Fenton, Edward (d.1603) (DNB00)

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FENTON, EDWARD (d. 1603), captain and navigator, was son of Henry Fenton of Fenton, in the parish of Sturton (formerly Stretton-le-Steeple), Nottinghamshire, and of Cecily, daughter of John Beaumont of Coleorton, Leicestershire. Like his brother, Sir Geoffrey Fenton [q. v.], he sold his hereditary patrimony, preferring the life of a soldier of fortune to the prospect of ending his days in the ignominious ease of his ancestral home.

Fenton's first public service was in Ireland, where he appears to have held a command under Sir Henry Sidney in the successful repression of the rebellion under Shane O'Neil in 1566. He next appears as the author of ‘Certaine Secrete wonders of Nature … Gathered out of diuers learned authors, as welle Greeke as Latine, sacred as prophane,’ London, 1569, 4to (see Arber, i. 382). Fenton's authorship of this curious work has been doubted (see Biog. Brit. 3, 1919), but it is dedicated to Fenton's early patron, Lord Lumley, and contains a reference to a work by his brother Geoffrey (fol. 67). It has hitherto escaped notice that it is nothing more than a translation, with a few additions and interpolations, of ‘Histoires prodigievses extraictes de plusieurs fameux auteurs “Grecs et Latins” sacrez et prophanes; mises en notre langue par Pierre Boaisteau surnommé Launay,’ Paris, 1567, 8vo (Brunet, i. 983). In May 1577 Fenton sailed in charge of the Gabriel in Sir Martin Frobisher's second voyage for the discovery of the north-west passage to Cathay and Meta Incognita. Fenton's share in this not overwise transaction appears to have been confined to marching the soldiery under his charge up the hills and down again upon the high lands on either side of Frobisher's Bay. Upon the return of the expedition to England in the autumn, we find Fenton writing to Walsingham from Bristol 25 Nov. 1577 respecting the ‘unladyn of the oore in the Ayd and Gabriell, and how manie toones of the sayd oore is in either of the sayd vessels.’ And ‘to have order for the dischardge of the mariners and unrigging the sayd vessels’ (State Papers, Dom. Eliz. cxviii. 40). On 2 Jan. 1578 he reported to the privy council from Mount Edgcumbe ‘what successe he hath had in trauelling to get owre in the West Countrie,’ i.e. Cornwall (ib. cxxix. 2). On 31 May following he sailed in the Judith as lieutenant-general and second in command in Frobisher's third voyage to Meta Incognita, which he reached on 21 July, ten days earlier than Frobisher; while waiting for his chief ‘he spent good time in searchyng for mine (i.e. ore), and discovered about tenne miles up in the countrey, where he perceyved neyther town, village, nor likelyhood of habitation’ (Hakluyt, 1600, iii. 85). On 30 Aug. we read: ‘On this daye the masons finished a house whiche Captaine Fenton caused to be made of lyme and stone upon the Countess of Warwick's (Kod-lu-aru) Island, to the ende we mighte prove against the next yere whether the snowe could ouerwhelm it, the frosts breake uppe, or the people dismẽber it’ (ib. p. 51). The fleet of thirteen sail arrived safely in England early in October 1578 with the loss of about forty men. English seamen never returned to Meta Incognita.

In the following year Fenton was employed in Ireland. Several letters of his are in the ‘State Papers,’ Irish series, 1574–85, pp. 192, 204, 219, 232. His employment in Ireland appears to have terminated in Dublin on or about 28 Sept. 1580 (ib. p. 256). It would appear, however, that on 10 June previous his brother James, who was captain of Berehaven, was murdered (ib. p. 307).

In April 1581 it was proposed to fit out eight ships and six pinnaces, under Sir F. Drake, Fenton, and others, for an expedition against the Spaniards in the West Indies and other parts near at hand, i.e. Portugal. It was, however, abandoned in the autumn as far as Drake was concerned personally, to be revived in the following spring after several changes of plan. Finally, in April 1582, Fenton was selected by the Earl of Leicester to command the new expedition, nominally to discover the north-west passage, but really for trade, to proceed by way of the Cape of Good Hope to the Moluccas and China, and thence to return.

