Sir Francis Drake is one of the great figures of English history most closely associated with the defeat of the Spanish Armada, but unlike many who rose to prominence at the Court of Elizabeth he was there for his dash not his noble birth so his position remained at the mercy of an always mercurial Queen, and he would often have to sail close to the wind to maintain it.
He was born in Tavistock, Devon, the eldest of eleven children to a Protestant farming family, well-connected but of relatively modest means, that was forced to flee the staunchly Catholic West Country during the anti-Prayer Book Rebellion of 1549.
Having resettled in Kent his father Edmund Drake, a lay preacher was formally ordained into the priesthood and appointed Deacon at the Church of Upnor-on-the-Medway where he administered to the spiritual needs of dockyard workers and naval personnel.
It was to be the young Francis’s introduction to the sea.
At the age of 18 he was apprenticed to a local merchant trading with the ports along the south-coast but more significantly his work brought him into closer contact with his cousins, the Hawkins family, who as licensed privateers were doing very well seizing ships travelling the sea-lanes to France.
Here was a life that offered not just excitement but the opportunity for great riches and the ambitious Drake was eager to become part of it.
Little is known of the early years of his association with the Hawkins family but he certainly embarked with them on a series of slave trading expeditions to the Caribbean and he was evidently a fast learner for by the age of 22 he had command of his first vessel, the Judith.
In 1568, he joined with his cousin Sir John Hawkins in an expedition to raid Spanish ships sailing between South America and Europe but bad weather and a lack of provisions soon forced them to take shelter in the Mexican port of San Juan de Ulua where in the belief that a truce had been agreed they took the Spanish Governor at his word when he promised them his protection.
It soon became clear that they had been betrayed when on 23 September a powerful Spanish fleet arrived under the command of Francisco Lujan and bombarded the English ships.
In a desperate but one-sided struggle 5 of the 7 English vessels were sunk or captured and both Drake and Hawkins were forced to swim for their lives from one ship to another as they were destroyed. They survived but as many as 500 of their men did not.
The events at San Juan de Ulua left Drake with a life-long hatred of the Spanish as a people that could neither be trusted nor negotiated with; they were also Catholics, and he hadn’t forgotten being forced to flee the idyllic home of his boyhood memory to the slum dwellings of the London Docks by anti-Protestant rebels.
He vowed revenge, and he would have it many times over.
Drake had been planning a major enterprise of his own intending to attack the town of Nombre de Dios on the Isthmus of Panama where the silver and gold successfully mined in Peru and elsewhere would be stored ready for transportation to Spain.
It was an audacious scheme and one that carried a great deal of risk so finding the money top pay for it was proving difficult; but his reputation as a skilled sailor and a man of bold endeavour had reached the Royal Court and after considerable lobbying on his part in early 1572, he was commissioned as a privateer - or someone licensed to engage in State sanctioned piracy.
To become a privateer required the tacit approval of the Queen and this encouraged those who had shown willing to invest in his scheme to actually do so.
Drake set sail from Plymouth on 24 May 1572, with two ships and just 73 men – he required as much space as possible aboard for all the treasure he felt sure to plunder.
Arriving off the coast of Panama in late July, Drake was to seize Nombre de Dios in a surprise attack just as he had vowed he would but wounded in the fighting and fearing he might die his men withdrew from the town leaving their haul of treasure behind.
Drake’s wounds were not as serious as first thought and he soon recovered but everyone was despondent that the opportunity for great riches had been lost still they remained raiding other settlements and seizing ships but it appeared that they would be forced to return to England having made only modest gains.
In April 1573, Drake encountered the French buccaneer and explorer Guillaume de Testu, a Protestant who ever since the slaughter of the Huguenots in the St Bartholemew’s Day Massacre of the previous year had been burning with the desire to avenge his co-religionists.
Even with their combined forces Drake and Le Testu could not hope to attack the now reinforced Nombre de Dios but reports had reached them that a mule train laden with treasure was on its way to the town.
Drake could muster barely 30 fit men including his Indian allies but along with Le Testu’s 80 men it was felt they could overwhelm those guarding the mule train but it remained a risky endeavour, made even more so by Drake’s plan to ambush them as they emerged from the jungle less than two miles from Nombre de Dios.
