By John J. Kennedy, PhD.
Associate Member
of the Académie internationale d'héraldique

The Enigma of Hudson's Ancestry
Hudson's Bay today is an interesting part of the dynamic Canadian north. It takes its name from Henry Hudson, the English explorer. Hudson, after voyaging to the river, named in his honour, in New York for the Dutch, set sailing on an English venture to explore the Northwest Passage, this was thought, by the late medieval and early modern explorers of the Americas, to be the fast route to the far Orient. By following this fabled passage, it was hoped the monopoly of the Portuguese and later the Spaniards in the lucrative spice and silk trades could be broken. The quest for this Nothwest passage was to dominate a number of explorations of our continent.

When those daring seamen set out and were frustrated by Spanish dominance in the Caribbean, they explored further north, in search of the Northwest Passage. Hudson set out in 1610 and entered in the Bay now named after him. He explored it, though actually he did not discover it, since both Davys and Frobisher had earlier sailed to within its reach. Hudson persuaded his crew to winter there, where enduring great hardship, they finally mutinied, setting the hapless Hudson adrift in a smallboat to die of exposure, probably in 1611 (see Parry, 1963: 221). But our knowledge of biographical details of Henry Hudson's life, apart from his written accounts of his voyages, is sketchy in the extreme. The Dictionary of National Biography, for example, indulges in outright speculation concerning his ancestry when it informs us that he "was not improbably, as has been conjectured, the grandson of Henry Hudson, or Herdson, alderman of London, who helped to found the Muscovy Company in 1555, and died in the same year. This older Henry Hudson left many sons and kinsmen, whose names sometimes appear as Hoddeson and Hogeson, and who all seem to have been interested or connected with the Muscovy Company". (DNB, 1963-1964, X, 147).

We do know that our navigator did have connections with the Muscovy Company (otherwise known as the Worshipful Company and Fellowship of the Merchant Adventurers trading to Muscovia, or the Russian Merchants). Rodney Dennys, the present Somerset herald of Arms at the College of Arms, informs us that, "these merchants traded cloth of all sorts to Russia and also ‘much defective Wines and fruits, not fit to be spent in this Kingdom (of England)', together with all sorts of English commodities. In return they imported skins, fish, caviar, potash, isinglass and much else besides" (Dennys, 1975: 149). It was one of the Muscovy Company's vessels that Hudson used on his voyage to Canada. This might also indicate that Hudson was familiar with the perils of sailing in the far north and with the dangers of ice floes and icebergs, perhaps even with wintering over in a given location, before having entered Canadian waters.

While the DNB's speculation then provides some intriguing clues concerning Hudson's family, it also raises several heraldic puzzles which, until we have greater genealogical information, will likely remain unsolved. For example, if we suppose the navigator to have been the son of Henry Herdson of Muscovy Company fame, we might point to a Visitation of London in 1658, where is a record of Anne, the daughter of Henry Herdson, of London, who married a George Stodard, also of London. Anne naturally bore the arms of her father, which were: Argent, a cross Sable between four Fleurs-de-lis Gules (BGA, 1889: 481). If tentatively we may suppose that this is the Henry Herdson of the Muscovy Company, we then might have the Navigator's family arms (obviously we still do not know which brisures, if any, Henry may have been entitled to use, even if he does prove to be Henry Herdson's grandson). Now, purely on heraldic grounds, these arms are interesting, when one onsiders the development of that later Canadian institution of the Hudson's Bay Company (whose arms were first assumed c. 1678 by the Company found in 1670 to take advantage of the fur trade, which was one of the slowly realized benefits of Henry Hudson's exploration of the Bay). The company bears: Argent, a Cross Gules, between four Beavers proper. Normally, the supposition is that the Cross in the arms of the Hudson's Bay Company was simply the Cross of St.George as in the banner of England (Swan, 1977: 216-217). But, additionally, can the Cross between four charges also have been a reference to Henry Herdson's arms in the London Visitation of 1568? Is then the DNB correct in its guesswork?

Heraldically, there is much to recommend such a speculation. But it remains only one intriguing possibility, for if we follow the DNB's view that the name Hudson was also often spelled Hogeson or Hoddeson, we find one William Hodgeson, merchant of London, son of Thomas, a gentleman of county York also mentioned in the Visitation of London in 1568, bearing: Gules, 3 scymitars (fessways) in pale Argent, hilted Or, the points of the first and third toward dexter the second toward sinister, within a bordure engrailed of the second pellettee. These arms are differenced cadet version of the arms of the family, whose name was usually spelled Hoggeson and as of Yorkshire origin, who bore the scymitar arms sans bordure as their basic arms (BGA, 1889: 497).

But still another possibility is given, if we consider the modern spelling, Hudson. For there are still other Hudsons in London who bore: Quarterly per fess embattled Or and Sable, three martlets counterchanged (BGA, 1889: 515). Given the fluidity of both Tudor and Stuart orthography and the present lacunae in our genealogical knowledge of the navigator's family, we are unlikely to accurately determine what arms, if any, Henry Hudson was entitled to use. Incedentally, this situation clearly illustrates the perils of an algorithmic and naive use of Burke's General Armory(which is in other respects one of the great armorial collections ever made, and does contain valuable reference material), since we have here three possible achievements, under widely different spellings, which have perhaps all come today to pertain families named Hudson. As should be apparent, there is no single achievement which belongs to any given surname, and perhaps not even any genealogical relationship among these families. While it is wise to exercise judiciousness in the use of Burke's data (e.g. ascertating a genealogical connection with the user of a legally granted, confirmed, or matriculated arms) we ought not condemn Burke's oeuvre because others misunderstand and abuse its sometimes valuable data. To dismiss Burke's holus-bolus, because certain people use it ignorantly, is not itself nonsensical, it is to throw out the baby with the bath water.

