Sir Humphrey Gilbert

*Please note that all of the following information has been taken from online sources which are listed at the end of the blog.*

We are as near to heaven by sea as by land

 -Sir Humphrey Gilbert

humphreygilbert227Portrait of Sir Humphrey Gilbert


           Sir Humphrey Gilbert was a famous English explorer, soldier and colonizer whom lived during the reign of Elizabeth I. He was born in Compton, Devonshire, England in 1539 and was the son of Otho Gilbert and Catherine Champernowne. He was the second oldest of four children. He had three siblings, John, Adrian and Elizabeth. Sadly, his father died when they were all young adolescents in 1547. His mother then remarried to a man named Walter Raleigh whom she had three other children with. His family therefore grew even bigger with three other half siblings, Walter, Carew and Margaret making the family a total of nine members.

          Unfortunately, when Gilbert and his crew were on their way back to England from the Americas their ship sank and Gilbert and his follow crew men drowned at sea on September 9th , 1583. He was only 41 years old. His body was never found and neither was the bodies of his follow crew men. Hundreds of lives were sadly lost that day.

          In 1570, Sir Humphrey Gilbert married the love of his life Anne Aucker, whose father and grandfather were soldiers who fought in the to defend  with whom he proudly had two sons, John and Raleigh Gilbert.

Sir Humphrey Gilbert’s Family Tree


Sir Humphrey Gilbert and Sir Walter Raleigh’s Relationship

       Sir Humphrey Gilbert and Sir Walter Raleigh were half-brothers and according to stories they were actually quite close unlike most families in those days. They did not have a need to compete or betray one another for rank or power due to the fact that they were both very independent in their careers and they also relied on each other. According to records, they helped each other out and supported each other whenever one was in need. Raleigh looked up to his older half-brother Gilbert and loved spending time with him. They had spent a lot of time together and even had many adventures together when they fought side by side in Ireland and when they went on may expeditions together. They were both very involved in each other’s lives. Raleigh read Gilbert’s paper “Queen Elizabeth’s Academy” when he was studying at the University Limehouse in which Gilbert helped establish and found the paper to be very intriguing which made him develop an interest in the court. Gilbert also inspired Raleigh and his other brothers to become soldiers and explorers as well. They found their older brother’s stories about his expeditions and experiences very interesting and decided to follow in his footsteps. Therefore, it is safe to say that Sir Walter Raleigh owes a lot of his fame and success to his influential older half-brother Sir Humphrey Gilbert; which may be why he took over many of Gilbert’s dreams and ideas about discovering other new lands after his death.

Some Facts About Gilbert’s Life

Sir Humphrey Gilbert’s Interests:

           Sir Humphrey Gilbert’s interest and curiosity for exploration started at an early age. Since he came from a family of explorers it is no wonder why he would develop an interest for it as well. He was very intrigued about the whole idea of traveling by sea and discovering new lands. It can be said that he spent many hours researching and developing theories on the different ways that new passageways could be discovered and used for travel as well as trading. It is said that he became obsessed with exploration as well as the opportunities of discovering new lands and colonizing them in the name of the Queen of England. During his time spent in France, he also became very interested in geography and in America after meeting André Thevet who was a French geographer that wrote two books on Brazil and who had been to the New World. His many goal however was to discover a Northwest Passage to Cataia.

          He was very intelligent and he was able to start his studies at Eton and Oxford University in 1558 due to the inheritance money he got from his father when his father passed away. During this time he serviced and spent some time in the household of Princess Elizabeth before she was crowned the Queen of England. She kept and cherished her friendship with Gilbert until his death.

       It is said that he was very intelligent, creative, brave and determined to the point where it can be called an obsession. Although, he was a very determined, brave and intelligent man he was seen as a little reckless, cruel to a certain degree and overly ambitious. He lived life without fear and loved putting himself in dangerous situations because it gave him great thrill. He was vain and loved making grand entrances.

Timeline of his life experiences:
  • Went on expedition with Earl of Warwick to France in 1562 where his interest America was developed
  • Severed with an English force at La Havre 1662-1563 where he was injured
  • Proposed and presented to Elizabeth I for permission to discover a passageway to Cataia in 1565
  • Same year 1565 he wrote “A Discourse of a Discoverie for a New Passage to Cataia”
  • Idea was turned down by the Queen and he was sent to fight the war in Ireland from 1567-1570
  • Knighted by Lord Deputy, Sir Henry Sidney in 1570 for his services in Ireland
  • Elected as a representative to Parliament for Plymouth in 1571
  • Helped establish and developed an institution in England in which higher learning was introduced with languages, sciences and applied mathematics exact date is unsure, said to be between 1572-1576
  • A Discourse of a Discoverie for a New Passage to Cataia” published in 1576
  • Finally received permission from Elizabeth I and the founds need for the voyage in 1578
  • First attempt to America 1578, failed due to tremendous storms
  • Second and last attempt to America 1583 and claimed Newfoundland in the name of the Queen


Sir Humphrey Gilbert’s Map of the Word

Two Anecdotes

An anecdote about Gilbert and Raleigh’s friendship/relationship:

