Exploration in the Elizabethan Age

Expanding trade

Throughout the entirety of Elizabeth’s reign, an interest in exploration swept across the country. There are several factors that best explain why exploration became popular in the Elizabethan era…

  • Trade was expanding as the New World began to open up new opportunities. English merchants needed to look for more new trading opportunities, as conflict with Spain hit the traditional wool trade hard. As England relied upon its exports of cloth, it was essential for England to find new products to sell. New crops brought back from exploration included tomatoes, potatoes and corn. They were able to trade this with other countries.

  • Reports from the Americas suggested that there were different crops, animal skins and precious goods to sell.

  • The ancient African slave trade was taken advantage of during Elizabeth’s reign. It eventually developed on a massive, Trans-Atlantic scale, with the buying of hundreds of Africans to ship to the New World. The slave trade made a lot of money for those involved in it.

Developments in ship design

  • Galleons (large ships) were developed in the 16th century. Galleons were ships that were much larger than traditional trading ships, which meant that larger cargoes could be stowed in them.

  • Galleons had gun decks running the length of the ship. Cannons could therefore fire form the sides as well as the bow and stern. This was important, as piracy was common, so ships often had to defend themselves. The English felt more safe and more willing to explore with this feature on their ships.

  • Galleons used different sail types on the same vessel making them easier to sail.

  • In the Elizabethan era ships were adapted to make them more stable in heavy seas.

Developments in mapping

  • Improved navigation and records of voyages contributed to more accurate maps. In 1569, the Mercator map was developed by the cartographer (map maker) Gerardus Mercator. Sailors now had a much more realistic picture of the world to use when plotting voyages.

  • Printing enabled maps to become more consistent between different copies. Previously, maps had been hand drawn, which lead to a lot of mistakes and errors.

Developments in technology

  • Navigation was becoming more precise and more accurate. For example in 1584 the English mathematician Thomas Harriot worked out a simpler way of using the Sun to calculate the true sailing direction of a ship. This new technology made voyages safer and accurate. The accuracy enabled journeys to be more direct and therefore quicker.

  • Since the 15th century, quadrants and astrolabes (instruments used by sailors to help with navigation at sea) were designed to make more accurate calculations about a ship’s position. This helped make navigation more accurate.

Exploration in the Elizabethan Age, figure 1

The search for adventure

  • The publication of accounts of voyages to the Americas persuaded people to venture into the unknown (even though many of the rumours were pure fantasy).

  • Some young Elizabethan men, especially from the gentry and nobility, went on voyages of discovery and exploration in the hope of adventure and making their fortunes.

Sir Francis Drake’s Circumnavigation of the Globe

  • A significant event happened during Elizabeth I’s reign: the first man from Britain circumnavigated the globe. This man’s name was Sir Francis Drake, and you should remember him as he played a significant role in the Armada.

  • When Drake returned to court with his stories about sailing around the globe it sparked wonder and amazement at the heart of the English people.

What is a cartographer?
map maker
What is a galleon?
large ship
What other crop was bought back alongside corn and tomatoes from the new world?
Your answer should include: potato / potatoes
What was used alongside a quadrant to determine the accuracy of a ships position?
Astrolabes