Sir Francis Drake
England’s Greatest Sea
Born: c. 1540
Died: January 28, 1596
Sir Francis Drake, Vice Admiral, was an
English privateer, navigator, naval pioneer and raider,
politician, civil engineer, and boating enthusiast of the
Elizabethan period. He was the first Englishman (and the first
captain of a non-Spanish ship) to circumnavigate the globe. He
was also second in command of the English fleet against the
Spanish Armada in 1588.
Birth and early years
Miniature of Drake, age 42 by Nicholas Hilliard in 1581
Francis Drake was born in Tavistock, Devon, the son of
Mary or Elizabeth Mylwaye (Mildmay ?) and her husband Edmund
Drake (1518–1585), a Protestant farmer (who later became a
preacher) and grandson of John Drake and Margaret Cole. He
is often confused with his nephew Francis Drake (1573–1634)
who was the son of Richard Drake and Ursula Stafford,
grandson of John Drake (1500–1558) – Edmund's older brother
– and Amy Grenville (1510–1577), and great-grandson of the
same above-stated John Drake and Margaret Cole (cf. John
White, note. 2). His maternal grandfather was a Richard
Drake was reportedly named after his godfather Francis
Russell, 2nd Earl of Bedford, but throughout his cousins'
lineages are direct connections to the Royalty and famous
persons such as Sir Richard Grenville through Amy Grenville
and Geoffrey Chaucer through Ursula Stafford. Ursula's line
may be traced to royalty within four generations.
As with many of Drake's contemporaries, the exact date of
his birth is unknown and could be as early as 1535, the 1540
date being extrapolated from two portraits: one, a miniature
painted by Nicholas Hilliard in 1581 when he was allegedly
42, and the other painted in 1594 when he was alleged to be
53 according to the 1921/22 edition of the Dictionary of
National Biography, which quotes a certain Barrow, Life of
Drake (1843) p. 5. Francis was the second eldest of twelve
children; but as he was not granted legal right to his
father's farm, he had to find his own career.
During the Roman Catholic uprising of 1549, the family was
forced to flee to Kent. At about the age of 13 Francis took
to the sea on a cargo barque, becoming master of the ship at
the age of twenty. He spent his early career honing his
sailing skills on the difficult waters of the North Sea, and
after the death of the captain for whom he was sailing,
becoming the master of his own barque. At age 23, Drake took
his first voyage to the New World under the sails of the
Hawkins family of Plymouth, in company with his cousin, Sir
John Hawkins. Together, Hawkins and Drake made the first
English slave-trading expeditions.
Conflict in the Caribbean
Around 1563 Drake first sailed west to the Spanish Main,
drawn by the immense wealth accruing from Spain's monopoly
on New World silver. Drake took an immediate dislike to the
Spanish, at least in part due to their mistrust of
non-Spaniards and their Catholicism. His hostility is said
to have been increased by an incident at San Juan de Ulua in
1568, when Spanish forces executed a surprise attack — in
violation of a truce agreed to a few days before — nearly
costing Drake his life. From then on, he devoted his life to
working against the Spanish Empire; the Spanish considered
him an outlaw pirate, but to England he was simply a sailor
and privateer. On his second such voyage, he fought a costly
battle against Spanish forces, costing many English lives,
but earning Drake the favour of Queen Elizabeth.
The most celebrated of Drake's Caribbean adventures is his
capture of the Spanish Silver Train at Nombre de Dios in
March of 1573. With a crew including many French privateers
and Cimaroons — African slaves who had escaped the Spanish —
Drake raided the waters around Darien (in modern Panama) and
tracked the Silver Train to the nearby port of Nombre de
Dios. He made off with a fortune in gold, but had to leave
behind another fortune in silver, because it was too heavy
to carry back to England. It was during this expedition that
he climbed a high tree in the central mountains of the
Isthmus of Panama and thus became the first Englishman to
see the Pacific Ocean.
When Drake returned to Plymouth on August 9, 1573, a mere
thirty Englishmen returned with him, every one of them rich
for life. However, Queen Elizabeth, who had up to this point
sponsored and encouraged Drake's raids, signed a temporary
truce with King Philip II of Spain, and so was unable to
officially acknowledge Drake's accomplishment.
