Francis-Drake-art - 6/3/01
"Sir Francis Drake" by Lord Simon fitz Tomas.
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of files, called StefanÕs Florilegium.
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Mark S. Harris
AKA: Stefan li Rous
stefan at florilegium.org
Sir Francis Drake
by Lord Simon fitz Tomas
The name Sir Francis Drake is a legendary one. It conjures images of a heroic adventurer; he was a sailor, a pirate, an explorer, an admiral and even a knight. Unfortunately, precious little primary information exists concerning the man himself making it difficult to separate him from his legend. Historians have written volumes concerning his deeds, both good and bad. His legacy to English history is great indeed. He was among the first English pirates to sail the waters of the Caribbean and harass the Spanish shipping. He was forgiven his acts of piracy and commissioned as a privateer by Queen Elizabeth. He plundered the riches of the Spanish on both land and sea. He was the first captain to sail his own ship around the world and on his return he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth upon the decks of his own ship. Queen Elizabeth appointed him vice admiral of the English fleet during the time of the Spanish Armada. Yet, for all that we know, there is much that we do not. Few scholars have tried to pull back the veil of time to reveal the man behind the deeds. By examination of both some key events in Francis DrakeÕs life and the words of his contemporaries, we may be able to separate the man from his myth.
Francis Drake was born sometime between 1540 and 1543 on the estate of Lord Francis Russell, the Earl of Bedford. His father was a tenant farmer for the earl and a passionate lay minister of the Protestant faith. He led the simple but happy life of a farm boy until 1549 when a Catholic uprising forced the Drake family to flee their home. They fled to the town of Chatham on the southern shore of the mouth of the Thames river. It is recorded that they found residence in one of the old naval hulks moored in the harbor. These events forever changed the life of young Francis. Had fear of the Catholics not driven his family away from their home, Francis Drake would likely have grown to be a simple tenant farmer like his father. It is likely that these events, combined with his fatherÕs strong beliefs, created Francis DrakeÕs intense hatred of the Catholics. A hatred that he would hold for his entire life. The poverty of his family and the loss of their land forced the young Francis into the dangerous trade of a sailor.
At the age of 13, Francis was apprenticed to a small coastal merchant vessel plying a trade route in the north sea. He served his captain well and learned much of seamanship during this time. He learned the skills of a shipÕs pilot and honed them piloting the small ship in the dangerous North Sea. When the old captain to whom he had been apprenticed died, Francis Drake found himself the master of his own ship. He might have continued as a simple merchant captain for the whole of his life if he had not been the cousin of John Hawkins. Around the age of 23, Francis sold his small trade ship and enlisted into the trade fleet of the powerful Hawkins family. The Hawkins were embarking on a trade venture with the Spanish colonies in the New World. It was perhaps the first trade effort of its kind undertaken by Englishmen. The venture was certainly not guaranteed success, as relations between England and Spain were not good. It is apparent that Francis Drake undertook this adventure knowing full well of the risks. It was an adventure that would forever shape his destiny.
The first voyage that Francis took a major role in (1567-1568) was a complete disaster for the Hawkins family and their investors, who included Queen Elizabeth. The King of Spain, Philip II, had ordered his colonies to cease trade with foreign vessels. The English had no way to know this and when their squadron of ships arrived, they were denied legitimate trade. Before they could either sell the goods on the black market or return with them to England, a hurricane battered their small fleet. They were forced into the harbor at Vera Cruz to repair and refit. Before they could finish this task, a Spanish fleet arrived to find the port filled with English trade ships. John Hawkins was in command of the English squadron with Francis Drake as his second in command. Hawkins did not want to give up the port because he felt that the Spanish would treat him as a pirate given the opportunity. At a meeting between the leaders of the two fleets, the Spanish commander signed an agreement to allow Hawkins and his ships free passage to leave in exchange for them giving up the port to the Spanish fleet. The English prepared to leave. The next day as the Spanish were entering the harbor they betrayed their agreement and attacked the English. The Spanish fleet sank one of the English ships while it was still tied to the docks; it happened to be the ship owned by Queen Elizabeth, the Jesus of Lubeck. They killed many of the English sailors and captured many more. The remainder they drove out to sea on the only two English ships to survive the attack, the Minion commanded by John Hawkins and the Judith commanded by Francis Drake. It was this disaster and the bravery displayed by the two surviving captains that first brought the name of Francis Drake to the attention of Queen Elizabeth. This treachery, strengthened by his loathing of the Catholics, created a hatred for the Spanish that drove Francis Drake to battle them for the rest of his life.
