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"The Most Arrogant Man in the World"
by John Barratt

Despite his fame, Grenville is in some respects an enigmatic character, with large gaps in our knowledge of his life and activities. He was born in about 1542, three years before his father, Roger, died as captain of the ill-fated Mary Rose. Grenville gained early military experience fighting in Hungary against the Turks, and possibly in Ireland, but for almost twenty years afterwards he seems to have followed the life of a West Country gentleman. During this time, involved in enforcing government legislation, he was noted for his severity against English Catholics.

Like many of his contemporaries, Grenville became engaged in colonial ventures, and in 1585-6, at the age of 42 in probably his first experience of command at sea, led two expeditions to Virginia. Already contemporaries were noting certain marked features of Grenville’s character. A Spaniard who met him described Grenville as “the most arrogant man in the world”, whilst another wrote of his “intolerable pride and insatiable ambition.” Grenville’s cruelty, which alienated the Native Americans of Roanoke, was remarked upon, whilst some of the possibly apocryphal stories circulating about him suggested an instability bordering at times on madness. Another Spanish account claimed that “He would carouse three or four glasses of wine, and in a braverie take the glasses between his teeth and crush them in pieces and swallowe them downe, so that often times the blood ran out of his mouth without any harme at all done to him.”

By the late 1580’s Grenville was one of the English “corsairs” most feared by the Spaniards, according to them hated even by his own men for his “fierceness”. In English ruling circles Grenville was regarded with some disquiet. He was not sent with Drake on the famous Cadiz expedition of 1587, because it was felt that he would be unwilling to obey orders, and during the Armada campaign was relegated to co-ordinating the land defences of Devon and Cornwall. In mid-March 1591when he was recalled to unexpected command in the Azores Squadron, Grenville, almost 50 years of age, may have seen it as a last chance to make his reputation.
Copyright 2001 by John Barratt.
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