Virginia and Essex – a World Apart

Virginia & Essex: a special relationship

Over 400 years ago,100 intrepid men and boys crammed into three small ships and made the momentous crossing of the Atlantic from England to America.

How different was the world of the early 1600s from that we live in today. It was a time of great conquest and discovery, as the European powers devoted massive resources to exploring distant lands. Following Christopher Columbus’ voyage to America in 1492, naval expeditions scoured the globe in pursuit of mineral wealth and military superiority.

Expeditions financed by King Henry VII set off from London to North America, while English ships fished the seas off Newfoundland from the late fifteenth century onwards. In the reign of Elizabeth l, businessmen with experience in Irish colonisation began thinking that American colonies might prove commercially viable and during the1580s, there was a series of attempts to establish settlements and trading posts on the North Atlantic Seaboard.

War with Spain Cuts off Communication

Sir Walter Raleigh received a charter from Elizabeth l to colonise Virginia, the area of North American named after her, the ‘Virgin Queen’. Raleigh attempted to convert a naval base at Roanoake Island into a settled colony. When war with the Spanish cut off communications with England, the settlers were left to fend for themselves and a relief expedition in 1590 found no trace of the settlers. Centuries of speculation and investigation have failed to unearth what actually happened to the Roanoake settlers. The mystery endures to this day.

The Famous Virginian Charter

Failures such as these did not put an end to English hopes of finding great wealth in America. In 1604, with James l on the throne and the war with the Spanish over, efforts to establish a permanent colony across the Atlantic began in earnest. One particular group of entrepreneurs began petitioning King James l for permission to establish a settlement in Virginia.

In June 1606, two years of lobbying finally paid off when seven gentlemen, calling themselves ‘The Virginia Company of London’ secured a royal charter permitting them to settle in the parts of North America not already occupied by Spain or France. The area granted for colonisation stretched between 34 degrees and 41 degrees north (roughly from Cape Fear t New York) and extended 100 miles inland from the coast.

I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing By

On 19 December 1606, the famous three ships the Susan Constant, the Discovery and the Godspeed set sail from Blackwall in London from a point now marked by a large statue at Virginia Quay. It is often said that the song ‘I saw three ships come sailing by’ is about the trip of trips that sailed along the Thames that Christmas. On 13 May 1607 the small fleet finally reached the sanctuary of the Chesapeake Bay. How relieved the settles must have felt upon seeing land after months at sea.


  1. Essex and Virginia A Special Relationship published by Essex Coiunty Council 2007