Webpage created: February 05, 2019
Webpage updated: February 05, 2019
SIR FRANCIS DRAKE (c1541-1596)
Plymouth's most prominent son was born in either 1541 or 1542 at Crowndale Farm on the western outskirts of Tavistock, 15 miles to the north of the Town which he was to later adopt as his own. His father, Edmund, was described as a "farmer preacher" and was strongly Protestant.
Unfortunately it was a period of religious intolerance and in 1549, following the Catholic Cornish Rebellion against the introduction of the new Book of Common Prayer, Edmund and his family were forced to flee the district, firstly to Plymouth, where they stayed with their cousins, the Hawkins family, and eventually to the Medway where Edmund Drake took a position as a chaplain. It was there on the banks of the River Thames that he learnt about ships, sailing and navigation. Indeed, he was only fourteen years of age when he first went to sea as an apprentice on a small trading bark that traded with the coasts of Holland and France. When the owner died, he left the boat to his young apprentice.
Drake was described at the time as low in stature, strong limbed, broad breasted, with blue eyes, brown hair and a full beard. He had a quick temper and a sharp tongue but once his impatience was vented, he would at once relax again.
He might have spent the rest of his life quietly trading across the English Channel had not world events taken a different turn. Queen Elizabeth had come to the throne in 1558 and she was mildly Protestant, so she re-instated her father's Church of England rules. This was much disliked by the Philip, King of Spain, who in 1564 ordered the capture of every English vessel that could be found. This forced Drake out of business and he returned to Devon, this time to Plymouth, where he joined his kinsmen, the Hawkins family.
In 1566 Drake made his first voyage to the Spain Main under the command of a Captain Lovell. At Rio de la Hacha the luckless Captain was outwitted by the Town Treasurer and as a result Drake lost his share of the spoils of the journey. This left him with a strong grudge against the Spanish.
The following year he sailed again, this time under John Hawkins, who wanted to open up legitimate trade with the Spanish and Portuguese, and with the support of Queen Elizabeth. Naturally, the King of Spain was against that idea. At San Juan de Ulua (now known as Vera Cruz), the English fleet was attacked while at anchor and destroyed. Drake and Hawkins escaped and Drake returned to Plymouth on January 20th 1569 aboard the "Judith". Hawkins landed at Mounts Bay in Cornwall a few days later aboard the "Minion".
Later that year, on July 4th 1569, Francis Drake married a Miss Mary Newman at the Parish Church of St Budeaux, to the north of the Town and within sight of her home at Saltash, just across the river Tamar.
But the home life was not for him and within the year he was sailing out of Plymouth Sound again, this time on board the "Swan" and in company with the "Dragon" on a voyage of reconnaissance to the Indies. He observed the movements of the Spanish ships, particularly between the gold mines of Peru and Nombre de Dios.
After a quick visit back home, he once again set sail on May 24th 1572 on what was intended as a small and insignificant expedition to Nombre de Dios but which turned out to be anything but. With his younger brother John as Captain of the "Swan", Drake and his volunteer crew aboard the "Pesha" sought out the secret harbour he had found the voyage before. Unfortunately it had been discovered by the Spanish and stores that he had left there had been taken. This incensed him even more and he set sail to attack Nombre de Dios. He failed in the attempt to do it from the sea so he retreated to the surrounding forests, where he made friends with the local tribesmen, the Cimaroons, who as luck would have it, also detested the Spaniards.
While waiting for one of the mule-trains carrying gold, Drake climbed a tree and caught his first view of the Pacific Ocean. He vowed that he would one day sail a ship on that Ocean. The ambush failed but fortunately caused such panic amongst the Spaniards that Drake not only managed to capture enough gold to make the event profitable but also captured a galleon and two frigates as well.
He returned home to Plymouth on Sunday August 4th 1573, during the sermon at St Andrew's Church. News of his return was whispered from pew to pew and soon the Church was empty except for the preacher. The congregation had flocked to the harbour to hear the stories of the voyage. Francis Drake had made a name for himself. Sadly, he had lost two of his brothers to fever during the voyage.