Fenton's instructions, as finally revised, although studiously ambiguous, were not so absurd as might appear upon a hasty perusal. According to article 9 they ran thus: ‘You shall … goe on your course by Cape de Bona Speranca, not passing by the Streight of Magellan, either going or returning.’ Article 10 was to the effect that ‘You shall not passe to the north-eastward the fortie degree of latitude at the most, but shall take your course to the Isles of Moluccaes for the better discouerie of the North-west passage, if without hindrance of your trade, and within the same degree you can get any knowledge touching that passage, whereof you shall do well to bee inquisitive as occasion in this sort may serve’ (Hakluyt, 1589, p. 645).

The fleet comprised four ships, the Bear galleon, afterwards called the Leicester of 400 tons, with Fenton for admiral, and William Hawkins (junior) for lieutenant-general; the Edward Bonaventure of 300 tons, with Luke Ward as vice-admiral; these two ships were contributed by the queen. The other two were the Francis, 40 tons, commanded by John Drake, and the Elizabeth pinnace of 60 tons, under Thomas Skevington. The expedition sailed in May 1582, and reached Sierra Leone 10 Aug., where they remained trading until the end of September. From the outset Fenton was jealous not only of Hawkins, who was a better seaman than himself, but also of Captain Carlyle, the commander of the soldiery, who was to succeed Fenton in the event of his death (cf. Fenton's letter to Leicester written on the eve of his departure from England, in Cotton MS. Otho, E. viii. 129).

It soon became evident that Fenton intended to ignore his instructions, if not to abandon the voyage altogether. On 25 Sept. he astonished his colleagues by informing them of his intention of seizing St. Helena, ‘to possesse the same, and theire to be proclaimed kyng.’ ‘The generall [Fenton] being not hable [sic] to do this feat wthout Capen Warde, saide then he would go back agayne to the Islands of Cape de Verde to fetch some wyne,’ which, as Hawkins adds, ‘was only a device to pick and steale’ (ib. viii. 201; Hawkins, Voyages, pp. 354–5). After disposing of the Elizabeth to the Portuguese at Sierra Leone in exchange for commodities, Fenton sailed to the coast of Brazil, off which he anchored on 1 Dec. at St. Catalina Island. The Francis proceeded to the River Plate, where she was wrecked, the crew being saved, and Drake sent overland to the viceroy of Peru. After a fruitless engagement with three Spanish ships by moonlight, near the port of St. Vincent in Brazil, on 24 Jan. 1583, Fenton turned homewards with his two remaining ships, and anchored in the Downs 27 June 1583. This voyage, by which Fenton is best known in naval annals, was a complete failure, the final touches to which were given by his placing Hawkins in irons and attempting, in his rage, to stab him, in order to prevent exposure. Fenton in consequence fell into disgrace, but his favour at court prevented his complete ruin.

In 1588 Fenton commanded the Mary Rose of 600 tons in the fleet for opposing the Spanish Armada. On 31 July 1589 we find him residing at Deptford and corresponding with his cousin, William Ashby of Loseby in Leicestershire (Egerton MS. 2598, vol. iv. fol. 22). In December 1603 he was writing to Cecil (Hist. MSS. Comm. 3rd Rep., appendix, p. 152 b). He died in the same year without issue. He married Thomazin, daughter and coheir of Benjamin Gonson of Great Warley, Essex, whose second husband was Christopher Browne of Deptford, son of Sir R. Browne. Fenton was buried in the church of St. Nicholas, Deptford, where a monument was erected to his memory by Roger, earl of Cork, who married his niece (Thorpe, i. 769).

The few literary remains of Fenton other than those named above will be found among the Cotton MSS. E. viii. 81, 134 b, 157, and relate to his voyage of 1582–3. Four journals of the voyage were written by P. Jeffrey, Hawkins (recently printed by the Hakluyt Society), Walker, and Maddox respectively, and are extant in the manuscript volumes which contain Fenton's letters. All of them deserve to be rescued from oblivion and printed, as they form an interesting link in the naval history of the sixteenth century between the two circumnavigations of Drake and Cavendish.

[Arber's Reg. Stat. Comp. 1875, vol. i.; Biog. Brit. 1747–66; Brunet's Manuel du Libraire, 5th ed. 1860; Hakluyt's Navigations, 1589; Hakluyt's Voyages, 1600, 3 vols.; Hawkins's Voyages, ed. Markham (Hakluyt Soc.), 1878; Thorpe's Registrum Roffense, 1769.]

C. H. C.