in many merchants and navigators and it undoubtedly marked the beginning of a new era coinciding with the English Renaissance and deeply associated with the Tudors.

            Another navigator, João Fernandes Lavrador, who had discovered the South of Greenland and the Labrador (a region on the West Coast of today’s Canada) in 1498 on behalf of Portugal, then came to England to sail for Henry VII and he disappeared at sea in 1501. This shows the impact of Cabot’s discovery which motivated Fernandes’ trip to the North West and the new influence of English navigation which attracts sailors from different European countries. There really was a huge demand for funding among explorers of the time.


           England and Spain went close to being governed by one monarch but in spite of Mary Tudor’s marriage with Philip of Spain, England did not benefit from the colonies in the New World whose riches the Spanish would never share. Mary thus tried to revive the British economy by opening new ports outside Europe.

            Half a century after Cabot’s discoveries, exploration has made little progress but in 1555 Sebastian Cabot, son of John Cabot, founded the Muscovy Company to reinforce trade between England and Russia and open a road to China by the North-East. And so, in the middle of the 16th century, England turned to Russia and navigators were sent to find a safe passage through the northernmost seas of Europe.  In 1551, Anthony Jenkinson explored the Russian rivers searching for a path to China and he reached Central Asia which led to a trade treaty with the Persian Empire in 1561. Others, like Stephen Burrough in 1556, attempted a voyage to China by going around Russia but the operation was too difficult and too costly. Trade with Russia, however, kept growing more important and benefited from a monopoly in the exchanges between the two countries until 1698.

            As for the Atlantic, the situation quickly worsened for the British since the union of the crowns of Portugal and Spain in 1580, which gave the Spanish an absolute, unopposed supremacy over the trade with the whole world and particularly the Indies. This led to a new policy focused on settlement in North America which was greatly supported by Queen Elizabeth in her will to challenge the Spanish authority and making England the naval power her father wanted to achieve. It is first attempted by Humphrey Gilbert in 1583 on Newfoundland but it fails because of a poorly chosen site. His half brother, Sir Walter Raleigh, a landlord in Ireland recently knighted by the Queen took up where Gilbert left. He was more successful though not much wealth erupted from the settlement. What he founded in Virginia (named after the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth) was short-lived but it had a greater impact than expected. Soon after, new settlers came and Virginia (which included the East coast of the current United States from North Carolina to Maine) became a permanent English settlement, the origins of the Thirteen Colonies. In 1594, he embarked on another trip to find great riches that had been reported in South America with promises of gold more than any could dream of. He did not find anything of such value but came back with an exaggerated account of what he had discovered and the book he published when he returned, The Discovery of Guiana, is thought to be one of the major sources of the “El Dorado” myth.

            Raleigh had a large influence although his career as a navigator produced small immediate results. His knowledge of navigation and the wise choice in the site of the first Virginian settlement were indeed worthy of praise and paved the way of future exploration and colonisation.


           Queen Elizabeth knew that the colonies in North America would be an area of tension with Spain and this is why Raleigh aimed at the latitude of the 37th parallel north, far enough from the Spanish colonies. But if a land conflict was avoided, the same cannot be said of a naval conflict. The two naval powers[2] could not coexist around the same continent and soon tensions appeared. The British raids on Spanish colonies in the New World and the Philippines were one of the reasons for the attack led by the Spanish Armada in 1588. This was a change in the role of navigators; they were used as a part of warfare for the first time.

