Sir Francis DrakeBuckland Monachorum
1540-1596
 
 

One of England’s legendary seamen, he was a self-made man. From very humble beginnings, he rose to the high position of Vice Admiral. Francis was an adventurer, willing to bend the rules and seemed to have no scruples. He had all the qualities to make him successful in the Elizabethan era and so he became very wealthy, influential and politically savvy.

Early Years
We are not sure of the exact date of his birth but he was born near Tavistock in Devon. His father was a Protestant tenant farmer of the Earl of Bedford whose heir became Francis’s godfather. Although Francis was the eldest of 12 children he was not granted legal right to his father’s farm so he had to find a career of his own.
 
During the Roman Catholic uprising in Mary Tudor’s reign the family was forced to flee to Kent and it was here that Francis decided on a seafaring career. Aged about 13 he joined a cargo ship plying the North Sea. He was a natural sailor and honed his skills on the cargo ship. When the captain died he became Master of his own ship, aged 22.
 
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Slave Trading
His big break came a year later when he sailed with his second cousin, Sir John Hawkins to Africa and the New World (The Americas). They were engaged in slave trading, taking West Africans to the Spanish plantations.
 
Although he sold the slaves to the Spanish, Drake took an instant dislike to them. On one voyage with Hawkins in 1568 they were engaged in selling the slaves in the Mexican Port of San Juan de Ulua when they were trapped by a fleet of Spanish warships. They only escaped with their lives because they could swim but the experience gave Francis a lifelong hatred of the Spanish and he did everything his power to get revenge.
 
Privateering
Francis Drake was what was known as an ‘English Privateer’. This means that he held letters from the government (Queen Elizabeth I) granting him permission to chase, board and pillage any ships belonging to a country that England was at war with - at this time - Spain. This suited Francis, satisfying his desire for revenge on the Spaniards.
 
On another of his Caribbean adventures in 1573 he managed to capture the Spanish Silver Train while it was moored in the port of Nombre de Dios. He made off with a fortune in gold but had to leave a fortune in silver behind because it was too heavy to be transported back to England. Francis arrived back in England with only 30 men aboard, all of them rich for life.
 
Temporary Spanish Peace Treaty
While he had been away the Queen had signed a temporary peace treaty with Spain so she advised Francis that she could no longer openly support him in his raids and that he was to adopt a low profile.
 
Circumnavigation of the Globe
This situation did not last long, and by 1577, Queen Elizabeth had commissioned Francis to take a fleet to plunder the Spanish possessions on the Pacific coast of The Americas. Officially he was going to Egypt but his secret instructions were to go the opposite way.
 
After a false start due to bad weather, Drake in the Pelican and his fleet of 4 ships set sail from Plymouth on December 13. This was the start of Drake’s circumnavigation of the world.
 
Drake’s Voyage
After crossing the Atlantic Ocean, one of the ships turned back but the remaining fleet passed through the Magellan Strait into the Pacific Ocean. A terrible storm blew the fleet so far south that Drake became the first Antarctic explorer. He turned his fleet around and headed north for the Pacific again. Another fearful storm destroyed one of the ships and the other turned back to England.
 
The Golden Hinde
Around this time Drake renamed the Pelican the Golden Hinde in honour of one of his patrons Sir Christopher Hatton. The Hatton coat of arms featured a ‘golden hinde’ or female deer.
 
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Capture of 'The Cacafuego
The depleted fleet sailed up the Pacific coast of South America plundering the Spanish ports and towns and taking advantage of the Spanish ships’ more accurate charts and maps. One of his greatest successes was the seizure of ‘The Cacafuego’ on its way from Peru to Panama. It was carrying 80 lbs (36 kg) of fine gold, a golden crucifix, countless jewels, 13 chests full of plate and 26 tons (23.6 tonnes) of silver.
 
1579 Establishment of a new Colony
Eighteen months after leaving England, Drake discovered a good port somewhere north of the last Spanish possession at Port Loma. On 15 June 1579 he landed, repaired and restocked his ships. They stayed for quite a time, establishing friendly relations with the natives and Drake even left some of his men there as a small colony intending to return for them in later voyages which never eventuated.
 
