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Sir Francis Drake

England’s Greatest Sea Captain

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
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 Mylwaye.

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)
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 it was.

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 Mexico.

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 of Parliament.

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
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 Gravelines.

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).

Final years

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 for Drake.

  • 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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