For a while there was peace between King Philip and Queen Elizabeth and Drake was sent off to Ireland to help the Earl of Essex bring order to the country. Over there he met up with Thomas Doughty and they must have discussed another expedition to attack the Spanish where they would least expect it, in the Pacific. On their return to England, they both hurried up to London to convince Her Majesty that such an expedition would be a great idea.
She agreed and on November 15th 1577 Drake set sail from Plymouth Sound, this time aboard his flagship, the "Pelican", a ship of about 100 tonnes and carrying 18 guns. With him went the "Elizabeth", under Captain John Winter, the "Marygold", a brand new victualling vessel called the "Swan", and the "Benedict", aboard which was Drake's faithful skilled carpenter, Thomas Moone.
This little fleet was quickly driven back to the shelter of Plymouth Sound by a storm but after effecting some quick repairs, they again set sail on December 13th. This time they made it to the coast of Morocco, where they captured a vessel that appealed to Drake so much that he transferred the captured crew to his own "Benedict" and took over the new vessel, which he renamed the "Christopher" in honour of Christopher Hatton, his supporter in the Court of Her Majesty. It was also at this point that the crew discovered the true nature of their voyage, for they had signed on only for a journey to Alexandria. It was due to the respect the crew had for their leader, that they remained on the voyage.
During their crossing of the south Atlantic, they captured a Portuguese vessel which Drake took into his fleet and renamed the "Mary". He put Captain Thomas Doughty in charge of her but some time later, when Drake went aboard her to arrange for the release of his captive prisoners, it was found that some of the stores on board had been pilfered. Doughty accused Drake's younger brother, Thomas, of doing this but the crew made counter-accusations against Doughty, who was released of his command and sent back to the "Pelican".
Doughty continued to cause trouble, however, spreading superstition and mistrust amongst the crew. When Drake put into Port St Julian, the truth caught up with Doughty and Drake ordered that he be tried for sedition. The trial took place in front of a jury, who found him guilty of mutiny and sentenced him to death. After receiving Communion with Drake and dining with him, Thomas Doughty was duly beheaded.
The expedition spent a month at Port St Julian, enabling Drake to reorganise his supplies and restore the morale of the crew. Two of the ships, the "Swan" and the "Christopher", were broken up as he could not provide sailors for all the vessels. Drake gathered the whole crew together and preached a sermon asking all the men to play their part in the expedition. He offered every man the chance to return home if they wished, and provided a ship for them to do so, but none took up the offer.
On August 17th 1578 they resumed their voyage and three days later they sighted the entrance to the Straits of Magellan. At this point, Drake broke up the "Mary" as she was found to be unseaworthy and he renamed the "Pelican" the "Golden Hinde" as a renewed tribute to Christopher Hatton, whose crest this was. Drake himself took command of her, the loyal John Winter was placed in charge of the "Elizabeth" and there was also the "Marygold", possibly captained by his younger brother, Thomas.
This was a dangerous time. The charts were unreliable and they had to be guided by their own soundings. But complete the journey they did and on September 6th 1578, Francis Drake sailed his little ship into the Pacific Ocean.
Sadly, this success was short-lived. The day after their arrival there was a great storm and the fleet was driven southwards. It raged for two weeks, during which time the "Marygold" foundered and was lost. The other two vessels took shelter for a while but another storm blew up and forced the two ships apart. Captain Winter managed to get to the Straits and he brought the "Elizabeth" back to England, believing that the "Golden Hinde" had been lost.
But that was far from the case. After searching unsuccessfully for the "Marygold" and the "Elizabeth", Drake resumed his voyage and headed for Valparaiso, where he had been told their were Spanish ships ladened with gold. He captured one ship and then sailed on to Lima, where, on February 15th 1579 Drake and his crew removed treasure from a number of other Spanish ships lying at anchor. Here he heard that the great vessel "The Lady of the Conception" had recently set sail for Panama ladened with gold so Drake set off in hot pursuit. In spite of her superior speed, Drake managed to overtake her and on March 1st the ship surrendered with scarcely a shot being fired.
