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

Jacob continues his look into the life of Drake in part two, exploring his role in the Spanish Armada. 

With England on the brink of defeat, desperate times called for desperate measures – and Drake was willing to do whatever it took. Brute force alone would not save England, and all of his ingenuity and guile would be required to defeat the seemingly invincible Armada.

Upon the conflict with Spain starting, Drake sailed down to the ports of Cadiz and Corunna where he occupied their harbours. Thirty seven naval and merchant ships were destroyed as Drake patrolled the Iberian coast, seizing cargo and disrupting supply lines.

The preemptive strike was said to have ‘singed the beard of the King of Spain’ by contemporaries at the time and the King was rumoured to have offered a reward that would amount to £6 million today for the capture of Drake; dead or alive. A fortune some might think outrageous but worth it to the richest Kingdom on the planet when you consider that the damage done by Drake delayed the Armada setting off for England by around a year.

Drake Cadiz Spanish armada
Drake’s raid on Cadiz proved instrumental for ensuring an English victory

Raids on Cadiz and Corunna were instrumental in securing time for the English to build their fleet and get them out to sea. The English took around three months compared to the three years that it took the Spanish to mobilise the Armada, and the time bought by Drake is one of the reasons why England was ultimately victorious.
When facing the greatest force that ever graced the seas, the English needed all the skill and knowledge that its navy could offer. Hawkins, whom I could write another article on for his work in empowering England and Britain in general, designed a Galleon that was much closer to the sea, therefore making it more manoeuvrable and quicker than their flamboyantly designed Spanish counterparts.

The Armada Draws Closer

On spotting the Spaniards off the south west coast of England, someone ran to Plymouth Hoe where Drake was partaking in a game of bowls, on hearing this news Drake apparently stated that there was plenty of time to finish the game and beat the Spanish (this account was not deemed to be factual however you would be forgiven for indulging the myth when exploring history).

Francis Drake Bowls Spanish Armada
Drake’s legendary game of bowls

It was known, however, that the English could do little other than to wait for the weather to improve in order for them to mobilise their fleet to meet the Spanish.

Drake and Hawkins were second in command to an aristocrat by the name of Lord Howard of Effingham. Effingham was intelligent enough to pass on powers and command to the experienced Drake and Hawkins; Effingham was no seaman and certainly not a commander who could solely dismantle the great Spanish Armada.

It was his decision to delegate responsibilities that gave the English the victory over the Spaniards – who were unwilling to delegate to their experienced version of ‘Drake’ named Juan Martinez de Recalde.

Juan Martinez de Recalde, Spanish Armada, Drake, Spain, England
Juan Martinez de Recalde

Recalde wished to attack the anchored English fleet at Plymouth but the Duke of Medina Sidonia refused to deviate from the King of Spain’s plan. The reluctance to listen to a more experienced commander in Recalde was to finish the Spaniards in this conflict.

Howard, Drake and Hawkins pursued the Spanish fleet that was far greater in numbers in order to push them beyond the opening of the Thames in Kent and at all costs stop them from anchoring in a deep water harbour. The English were unaware at first that the Spanish had an army of around 36,000 troops stationed in the Netherlands – a force that once escorted by the navy down the Thames would be unstoppable.

Before discovering the Spanish plans, the more manoeuvrable and faster ships decided to flank the Spaniards and to attempt to pick them off one by one or to push them into the North Sea, whichever would come first. When the Spanish intentions had been discovered it became imperative to stop the fleet from ‘linking hands’ with the Duke of Parma at an English or foreign harbour.

Spanish Armada, Drake, England, Elizabeth I
The Armada was said to be ‘invincible’ – Drake et al proved otherwise

After engaging with the Spanish fleet on several occasions it became abundantly clear that they would not be able to inflict sufficient damage to their ships without getting close and therefore risking being grappled and boarded. The Spanish were notoriously strong close quarter fighters at sea. Time was against the English as they were running low on supplies, especially gun powder, and Elizabeth was unwilling to ask parliament for extra funds with the fear that she would never be able to escape their favours.

