Sir Francis Drake

So it’s occurred to me that I do a lot of research for historical based posts (some of which you’ve yet to see). Then I thought that I might share that research with you; so you can see what I’ve found out when researching the topic. Many of the things I find out I then end up glossing over, or changing, in my posts and so this is a way to find the real facts behind the history.

This particular research was done when I was looking at privateers or pirates for a post. In the end I focused in on Sir Francis Drake who was a privateer during the second half of the 16th century during the reign of Elizabeth I.

Quick Facts

  • Date of birth: around 1540
  • Place of birth: Tavistock, Devon
  • Date of death: 28th January 1596
  • Place of death: Off the coast of Puerto Bello, Panama
  • Cause of death: Dysentery
  • Burial: Buried at sea

Francis Drake was the son of Edmund Drake who was a devout protestant. He moved to Kent when he was young, possibly due to religious persecution, and ended up living in the hulk of an old ship. Drake was first employed as an apprentice to a man who had a small coastal freighter and upon his death that boat was willed to Drake.

Sir Francis Drake married twice during the course of his life. His first wife was Mary Newman who he married in 1569. When she died twelve years later they hadn’t had any children. His second wife was Elizabeth Sydenham in 1585. By this time Drake had been knighted and was becoming very wealthy so his marriage to Sydenham, who came from a wealthy family, was more socially acceptable. Elizabeth Sydenham lived in Buckland Abbey in Devon with her husband and was still alive at the time of his death.

Drake made his first major voyage in 1567, when he was part of one of the first English slaving voyages taking African slaves to the ‘New World’. Drake was the commander of a ship in a fleet led by his cousin John Hawkins. Only two of the ships survived the journey after the fleet was attacked by a Spanish squadron in the harbour of St. Juan de Lua. After this the Spanish became a lifelong enemy to Drake who in turn became a pirate to the Spanish. Upon their return to England Drake and Hawkins moved the English government to demand redress but when unsuccessful they turned to ‘piratical’ expeditions in order to recoup themselves.

Drake’s last voyage was a disastrous venture, much like his first. Again with John Hawkins it was undertaken in 1596 and was to the West Indies. Much to the misfortune of Drake the Spanish were prepared for him and the venture ended in the deaths of both Drake and Hawkins.

Drake and the Spanish were at odds since his first voyage to the ‘New World’. To the Spanish Drake was no more than a feared pirate who they called El Draque, meaning the dragon, and who caused them constant trouble. Due to a need to stay on good terms with Spain, Elizabeth I publicly rebuked Drake for his actions against the Spanish but encouraged him in private. His reputation was furthered when he ‘singed the king’s beard’ when he sailed in Cadiz in 1587, an act which delayed the Spanish Armada for a year.

In 1570 and 1571 Drake made two profitable trading voyages to the West Indies. In 1572 he commanded two vessels in a marauding expedition against the Spanish ports in the Caribbean. During this expedition Drake is reported to have seen the Pacific Ocean from the top of a great tree and on his return to the ground sworn to sail an English ship on it. He also captured the port of Nombre de Dios on the Isthmus of Panama. Nombre de Dios was the Atlantic depot of the gold and silver from the mines on the Pacific coast and, though much of it had to be abandoned when Drake was severely wounded, a great amount was gained and brought back to England. On his return to England with a cargo of Spanish treasure Drake earned a reputation as a brilliant privateer.

Perhaps Drake’s greatest achievement happened between 1577 and 1580. He was secretly commissioned by Elizabeth I in an expedition against the Spanish colonies. Drake sailed with five ships but by the time he arrived in the Pacific Ocean, in October 1578, only his flagship remained, after passing though the Straights of Magellan. Once called the Pelican the hundred ton ship was renamed the Golden Hind. Of the other four ships one deserted, one was lost in a storm and two were broken up as unseaworthy.

Drake travelled up the west coast of South America plundering Spanish ports as he went. He plundered Valparaiso and took the Cacafuego, which was the richest prize in history. In his quest to find a way back east he sailed further up the west coast of America than any European before, sailing as far north as San Francisco. In July of 1579 he turned south and then west across the Pacific thinking it safer than travelling back through the Straits. On his way home he went to Moluccas and Celebes, where the Golden Hind was stuck on a rock for twenty hours before it floated off undamaged. Drake then sailed round the Cape of Good Hope before he arrived back in England in 1580.

Drake brought back with him spices and Spanish treasure. He was knighted upon the Golden Hind six months later by Queen Elizabeth I, to the annoyance of the king of Spain. Between 1582 and 1585 Drake became the Mayor of Plymouth and the unofficial chief advisor on naval affairs for the government.

In the autumn of 1585 Drake was sent in command of twenty-five ships to the West Indies and the coast of Florida. He was to exact reprisals for the embargo Philip, King of Spain, had lain on all English ships. Drake plundered Vigo in Spain before he crossed the Atlantic after which he sacked and plundered Spanish cities. He took and held for ransom San Domingo, Carthagena and several towns in Florida. Upon his return voyage he picked up the unsuccessful colonists of Rhoanoke Island, arriving back in England in the summer of 1586.

By 1587 war with Spain was imminent. Sir Francis Drake entered the port of Cadiz and attacked the Spanish ships that were amassing against the British. He sank, burnt or carried away thirty-eight of the ships.

A year later the Spanish were ready to attack again and so came the Spanish Armada of 1588. Drake was a vice-admiral in the fleet that defeated the Armada and is closely associated with the English victory over the Armada. Drake was a gifted sailor and leader of men and his part in the defeat often overshadows that of Lord Howard of Effingham who actually led the English navy. Drake had to follow the orders of Lord Howard but he can take some of the credit for the fire ships that broke up the Armada at Gravelines. He can also be credited for training his men in the art of broadside, where the ships sailed in a line and when they came alongside the enemy, at a distance; the gunners fired a murderous volley with the sole purpose of sinking the enemy ships.

Francis Drake was part of the Counter Armada of 1589 which was significantly less successful. The attack resulted in the burning of the shipping and part of the town of Coruna and troops were landed for an attack on Lisbon. The attack failed and Drake was accused of staying outside the harbour and picking up prizes rather than taking part in the attack. After this there is little trace of Drake’s activities until his fateful expedition in 1596.


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