The Men Who Shaped Britain, Part One: Sir Francis Drake

Over the festive period, Jacob will be taking a look at three men who shaped modern Britain during their time with the Royal Navy: Sir Francis Drake, Lord Nelson and Lord Fisher. 

Starting with Sir Francis Drake, Jacob takes us on a journey that details his life and work, his infamous reputation among the Spanish and his role in cementing Britain as a naval powerhouse.

It is not often that you come across a working class man at the centre of 16th century English life; so when one does come along you can be certain they are someone of great magnitude and importance. Sir Francis Drake was such a man, coming from an agricultural working class family, Drake was a testament to elbow grease and raw talent when making something of himself within the Royal Navy.

Sir Francis Drake Elizabeth I Royal Navy
Born of a humble background, Francis Drake would go on to become one of Britain’s most notable seafarers.

Upon Drake’s family fleeing to Kent during the Prayer Book Rebellion of 1549his father became a vicar for the Kings Navy, and subsequently through his contacts acquired for Drake an apprenticeship at a local barque that traded along the coast and France. It was this early start in the navy, around age 8-10, that really brought forth the seafaring character of Drake. The owner of the barque was said to have been so impressed by the conduct of the young man, that having no children himself, he left the barque to Drake upon his death.

After marrying in 1562 Drake joined his cousin, Sir John Hawkins, and his fleet on their expedition down to Africa in order seize Portuguese ships and their cargo that contained everything from spices to gold to African slaves. Afterwards the duo set sail towards the Americas where they would sell the captured slaves to Spanish plantations within the Caribbean. It is said that Hawkins was the first ever English slave trader – not a title to be proud of however one that is very important in understanding the riches that these two men brought to England.

Whirlwind Success

The pair made several more expeditions of the aforementioned nature throughout the early to mid 1560’s with great success in terms of monetary attainment. With the powerful Spanish navy patrolling the waters off of the Americas it was never going to be plain sailing.

In 1568, at San Juan De Ulua Mexico, Drake was attempting to restock and repair ships when he was abruptly attacked by the Spanish navy, destroying two out of three of his ships and capturing as well as executing Drake’s nephew. Drake and Hawkins were only able to escape by swimming from the attack only to watch on in horror as their men were executed. It is often rumoured that this is when Drake declared a personal vendetta of revenge against the Spanish, and revenge was to follow.

Golden Hind Sir Francis Drake Spanish Armada
The Legendary Golden Hind

In all reality, the Spanish were only defending their own interests from what they saw as British piracy in the form of Drake. Nonetheless, that was not the way that Drake was to view it. In the early 1570’s it had come to Drake’s attention that there lay a town by the name of Nombre de Dios that acted as a middle point for transferring treasure from Peru to the Caribbean Sea.

Drake and his fleet set off from Plymouth to the Americas, with Spanish plunder on their minds.

Treasure Beyond Comprehension

Nombre De Dios Sir Francis Drake Seige
Drake’s fleet lays siege to Nombre De Dios

After becoming wounded upon the first attempt to capture the town, Drake was forced to fall back to his ship, abandoning the treasure in the process. The seafaring captain was patient, picking off and capturing several booties from Spanish ships, all the while waiting for his next chance to strike at Nombre de Dios – and in 1573 Drake got his wish.

The captain successfully tracked a silver mule train that was transporting around 20 tonnes of silver to Nombre de Dios and laid siege. When Drake realised that the booty was so large he buried much of it before carrying what he could with his men back to the ships at anchor; with the Spanish in hot pursuit. All of this was made even more mind boggling by the fact that his crew was made up of English sailors, French mercenaries and also some African slaves who had escaped Spanish plantations.

A Hero’s Welcome

When Drake returned home, tales had already begun to spread and myths were born out of his already unbelievable tales of seafaring bravery and intuition. On the other hand, however, Drake was unable to be properly celebrated by the Queen, for a peace agreement had just been signed with Philip II of Spain – at this time in history there were few who detested Drake as much as the Spanish.

So, Drake became Elizabeth I‘s dirty little secret; sailing and conquering the seas in order to increase the royal as well as personal coffers.

Elizabeth I Knighthood Sir Francis Drake
Elizabeth I was so pleased with Drake that she arranged for his knighthood.

Elizabeth I was said to be so impressed by the raid on Nombre de Dios that she sent Drake to command an expedition against the Spanish along the Pacific coast of America. After setting off Drake captured a Portuguese merchant ship off the coast of Africa, retaining the experienced captain to add to his crew was an intelligent move, before looting several other vessels and setting off across to Argentina. Capturing ships was one of Drake’s specialities and more important seizures were to ensure his name in folklore come the Spanish Armada.

It was on the Strait of Magellan that Drake reminds us that his past is not all swashbuckling, nation building and enriching work, instead we see his dark side, like his role in the slave trade that cannot be romanticised. Arguments were a regular occurrence between Drake and his co-commander, Thomas Doughty, on their voyage to the Pacific coast of America. Relationships strained to such an extent that Drake had accused his counterpart of witchcraft and in turn charged Doughty with treason.

The strangest occurrence to come from this dark fiasco was an account of Doughty having dinner with Drake before his execution. The extract below shows the confidence and respect that Drake must have exhumed from even those he had sentenced to death:

And after this holy repast, they dined also at the same table together, as cheerfully, in sobriety, as ever in their lives they had done aforetime, each cheering up the other, and taking their leave, by drinking each to other, as if some journey only had been in hand.”

Drake pushed on with his lone newly named flagship, ‘Golden Hind‘, as he sailed up the Chilean coast towards Peru, pillaging Spanish ports and towns; capturing vessels and using their maps and charts to better navigate the waters encapsulates the intuitive mind of Sir Francis Drake. Ever the opportunist, Drake captured a Spanish ship holding 25,000 pesos of Peruvian gold (£7 million today) at Lima, before learning of a Spanish ship carrying an even larger horde of treasure towards Manilla, the ‘Nuestra Senora de la Concepcion’. 

Florida Treasure Drake Spain
Spanish gold shipments were heavily guarded, but Sir Francis Drake was more than willing to take the risk.

Aboard this Spanish ship, Drake found 36kg of gold, 14 treasure chests and 26 tons of silver. It is said that Drake was so pleased with his haul that he dined with the captured Spanish officers before dropping them off along the coast with a gift for each based on their rank. A truly peculiar story for such an intriguing man.

The voyage continued up the Californian coast where Drake set up a mini colony named ‘Nova Albion’  Latin for ‘New Britain’. Drake with his fleet then became the first Englishman to circumnavigate the world by travelling around the horn of Africa before returning home to Plymouth, all the while, befriending a Sultan king, almost losing the ‘Golden Hind’ and becoming embroiled in endeavours with the Portuguese on more than one occasion.

Elizabeth I Sir Francis Drake
Queen Elizabeth I was making money hand over foot from Drake’s exploits.

Upon his return home with a vast cargo of spices and riches, Drake was greeted with a hero’s welcome. The queen declared that Drake’s written accounts of his voyages were to become ‘The Queens Secrets of The Realm’ with the rest of the crew sworn to secrecy as not to further damage relations with the King of Spain. In 1581, Drake was knighted on his ship by a French diplomat at the request of Queen Elizabeth. It was no wonder that Drake was a favourite of the Royals as the Queens cut was said to amount to more than her annual income for that year.

The Spaniards and Drake were to have their final showdown when Philip II declared war on Queen Elizabeth’s England. Drakes mastery throughout this war with the Armada was to play a massive role in reshaping the global power landscape of that era.

Join us for part two of this article where we will explore Drake’s role during the Spanish Armada, a monumental event in history. 



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