Drake did not want to hang around, for certainly the Spanish would be out looking for him. He proceeded northwards looking for the mythical North-west Passage that would allow him to get back to England but he could not find it and the weather conditions were getting worse. He badly needed a sheltered and safe harbour both to hide inland to enable him to careen the ships.
At last he found a suitable place, which even had white cliffs to remind him of Dover. He named the spot Nova Albion. It was on the coast of what was to become California, at 38º North. a place to become known as Drake Estero. Here, on June 17th 1579, he nailed to a post a "Plate of Brasse", claiming the land for Queen Elizabeth. This plate was re-discovered in 1933 and is now preserved in the Bancroft Library of the University of California at Berkeley.
By now Drake must have realised that there was only one way to get home, by crossing the Pacific Ocean. Fortunately he had on board a Chinese pilot who knew these waters. So it was that on July 23rd 1579 he left the coast of Nova Albion and set a course of south by west into the Pacific. The crew did not see land again until the end of September, when they came upon the Pelew Islands. They received a hostile welcome here from the natives and quickly sailed on. After two weeks they spotted the Spice Islands, where again they were met with hostility. It was not until he reached Ternate that he received a warmer welcome. Here he was received by the Sultan with pomp and ceremony and was given many valuable gifts. Drake arranged a trading treaty with the Sultan which was to be important in future years. After a month he set sail again.
Eventually, after negotiating dangerous reefs, they arrived in Java, where once again they were received warmly. They crossed the Indian Ocean, rounded the Cape of Good Hope and on September 26th 1580 Drake and his crew arrived back in the safety of Plymouth Sound. Sir Francis and his crew had been the first men to sail around the world.
But there was a small problem. The expedition had set sail in December 1577, three years earlier. He had raided Spanish ships and mule trains laden with gold. Suppose Queen Elizabeth was no longer on the throne and had been replaced with someone who was Catholic and therefore pro-Spanish. Drake approached Plymouth cautiously and landed on St Nicholas Island. He asked a local fisherman "Is the Queen alive?". Upon being told that she was, he immediately sent messages to his wife and to the Queen in London. Mary and the Mayor of Plymouth rowed out to greet him.
He was ordered to take his ships to London and on April 4th 1581, Queen Elizabeth travelled in State to Deptford to view the flagged bedecked "Golden Hinde" and to enjoy a banquet laid on in her honour. While aboard, she awarded Drake a knighthood but asked the French Ambassador to dub her hero, thus avoiding any diplomatic complicity in the event. Drake had challenged the power of King Philip of Spain and established England as a leading sea power.
Sir Francis had retained some £10,000 of the treasure for himself (which amounted to a quarter of the haul) and this he used to buy Buckland Abbey from Sir Richard Grenville, although it seems that the luckless Sir Richard did not realise to whom he was selling the property as it was purchased via an intermediary. It was to remain Drake's home for the remainder of his life. He was elected Mayor of Plymouth, the first of only two non-councillors ever to receive such honour. with the remainder of the treasure he helped to found the Levant Company, which was the fore-runner of the East India Company.
But war with Spain was never far away in those days. An expedition in 1584 to the Moluccas was brought to a sudden end when it was diverted to the Caribbean, where Drake ravaged the Spanish colonies. This really upset the Spanish King.
At home, Drake's wife, Mary, had died shortly after they moved into Buckland Abbey. In 1585 Sir Francis married a second time, to Miss Elizabeth Sydenham, the daughter and heiress of a rich landowner.
In retaliation for the events in 1584, King Philip seized all the English vessels that were laying in the port of Bilbao. Such an affront to the English Crown could not go unpunished. At the end of June 1585, the Queen sent another expedition to annoy the Spanish King. They attacked shipping in Vigo Bay, burnt the town of Santiago on the Cape Verde Islands, stormed and overwhelmed the defences at San Domingo, and set fire to the Spanish galleons in the harbour. In February 1586 they ransacked Cartagena, the capital of the Spanish Main but sickness amongst the crew caused the rest of the expedition to be called off. They returned to Plymouth on June 28th.
