Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Thorne, Robert
THORNE, ROBERT (d. 1527), merchant and geographical writer, was the son of Nicholas Thorne. Nicholas was apparently associated with Hugh Elliott and other members of an Anglo-Portuguese syndicate to which Henry VII granted letters patent (1502) for exploration in the north-west. Robert Thorne, in a letter to Edward Lee [q. v.], states that Nicholas sailed with Elliott (i.e. in 1503), but that the venture came to grief through mutinous behaviour on the part of the sailors.
Robert may be identical with a man of that name appointed on 13 May 1510 to act with the mayor and thirteen others as commissioners for the office of admiral of England in Bristol (Brewer, Letters and Papers of Henry VIII, vol. i. No. 1050). For a long time Thorne was resident in Seville, where he took charge of his family's mercantile business. He is best known from the two letters addressed by him in 1527 to Henry VIII and to Edward Lee, then English ambassador in Spain. These letters were written in Seville. They were accompanied by a map, afterwards incorporated in Hakluyt's 'Divers Voyages' (1582), and their purpose was to urge the interests of exploration and trade upon his countrymen. This is well expressed in the titles prefixed by Hakluyt when he reprinted Thorne's letters in his 'Principal Navigations,' viz. 'An Information of the lands discovered and of the way to the Moluccas by the North,' and 'A declaration of the Indies and Lands discovered and subdued unto the Emperor and the King of Portugal, and of other lands of the Indies and rich countries still to be discovered, which the worshipful Master Robert Thorne, merchant, of London, who dwelt long in the city of Seville, exhorted King Henry VIII to take in hand.' Thorne especially advises Englishmen to find short cuts to the 'Indies' and 'spiceries' by the north-east or north-west, or even by sailing across the Pole. By any of these ways they will be able to reach the goal much sooner than Spaniards and Portuguese sailing by the south-east and south-west routes, by the Cape of Good Hope and Magellan's Straits. With the help of the rough map drawn by his own hand he tries to prove that the northern tracks still open to the English were 'nearer by almost two thousand leagues' than the southern, and that 'the land that we found' (viz. in the Cabot voyages of 1497 and 1498, and later journeys of British seamen to Newfoundland and adjacent coasts) 'is all one with the Indies.' He dismisses the fears of northern cold and ice as no more substantial than the older terrors of unbearable heat at the tropics. For more than a century after Thorne his theories remained in force, and his countrymen still hoped to find their way to Cathay and India round Northern Asia or Northern America. John Rut's voyage in 1527 to the north-west, and the journey of Chancellor and Willoughby in 1553 to the north-east, which opened our trade with Russia, were both immediate outcomes of this appeal and of others of like character. Hudson in 1607 boldly essayed the direct polar route, also suggested by Thorne.
When writing direct to the king, Thorne especially recommends the north-east venture, and offers, if supplied with a small number of ships, to go in person and discover new lands in the northern parts. Thorne's firm contributed fourteen hundred ducats to the Spanish voyage of 1526 under Sebastian Cabot, and Thorne himself sent two of his friends, Roger Barlow and Henry Latimer, with Cabot when the expedition started, and Barlow returned from the La Plata in 1526, apparently with a poor account of the progress of the expedition; for the merchant syndicate at Seville, in which Thorne was prominent, refused to subscribe any more.
Thorne died at Seville in 1527, very soon after the despatch of his letters to Lee and Henry VIII. An epitaph, composed for his monument in the Temple Church, London, is printed by Hakluyt. His letters are preserved in manuscript in the British Museum (Cotton MSS., Vitellius C. vii. ff. 329–43). The letter to the king is fragmentary. They are both printed in Hakluyt's 'Principal Navigations,' 1598-1600, i. 212-19, &c. Another mutilated manuscript copy of the time of Elizabeth also exists. Two letters addressed by Thorne to Lord Lisle 'in Suberton' are preserved in the Public Record Office (No. 2814, arts. 3, 4). An inventoryof his goods to the amount of 16,935l., taken at the time of his death, is also in the Record Office (No. 2814, art. 5).[Thorne's Letters; Lee to Wolsey, 15 April 1526, in Brewer's Letters and Papers of Henry VIII, 1255-6, iv. 940. See also Hakluyt's Principal Navig. 1598-1600, iii. 726, and references in text.]