Richard Grenville

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Sir Richard Grenville
Sir Richard Grenville from NPG.jpg
Contemporary portrait of Sir Richard Grenville, inscribed: An(no) D(omi)ni 1571 aetatis uae 29 ("In the year of Our Lord 1571, of his age 29"). National Portrait Gallery, London.
Born (1542-06-15)15 June 1542
Bideford, Devon, England
Died 10 September 1591(1591-09-10) (aged 49)
off Flores, Azores Islands
Allegiance  Kingdom of England
Service/branch  Royal Navy
Rank Admiral
Commands held Revenge
Battles/wars Second Desmond Rebellion
Anglo–Spanish War (1585)
Battle of Gravelines
Battle of Flores (1591)
Spouse(s) Mary St Leger
Relations Son Bernard Grenville
Richard Grenville, portrait in Heroologia Anglica, London, 1620, inscribed: Rihardus Grenvilus Neptuni proles qui magni Martis alumnus Grenvilius patrias sanguine tinxit aquas ("Richard Grenville, a scion of Neptune, nourished by Mars,... stained the waters with his blood"
Arms of Grenville: Gules, three clarions or

Sir Richard Grenville (15 June 1542 – 10 September 1591) (alias Greynvile, Greeneville, Greenfield etc.) lord of the manors of Stowe, Kilkhampton in Cornwall and of Bideford in Devon, was an English sailor who as captain of the Revenge, died at the Battle of Flores (1591), fighting heroically against overwhelming odds, and refusing to surrender his ship to the far more numerous Spanish. His ship, the Revenge, met 53 Spanish war ships near Flores in the Azores. He and his crew fought the fifty three in a three-day running battle. Many Spanish ships were sunk or so badly damaged that they had to retire from the battle. The Revenge was boarded three times and each time the boarders were seen off. He was also a soldier, an armed merchant fleet owner, privateer, colonizer, and explorer. He took part in the early English attempts to settle the New World, and also participated in the fight against the Spanish Armada. His non-military offices included Member of Parliament for Cornwall, High Sheriff of County Cork from 1569–70 and Sheriff of Cornwall in 1576–77. He was the grandfather of Sir Bevil Grenville (1596-1643) of English Civil War fame, whose son was John Granville, 1st Earl of Bath (1628–1701).


Richard Grenville was the eldest son and heir of Sir Roger Grenville (d.1545), who was captain of the Mary Rose when it sank in Portsmouth Harbour in 1545, by his wife Thomasine Cole, daughter of Thomas Cole of Slade.[1] Thomasine survived her husband and remarried to Thomas Arundell.[1] The ancient Grenville family were lords of the manors of Bideford in Devon and of Stowe, Kilkhampton in Cornwall. He was a cousin of Sir Walter Raleigh and the privateer and explorer Humphrey Gilbert.

Grenville's birthplace is believed to have been at Bideford. His father (who had pre-deceased his own father Sir Richard Grenville (c.1495-1550), MP for Cornwall in 1529[2]) died when he was an infant, aged 3, and his mother remarried to Thomas Arundell of Clifton Arundell House, where Grenville spent much of his childhood. At age 17 Grenville began law studies at the Inner Temple.

Early career

As a minor, Grenville was elected to Parliament for Dunheved, Launceston, as Knight of the Shire 1562-63. On 19 November 1562, aged 20, he was in an affray in the Strand, the parish of St. Clement Danes, London, in the company of his cousin, Nicholes Specott, gentleman with Lewis Lloyd and Edward Horseman their attendants. Upon encountering Sir Edmound Unton, Fulke Greville, Robert Bannister gentleman and Thomas Allen yeoman with their servants, in which he ran through with his sword Robert Bannister and left him to die. Grenville and company were outlawed for three months and then pardoned for Public duelling and manslaughter, just in time to resume his seat in Parliament.[3] At age 21 he inherited his grandfather's estates at Stowe in Cornwall, and Bideford and Buckland Abbey in Devon, England. In 1565 Grenville married Mary St Leger (c.1543-1623), daughter of Sir John St Ledger and heir to her brother.

He was appointed High Sheriff of Cork c.1568.

Military career

Hungarian campaign

In pursuit of his military career, with his West Country cousins, Godolphins, Carews, Killigrews, Champernownws, Basets, etc., Grenville fought against the Turks in Hungary for the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian in 1566. After petitioning Elizabeth I in 1565 to leave England for service abroad to a foreign prince. Grenville and his West Country cousins paid for and recruited a troop of West Countrymen to accompany them.