Circumnavigation of the globe
Sir Francis Drake, circa 1581
(notice the shirt is the same
as in Hilliard's miniature)
In 1577, Drake was commissioned by Queen Elizabeth to
undertake an expedition against the Spanish along the
Pacific coast of the Americas. He set sail from Plymouth,
England, in December aboard the Pelican, with four other
ships and over 150 men. After crossing the Atlantic, two of
the ships had to be abandoned on the east coast of South
America. Drake crossed from the Atlantic to the Pacific
through the Magellan Strait, after which a storm blew his
ship so far south, he almost might have realized that Tierra
del Fuego, the island seen to the south of the Magellan
Strait, was not part of a southern continent (as was
believed at that time).
The three remaining ships departed for the Strait of
Magellan at the southern tip of the continent. This course
established "Drake's Passage", but the route south of Tierra
del Fuego around the bottom of South America, where the
Pacific and the Atlantic oceans meet at Cape Horn, was not
discovered until 1616.
A few weeks later, Drake made it to the Pacific, however,
violent storms destroyed one of the ships, and caused
another to return to England. Drake pushed onward in his
lone flagship, now renamed the Golden Hind in honor of Sir
Christopher Hatton (after his coat of arms).
The Golden Hind sailed northward alone along the Pacific
coast of South America, attacking Spanish ports like
Valparaíso as it went. Some Spanish ships were captured, and
Drake made good use of their more accurate charts. On his
search for the Northwest Passage, Drake may even have
reached today's US-Canadian border. His account of the
voyage describes icy waters. Unable to find the fabled route
back into the Atlantic, he turned southward again.
On June 17, 1579, Drake landed ashore somewhere above
Spain's most northerly claim at Point Loma. Drake found an
excellent port, landed, repaired and restocked his vessels,
then stayed for a time, keeping friendly relations with the
natives. Drake named the port New Albion (New England), and
claimed it for England. It is usually assumed that Drake's
port was somewhere near the northern San Francisco Bay —
anywhere from Bodega to San Pablo Bay. A bronze plaque
inscribed with Drake's claim to the new lands, fitting the
description in Drake's own account, was discovered in Marin
County. This so-called Drake's Plate of Brass was later
declared a fraud. Although Drake's port has also been
theorized to have been at Whale Cove (Oregon), and as far
north as Comox, British Columbia, no one knows exactly where
Drake's brother endured a long period of torture in South
America at the hands of Spaniards, who sought intelligence
from him about Francis Drake's voyage. The precise location
of Drake's port was carefully guarded to keep it secret from
the Spaniards, and several of Drake's maps may even have
been altered to this end. It is unlikely that the riddle of
Drake's port will ever be unraveled, for the relevant
records at London's Whitehall Palace were burned.
It is said that Drake left behind many of his men as a small
colony, but planned return voyages to the colony were never
realized. The land Drake claimed in the name of the Holy
Trinity for the English Crown was called Nova Albion — that
is in Latin, "New England."
Drake's voyage to the west coast of North America is
important for a number of reasons. When Drake landed, his
chaplain held Holy Communion, as in the words of Thomas
Cranmer, "it is very meet and right and our bounden duty so
to do." This was one of the first Protestant church services
in all the New World (though French Huguenots had founded an
ill-fated colony in Florida in the 1560s). Drake was seen to
be gaining prestige at the expense of the Papacy.
What is certain of the extent of Drake's claim and
territorial challenge to the Papacy and the Spanish crown is
that his port was founded somewhere north of Point Loma;
that all contemporary maps label all lands above the
Kingdoms of New Spain and New Mexico as "Nova Albion", and
that all colonial claims made from the East Coast in the
1600s were "From Sea to Sea." The colonial claims were
established with full knowledge of Drake's claims, which
they reinforced, and remained valid in the minds of the
colonialists when the colonies became free states. Maps made
soon after would have "Nova Albion" written above the entire
northern frontier of New Spain. These territorial claims
would later become important during the negotiations that
ended the Mexican-American War between the United States and
Drake now headed westward across the Pacific, and a few
months later, reached the Moluccas -- a group of islands in
the southwest Pacific (east of today's Indonesia).
He made multiple stops on his way toward the tip of Africa,
eventually rounded the Cape of Good Hope, and reached Sierra
Leone by July 22, 1580. On September 26, the Golden Hind
sailed into Plymouth with Drake and 59 crew remaining
aboard, along with a rich cargo of spices and captured
Spanish treasures. The Queen's half-share of the cargo
surpassed the rest of the crown's income for that entire
year. Hailed as the first Englishman to circumnavigate the
Earth, Drake was knighted by Queen Elizabeth aboard the
Golden Hind, and became the Mayor of Plymouth and a Member
The Queen ordered all written accounts of Drake's voyage
considered classified information, and its participants
sworn to silence on pain of death; her aim was to keep
Drake's activities away from the eyes of rival Spain.
