Elizabeth’s Age of Exploration

Between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries, kingdoms throughout Europe sponsored voyages to find new lands and faster trade routes. Spain and Portugal dominated exploration during during much of this period. In England, there was no significant progress in exploration during the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Mary. It was only with the efforts of Elizabeth I that England became a new major player of exploration. While Elizabeth sponsored voyages, it was in fact Henry VIII’s naval reforms that launched the beginning of Elizabethan exploration.

Henry VIII improved and modernized the Royal Navy enough to protect England from intruders and war, especially after he broke away from the Catholic Church. His father, Henry VII, left him with six ships, and by 1515, he had a total of 24 ships. He upgraded the artillery and weaponry as it became readily available. He believed that by strengthening the Royal Navy, England would be recognized as a “worthwhile ally to the Hapsburg Empire.”[1] A portion of Tudor foreign policy had been focused on neutrality, including Spain and France as allies, because England both lacked the power to fight either state and was in close proximity to both. After the Reformation began, this policy failed. In December 1538, Henry VIII was excommunicated from the Church, which weakened any alliance he had, and made him vulnerable to attacks from European Catholic states.[2] Taking this threat seriously, he ordered the modernization of all coastal defenses on the south coast of England. In 1543, he planned an attack on France, wanting to acquire Boulogne, and in September 1544, Boulogne surrendered to the English. In 1545, France invaded English waters, battling with England and eventually repossessing Boulogne. This battle showed the Royal Navy’s dominance and how Henry managed to transform six ships into a fleet of over 100 ships. Henry’s naval reforms eventually gave Elizabeth I an advantage.

During the reigns of Edward VI and Mary, very little was done to improve the navy. However, Edward had the great Gillingham (Chatham) yard built, which helped to alleviate the limited anchorage space.[3] The yard was closer to the center of government and the merchants supplying stores. Under Elizabeth I, the navy was restored and modernized after Edward and Mary neglected it. The weaponry was updated and improved. There were new shipbuilding techniques, and the number of ships significantly increased. One of the new shipbuilding techniques came from Matthew Baker, the son of James Baker, Henry VIII’s Master Shipwright, who published a formula, called Baker’s Formula, that “was necessary as a new method of building warships by contract [that] had been started.”[4] This formula would find the exact measurement of tonnage, which was advantageous to the Royal Navy. Baker’s Formula would allow for English galleons, or armed merchant ships, and warships to travel quickly because of the small storage space. The technique was not beneficial for long distance travel and for merchants because of the limited space. However, Elizabeth I’s ships were not designed for “long-range cruising” but rather used as a defensive force. These ships were “better fitted for predatory warfare than for peaceful trade; for stealing the products of other people’s colonial empires, rather than developing one themselves.”[5] These newly designed ships were favored among English privateers, men who stole from enemy merchant ships while protected under the crown, because of the swiftness and defensiveness. The improved ships made the art of privateering easier.

Spain had dominated the art of shipbuilding, the navy, and exploration. England had only just become a leading figure in the navy because of its importance in protecting England’s coast. Elizabeth I began supporting voyages and expeditions. Some of the first so-called “voyages” were privateering, the act of looting enemy merchant ships. Men who privateered were given licenses by the English crown. While pirating is considered synonymous with privateering, there is a major difference. Pirates kept whatever treasures they stole from ships. Privateers were both sponsored by the crown brought the crown wealth. Whatever the privateers managed to find on enemy ships, a portion would be given to the crown. At first, Elizabeth viewed privateering as more important than colonizing because of the usually guaranteed wealth. It was not uncommon for English privateers to focus all of their energy on looting Spanish ships. Spanish ships were easily accessible due to an abundance because Spain was one of the few states that dominated trade. Elizabeth’s privateers were known as Sea Dogs, one of whom was John Hawkins.[6] In 1570, he developed a breakthrough design that would produce a significant number of lightweight, fast, and maneuverable ships, impacting the Elizabethan Royal Navy.[7] All newly built ships followed his design, and rebuilds conformed as much as possible to this design. Even before the development of new techniques for shipbuilding, English explorers have managed to navigate the world. Certainly, later explorers benefited from the modernized ships.

Elizabeth I’s reign marked the beginning of the Age of Exploration for England. One of the primary reasons for exploration was a high demand for spices, the original method of acquiring spices being very expensive. One of the most successful, and rather famous, English explorer was Sir Francis Drake. In 1572, Elizabeth commissioned him to sail for the Americas. He sailed to present-day South America and Panama, raided Nombre de Dios, Panama, and returned to England with stolen Spanish gold and goods. In 1577, Elizabeth selected him to command the expedition that was to circumnavigate the globe.[8] Circumnavigation showed both the strength of the seamen and the ships. He was the second person to circumnavigate the globe, the first being Ferdinand Magellan of Portugal. As a result of this expedition, Drake was knighted by the queen. In a separate expedition, Drake had hoped to take and hold Havana and use it as a permanent naval base for England, but that proved to be useless for England because it would be too expensive to maintain.[9] Sir John Hawkins was another important figure during the Age of Exploration. He was a privateer, and one of Elizabeth’s favorites. His major accomplishment was beginning England’s participation in the slave trade. In 1561, he made the first voyage to the West Indies, and a year later, he hijacked Portuguese slave ships and traded slaves in the Caribbean.[10] The slave trade was one of the most profitable trades in England. England’s limited voyages and expeditions was enough to show that England was successful.

England’s success in voyages came from Elizabeth’s use of resources and efforts. But, Henry VIII’s naval reforms were necessary for the growth of exploration and privateering under Elizabeth launched the beginning of the age of Elizabethan exploration. Elizabeth placed a great deal of importance among the privateers because of their great success due to the new shipbuilding techniques. The voyages that England did participate in proved to be worthwhile because of how profitable they had been. Elizabeth’s efforts, built upon the naval reforms of Henry VIII, showed that England could dominate the land and sea.

-Prena Lulgjuraj


[1] Arthur Nelson, The Tudor Navy: The Ships, Men and Organisation 1485-1603, London: Conway Maritime Press, 2001, 42.

[2] C. N. Truman, “Henry VIII and Foreign Policy – History Learning Site,” History Learning Site, 17 March 2015, Web, 21 November 2015.

[3] Mark D. Meyers, “The Evolution of Hull Design in Sixteenth-Century English Ships-of-War,” (master’s thesis, Graduate College of Texas A&M University, 1987), 77-8.

[4] Nelson, 87.

[5] N. A. M. Rodger, The Safeguard of the Sea: A Naval History of Britain, 660-1649, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998, 218.

[6] Cindy Vallar, “Privateers an Introduction,” Privateers an Introduction, 2003, Web, 20 November 2015, <http://www.cindyvallar.com/privateers.html>.

[7] Nelson, 100.

[8] Linda Alchin, “Sir Francis Drake,” Sir Francis Drake, Web, 21 November 2015, <http://www.elizabethan-era.org.uk/sir-francis-drake.htm>.

[9] Rodger, 250.

[10] Alchin, “Sir John Hawkins,” Sir John Hawkins, Web, 21 November 2015, < http://www.elizabethan-era.org.uk/sir-john-hawkins.htm>.

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