A Daring Move

Drake, being the optimist and seizing upon an opportunity that an enemy had afforded him, decided to turn off the light at the front of his ship that was guiding the English fleet, leaving them in disarray throughout the night.

It was to be worth the maverick gamble, however. The previous day during the English bombardment, a Spanish ship, ‘Rosario’, had collided with one of her fellow vessels leaving her stranded and abandoned by the escaping Spanish fleet. Drake slithered through the night like a serpent, drew alongside the vessel and boarded. What he found within the cargo was to change the tide of the war; gun powder and ammunition, gold worth £10 million in today’s value that was supposed to be used to pay the army of the Duke of Parma. However, ammunition was still a cause for concern.

What Drake learned approaching the ship and on board was to be of much greater value when it came to battle than the newly acquired riches. The Spanish, it was discovered, used land cannons aboard their ships, notoriously clunky and hard to manoeuvre, Drake noticed that the English cannon was far sleeker and technologically advanced. Drake also discovered the optimum distance for engaging with a Spanish galleon without being grappled- 100 metres.

Spanish Galleons were among the finest naval vessels of their era. On occasions however, their firepower lacked compared to their English counterparts

On pursuing the Spanish fleet the English were armed with information and booty that would win them the war; providing they could stop the Spanish naval and land forces from joining together. After securing a victory off of the Solent at the Isle of Wight, the English fleet bombarded the Spanish with cannon round after cannon round, firing up to five times faster than the Spanish arsenal and chasing them out of the Channel. Some Spanish sailor accounts state that ‘it was as if the devil was loading the English guns himself.’

A Divided Force

A major flaw in the Spanish plan was how the two armies would meet up and at this time in history communication between a moving naval fleet and land forces was almost impossible. The Duke of Medina-Sodonia, having no experience as a commander at sea, was quickly losing the war and decided to make a rash decision to anchor at the friendly French port of Calais. The Duke of Parma’s army lay tens of miles up the coast and in turn tens of miles from the destruction of Protestant England.

Spanish Armada England Drake
The fighting between the Spanish and English fleets was a bloody affair

A desperate tactic was used to ensure that the Spanish were not able to link up forces; the English commanders set fire to ships and sent them into Calais, forcing the Spanish captains to sail out into the open Channel. Lord Howard and his commanders were forced to engage, using up what little ammunition they still held in one final flurry, it even being said that towards the end of the days battle, the English cannons were firing what ever they could find on board at the Spanish.

The English were aided by Dutch boats blockading Dunkirk and the shallow waters off of the north west coast of Europe; ensuring that the Spanish forces had no way of linking up even if the Spaniards won the Battle of Gravelines. Therefore, the result of all of this was the Spanish being chased to the Firth of Forth before the English disengaged.

Alas, England was saved.

Legendary Status

Drake partook in several campaigns after his battle with the Armada with little to no success before dying of dysentery at Portobelo, Panama. Nonetheless, Sir Francis Drake was the epitome of early British courage in the face of the gargantuan power of Catholic Spain. He was a trouble maker that Queen Elizabeth could not have done without in times of poverty and destitution.

At a time when England was no more than a sick man in a dark corner of Europe, Drake brought forth a working class vigour when approaching matters of Queen and country. By securing vast riches, ships and spices from across the world Drake went a long way in establishing naval supremacy for England and in turn the future United Kingdom. A never say die attitude allowed this exceptional man with the help of his cousin and Lord Howard to outwit the Armada and set out blue prints during his voyages that would shape the future of the Royal Navy.

Drake, an English hero and a Spanish pirate, laid the foundations for Britain to rule the waves.

“The people of quality dislike him for having risen so high from such a lowly family; the rest say he is the main cause of wars.” 

Gonzalo Gonzalez del Castillo in a letter to the King of Spain in 1591.


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