Edward Fenton was born at Fenton Hall c 1530, died at Deptford 1603. He was the son of Henry Fenton, and Cecily, daughter of John Beaumont of Coleorton, Leicestershire. He was married to Thomazine Gonson about 1580 with no children.
Fenton’s first public service was in Ireland, where he held a position under Sir Henry Sidney in the successful repression of the rebellion under Shane O’Neil in 1566. He was the author of ‘Certaine Secrete wonders of Nature … Gathered out of diuers learned authors, as welle Greeke as Latine, sacred as prophane,’ London, 1569. Fenton’s book is dedicated to his patron, Lord Lumley, and contains a reference to a work by his brother Geoffrey. It is not original work but a translation, with a few additions and interpolations, from other works, particularly those of Pierre Boaisteau Launay,’ Paris, 1567.
In May 1577 Fenton took charge of the Gabriel in Sir Martin Frobisher’s second voyage for the discovery of the north-west passage to Cathay and Meta Incognita. This was not a very successful adventure but no doubt served to spur Fenton on to greater things. Until 1578 he seems to have been involved in transporting ore from the mines of Cornwall to Bristol. He then sailed in the Judith as lieutenant-general and second in command in Frobisher’s third voyage to Meta Incognita in 1578, they set sail with 15 ships, 300 Cornish miners, and enough lumber to build a colony, reputedly the largest Arctic voyage in History. Shortly after setting sail, one of the ships deserted and returned to England. Later, before reaching Greenland, the ship carrying the lumber sank, and ended any hope of settlement. The expedition mined 1,100 tons of ore and returned to England. The ore, however, turned out to be worthless iron pyrite or “Fools Gold”. Many of the investors went bankrupt and Frobisher’s reputation was ruined. The ore Martin Frobisher brought from the Arctic was used to repair the roads in the county of Kent. Frobisher and Fenton with Francis Drake, began a life of Piracy raiding Spanish settlements in the Caribbean. They returned to England with a fortune in gold but much of Fenton’s share went to the Crown, regaining some of his lost favour with the Queen Elizabeth I.
In April 1581 it was proposed to fit out eight ships and six pinnaces (light sailing ships used as a tenders), under Sir Francis. Drake, Edward Fenton, and others, for an expedition against the Spaniards in the West Indies. However this plan was abandoned in the autumn because Drake did not want to be involved. A similar plan in April 1582 was agreed and Fenton was selected by the Earl of Leicester to command the new expedition, nominally to discover the north-west passage, but really for trade, to proceed via the Cape of Good Hope to the Moluccas (Indonesia) and China. Fenton’s instructions were deliberately ambiguous but were not so absurd as might appear at first site. Article 9 read ‘You shall … goe on your course by Cape de Bona Speranca, not passing by the Streight of Magellan, either going or returning.’ Article 10 was to the effect that ‘You shall not passe to the north-eastward the fortie degree of latitude at the most, but shall take your course to the Isles of Moluccaes for the better discouerie of the North-west passage, if without hindrance of your trade, and within the same degree you can get any knowledge touching that passage, whereof you shall do well to bee inquisitive as occasion in this sort may serve’
The fleet comprised four ships, the Bear galleon, afterwards called the Leicester of 400 tons, with Fenton for admiral, and William Hawkins (junior) for lieutenant-general; the Edward Bonaventure of 300 tons, with Luke Ward as vice-admiral; these two ships were contributed by the queen. The other two were the Francis, 40 tons, commanded by John Drake, and the Elizabeth pinnace of 60 tons, under Thomas Skevington. The expedition sailed in May 1582, and reached Sierra Leone 10 Aug., where they remained trading until the end of September.
It soon became evident that Fenton intended to ignore the original plan. On 25th Sept. he sailed to St. Helena with the rather strange idea of seizing the island and proclaim himself as King. However this proved impossible so he returned to the Islands of Cape Verde with the intention of what can only be described as Piracy. After disposing of the Elizabeth to the Portuguese at Sierra Leone in exchange for commodities, Fenton sailed to the coast of Brazil, where he anchored on 1 Dec. at St. Catalina Island. The Francis proceeded to the River Plate, where she was wrecked, the crew being saved. After a fruitless engagement with three Spanish ships by moonlight, near the port of St. Vincent in Brazil, on 24 Jan. 1583, Fenton sailed homewards with his two remaining ships, and anchored in the Downs 27 June 1583. during the return Fenton placed William Hawkins in irons and attempted to kill him, in order to prevent exposure for disobeying the original plan. Fenton in consequence fell into disgrace, but his favour at court prevented his complete ruin.This voyage, by which Fenton is best known in naval annals, was a complete failure.
In 1588 Fenton commanded the Mary Rose (not the Mary Rose that sank in 1545 but a later vessel) of 600 tons in the fleet against the Spanish Armada. Sir John Hawkins in the Victory, with Captain Edward Fenton in the Mary Rose, Captain George Beeston in the Dreadnought and Captain Richard Hawkins in the Swallow, played a major role when they broke through the midst of the Spanish fleet on 30th July and began a conflict that lasted all morning,
For details of the Spanish Armada see Armada
After the successful repulsion of the Spanish, Fenton lived in Deptford where he died in 1603. Edward Fenton is buried in the church of St. Nicholas, Deptford, where a monument was erected to his memory by Roger, earl of Cork, who married his niece.