Activity in Ireland

In 1569, he arrived in Ireland with Sir Warham St. Leger (c.1525-1597) to arrange for the settlement of lands in the Barony of Kerricurrihy. These had been mortgaged[clarification needed] to St Leger by Gerald Fitzgerald, 15th Earl of Desmond. At about this time Grenville also seized lands for colonisation at Tracton, to the west of Cork harbour. Sir Peter Carew had asserted his claim to lands in south Leinster. St Leger settled nearby, and Humphrey Gilbert pushed westward from Idrone along the Blackwater River. All of these English efforts to take over land in the south of Ireland led to bitter disputes. They escalated into the first of the Desmond rebellions, led by James Fitzmaurice Fitzgerald.

As Sheriff of Cork, Grenville witnessed the rebellion in which Fitzmaurice, along with the Earl of Clancar, James Fitzedmund Fitzgerald (the Seneschal of Imokilly); Edmund Fitzgibbon (the White Knight); and others, attacked Tracton. They overcame the English defence with pickaxes and killed nearly the entire garrison. The three surviving English soldiers were hanged the next day by the Irish. Fitzmaurice threatened the imminent arrival of Spanish forces. Having robbed the citizens of Cork, he boasted that he could also take the artillery of the city of Youghal.

In June 1569, soon after Grenville's sailing for England, Fitzmaurice camped outside the walls of Waterford and demanded that Grenville's wife and Lady St Leger be given over to him, along with all the English and all prisoners; the citizens refused. His forces put local English farmers to the sword. As Cork ran low on provisions, the people of Youghal expected an attack at any minute. The rebellion continued, but Grenville remained in England.

Return to England

Grenville sided with the Earl of Arundel and the Duke of Norfolk in 1569 against the Queen's secretary. He was elected MP for Cornwall in 1571 and appointed High Sheriff of Cornwall for 1576.[4] "Undeviatingly Protestant", he arrested the Catholic priest Cuthbert Mayne at the home of the Tregians in 1577. Mayne was martyred as a result.

Buckland Greynvile Abbey

1575-76, Sir Richard was back home at Bideford expanding to his holdings, businesses and properties after his Expedition plans were scuppered. He finished remodeling the rest of the interior of Buckland Greynvile Abbey into a suitable home for his growing family. He decorated it with navigational themes in the plaster on the ceilings, the Greynvile coat of arms on the mantle pieces, as well as a knight in repose against a tree.

Development of Bideford

1575, Grenville played a major role in the transformation of the small fishing port of Bideford in north Devon into what became a significant trading port with the new American colonies, later specialising in tobacco importation. A charter had been granted to his ancestor Richard Grenville in 1272, creating the town's first council. In 1575 he created the port of Bideford. Grenville was never elected as Mayor of Bideford, preferring instead to support John Salterne in that role, but he was Lord of the Manor, a title held by the Grenvilles since 1126 and finally ceded by his descendants in 1711 to the town council he established. He was again elected as MP for Cornwall in 1584 (sitting until 1586).[4]

Development of Irish estate

Following a period of supporting Sir Walter Raleigh's venture in America (see below) he returned to Munster to arrange the estate granted him under the plantation of the province. Following the suppression of the Second Desmond Rebellion in 1583, he had purchased some 24,000 acres (97 km²) in Kinalmeaky and brought settlers over. His renewed efforts beginning in 1588 yielded little success, and Grenville returned to England late in 1590.

Privateering plan and Sailing Around the World

In 1574 Grenville submitted a proposal to the Privy Council to take a single ship to plunder Spanish treasure ships and plant colonies in South America and from there to sail across the 'South Sea' (i.e. Pacific Ocean) in hope of finding a short cut to the Spice Islands and 'terra australis incognita'.

"Supplication for a new navigation, permission to seek rich and unknown lands, to discover and annex all or any lands, islands, and countries beyond the Equinoxial, or where the Pole Antarctic hath any elevation above the horizon, such lands not being already possessed by any other Christian Prince. The planting of people and habitations in strange and unknown lands. Need not offend foreign powers or provoke war, provided no attempts were made to take from other civilised nations anything they already possess. Such expeditions should be composed of voluntary adventurers; but under patronage and benediction of the Crown; the leaders having authority from the Queen to require that obedience, quiet, unity, and order be maintained. Gilbert an m'self having pointed out to her Majesty that such undertakings would provide work and livelihood for many of her subjects; and also bring honour and strength to Your Majesty with immortal fame, … besides great enrichment of Your Highness and your country, with increase and maintenance of the Navy."

