Compton Castle, Sir Humphrey Gilbert and the Beginnings of the British Empire

Compton Castle, Sir Humphrey Gilbert and the Beginnings of the British Empire

Lying in the South Hams countryside, just 5 miles or so from the centre of Torquay, is Compton Castle. It’s really a fortified manor house rather than a castle, and as impressive as this 14th century National Trust (NT) property is, it’s the association with the Gilbert family that really makes it interesting.

Compton Castle was originally built as a family home by Geoffrey Gilbert, the mayor of Totnes, when he married Joan de Compton in 1329, but the family’s most illustrious owner was the old Elizabethan seadog Sir Humphrey Gilbert.

Humphrey was born sometime around 1539 and was brought up at nearby Greenway on the banks of the River Dart where the Gilberts had another family seat. The original Tudor house that his father built there was replaced in the 18th century, and later used as a holiday home by Agatha Christie. Greenway is now also in the care of the National Trust.

Greenway House

After Humphrey’s father died, his mother, Catherine (née Champernowne), married again and gave birth to another famous old seadog, Sir Walter Raleigh. Both men joined up with other local seafarers, including their cousin Sir Richard Grenville, John Hawkins and Sir Francis Drake to form the West Country Men, a group of influential people from Devon who became involved in the early days of English colonization.

It was the Spanish and Portuguese however, who were the first European settlers to colonize new found territories. By the end of the 15th century, people like Christopher Columbus and others were discovering places across the other side of the Atlantic during a period known as the Age of Discovery.

To counter their success, Henry VII of England commissioned the Italian seafarer John Cabot to find a quicker route across the North Atlantic to Cathay (China). Oriental silks and spices were highly sought after in England at the time and wealthy people would pay merchants handsomely for these desirable commodities.

Cabot set sail from Bristol in 1497, and thinking that he had reached the Far East, had actually landed at a place that we now call Newfoundland. The following year he made another attempt to find a route to China through North America but was never heard of again, and Newfoundland was never claimed as English territory for the crown – not until, that is, Humphrey Gilbert re-discovered it in 1583.

John Cabot

Humphrey Gilbert’s life leading up to the annexation of Newfoundland wasn’t, if you’ll excuse the pun, all plain sailing, but it started off well enough. His privileged background allowed him a good education at Eton College and the University of Oxford where he studied navigation and military science.

In 1566 he proposed to Queen Elizabeth I, not for her hand in marriage, but to allow him to search for a Northwest Passage to the Far East. She declined his offer and packed him off to Ireland to help in the Plantation of English protestants instead. Whether helping to colonize Ireland for the English was on his list of ambitions I couldn’t say, but he was rewarded with a knighthood for his contribution by Her Majesty anyway.

He was also rewarded in June 1568 with letters patent, granting him a six-year charter to settle “heathen lands not actually possessed of any Christian prince or people” – in other words anywhere that hadn’t already been settled by other Europeans.

Crossing the Atlantic to North America became Gilbert’s main objective, not just because he still hoped to find the Northwest passage, but also because there was territory that could be colonised along the way: Not only that, there was also the added bonus of relieving any Spanish ships of their valuable treasures, should they ‘inadvertently’ cross his path.

Sir Humphrey Gilbert (Wikipedia)

In September, thanks to some wealthy acquaintances, Gilbert gathered together a fleet of ten ships at Dartmouth and set off for the New World, but it wasn’t long before his plans faltered.

With a crew largely made up of pirates who were given the choice of either facing the noose or sailing with Gilbert, it was pretty obvious I would have thought, that his men would be more interested in heading for the Caribbean where there was a good chance that they might bump into some lucrative Spanish ships, rather than heading for the icy waters of the North Atlantic; and sure enough one of them, Henry Knollys, with the backing of a good number of other sailors/pirates, challenged Gilbert’s authority, and the fleet had to turn back to Plymouth. Not a great start you might say.

Back in Plymouth, Knollys took three of the ships, some of the crew members and started a voyage of his own. Meanwhile, the remaining seven ships decide to make another attempt and left Plymouth on November 19th, but by the time they reached Land’s End things started to go wrong again. First of all, they got lost in the fog, and then they had to pull into Cork Harbour for repairs. What happened during the next five months nobody really knows for sure, but by April 1579 they were back in Dartmouth. The Falcon, led by Sir Walter Raleigh, was known to reach the Canary Islands but, apart from the Red Lyon which was lost in a storm, what else happened can only be guessed at. Some accounts suggest that Gilbert was engaged in piracy, which wouldn’t be at all surprising considering that all he’s managed to achieve on his expeditions up to now is to lose a lot of money – both his own and other people’s – and why he thought it was a good idea to set off for the North Atlantic at the onset of winter I have no idea.

Statue of Sir Walter Raleigh in his home village of East Budleigh in Devon

Good Queen Bess, unsurprisingly, was beginning to question his ability as a serious explorer by now, but in March 1583 she relented and gave him another chance to redeem himself. On June 11th he took five ships and 260 men out of Plymouth and headed directly for Newfoundland, but even this caused problems with his motley crew who disagreed with him on the route he should take.

In the end he decided against the southern route which would have provided better weather, and instead took the northern route which was quicker. Right from the start they hit storms, and the crew who were better drinkers than sailors, were turning green before they got anywhere. Sir Walter Raleigh sensed that this was another impending disaster and returned to Plymouth.

