More than four hundred years ago, Sir Walter Ralegh sent several expeditions to the area now known as North Carolina. Of the many Englishmen who came to Roanoke Island at that time, few, if any, were more notable than Sir Richard Grenville. Born on 5 June 1542, he was always keenly aware that the Grenvilles were gentry-one of the leading families in Cornwall. Among his relatives were the Gilberts and the Raleghs and, after the death of his father on the Mary Rose in 1545, the marriage of his widowed mother to Thomas Arundel connected him to one of the leading Roman Catholic families in the West.
Admitted as a student at the Inner Temple in 1559, Grenville married Mary St. Leger in 1565 and the next year in Hungary fought the Turks. From 1567 to 1570, he lived in Ireland with his wife and children.
In 1577 Grenville became sheriff of Cornwall and in that post had to deal with suspected Catholic disloyalty. Although many Catholic peasants had been killed in 1549, several aristocratic families, including the Arundels, remained influential in the area. The Arundels were discreet and loyal to Elizabeth, but others were not. Grenville therefore destroyed the power of the Catholic aristocracy in the West, and the queen knighted him as a reward.
Grenville was reared at Buckland Abbey, which his father had purchased in 1541. As Sir Richard, he transformed the church itself into a mansion rather than letting it either go to ruin or become a parish church. During this period both his wealth and his influence grew, yet he did have some disappointments. When he requested permission to lead an expedition around the world, he learned that instead Queen Elizabeth had given that honor to Francis Drake. Drake returned a wealthy man, was knighted and, through an intermediary, bought Buckland Abbey from Grenville.
Sir Richard now became involved in the activities of his cousin Sir Walter Ralegh, and in 1585, when Elizabeth refused to let Ralegh make the voyage to Roanoke Island, Grenville took his place. The seven-vessel fleet sailed from Plymouth on 9 April 1585 and arrived at Wococon Inlet on 26 June. Seeking a site for the colony, Grenville and his men explored a great deal of territory and visited the Indian villages of Secotan, Pomeiooc, and Aquascogoc. After a silver cup disappeared, Grenville burned Aquascogoc to punish the Indians he suspected of theft. By late summer the fort on Roanoke Island was complete, and on 25 August Grenville left 107 men with Governor Ralph Lane and sailed for England. His plan was to return by Easter 1586.
While Grenville was in Bideford, Devon seeking supplies, Ralegh was becoming more involved in another colonization effort -- in Munster, Ireland. Grenville assisted in these efforts and was late in returning to Roanoke Island. (He did not leave England till after Easter.) When he finally did reach the colony he found that Drake had removed the colonist. So he left a few men to maintain the fort and returned to England. In 1587, when Governor John White went to England for supplies, it was Grenville from whom he sought them. Sir Richard was preparing a relief expedition when the Privy Council, because of the threat of the Spanish Armada, prohibited the departure of ships. Grenville therefore turned his efforts to the defense of England. Because of Drake's lower social class and resentment over his interference in several projects, Grenville refused to serve under Drake. Instead he helped to protect the west coast of Devon and Cornwall and was prepared, if necessary, to take troops to Ireland. From 1588 to 1590, Grenville, Ralegh, and perhaps some of the 1585-1586 colonists, were in Ireland helping once again to pacify Munster.
Grenville's overseas career, however, was not yet over. As Philip II rebuilt the Spanish navy, the threat from Spain continued; therefore, the English decided to patrol between the Azores and Spain in order to intercept the plate fleets. It was to this area that Lord Thomas Howard and Grenville led an expedition in 1591. Sailing on Revenge, formerly Drake's ship, Grenville was surprised and in the ensuing battles fought fifteen Spanish ships in fifteen hours. Mortally wounded, Grenville wanted to blow up his ship rather than surrender and bring dishonor to England. Overruled by his colleagues, Grenville died aboard a Spanish ship.
Four generation of Grenvilles died in the service of their country -- his father on the Mary Rose in 1545, Sir Richard in the Azores in 1592, his son in Guiana in 1595, and his grandson in support of the royalists in 1643.
Text by John D. Neville, Chairman, North Carolina 400th Anniversary Committee
Last updated: April 14, 2015