The Spanish Armada
Statue of Drake on Plymouth Hoe
War broke out between Spain and England in 1585. Drake sailed to the New
World and sacked the ports of Santo Domingo and Cartagena.
On the return leg of the voyage, he captured the Spanish fort of San Agustín in Florida.
(This fort still exists today)
These exploits encouraged King Philip II of Spain to order the planning for an invasion of England.
In a pre-emptive strike, Drake "singed the King of Spain's beard" by sailing a
fleet into Cadiz, one of Spain's main ports, and occupying the town for three
days, destroying 31 enemy ships as well as a large quantity of stores, and
capturing 6 ships. This attack delayed the Spanish invasion by a year.
Drake was vice admiral in command of the English fleet (under Lord Howard of
Effingham) when they overcame the Spanish Armada that was attempting to invade
England in 1588. As the English fleet pursued the Armada up the English Channel,
Drake captured the Spanish galleon Rosario, along with Admiral Pedro de Valdes
and all his crew, but causing confusion in the English fleet in the process. The
Spanish ship was known to be carrying substantial funds to pay the Spanish Army
in the Low Countries. Drake's responsibilities included carrying a stern lantern
intended as a guiding light at night for other English vessels opposing the
Armada. This exemplified Drake's ability, as a privateer, to suspend strategic
purpose, if a tactical profit were on offer.
On the night of 29 July, along with Howard, Drake organised the fire-ships,
causing the majority of the Spanish captains to break formation and sail out of
Calais into the open sea. The next day, Drake was present at the Battle of
The most famous (but probably apocryphal) anecdote about Drake's life relates
that, prior to the battle, he was playing a game of bowls on Plymouth Hoe. On
being warned of the approach of the Spanish fleet, Drake is said to have
remarked that there was plenty of time to finish the game and still beat the
Spaniards. This battle was the high point of the remarkable mariner's career.
In 1589, the year after defeating the Armada, Drake was sent to liberate
Portugal, which had been annexed by King Philip II of Spain under a personal
union in 1580. En route, he sacked the city of A Coruña in Spain. This massive
combined naval and land expedition (see "English Armada") was a dismal failure,
attributed to a grievous lack of organization, poor training, and paltry
supplies. It was a crucial turning point in the Anglo-Spanish War (1585).
Drake's seafaring career continued into his mid fifties. In 1595, following a
disastrous campaign against Spanish America where he suffered several defeats in
a row, he unsuccessfully attacked San Juan, Puerto Rico. The Spanish gunners
from El Morro Castle shot a cannonball through the cabin of Drake's flagship,
but he survived. In 1596, he died of dysentery while again unsuccessfully
attacking San Juan, where some Spanish treasure ships had sought shelter. He was
buried at sea in a lead coffin near Portobelo in Panama.
Drake in popular culture
A popular legend holds that if England is ever in peril, beating Sir
Francis Drake's drum will cause him return to save the country. This is a
variation of the sleeping hero folktale.
Drake's exploits were extolled by the patriotic Victorian poet Sir Henry
Newbolt in the poem Drake's Drum. A similarly-named poem was written by the
late Victorian poetess Norah M. Holland.
During his circumnavigation of the globe, Drake posted a plate upon
leaving his landing place on the West coast of North America, claiming the
land for England. In the 1930s, it appeared that Drake's plate had been
found near San Francisco. Forty years later, scientists confirmed that the
plate was a hoax, as had been suspected. Later information attributed the
hoax to E Clampus Vitus.
There is a high school named for Drake in San Anselmo, California.
A major East-West road in Marin County, California is named Sir Francis
Drake Boulevard. It connects Point San Quentin on San Francisco Bay with
Point Reyes and Drakes Bay. Each end is near a site considered by some to be
Drake's landing place.
One of the four houses of British public school Churcher's College is named
In the Jennings series of novels, the fictional Linbury Court
Preparatory School also has a house named after Drake, to which the main
characters, Jennings and Darbishire, belong.
Though England considers him a hero, Spaniards regard Drake as a cruel
and bloodthirsty pirate who used to sack defenseless Spanish harbors. Drake,
or Draco ("Dragon"), to give his Spanish name, was used as a bogeyman for
centuries after his vicious raids.
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