The patent was initially granted, but was rescinded a year later on the grounds that England was still using diplomacy with Spain and had been at great pains to rebuild her relations with Philip II after the tensions of 1568–71. It was these plans that were usurped and were eventually executed by Francis Drake when he circumnavigated the globe in 1577. This caused some bad blood and is the reason why Grenville refused to ever serve with Francis Drake in any capacity.

That same year Grenville received thanks of the Privy Council and the Earl of Bedford, then Lieutenant of Cornwall, in Ireland for raising Troops against Sir Thomas Stukely, styling himself the Duke of Ireland.

New World and Roanoke Colony

In 1585, Grenville was admiral of the seven-strong fleet that brought English settlers to establish a military colony on Roanoke Island, off the coast of modern North Carolina in North America. He was heavily criticised by Ralph Lane, general of the expedition, who referred to Grenville's "intolerable pride and insatiable ambition". Lane's remark was prompted by a bitter legal feud he then had with Grenville. On his return, Grenville captured a Spanish ship, the 'Santa Maria de Vincenze', which he later brought to Bideford to be converted into the 'Galleon Dudley'. The cannons from that Spanish ship are thought to be those erroneously labelled 'Armada cannons' in Bideford's Victoria Park.

In 1586 Grenville returned to Roanoke to find that the surviving colonists had departed with Drake. Grenville left 15 of his own men to defend Raleigh's New World territory. During his return voyage to England, Grenville raided various towns in the Azores Islands. At about this time, a description was given of his behaviour while dining with Spanish captains:

"He would carouse three or four glasses of wine, and in a bravery take the glasses between his teeth and crash them in pieces and swallow them down, so that often the blood ran out of his mouth without any harm at all unto him".[5]

Grenville brought with him a Native American from Roanoke Island to Bideford after returning from a voyage to America that same year. He named the Native American tribesman, Raleigh after his cousin Sir Walter Raleigh.[6] Raleigh converted to Christianity and had his baptism at Saint Mary the Virgin's Church on 27 March 1588, but died from influenza while residing in Grenville's house on 2 April 1589.[7] His interment was at the same church five days later along with Grenville's daughter, Rebecca.[8]

Spanish Armada

In 1587, Grenville was appointed Deputy Lieutenant of the West Country by the Privy Council, to organize the defences of Devon and Cornwall in preparation for the expected attack by the Spanish Armada the following year. Also was commissioned with overseeing the repair of the Fortifications of the Cinque Ports and Boscastle Harbour.

In 1588, was made a member of the council that was created to devise means of defense against the Spanish armada. Grenville equipped seven ships at Bideford with supplies and more colonists for Raleigh's 'Planters' Colony settled at Roanoke the previous year. However, a stay of shipping due to the impending arrival of the Spanish Armada meant that the fleet did not sail. Grenville led five of these ships to Plymouth to join the English defences and returned to Bideford where he provisioned the remaining two ships for Roanoke, a voyage that later turned back after being raided by the French. Later that year, Grenville was commissioned to keep watch at sea on the western approaches to the Bristol Channel in case of the return of the Spanish Armada.

Command of the Revenge and death

Grenville's defence of the Revenge at the Battle of Flores

Grenville was appointed Vice-Admiral of the Fleet under Thomas Howard. He was charged with maintaining a squadron at the Azores to waylay the return to Spain of the South American treasure fleets. He took command of Revenge, a galleon considered to be a masterpiece of naval construction.

At Flores Island the English fleet was surprised by a much larger squadron sent by King Philip II of Spain. Howard retreated to safety, but Grenville faced the 53 enemy ships alone, leading his single ship in what amounted to a suicide mission, stating that he "utterly refused to turn from the enimie...he would rather chose to die than to dishonour himselfe".[9] His crew was reduced by nearly 100 men due to sickness on shore, but he chose nonetheless to confront the far superior Spanish force.[9] For twelve hours he and his crew fought-off the Spanish, causing heavy damage to fifteen galleons. According to Raleigh's account, Grenville and his soldiers fought for hour after hour:

"until all the powder of The Revenge, to the last barrell, was now spent, all her pikes broken, fortie of her best men slain, and the most part of the rest hurt".[9] The ship itself was "marvellous unsaverie, filled with bloud and bodies of deade and wounded men like a slaughter house".[9]

The fight was later romanticized by the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson in his work The Revenge: A Ballad of the Fleet: "Out-gunned, out-fought, and out-numbered fifty-three to one",[10] Grenville was said to have wished to blow up his ship rather than give up the fight, as Tennyson wrote:[10] "Sink me the ship, Master Gunner! — sink her! split her in twain! ... Fall into the hands of God, not into the hands of Spain! ". Grenville's crew however refused to obey these suicidal orders and his officers surrendered what was left of their vessel to the Spanish, on a promise of fair treatment.