            Sir Francis Drake was the navigator that most represents the opposition with the crown of Spain, attacking Spanish ships as early as 1568. He and his cousin, John Hawkins, were involved in the slave trade, selling African natives to the Spanish in the New World. This was risky as the Spanish were not allowed to trade with foreigners: their fleet was attacked by a Spanish squadron that sank all but two ships of their expedition in 1568. Between 1570 and 1572, Drake made several voyages to the Caribbean raiding and trading with. Returning to England with captured Spanish treasures and building himself a great reputation. In 1577, Drake was put in charge of attacking the Spanish colonies on the American Pacific Coast. He left from Plymouth in 1577 with five ships but by the time he had reached the Pacific Ocean only one was left, the Golden Hind. Drake intended to return by the North West Passage but he was unable to find the passage and so he decided to return home westward across the Pacific and Indian Oceans and thus became the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe. He arrived back in England in 1581 loaded with treasures and spices and Queen Elizabeth knighted him for his courage and outstanding successes as a privateer. His formidable trip across the world provided essential information on navigation since he stopped in many different places to resupply: Point Loma (in San Diego today) where he even left a few men to form a very small colony whereas the area was claimed by Spain, in the Moluccas, India, the Africa Horn, Sierra Leone, etc… Some of the knowledge he gathered and carefully wrote down was already known by the Spanish and Portuguese but his own expedition closed the gap between England and the Iberians. During the war with Spain Drake attacked Cadiz and destroyed many ships the Spanish were going to use for their Armada against England. Drake also raided cities along the coast of Spain and Portugal destroying shipbuilding materials and other supplies that were dearly missed when the Spanish attack came. He was a Vice Admiral in charge of a squadron during the battle in 1588. His ship was the Revenge, one of the new designs that his cousin, John Hawkins, had helped introduce into the navy. They both died of disease after a failed attack in the West Indies in 1596.

Francis Drake

            Elizabeth’s refusal to marry Philip and her support for the independence of the Dutch Republic were the main causes of the war with Spain but the role played by the colonies cannot be neglected. Spain[3] nearly had the European monopoly on direct trade with the rest of the world (the Ottomans still were the main go-between for Europe-Asian exchanges) and Philip was the head of “an empire on which the sun never set”[4]. So when the small country that was England began to take its share of the world, Philip thought his fleet would easily crush the English ambitions. However the sudden sinking of the Spanish Armada marked an end to the undisputed supremacy of Spain in the Atlantic Ocean. This was a big victory for the new British colonies which got rid of the enemy warships roaming the ocean and making the voyage from Europe to America[5] dangerous.


            To conclude, the reign of the Tudors clearly marks a new era for England. The country enters the colonial race at a very fast pace and establishes itself as the first naval power in the world when the Spanish Armada sinks. In terms of discovery the impact is very important: Newfoundland is soon a fishing area where European ships swarm, Virginia becomes a large colony in the following century and constitutes the basis of what the United States of America are today, and Drake’s circumnavigation sets the basis for future English exploration and colonisation. This is the birth of the British Empire. It is also reflected in the English culture, these great seamen are the origin of the close association between England and the control of the seas. It could be argued that the insularity of Great Britain is the reason for that but Drake’s (and others such as Cavendish who circumnavigated the world just five years after Drake) prowess definitely played a role as well.



The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition articles on:

– John Cabot

– Sebastian Cabot

– Sir Francis Drake

– Sir Walter Raleigh

Pierre CHAUNU, Conquête et exploitation des nouveaux mondes

Rebecca FISHKIN, English colonies in America

Journal de la société des Américanistes, n°55, 1966

[1] « Etat présent des études sur la redécouverte de l’Amérique au XVème siècle » in Journal de la Société des Américanistes, 55, 1966, p345

[2] Since Henry VIII, England was quickly becoming a great naval power. At the end of his reign in 1547, he had brought the number of warships in the royal navy from 5 to more than 40

[3] Spain then included Portugal since the two crowns had been joined in 1580

[4] The phrase originated with a remark made by Fray Francisco de Ugalde to Charles V, who as emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and king of Spain had an enormous empire, which included many territories in Europe and vast territories in the Americas. The phrase gained added resonance during the reign of Charles’s son, Philip: the Philippines were obtained by Spain in 1565, and when Henry of Portugal died, Philip II was recognised King of Portugal in 1581. He now reigned over all his father’s possessions (except the Holy Roman Empire) and the Portuguese Empire, which included territories in South America, Africa, Asia and islands in the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific oceans.

[5] Crossing the Atlantic Ocean from Europe to America implied to travel far south (in Spanish infested seas) to enjoy good winds whereas the fastest way to return was to travel straight eastward from Virginia to England, along the 37th parallel or further north.


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