          The relationship between Gilbert and Raleigh was a very interesting and strong one. As mentioned above, they were family half-brothers on their mother’s side to be exact and unlike many siblings of those days they had no need to compete or betray one another for any sort of rank or power. They were always there for each other and supported each other whenever one was in need. As Raleigh’s older brother, Gilbert played a very important role in his younger brother’s life. He inspired Raleigh to become a soldier and an explorer through his exciting and interesting stories about his expeditions and his experiences. Gilbert helped Raleigh develop an interest in the court through a paper he had wrote “Queen Elizabeth’s Academy” which Raleigh read while he was studying at University. Raleigh looked up to his older half-brother and loved spending time with him which is way they went on many expeditions together. They got into a lot of trouble together and they were involved in many altercations between the Privy Council which Raleigh got arrested a few times and put into jail. At one point they were both banned from sailing. Raleigh accompanied his older half-brother Gilbert on an expedition which was originally supposed to be an expedition to discover the Northwest Passage. However, on their way it ended up becoming an invasion on the Spanish ships to steal their supplies and treasures. Unfortunately, they were forced to retreat after the altercation with the Spaniards which caused them to lose a ship in the Atlantic during their attempt. Gilbert and Raleigh captain of the “Falcon” both turned their ships back. It is said that Raleigh accompanied Gilbert the following year in another attempt. Through his connections with the court, Raleigh helped his half-brother Gilbert get the money he needed for his expedition to America and even invested his own money and supplies as means of his support. Gilbert’s first failed attempt to the America’s in 1578 captured Raleigh’s interest in being involved in the exploration of America. Many years later, on Gilbert’s second attempt Raleigh decided to accompany his older half-brother on this expedition but little did they both know that it would be their last together.

An anecdote about Sir Humphrey Gilbert:

             In 1578, Sir Humphrey Gilbert was finally given permission from Elizabeth I to go on an expedition to the northern part of America in order to claim land and establish an English colony in the name of the Queen Elizabeth I. He organized and planned to set sail for America but unfortunately, the ships were unable to complete the expedition due to tremendously dangerous storms near the shores of England. They were forced to turn back but despite this failed attempt Sir Humphrey Gilbert did not give up hope on this expedition. This failed attempt however, caught the interest of his younger half-brother Raleigh who decided to invest supplies and money in order to join in on the adventure. In 1582, Raleigh who had connections with the court and Elizabeth I, was able to get Gilbert enough money for his second attempt expedition to America in which he accompanied him in. In 1583, Sir Humphrey Gilbert was ready to set out for sail to America with five ships of 260 men aboard.  Both, Gilbert and Raleigh were forbidden by Elizabeth I to go on the expedition due to the fact that she was worried about their well-being. However, they ignored her command and the five ships set sail off of Plymouth. Gilbert sailed aboard the “Delight” as admiral and Raleigh was captain of the “Barke”. Unfortunately, Raleigh was forced to turn his ship back to England due to the fact that many of his crew men became very ill. The rest of the ships including Gilbert’s reached St. John’s, Newfoundland where once he set foot on the land he claimed it in the name of the Queen of England. The land was promising however, the harsh weather that Newfoundland offered made them want to search for a better area to establish a colony. During their search for better lands the “Delight” was destroyed by the rocks and sunk with all their supplies they needed for the colony along with many men who died. Therefore, Gilbert decided and insisted on taking the much smaller, weaker and poorer conditioned ship the “Squirrel” in order to be able to sail through the narrow waters along the islands to search for a better place to establish a colony. However, since the “Delight” had been destroyed and all their supplies were lost, they did not have enough supplies to last them through the winter which forced them to head back to England to retrieve more supplies. Gilbert planned to return the following spring but unfortunately his ship sank on the way back to England and he drowned along with his crew and was never seen again. His last words were yelled to the other two ships who tried to save him and the crew but could not because of the dangerous waves. He said, “We are as near to heaven by sea as by land” and was never seen again. The Golden Hind was the only ship that survived and completed the voyage. Sir Humphrey Gilbert became known for his attempt to claim land and establish a colony in Newfoundland in the name of England.

Sir Humphrey Gilbert cutting the soil in Newfoundland for the first time.


An Establishment Plaque in St. John’s Newfoundland


Description of Sir Humphrey Gilbert’s Costume

         Unlike his half-brother Raleigh, Gilbert hardly has any portraits of himself. In general there are only two actual original portraits of him, the rest are done later on and most of them are drawings. The full body ones that can be found are also very limited and again are done years later and are drawn. Therefore, in order to properly describe his costume these two drawings will be used to discuss in detail what he wore during that era.

        In the images below it can be seen that Sir Humphrey Gilbert is wearing a silhouette which is small and narrow at the upper torso but voluminousness at the lower. This was the silhouette  that was in fashion in that time. This silhouette was the reverse of the one under Henri VIII. In both images, he is wearing a jerkin which was made out of leather and was made very close fitting and sleeveless. It was often slashed however in the images he does not see to be wearing one with these slashes. As seen in the images he is wearing the jerkin over the doublet. It can be seen that the jerkin and the doublet helped formed a v-shape waist. On both the doublet and jerkin it can be seen that they are decorated along the edge of the doublet and the shoulder wings with peckadils which were small flaps or tabs. The collar seen in the images was very thick and covered his neck completely. In both images it shows that Sir Humphrey Gilbert was wearing melon breeches which were short pants. They were voluminous and padded that became huge Venetian breeches under James I.These breeches were often worn over tight-fitted hose hose as seen in the images and were often knitted or  canions which were knee-long tights.

Source taken from class notes.

NPG D20541; Sir Humphrey Gilbert by Robert Boissard



Drawings of Sir Humphrey Gilbert

Blog by: Lisa Rossi
Sources of images in order of appearance:

Sources of information:


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