Grenville died of his wounds several days later, screaming that his men were "traitors and dogs",[11] but the Spanish were not to enjoy their success, nor would Grenville's men survive their deliverance. The Spanish fleet was caught by a cyclone soon after and during a week-long storm Revenge and fifteen Spanish warships and merchant vessels were lost.[12] Revenge sank with her mixed prize-crew of seventy Spaniards and English prisoners near the island of Terceira, at the approximate position Lua error in Module:Coordinates at line 668: callParserFunction: function "#coordinates" was not found..[13]

Marriage and progeny

Arms of Richard Grenville (1542-1591) (Gules, three clarions or) impaling St Ledger (Azure fretty argent, a chief or), arms of his wife Mary St Ledger. Kilkhampton Church

In 1565 Grenville married Mary St Leger (c.1543-1623), daughter of Sir John St Ledger of Annery, Monkleigh, near Bideford, and heir to her brother. She outlived her husband and died aged about 80 on 9 November 1623 and was buried at St Mary's Church, Bideford. The family initially lived at Buckland Abbey before moving to a newly built house at Bideford. They had 4 sons, including Bernard Grenville.[4]

Legacy and honours

"Thus slain thy valiant Ancestor did ly
When his one bark a navy did defy
When now encompas't round the victor stood
And bath'd his pinnace in his co'quering blood
Till all his purple current dry'd and spent
He fell and made the waves his monument
Where shall ye next fam'd Granvill's ashes stand
Thy grand syre fills the seas and thou ye land

In popular culture

  • Grenville's final battle on Revenge is mentioned in a poem by Robert E. Howard; ("Solomon Kane's Homecoming") from Fanciful Tales (1936). Howard mentions Grenville in several other Solomon Kane stories and poems, most prominently in "The Return of Sir Richard Grenville".
  • Grenville is the subject of a 20th-century song by Al Stewart, "Lord Grenville," ("Lord Grenville") on Stewart's Year of the Cat album.
  • Grenville appears as the godfather of the main character in Charles Kingsley's novel Westward Ho!.



  1. 1.0 1.1 Vivian, Heralds' Visitations of Cornwall
  2. History of Parliament biography
  3. Ford, David Nash (2010). "Sir Edward Unton (1534-1582)". Royal Berkshire History. Nash Ford Publishing. Retrieved 15 November 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 "GRENVILLE, Richard II (c.1542-91), of Stowe in Kilkhampton, Cornw. and Buckland Abbey, Devon". History of Parliament Online. Retrieved 31 May 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. "Revenge"
  6. "An Essay Towards a History of Bideford, in the County of Devon - Google Play". Retrieved 26 June 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 Milton, p.271
  10. 10.0 10.1 The Revenge: A Ballad of the Fleet by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
  11. Milton, p.272
  12. Paine p. 150
  13. Earle p. 159


  • Bagwell, Richard, Ireland under the Tudors 3 vols. (London, 1885–1890).
  • Canny, Nicholas P., The Elizabethan Conquest of Ireland: a Pattern Established, 1565–76 (London, 1976). ISBN 0-85527-034-9.
  • Earle, Peter, The Last Fight of the Revenge (London, 2004) ISBN 0-413-77484-8
  • Falls, Cyril, Elizabeth's Irish Wars (1950; reprint London, 1996). ISBN 0-09-477220-7.
  • Milton, Giles, Big Chief Elizabeth - How England's Adventurers Gambled and Won the New World, Hodder & Stoughton, London (2000)
  • Powell, Andrew Thomas, Grenville and the Lost Colony of Roanoke (London 2011). ISBN 978-1-84876-596-2.
  • Rowse, A. L.. Sir Richard Grenville of the Revenge (London, 1937).
  •  [ "Grenville, Richard (1541?-1591)" ] Check |ws link in chapter= value (help). Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
Honorary titles
Preceded by
Sir John Chamond
Custos Rotulorum of Cornwall
Succeeded by
Sir John Arundell