Captain William Boroughs

Captain William Boroughs
(1536 - 1598)

Borough, William (bap. 1536, d. 1598), explorer and naval administrator, was born at Borough House, Northam Burrows, Northam, Devon, to Walter Borough (1494-1548) and Mary (née Dough) and baptized on 18 August 1536 in St Mary's, Northam. His childhood experiences included voyages made with his elder brother, Stephen Borough (1525-1584), under the command of their uncle John Borough (d. 1570). William later wrote that 'my mind earnestly bent to the knowledge of Navigation and Hydrography from my youth'. Next he claimed that in May 1553:

I was in the first voyage for discoverie of the partes of Russia, which began in Anno 1553 (being then sixteen yeeres of age). Also in yeere 1556 when the coasts of Samoed, and Novaya Zemlya with the straights of Viagatz were found out; and the yeere 1557 when the coast of Lappia and the Bay of St Nicholas were more perfectly discovered.
(Hakluyt,1598, 1.418)

The earliest extant chart signed 'W. Borough' is of the north-east Atlantic and dates from 1558, but only part of it survives in an atlas at Trinity College, Dublin (MS 1209/23). In the early 1560s John Dee taught Borough to draw and use 'paradoxall compasses' or circumpolar charts. Borough showed he had mastered this in drafting 'Necessary rules for a voyage to Pecharia, Bass Indiae and Cataye' for an expedition planned by the Muscovy Company for 1568. By 1568 he had produced at least two more charts of the Norwegian and Russian shores for atlases assembled by William Cecil. One is in BL, Royal MS 10 D3, fol. 124; the other is bound into a Saxton atlas at Hatfield. William succeeded his brother as chief pilot from 1572 to 1582. In 1580 he took a major part with Dee and Cecil in the briefing of Arthur Pet and Charles Jackman for their attempt on the north-east passage.

While his brother Stephen had persevered until 1571 with the North Cape route, William Borough exploited his increasing familiarity with an alternative route through the Baltic to Narva where the Eastland Company (unlike the Muscovy Company) allowed him to trade; in 1566 he adventured eleven numbered long cloths, two chests packed with haberdashery, and two barrels of sweet oil in the Harry of London. The same Drapers' Company records show he also carried a private adventure that way for Anthony Jenkinson in 1566. The dangerous passage along the Gulf of Finland past 'Lyfland' (Estonia) appears on his signed chart of the North Sea and Baltic (NMM, MS G215.1/5). His mission of 1574-5 had required him to set down alternative ways to and from Moscow from Narva and St Nicholas and 'with great care and diligence, true observations and notes and descriptions of countreys, Islands, coastes of the sea, and other things requisite to the artes of Navigation and Hydrographie' (Hakluyt, 1598, 1.418). Hakluyt adds an account of Borough's beating off six Danske (Danish) pirate ships near the Tuttee in the gulf, and the capture of their leader, Hans Snarke. Borough made a short deposition to the Muscovy Company, which was passed first to the privy council, about alderman William Bond's illicit trade to Narva in 1576. Hakluyt used it in the 1589 edition of Principall Navigations alongside Borough's advice to the whaling trade and 'to disuade the use of a trade to the Nave by way through Sweden'. The direct route to Moscow via Narva had already been abandoned in 1581.

Although Stephen Borough had been consulted about Martin Frobisher's plans for exploring a possible north-western passage to Cathay in 1574, his younger brother was reported by Michael Lok to be:
not so well persuaded of the voyage, that he would enter his money therein; yet in respect of the service of his country, did take paynes to procure a master and many mariners for the ships; and gave good advice in the furniture of the ships; and did consent unto the opinion and mynde of the capitayn in the direction of the ships course in the voyage.
(BL,Cotton MS Otho E.viii, fol. 42)
Exchequer records show that William Borough not only sold his own mariner's astrolabe to the venture in 1576 for £3 10s., but that he also sold on a wooden cross-staff with a case for 13s. 4d. and several ruled-up charts, one of which survives as signed by him in 1576 (Hatfield House, Cecil papers/maps, CPM 69). This was used by Christopher Hall to navigate to Kodlunarn, off Baffin Island, in 1576, 1577, and 1578. In 1578 Borough allowed Lok to charter his new ship, Judith (100 tons), for £320 and took out an adventurer's stake of £25. Instructed by the privy council in 1579 to pursue debtors to the venture, Borough as its new treasurer took legal action against his predecessor, Lok, having him imprisoned in Newgate from November 1581 to May 1582.

Meanwhile Borough, who had kept to himself a version of Eden's translation of Taisnier's study of terrestrial magnetism and one of Pellegrine de Maricourt's De magnete of 1558, put them into print through John Kingston in 1581 in A Discourse on the Variation of the Compasse, reprinted in expanded form in 1585 and 1596. Apart from comments on Mercator's map and projection, Borough's published ideas were largely taken from Spanish teachers or his brother's thoughts. But his preface to the 1585 edition (sig. A3) advised it was 'inadvisable to be tied to Portugale or Spanish marine platts'. His academic and commercial ethics were criticized in cipher by Luke Ward during Edward Fenton's Atlantic voyage in November 1582:
'William Burrows is one who could fill his honeycombs with someone else's honey so far is he accustomed to feed French dogs while they bring in hares'
(BL, Cotton MS Titus B.viii, fol. 44).
The same year, and acting privately, Borough devised instructions to a potential colonial surveyor of Virginia, Thomas Bavin. In 1592 he was made an assistant of the Levant Company, having given them advice before their new charter was issued.