On August 3rd, after six weeks at sea, they finally reached Newfoundland at the place we now call St. John’s. He encountered some resistance, not by natives, but by a fishing fleet who blockaded the port under an English port admiral. Two days later, on August 5th 1583, after waving the relevant paperwork from Queen Elizabeth under the admiral’s nose, Gilbert was able to claim the territory on behalf of the English monarch.

Humphrey Gilbert claiming Newfoundland for Queen Elizabeth (Encyclopaedia Britannica)

Before leaving Newfoundland, Gilbert dispatched the sick, deserters and pirates back home on the Swallow, leaving three ships out of the five that originally set out from Plymouth – his flagship, the Delight, the Golden Hind and the small 10-ton frigate Squirrel.

For some reason, and best known to himself, he left St. John’s in the Squirrel instead of the Delight, which at the time turned out to be one of his better decisions. Coming from a rather distinguished family, Gilbert had never quite learnt the art of listening to other people’s advice, and when some of the more experienced sailors warned him not to change course, he totally ignored them, with the result that the Delight ran aground on the sand bars of Sable Island and sank: 85 of the 101 men aboard drowned and virtually all the fleet’s provisions also went with it.

With just two small ships in the fleet left, it was decided to head straight back home, and although the captain of the Golden Hind tried to persuade Gilbert to come aboard the more seaworthy of the two ships, he declined and stayed on board the Squirrel.

On approaching the Azores, they encountered some extremely high seas and the Squirrel was becoming overwhelmed. As the two vessels got closer to each other, the crew of the Golden Hind could see Gilbert reading a book, and then he raised his hand to the sky and shouted “We are as near to heaven by sea as by land”. Not long afterwards the Squirrel was swallowed up and dispatched to the bottom of Davy Jones’ Locker, and Sir Humphrey Gilbert was never seen again.

The last moments of Sir Humphrey Gilbert (Wikiwand)

Humphrey Gilbert was quite a complex man. He obviously had an appetite for adventure and exploration, but he was also an intellectual individual who enjoyed reading and writing books. According to those who have studied him more than I have, he seemed to have a split personality. He could be compassionate one minute, and as he showed in Ireland, cruel the next. Even those who looked up to him didn’t always trust him, but for all his faults, he was the first Englishman to officially colonize a foreign land, and for that one achievement, he has been recognized ever since as the Founder of the British Empire.

The family’s ambition of “peopling America with Englishmen” didn’t end with the death of Humphrey. The exploits of Sir Walter Raleigh and other members of the family continued to forge links with the New World for many years to come.

As for Compton Castle, the family continued to live here until 1785 when it was sold to James Templar of Stover. In 1931 it was bought back again by Commander Walter Raleigh Gilbert, and twenty years later, after a good deal of restoration, gave it to the NT on condition that the family could still live here, and today the property is administered on behalf of the National Trust by Geoffrey Gilbert who still resides at the castle with his wife Angela.

It’s good to see the family connection with Compton still surviving of course, but the downside for visitors is that not all the rooms are on view to the public, and consequently photography isn’t permitted inside the castle either. The one exception is the Old Kitchen which was constructed outside of the main building to prevent any fire spreading to the living quarters.

The Old Kitchen
Fireplace in the Old Kitchen

Humphrey Gilbert may not have been the first non-indigenous person to set foot on Newfoundland, but there is still a strong bond between Compton and the Canadian province. At the same time I can’t help wondering how many people in both countries are aware that the roots of the largest empire in history began at this family home in the Devon countryside.



16 thoughts on “Compton Castle, Sir Humphrey Gilbert and the Beginnings of the British Empire

  1. Toonsarah

    Great post Malcolm, with your usual accessible style of retelling history and focusing on the most interesting of characters. Sir Humphrey Gilbert doesn’t come across as the most competent seaman in our long maritime history but I guess he managed to achieve an ambition before meeting that self-inflicted untimely end!

    1. Easymalc Post author

      Thanks Sarah. History is sometimes glorified and sometimes vilified but it’s rarely boring, or at least not to me it isn’t

        1. Easymalc Post author

          I should never try to communicate after a glass or two 🙂 History can’t be erased though whatever some people might want. Mind you, we don’t really know what was true and what wasn’t either sometimes.

  2. Alli Templeton

    What a cracking post, Malc! Fantastic stories and connections with the castle and Canada, and a good handful of pirates thrown in for good measure. Poor old Gilbert was a bit hapless, wasn’t he? But at least he did bag one big achievement, and he seems to be one of those characters that demonstrates exactly why I love history so much. I’ll show this to Maddie as I know she’ll love it too. 🙂 Great photos of the rooms you were able to photograph, and of the outside. Another gem from your neck of the woods. 🙂

    1. Easymalc Post author

      I’m so pleased that you enjoyed this post Alli. I would have dearly liked to have expanded on where this all led to, but I resisted the temptation. Hope you and everyone are keeping well 🙂

      1. Alli Templeton

        ‘Twas a great read, as always, Malc. We’re ok, plodding on as always. Sent an email the other day to catch up so all the news in there. Take care and keep posting these great stories. 🙂

        1. Easymalc Post author

          Thanks for the email and your kind words again Alli. I always appreciate them. You take care too.

  3. Francisco Bravo Cabrera

    A most interesting history, it helped me learn many things I did not know. And of course the photographs are splendid. I am saving your articles Malc, they make a great history text of Britain. Thank you 🙏🏻 Take good care and all the best. Good night my friend.

    1. Easymalc Post author

      Thanks so much Francesc. That’s a smashing comment to make. Hope you slept well and looking forward to a lazy Sunday 🙂


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