In any event, any genealogists out there are welcome to try their hands at the solution of the Hudson puzzle. Who knows? One day we may actually know what arms, if any, the navigator of arctic Canada was entitled to use. Canadians have a right to know this venerable explorer of our far north.

Sir Martin Frobisher and the Northwest Passage

Sir Martin Frobisher came from a prominent Yorkshire family of Welsh extraction, far removed from the sea. Martin, born in 1539, was after the death of his father Bernard in 1542, sent to live with his maternal grandfather, Sir John York, Master of the Mint and a Merchant Adventurer in London. When Sir John realized that young Frobisher had no scholarly ambitions, he sent him to sea. This proved an astute choice, for Frobisher enjoyed sailing in Thomas Wyndham's expedition to coast of Guinea in1553. No doubt these adventures in his youth impressed Frobisher, who seemed a natural sailor. On a second expedition, he was lefts as hostage to a native chief in Guinea, but was captured and imprisoned by the Portuguese. Eventually he was released, and returned to England by 1559. He married Isabel, the widow of Thomas Rickard of Snaith and, for the next 15 years, was gainfully employed as a pirate, for which he sometimes spent time in goal. At least some of this piracy was off the coast of Ireland, for in 1572 Frobisher was involved in a plan to rescue Gerald Fitzgerald, 15th Earl of Desmond, although the plan was revealed before it could be executed.

His wife may have had something to do with dissuaing him from other piratical acts, and with encouraging him to pursue the quest. For the Northwest Passage. After discussions with Sir Humphrey Gilbert, Richard Haklyut and John Dee, all gentlemen famous in the expedition of the new world or in its mapping, he obtained a necessary licence and financial backing. With three ships he sailed from England on 7 June , 1576 to the southernmost tip of Greenland, but then he lost contact with two other vessels, which returned to England. In the Gabriel, with only 18 crewmen, Frobisher pressed on courageously through fog and ice until on 11 August he entered what he thought was the Northwest Passage. In fact, he was at Baffin Island. He named the Strait in his honour (the town also named in his honour, Frobisher Bay, has recently reverted to its original Inuit name, Iqaluit, doubtless in justified recognition of the long association of the area with its first ‘discoverers' the Inuit) and proceeded to exchange gifts with the Inuit, one of whom returned to England with him. But the five men Frobisher left were never seen again. Frobisher returned to England, arriving at Harwich in October 1576 with some of the native black stones, which he hoped would contain gold ore.

The hope of gold prompted two further expeditions, which were supported by the Cathay Company, and heavily invested in even by Elizabeth I, all of which proved abortive in their quest for gold. They landed Frobisher in considerable unpopularity and debt, bankrupted his staunch Cathay Company, and involved considerable losses to the Queen. Frobisher realized too that his Strait was not the Northwest Passage and began to refer to it as ‘the Mistaken Passage'. He returned to Ireland with Sir william Wynter and after that took up piracy once again. This more lucrative profession improved his position and he was able to join Sir francis Drake on the famous 1585 raid on the Spanish West Indies. Probably his most famous role was in the command of the Triumph, under the Lord Admiral of England, Lord Howard of Effingham, against the Spanish Armada led by the Duke of Medina-Sidonia. For this, Captain Frobisher was knighted (Mattingly, 1959: 307-310).

Subsequently, Sir Martin suported Hawkin's view that the best defence against Spain was an attack on the treasure ships from the Spanish Main. In 1592, he and Sir John Burrows headed an expedition which captured the valuable Spanish carrack Madre de Dios. In 1594, in another expedition to aid the Huguenots of Brittany, he was wounded, and due to poor medical treatment, he died some days later in Plymouth (Hoffman, 1977: 183-185).

The arms used by the Frobishers of Doncaster, Yorkshire, from whom Sir Martin was descended were: Ermine, on a fess engrailed between three Griffins' heads erased Sable, a talbot Argent, collared and lined Gules ligne twisted into a hank at the end Or. Unfortunately, we do not know what brisures or differences were used by Sir Martin's branch of this Yorkshire family -- yet another heraldic puzzle. But, we do possess from his journals of his second expedition to Frobisher's Bay in 1577, an illustration of an encounter with the Inuit that shows the party in a small boat with the Banner of England, in which the Royal Arms of Elizabeth I surmount at centre point the cross of St.George (Swann, 1977: Plate1.1).


1. Stevens, Sir Leslie and Lee, Sir Sidney, The Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1963-1964. (=DNB)

2. Parry, J.H., The Age of Reconnaissance, Mentor, New York, 1963. (=Parry)

3. Dennys, R., The Heraldic Imagination, Anson-Cartwright, Toronto, 1975. (=Denny)

4. Burke, J.B., The General Armory of the Nobility and Gentry of England, Ireland and Scotland, Burke's London, 1889. (=BGA)

5. Swan, C., Canada: Symbols of Sovereignty, University of Toronto press, Toronto, 1977. (=Swan)

6. Hoffman, A., Lives of the Tudor Age, Barnes & Noble, New York, 1977. (=Hoffman)

7. Mattingly, G., The Armada, Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, 1959. (=Mattingly)

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