Picture of Sir Francis Drake

Elizabethan Age of Exploration

  • Interesting Facts & information about the Elizabethan Age of Exploration
  • Elizabethan Age of Exploration - Motives
  • The Commercial Motive in the Elizabethan Age of Exploration
  • Aids to Exploration - the Compass

Picture of Sir Francis Drake

Elizabethan Age of Exploration

The Elizabethan Age - Elizabethan Age of Exploration
The great Elizabethan Age of Exploration was at first dominated by the Portuguese and the Spanish. The Golden Age of the Elizabethan Age saw the emergence of explorers such as Sir Francis Drake (1542-1596), Sir Walter Raleigh (1554-1618), Sir Humphrey Gilbert (1539-1583), Sir John Hawkins (1532-1595), Sir Richard Grenville (1541-1591) and Sir Martin Frobisher (1535-1594).


Motives for Exploration
Many motives prompted the Age of exploration. Scientific curiosity, bred of the Renaissance spirit of free inquiry, led men to set forth on voyages of discovery. The crusading spirit, which had not died out in Europe, thrilled at the thought of spreading Christianity among heathen peoples. And in this age, as in all epochs of exploration, adventurers sought in distant lands opportunities to acquire wealth and fame and power.


The Commercial Motive in the Elizabethan Age of Exploration
Commerce formed perhaps the most powerful motive for exploration. Eastern spices - cinnamon, pepper, cloves, nutmeg, and ginger were used more freely in medieval times than now, when people lived on salt meat during the winter and salt fish during Lent. Even wine, ale, and medicines had a seasoning of spices. Besides spices, all kinds of precious stones, drugs, perfumes, gums, dyes, and various woods came from the East. Since the time of the crusades these luxuries, after having been brought overland by water to Mediterranean ports, had been distributed by the Italian Venetian and Genoese merchants throughout Europe. The Italians had almost a complete monopoly on the spice and dye trades. By the fifteenth century two other European peoples - the Portuguese and Spaniards - appeared as major competitors for this Oriental trade. Their efforts to break through the monopoly enjoyed by the Italian cities led to the discovery of the sea routes to the Indies. The Portuguese were first in the field to break the hold of the Italians on foreign trade in the Elizabethan Age of Exploration.


Elizabethan Age of Exploration - the Secret Textbook
Before the Elizabethan age of exploration the voyages of English sailors were limited, it was highly dangerous to sail beyond the sight of land. Spain had a massive advantage - a secret textbook by Martin Corts called "Breve compendio de la sphera." A spy working for Englandís Muscovy Company managed to 'acquire' a copy of the secret textbook and it was translated as the 'Arte of Navigation' and published in 1561. The 'Arte of Navigation'  held the key to the mastery of the sea and represented the "decisive steps that lead to the "oceanic expansion of England." The great scholars at the universities drafted maps and taught sea captains the secrets of celestial navigation. This book sparked English craftsmen to design new nautical instruments and navigational aids including sextants and astrolabes. 

Aids to Exploration in the Elizabethan Age of Exploration - the Compass
The new knowledge gained by European peoples about the land routes of Asia was accompanied by much progress in the art of ocean navigation. First in importance came the compass to guide explorers across the waters of the world. The Chinese appear to have discovered that a needle, when rubbed with a lodestone, has the mysterious power of pointing to the north. The Arabs may have introduced this rude form of the compass among Mediterranean sailors. The instrument, improved by being balanced on a pivot so that it would not be affected by choppy seas, seems to have been generally used by Europeans as early as the thirteenth century. It greatly aided sailors by enabling them to find their bearings in murky weather and on starless nights. The compass, though useful, was not indispensable; without its help the Northmen had made their distant expeditions in the Atlantic.

Nautical Instruments in the Elizabethan Age of Exploration - the Astrolabe
The astrolabe, which the Greeks had invented and used for astronomical purposes, also came into Europe through the Arabs. It was employed to calculate latitudes by observation of the height of the sun above the horizon.

Other Nautical Instruments in the Elizabethan Age of Exploration
Other nautical instruments or navigational aids were available during the Renaissance. The majority of these navigational instruments were used to measure the angle between objects above the ocean, such as the stars or the sun, with the horizon - invaluable during the Elizabethan age of exploration. A basic ship's log was used as a means of estimating the speed of a vessel, and so roughly calculating the longitude. These nautical instruments of the Renaissance would have enabled the explorers to calculate the ship's position at sea during the Elizabethan age of exploration.

  • The Navigational aids that explorers would have used included:
    • Astrolabes - calculating latitudes
    • Telescope - Hans Lippershey (c1570-c1619) credited with the invention. The telescope was introduced to astronomy in 1609 by Galileo Galilei
    • Charts and Maps - Cartography or map making was an important Renaissance skill
    • Compasses - Enabled Renaissance sea men to find their bearing in the fog
    • Cross-staffs - Used to measure the angle of the Sun or a star above the horizon
    • Nocturnals - Measuring and timekeeping instrument
    • Quadrants - Measuring and timekeeping instrument
    • Traverse boards - Navigation instrument - older version of Astrolabe
    • The Hour-glass, Minute-glass and Sun-dial - timekeeping instruments
    • Almanacs - which forecast precisely where the the sun, moon, planets and selected navigational stars, are going to be, hour by hour, years into the future

Other Improvements in Navigation in the Elizabethan Age of Exploration
During the last centuries of the Middle Ages the charting of coasts became a science. A sailor might rely on the "handy maps" (portolani) which outlined with some approach to accuracy the bays, islands, and headlands of the Mediterranean and adjacent waters. Manuals were prepared telling the manner about the tides, currents, and other features of the route he intended to follow. The increase in size of ships made navigation safer and permitted the storage of bulky cargoes. For long voyages the sailing vessel replaced the medieval galley rowed by oars. As the result of all these improvements navigators no longer found it necessary to keep close to the shore, but could push out dauntlessly into the open sea.

Elizabethan English Explorers

The Elizabethan Age of Exploration - John Dee & the Muscovy Company
John Dee was one of the most brilliant intellectuals during the Elizabethan age of exploration. Dee was interested in Mathematics, physics and astrology which he studied at Cambridge and in Europe. Between 1555 - 1587 John Dee became a consultant to the Muscovy Company which was formed by the navigator and explorer Sebastian Cabot ( the son of the John Cabot) together with a number of London merchants. The Muscovy Company was granted a monopoly of Anglo-Russian trade and aimed to search for the Northeast Passage. John Dee prepared nautical information, including navigation charts. He instructed the crews on geometry and cosmography before they left for voyages to North America in 1576.

Spanish Explorers

Interesting Facts and Information about the Elizabethan Age and Elizabethan Age of Exploration
Some interesting facts and information about the Elizabethan Age of Exploration

Famous Explorers


Elizabethan Age of Exploration
Additional details, facts and information about the Elizabethan Age of Exploration can be accessed via the Elizabethan Era Sitemap.

Elizabethan Age of Exploration

  • Interesting Facts & information about the Elizabethan Age of Exploration
  • Elizabethan Age of Exploration
  • Motives for Exploration
  • The Commercial Motive in the Elizabethan Age of Exploration
  • Aids to Exploration in the Elizabethan Age - the Compass
  • Nautical Instruments in the Elizabethan Age of Explorations. John Dee and the Muscovy Company

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