Two years later, Francis Drake outfitted two ships for the purposes of getting some recompense from Spain for the losses at Vera Cruz. His desire for revenge led him away from the life of a merchant and into the life of a pirate. It is interesting to note that the first two ships he used for these activities were named the "Dragon" and the "Swan", both can be related to his family name, Drake. He made three successful voyages into the Caribbean between 1570 and 1572. His greatest success during this time was an attack on a Spainsh mule train carrying gold and silver to the teasury at Nombre de Dios. It was while preparing the ambush for the Spanish mule train that Francis Drake first saw the Pacific Ocean. He was struck by the beauty of this foreign sea. He fell to his knees and "besought Almighty God of His goodness to give him life and leave to sail once in an English ship in that sea." At that time, no Europeans, except the Spanish and the Portugese, had sailed the Pacific or even knew how to get there. Francis Drake returned to England a rich man, but not to the heroÕs welcome that he might have expected.
In 1575 Francis Drake arrived in England to discover that King Philip II and Queen Elizabeth had just agreed to a truce. It was very poor timing for the arrival of a privateer who had just raided Spanish ships and ports. Francis Drake found employment with the Earl of Essex who needed a squadron of ships to help him quell a rebellion in Ireland. For two years, Francis remained away from England and nothing is recorded about his life. In 1577, Queen Elizabeth requested that he lead an expedition to sail through the Strait of Magellan and explore the coast beyond. Three official reasons were publicly given for the voyage. The first was to establish trade with colonies that lay south of the Spanish sphere of influence. The second was to search for the fabled continent Terra Australis Incognita, a land believed to exist somewhere in the Pacific Ocean just beyond South America. The third was to find and return through the Northwest Passage, the sub arctic waterway north of what is now Canada that numerous Elizabethan sailors explorered hoping to conquer. Despite the official reasons, the principle objective of the trip may well have been plunder. The Queen met with Francis Drake herself and is reported to have said, "We would gladly be revenged on the King of Spain for divers injuries that we have received." Many of the details of the actual voyage are sketchy and sources disagree on many points. Certainly this endeavor was of extreme national importance to England and thus detailed records of the voyage may have been suppressed or even destroyed in the interest of security. Whether plunder was the principle objective or not, Francis Drake certainly did plunder many Spanish vessels in the Pacific. The Spanish ships were easy targets because they were completely unprepared. No enemy of Spain had ever been in the Pacific. The expedition returned to the English crown 47 pounds for every pound invested.
Upon his return to England in 1580, Francis sought to know if the Queen still lived and if she would protect him against the Spanish charges of piracy. His treasure, estimated to be nearly half a million pounds in Elizabethan currency, was transported overland to the Tower of London. While this was occurring, Queen Elizabeth came aboard "The Golden Hinde" herself and knighted its valiant captain. The Queen did this despite the public protests by the Spanish calling Drake "the master robber of the New World". In 1581, Elizabeth appointed Sir Francis Drake as the mayor of Plymouth. Though he obviously had the favor of the Queen, Sir Francis was not accepted by his peers.
Well-born Elizabethans such as Sir Richard Grenville and Sir Martin Frobisher despised him as a rich, but common, upstart lacking in the social graces and proper courtier manners. It is likely that the noble born Elizabethans disliked the fact that their Queen had elevated a commoner into the peerage. It is possible that many envied his wealth and success. Regardless of the cause for this animosity, it certainly affected Sir Francis DrakeÕs life. While mayor of Plymouth, Sir Francis purchased Buckland Abbey from the Grenville family. He conducted this deal through an intermediary, keeping his involvement a secret until the sale was final. He knew that the Grenvilles would never have sold the property to him directly.