But still the Spanish were talking of invading England and again Queen Elizabeth sought the help of her leading seaman. With her Seal of approval, Sir Francis left Plymouth on April 2nd 1587 for an attack on the Spanish fleet, then moored in the harbour at Cadiz. He sent fire-ships among the fleet and quite literally 'Singed the King of Spain's beard'. To King Philip, the time had arrived for a show-down.
Events moved swiftly. While King Philip prepared a large invasion fleet, Queen Elizabeth grouped squadrons of ships all along the south coast, with Lord Effingham, as Lord High Admiral of England, in command. There were three squadrons at Plymouth, all under Drake's command as Vice-Admiral. His flag-ship was the "Revenge".
On Friday July 19th 1588 the news reached Plymouth that the Spanish Armada had been sighted off the Lizard. This was the day upon which Sir Francis is said to have been playing bowls on Plymouth Hoe, when he uttered those immortal words about there being plenty of time to thwart the Spanish and finish the game as well. Drake, after all, was fully familiar with the winds and tides of the English channel.
That night, he warped two of his squadrons out of the Sound and around Penlee Point. By July 21st the Armada was off Plymouth, apparently unaware that the English were behind them in the Channel. Drake's third squadron sailed out of the Sound right across the face of the Spanish, firing at their leading galleons. Having done that, they manoeuvred astern of the Armada and joined the other English ships. Drake thought that the Spanish Admiral, the Duke of Medina Sidonia, would either attempt a landing on the south coast or carry on to the Straits of Dover, where an army of invasion could be shipped across from the Low Countries.
It soon became evident that the latter course was the plan but there were other English ships waiting to thwart that plan. However, Drake had a stroke of luck. He noticed the Spanish Admiral signal to his fleet to drop anchor off Calais so he placed his ships inshore and directly to windward of the Armada. Then in the dead of a moonless night, he sent his fire-ships in amongst the galleons, causing great panic. What was left of the Spanish fleet fled up the Channel, closing followed by the English ships until they ran out of ammunition and then left the Spaniards to flee around the treacherous north coast of Scotland and home via Ireland. The English had won and Drake once again returned home to Buckland Abbey.
But Drake fancied retaliating against the Spanish for their proposed invasion. He pleaded with Queen Elizabeth to let him capture Lisbon and set it up as an English outpost on the Spanish coast. In 1589 she allowed a joint expedition of naval and land forces but Drake worked best on his own, and the whole affair was a fiasco. So Sir Francis returned home to Plymouth and became an English gentleman for a while.
During his sojourn at Buckland Abbey he must have given some thought to a problem that he presumably noticed when his fleets were in harbour in Plymouth. The Town's supply of fresh drinking water came from numerous wells around and about the streets. Surely this situation could be improved. He set about a scheme to bring fresh water from the river Meavy direct to the Town by means of a leat. It is said that on the day the leat was opened, Drake rode ahead of the water on a fine white horse all the way into the Town. As a result of his role in this matter, the Corporation gave him 67-years leases of six water mills along its course.
Then in 1595 came a further call to serve Queen Elizabeth. He and Sir John Hawkins were to take ships to the Caribbean. Not surprisingly, the Spanish and Portuguese had now fortified many of the places that the pair had attacked on previous visits so the strength of opposition was greater. Both men were also getting old and it was not long before they both fell ill. In December of that year, Sir John Hawkins finally succumbed to a fever.
Drake failed in his attempt to capture Puerto Rico and was forced to abandon an attack on Panama. Things were going badly and early in 1596 he fell ill with dysentery. He realised his end was near and he dressed himself in his full armour and signed his last will and testament leaving all his estate to his younger brother, Thomas.
On January 28th 1596, Sir Francis Drake died on board the "Defiance". He was buried at sea off Puerto Bello. His famous drum and the rest of his belongings were brought back to Plymouth and placed at his home at Buckland Abbey.
In his time, Drake was a hero. Although some of his actions may strike us today as piracy, it must be remembered that he carried these attacks out with the full approval of his Queen.