Born in June 1542, at Buckland Abbey, Devon. Little is known about Grenville’s early life, except that he killed a man in a duel and was admitted as a student to the Inner Temple in 1559. He was elected a Member of Parliament in 1563 for Cornwall. He took part in the Emperor Maximillian III’s campaign against the Turks in 1567 and in 1576 he was made Sheriff of Cornwall and knighted.
He began his maritime career in 1583 when he was employed as a commissioner for the works at Dover Harbour. In 1585 he made the first of his two voyages to Virginia to further the development of the colony. On his homeward journey in October, he was attacked by a Spanish ship, which was overpowered and captured. Grenville returned to Virginia in 1586, with stores for the colonists, but they had left prior to his arrival. On his return journey he landed at Azores, pillaged its towns, and captured Spanish prisoners. By this time Grenville was a wealthy shipowner. He provided three ships for the fleet that fought against the Spanish Armada, and afterwards commanded a small naval force in Irish waters hoping to pick up one or two of the wrecked Spanish ships as prizes.
In 1591 Grenville was appointed Vice-Admiral and second-in-command of a naval force under Lord Thomas Howard, which was sent to the Azores to await for the homeward bound Spanish treasure fleet. During this wait Grenville’s ship, the Renown had to land over half its crew of 250 men, due to sickness. Unknown to the English, the Spanish had sent out a fleet to escort the treasure convoy. On their arrival on the 30th August 1591, Howard’s force was too small to give battle. They only had time to embark the sick and escape from a greatly superior force. The Renown was cut off from the rest of the naval force. The ship tried to fight its way round the Spanish fleet, but was surrounded. For fifteen hours the Renown battled against the Spaniards, sinking one ship and driving off another, causing serious damage, but in the end she was forced to surrender. During this action, Grenville was mortally wounded. He was taken aboard the Spanish flagship San Pablo, and died three days later.
© Royal Naval Museum Library, 2003
The information contained in this fact sheet is correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the library for a bibliography of further reading materials, if available.