He claimed the land for the English Crown and named it Nova Albion (Latin for New Britain). Unfortunately all records of the location of Nova Albion were lost when Whitehall Palace in London burned down.
 
Mishap in Indonesia
Rested and reprovisioned Drake now headed west across the Pacific and after a few months reached the spice islands of Indonesia. He loaded up with a highly valuable cargo of spices and headed off. Unfortunately a storm drove him onto a reef and he had to dump the spice cargo in order to get off the reef. It was almost disaster.
 
Rounding the Cape of Good Hope
Drake made many stops on his way to the tip of South Africa. He rounded the Cape of Good Hope and reached Sierra Leone on 16 July 1580.
 
Arriving Back in England
By this time he had been at sea for two and a half years. He had no idea of whether Queen Elizabeth was still on the throne or if England was still at odds with Spain. Drake was no fool and before sailing into Plymouth he sent a courier ahead to find out what the political situation was. He knew that if things had changed he could be thrown in the Tower of London and executed instead of being welcomed back as a hero.
 
1580 Triumphant Return
On 26 September 1580 he sailed triumphantly into Plymouth with a ship laden with Spanish treasure and spices. The Queen’s half share of the cargo was sufficient to pay off all England’s foreign debt with enough left over for the next couple of years. The rest of the riches went to Drake and his remaining crew of 54 men.
 
Knighted on board the Golden Hinde
On 4 April 1581 Queen Elizabeth came aboard the Golden Hinde at Deptford and knighted Francis Drake for his accomplishments. He was the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe, second only to the great navigator Magellan.
 
Buckland Abbey
Sir Francis Drake bought the great house at Buckland Abbey in Devon and was elected a Member of Parliament. Buckland Abbey is now owned by the National Trust and houses a museum containing many of Drake’s personal possessions. It even has the original red and blue Elizabethan hangings that decorated the Golden Hinde when he was knighted.
 
Elizabethan Politics
Although Elizabeth was very pleased with what Drake had brought back, she had to be seen to be honouring the peace treaty with Spain. She could not afford for Drake’s exploits to be known to Spain so she ordered that all written accounts of the voyage be treated as classified information and Drake and his men be forbidden to talk about their exploits on pain of death.
 
Spanish War 1585
Eventually, in 1585, war did break out between England and Spain. Sir Francis Drake was delighted - revenge again! He sailed to the Spanish Americas once more and ransacked the ports of Santo Domingo and Cartagena and captured the fort of San Augustine in Spanish Florida.
 
Proposed Invasion of England
Phillip II of Spain was furious and decided to invade England to put a stop to this piracy and English arrogance. Phillip was determined to conquer England and return it to the Roman Catholic faith. To this end he planned to amass a large fleet of ships carrying troops, sail up the English Channel, pick up reinforcements from Spanish Holland and then sail up the River Thames and land his troops.
 
The singeing of the King of Spain’s beard
Drake was not going to wait for King Phillip to strike. In a pre-emptive move Drake sailed into Cadiz, a major port in Spain. The harbour was full of warships being assembled and provisioned for the invasion. Drake captured six ships, set fire to 31 others and destroyed a large quantity of stores. This action delayed the Spanish invasion by a year and was referred to as “the singeing of the King of Spain’s beard”.
 
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The Spanish Armada
Drake played a decisive role, as second in command, in the defeat of the Spanish Armada.

The Armada was first sighted on 19 July 1588. Sir Francis Drake was said to be playing his favourite game of lawn bowls on Plymouth Hoe when he got the news. He is famously supposed to have said that there was plenty of time to finish his game and still defeat the King of Spain. There is a fine statue of Drake holding a lawn bowl in his hand on the headland (The Hoe) at Plymouth.

Whatever the truth of the story, it is a fact that the English fleet slipped out of Plymouth harbour under cover of darkness on 8 July 1588 and the Armada was finally defeated on 8 August 1588.

Later Life
After the glory of the Spanish Armada defeat, Drake’s seafaring career went downhill. In 1589 he was part of a failed expedition against Portugal. On his return to England, he was made Mayor of Plymouth in 1593.
 
Death
Subsequent voyages to the West Indies and Spanish Americas also ended in disaster. He died of dysentery while anchored off the coast of Panama and was buried at sea.