The Golden Fool: a Swashbuckling Elizabethan Debacle

Portrait via Wikipedia

Portrait via Wikipedia

Lapworth Museum, Birmingham. You know, rocks n’ stuff. Geology. Part of Birmingham University’s great academic empire.

And  a tinder box of stories, all waiting to be told.

Mainly because rocks come from the strangest places, and man has to go there and undertake weird and wonderful experiences to get them.

Take the man who started the whole Lapworth collection off with a piece of amphibolite, way back in the 1570s. Sir Martin Frobisher was a typical Elizabethan explorer-type. He went to tea at Windsor Castle with the queen. More than once.

A ground-breaker, he was, obsessed with the North West  Passage and its navigation; a great warrior of the English navy during the Spanish Armada, and remembered as such on a plaque at St Martin’s-Without-Cripplegate. He sleeps there with John Milton, and Nathaniel Eaton, the first master at Harvard.

His plaque, as snapped by reads as follows:


Interestingly- or perhaps inevitably –  it makes absolutely no mention whatsoever of the gold.

One doesn’t want affairs like that cluttering up a nice shiny reputation.

No indeed.

His is a strange CV. He was born in Yorkshire in 1535 and brought up in London by a relative, but by the age of nine he was at sea. At 19, he was captured by the Portugese and imprisoned; but he emerged a trader in Morocco some years later. Whether the staid life of a merchant suited him I cannot say, for it is said he became a pirate, operating out of an Irish port.

Whatever his background, by his mid twenties he was deep in a plot to find a trade route along the North West Passage to China.

It took him five years to get the funding, and finally he managed to acquire the  backing of the Muscovy Company.

He took three ships with him. Only one made it to the place where the ice starts. Martin named it Frobisher Bay, and Frobisher Bay it remains, though whether the local Inuit call it that I do not know, for they disagreed with Sir Martin so vehemently that he was compelled to run back to London.

But not without a big black rock, picked up on Hall’s Island. Which looked, on close examination, to contain gold.

Four experts they asked, when they got back to London. Only one said this might be gold; but it was enough to hook the English. The queen sold a ship to raise £1000 for the journey. Frobisher was to be High Admiral of all lands and waters he discovered.

He went back to Hall Island. he didn’t get much exploring done; rather, 200 tonnes of ‘ore’ were mined and piled into ships to bring back.

They returned in 1577. By June 1578 they were back at sea, this time with a fleet of 15 ships. They returned with huge amounts of ‘ore’ in  August 1578.

They were welcomed home and the ore taken to a specially constructed smelting plant at Powder Mill Lane in Dartford, on the Thames.

But alas: it was not until now that they looked closely at what they had brought back.

It was found to be iron pyrite. Tons and tons of fools gold, brought back from the New World.

Eventually the whole lot was used for metalling roads.

How does one rise from a debacle like this? How could one ever hold one’s head up in the queen’s presence again?

Yet Sir Martin did. And he is well remembered for his valiant work defending her Majesty at sea to this day.


37 thoughts on “The Golden Fool: a Swashbuckling Elizabethan Debacle

    1. Well, how about that! If he started thanksgiving, his trips were in no way in vain. I was surprised how very little time it took him to get across the ocean.
      I wonder if they did coloured ruffs?

  1. Who knows what a discovery will mean? It might not have worked out – financially – for Sir Martin Frobisher, but you never know. It’s always a roll of the dice.

    U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward also was ridiculed when we bought Alaska for $7-million from the Russians. It was called “Seward’s folly.” He must have had the last laugh. The discovery of gold in Alaska was a real boon for America.

    1. It is hard to think of Alaska as anything but American, Judy. Extremely good point. You win some, you lose some. And maybe even today there are roads out there with some of the gold still underpinning them. It’s an ill wind…

  2. Imagine what a debacle this would have been had there been social networking or global news. Oh the mockery if this had happened today, in an era when no one can make a judgement error and survive!

      1. This is true, Sidey. I know politicians here with similar talents. I expect you can identify a few there, too. One of my most hated and despised Tory bigwigs of the Thatcher/Major – once tipped to be a favourite for PM – has turned into Britain’s best loved cuddly railway aficionado, presenting ‘Great British Railway Journeys.’ I spend my time huffing and puffing with indignation that he is there. Yet, the television remains on.

  3. I remember Frobisher from forays into Hakluyt and, I think I’ve got this right, Charles Kingsley’s Westward Ho! — a fascinating character though I’d not recalled this fool’s gold episode: what an oversight on everyone’s part!

  4. Portillo is OK — just — on his railway journeys but insufferably smug, especially as a pundit on TV or radio’s The Moral Maze (which has me shouting in rage as much as the Today programme, until I switch to Radio 3 for soothing consolation). I too wonder if Frobisher was as insufferable…

  5. How fascinating Kate, I never knew that about him. REad about his exploits with Drake fighting the armada, what brave sailors they were in those days, how proud their descendants must be of them

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