In June 1578, Sir Humphrey Gilbert – soldier, Member of Parliament, and explorer – secured letters patent from Queen Elizabeth I, which entitled him to claim any lands not already possessed by a Christian prince for a period of six years. He and his heirs could then occupy these lands for eternity wielding legislative and jurisdictional powers. Gilbert did not use these letters patent himself, instead he tried to sell his privileges to others but this scheme ran into difficulties with the privy council.

The privy council also scuppered his next scheme. In 1582, he entered into a contract with a group of Roman Catholics to help them set up a colony in the New World to escape the harsh laws applied to anyone who was not a member of the Church of England. These same laws required that any Catholics leaving the country had to pay a large fine, which thwarted Gilbert’s plans.

With the period of his letters patent about to expire, Gilbert decided to lead an expedition to the Americas himself. On 11th June 1583, he set sail from Plymouth with a fleet of five ships – the Bark Ralegh, the Delight, the Golden Hind, the Squirrel, and the Swallow – funded by a Southampton-based joint-stock mercantile company. A lack of supplies resulted in the Bark Raleghreturning to England within two days, but the rest of the fleet sighted the Newfoundland coast by the end of July.

On 5th August 1583, Gilbert claimed the harbour of St. John’s and all lands with two-hundred leagues’ radius in the name of Elizabeth; England’s first colony in the New World. Two days prior he imposed his authority the local fisherman by waving his letters patent around; although, the fact that he crew was made up of pirates and criminals probably helped. Gilbert secured a promise of rents from the fishermen for the lease of lands that were now his, and then he set off to explore his domain.

On 20th August he set out with three ships on a reconnaissance mission; the sailors on the Swallow refused to take part because they wanted a swift return to England. Nine days later the Delight struck aground and sank resulting in the sailors insisting that they return home. Gilbert acquiesced and the fleet set sail for England, but as they approached the Azores the fleet encountered a violent storm that consumed the Squirrel with Gilbert on board.

The Yale Law School website has the full text of the letters patent granted to Gilbert.

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