Devon has always had a strong maritime heritage, so it is no wonder that so many of Britain’s greatest seafarers have a connection with the county, including one of our most famous sailors: Sir Francis Drake.
Privateer, politician, enemy of the Spanish, there are many parts of Drake’s long and varied life to cover, here is a brief history of Sir Francis Drake.
Francis Drake has gone down in history for being a key player in the battle against the Spanish Armada, a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I and for being the first Englishman to lead an expedition to circumnavigate the globe. Despite becoming a hero to the English, he had very humble roots. Francis Drake was born at Crowndale Farm in Tavistock, the eldest of 12 sons. His father, Edmund Drake apprenticed him at a young age to William Hawkins, a merchant in Plymouth and as an apprentice, young Francis was put to sea in his early teens. His name is listed among some of the first slave voyages undertaken by the English, alongside many of the Hawkins family. His father would later become a minister for the navy, so clearly sailing was in the family and Drake made such an impression on those he worked for that he was bequeathed a ship on the master’s death.
Drake didn’t stay under the radar for long, he first rose to prominence after being involved in the Panama Isthmus Raid, which saw him staying in the Spanish Main raiding ship for almost a year with the Hawkins family. The crew returned to Plymouth as rich men and were recognised for their work by the crown. Queen Elizabeth I who had a fractious relationship with Spain, as the country’s ruler had previously been her brother-in-law. She decided to send Drake and his crew on various expeditions against the Spanish along the Pacific Coast. Drake set out onboard the Pelican, which would later become the Golden Hind, and would return with six ships, some of which he captured. During the voyage, he became embroiled in a feud with his co-commander, Thomas Doughty. Drake accused him of witchcraft, mutiny and treason and refused to allow him to have a proper trail, instead hosting one onboard which resulted in Doughty being declared guilty and beheaded at sea. On the voyage’s return to England, Drake met with the Queen who declared that everything that had happened while in the Pacific was now a state secret, the entire crew were threatened with death should they talk about the voyage to anyone. To seal the deal, Drake presenter her majesty with a jewel he had stolen while in Mexico and to return the favour, she gifted him with a portrait and a jewel that he carried with him for the rest of his life. The jewel is now housed at the Victoria and Albert Museum and is one of the only remaining gifts from Elizabeth I in existence.
Just because Drake was now in the Queen’s inner circle and was often sent on missions across the sea, he didn’t leave Devon entirely. In fact, he returned to the county to marry his first wife, Mary Newman in Plymouth. The same year, he became a member of parliament and was given the title of Mayor of Plymouth. He didn’t actively participate in government matters however, as the queen often granted him leave of service so he could complete her missions, one of which included his circumnavigation of the globe. Even though he is credited with being the first Englishman to do so, his voyage was actually the third circumnavigation of the globe. Drake however was the first Englishman to complete it and the second person to manage it in a single expedition, which lasted between 1577 and 1580.
A year after returning to England, Drake was knighted aboard his ship, now known as the Golden Hind while it was docked at Deptford. After becoming a knight, he claimed kinship with a prominent Devon family, also named Drake and tried to adopt their coat of arms. They however denied any connection and Queen Elizabeth had to intercede and grant him his own coat of arms to avoid a scandal. It was during this year that he bought Buckland Abbey, which is a tourist attraction managed by the National Trust today. His wife Mary died and he continued to work as a politician and mayor, primarily interested in issues relating to Devon.
In 1588, Philip II of Spain revealed his intention to invade England and as Vice Admiral to the English Navy, effectively, second in command of the entire Navy, Drake was one of the men who was looked on to protect England’s coast. Queen Elizabeth I gave Drake and his crew orders to disrupt Spanish shipping routes, capture ships and essentially cause trouble. Over the course of a month, he intercepted and destroyed ships all along Spain’s supply lines earning him hero status in England and hatred among the Spanish. They referred to him as El Draque or the Dragon. Spanish sailors believed that Drake was in league with the devil and that was why he was so good at sacking their ships. Working under Lord Howard of Effingham, Drake and the Navy successfully overcame the Spanish Armada, saving England from invasion. Not long after, England sent their own armada to attack Spain, again with Drake in a leading role. However, the expedition cost more than 20 ships and 12,000 lives, leading to his relegation. Drake was denied command of any naval expedition for six years, giving him plenty of time to focus on his political career and also to settle down with his second wife, the daughter of the High Sheriff of Somerset.
That wasn’t the end of Drake’s naval career though or the hero status that it earned him. To this day he is credited with introducing potatoes to England, but actually, potatoes pre-dated his voyages by several years. He did however bring back potatoes and tobacco after a trip to America. He also attempted to rescue the colonists who left for the New World on the Mayflower and needed help at Roanoke. In fact, sailing the seas was the last thing that Francis Drake ever did. He died of dysentery while at sea. The crew held a funeral for him, burying him in a full suit of armour and a lead coffin and lowering him into the sea. Several expeditions have taken place over the years to try and locate him, but none have ever been successful, all the ship’s records showed was that the funeral took place near Portobelo in Panama. Buckland Abbey remained in his family for several generations and visitors to the site near Yelverton in Devon, can learn more about Drake’s time there by heading to the top floor of the Abbey which is dedicated to him. A replica of his ship, the Golden Hind, can also be visited while in Devon, you’ll find it in Brixham and several places, particularly in Plymouth, are named after Drake – make sure to visit area’s like the Royal William’s Yard and the region’s various maritime museums to find out more about Devon’s connections to pirates, privateers, smugglers and the navy.