In 1585 war broke out between Spain and England. Queen Elizabeth called upon Sir Francis Drake to lead a fleet of 25 ships against the Spanish in the Caribbean. Sir Francis proved himself a master at combined land and sea warfare during this campaign. He raided and sacked Santo Domingo, Cartagena, and St. Augustine. With these attacks, he relieved the Spanish of a great deal of wealth. The effects of this victory were devastating to his Spanish enemy. The Bank of Spain broke, the Bank of Venice (to whom Philip II was the principal debtor) nearly foundered, and the great German bank of Augsburg refused to extend credit to Spain. We can only imagine Sir Francis DrakeÕs triumphant glee for these events. The disdain from his peers might have lessened to some degree at these fabulous successes. Lord Burghley, Queen ElizabethÕs primary minister and Sir FrancisÕ most powerful detractor, even conceded, "Sir Francis Drake is a fearful man to the King of Spain."
In 1586 England received word through a leak in the Catholic college of cardinals that Pope Sixtus V had given blessing to the King PhilipÕs plan to conquer the English by means of a massive naval Armada. Queen Elizabeth appointed Sir Francis Drake vice admiral of the English fleet and gave him leave to do whatever was necessary to stop the Spanish invasion. The next year, he stormed into the Spanish harbor at Cadiz with 30 ships. After 36 hours of battle, the English fleet had destroyed thousands of tons in ships and supplies destined for the Armada. Sir Francis joked that he had "singed the king of SpainÕs beard." The Spanish invasion was delayed, but not stopped. In 1588 the Armada was sighted in the English Channel.
It is reported that when news of the coming Armada reached Lord High Admiral Charles Howard and Vice Admiral Sir Francis Drake, they were playing a game of bowls. Sir Francis is recorded as having commented, "ThereÕs time to finish the game and beat the Spaniards, too." Whether or not this is true, it is certain that Sir Francis did great service for England against the Armada and was instrumental in its defeat. After the defeat of the Spanish Armada, Sir Francis DrakeÕs fame swelled to previously unknown heights. He was the hero of England and her people. He was immortalized in stories, songs, and poems. It was the height of his career and his popularity was not overshadowed until Horatio Nelson emerged over 200 years later. Unfortunately, Sir Francis Drake never led another successful expedition.
In 1589 Sir Francis led expedition against Portugal that met with disaster due to disease. Further expeditions into the Caribbean proved likewise unsuccessful. In 1595, he led his last attack against the Spanish colonies in the Caribbean. After numerous failures and the death of his cousin, John Hawkins, Sir Francis Drake came down with yellow fever. He died off the coast of Puerto Bello on January 28th, 1596 and was buried at sea.
Sir Francis Drake was a legend in his own time. John Stow, an Elizabethan historian, wrote of him after his death:
Sir Francis Drake was low of stature, of strong limb,
round-headed, brown hair, full-bearded, his eyes round,
large and clear, well-favoured face and of a cheerful
Countenance. He was more skillful in all points of
navigation than any . . . He was also of perfect
memory, great observation, eloquent by nature . . .
In brief he was as famous in Europe and America, as
Timur Lenk (Tamerlane) in Asia and Africa.
Thus was Francis Drake. A common man of uncommon valor. A farmerÕs son who grew to become one of the greatest sailors the world has ever known. A pirate of the highest caliber and a servant to Queen and country. A knight beloved by the common man, yet despised by his noble peers. A great man of the Elizabethan age nearly impossible to separate from myth.
Copyright 2001 by Mark S. Cookman, 4703 Grove Point Drive, Tampa, FL 33624.
<simon at tampabay.rr.com>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited and receives a copy.
If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in
the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also
appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being
reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.