In 1580 Borough had escaped his difficult duties as treasurer to the Cathay Adventurers with the award of the post of comptroller of the queen's ships, which he shared initially with William Holstock at a salary of £100, plus allowances for two clerks and other expenses. Appointed with Benjamin Gonson as clerk of the queen's ships for life on 24 March 1582, he gained thereby a further annual income of £133 plus expenses. On 15 August 1582 he was asked, as clerk of the ships, to carry out a detailed survey of all naval ordnance, saltpetre, and powder in the hands of the officers of the ordnance. He would later identify the proportions and uses of three main types of ship and compile 'Tables of the prices and lengths of masts' (BL, Harley MS 306, fols. 20-21). He made the case for extensive timber shoring at Deptford on 19 June 1584. His appointment as warden of the Trinity House of Deptford Strond in 1581 was followed by service in 1585-6 as its master. From 6 November 1588 Borough was regularly consulted about naval estimates by the privy council; on 25 October 1597, for instance, he detailed victualling costs associated with taking 540 troops from St Valéry to assault Ostend. On 28 May 1598 the acts of the privy council approved payment to him of arrears of £1546 for 900 troops he had sent to Waterford. Until his resignation from naval office on 6 July 1598 he exerted a strong influence on naval procurement policy.

Borough's career as a naval administrator was not without controversy. He wrote in critical detail about the proposals of Sir John Hawkins and William Pett to refit and build ships for the navy in 1584, and criticized Sir William Wynter in 1587. Yet from 1582 onwards his advice appears gradually to have won the respect of Hawkins and the naval establishment, especially during 1588-9. Consequently his rejection of proposals to convoy ships from London to Bordeaux was not disputed in 1591-2. He also authoritatively resolved disputes with Hanse merchants over the suitability of different types of canvas for ship's sails in 1592, and other issues concerning the English monopoly of the supply of sails in 1596-8. His numerous technical contributions appear in the state papers; other survivals illustrate his compassion, including certificates of disability issued to seamen. His correspondence with Lord Burghley in 1595 and 1596 made the case for new fortifications at Plymouth. In the face of another Armada threat in 1596 he prepared two identical charts to show offshore sandbanks and tidal patterns from Goring to London, and the siltation that adversely affected the port of Rye and exploitation of the Rother valley's naval supplies. One of those charts earned him a commendation from the queen in November 1596.

Borough was unable to confine himself to official paperwork and writing. In June 1583 he was at sea acting as a comptroller of the navy in taking 'outragious sea rovers' and ten pirate ships into custody, and ensuring that all ten masters were hanged at Wapping. In December 1585 he took charge of a squadron sailing from Harwich to Flushing to view the newly garrisoned port and its readiness to support the earl of Leicester's army. In August 1586 he sailed to the Azores with Sir John Hawkins in the Golden Lion. In 1587 he sailed with Sir Francis Drake but was indicted for mutiny and cowardice. His response to Lord Burghley shows he was put in irons by Drake well before the crew's mutiny. His defence rested mainly on a chart he drew of the battle before Cadiz on 29 April 1587 showing the dangers of the station assigned to the Golden Lion. Duly acquitted, Borough was given the galley Bonavolia to patrol the Thames in 1588 lest invaders 'may come in at half tide' as his chart of the estuary shows. On 26 February 1589 he penned a strategic 'Discorse of what course were best should be taken for the resistance of the Spanish navy' (BL, Lansdowne MSS 52/40, 52/42, 52/43). A letter written from Chatham on 28 August shows he was occupied by 'the great business for the dispatch of Sir Martin Frobisher's ships to the sea ... in commission for the late Portugayle voyage' (BL, Harley MS 6994/104). It mentions too the 'business' (ibid.) of 'getting a good wife'. This was 'Lady Jane Wentworth, widow' (b. c.1541), the third wife of Thomas, Lord Wentworth (d. 1584). The marriage took place on 8 September 1589 at St Dunstan's, Stepney.

On 31 October 1590 Borough received an anonymous letter threatening his life, which he countered by giving it to Lord Burghley. His continuing concern for his family's security is manifest in his will. He left his wife much more than the value of her own dowry, worth about £74 a year, assigning her rents from the White House at Mile End in Stepney and from another house in Tower Street, Rotherhithe. His will of 26 July 1598 mentions his first wife, Judith Jones, née Pike (d. c.1583), a widow of Stepney, whom he had married on 17 November 1571 and at whose side he was buried at St Dunstan's, Stepney; his son Walter, who would inherit £500; and his daughter, Mary, who could receive up to £2000 on marriage, and £60 a year before that. Borough had died at Stepney by 28 November 1598 when his will was proved. It shows his protestant faith, and that his pastoral concerns ranged from the poor of Stepney, granted £20, and the poor of Northam, also granted £20, to the victims of the Swallow's loss. The will also provided for his brother's widow and her three surviving daughters. The brethren of Trinity House were remembered with £10 towards a dinner.