The Spanish and their Indian bearers emerged from the darkness and terrors of the jungle to be met by glinting swords and a hail of musket fire. Already exhausted and disoriented the Spanish resisted only briefly before in panic they fled back into the undergrowth from whence they had come. The haul of treasure they left behind was immense with some 200 mules carrying up to 300 pounds of bullion each, amounting to some 100,000 gold pesos, 30 tons of silver, and sacks full of precious jewels. indeed, there was so much some of it that some could not be transported and had to be buried in the hope of retrieving it at a later date.
Meanwhile, it had been decided that Le Testu, who had been wounded in the brief fire-fight was too hurt to be moved and so with Drake promising to return for him as soon as he could he was left behind.
Drake and the others now endured a four day march overland to rendezvous with their ships only to find them gone and a Spanish fleet moored offshore instead.
There was not the slightest possibility of Drake abandoning his haul of gold and silver a second time and so in a hastily constructed raft he set off to find his own ships which were a few miles further down the coast.
His men were at first pleased to see him but looking dishevelled and despondent they soon began to fear the worst, but he had only been jesting and taking out a string of pearls he gleefully informed them – we’re made boys!
Drake successfully loaded his treasure and was to elude the Spanish fleet sent to intercept him but keeping to his word first he sent a rescue party to recover Le Testu only to discover that he had already been captured by the Spanish and executed.
He had done what he could to rescue his partner but he was none too disappointed that he had failed to do so. After all, it wasn’t his head that was now on display in the market place of Nombre de Dios and now he cheated Le Testu’s men of their fair share of the treasure giving them just a fraction of what had earlier been agreed.
Drake sailed into Plymouth Harbour on 9 August 1573 to a hero’s welcome, and as he was soon to discover there was no better way to win the affections of a Queen who recognised the glory of her majesty in the adornment of pearls, the cut of her cloth, and the depth of her coffers, than the gift of treasure.
In November 1577, Queen Elizabeth commissioned him once more this time to raid the Spanish settlements along the Pacific coastline of South America.
But Elizabeth, who mistrusted anyone who sought to rise too far above their station, did not give him sole command, this he would have to share with two other men – John Wynter and Thomas Doughty.
This was a situation Drake found intolerable and one he was determined to rectify should the opportunity materialise, and if an opportunity did not materialise then he would manufacture one.
Tensions had been running high between Drake and Thomas Doughty throughout the voyage in large part because of Drake’s frequent attempts to assert his authority and his insistence that by reputation alone he should be first among equals.
Not long after docking in the port of San Julian, Drake accused Doughty of sowing dissension among the men and rallying them in opposition to his desires - he had him arrested and charged with mutiny.
The rancour between the two men was evident and in an attempt to ease tensions, John Wynter offered to keep Doughty confined aboard his ship until they returned to England where he could appear before a Court of Law but Drake would have none of it - Doughty would be tried and if found guilty, executed - the verdict was never in doubt.
On 2 July 1578, having earlier dined with Drake in an apparent act of reconciliation Thomas Doughty was taken and beheaded on the deck of his ship as his crew and others looked on.
Soon after John Wynter, perhaps fearing for his own life sailed for home.
Drake was now in sole command just as he had always wanted and both the gold and the glory would be his and his alone.
He would not disappoint and his voyage became an epic of Tudor history as he sailed along the coast of Chile and Peru seizing ships almost at will before setting off across the Pacific, through the Indian Ocean, and around the Cape of Good Hope.
Off the coast of Peru he captured a Spanish Galleon along with 37,000 gold ducats.
He then seized the Nuestra Senora de la Concepcion carrying a full size solid gold crucifix, 80 pounds of gold in sacks, 26 tons of silver in crates, numerous precious jewels in boxes, and 13 chests of royal plate, a haul so vast that it paid for the entire expedition and more at a single stroke.
Other vessels were also taken carrying expensive spices, porcelain, silks, fine cloth, and wine.
But Drake still had to get his treasure home and for 56 consecutive days storms raged, one ship, the Marigold was lost, two others he was forced to scuttle, and one was so badly damaged it had to return to port but Drake ploughed on determined to plunder for all he was worth – and there were few who any longer doubted his seamanship and ability to do so.
He was a leader, who unfettered by the airs-and-graces of noble birth was unafraid to get his hands dirty, and what he expected his men to do he could also do himself proving it time and again as he scaled the rigging, pulled on ropes, and steered the ship.
He also knew the language of the gutter, could swear better than most, drink as well as anyone, and could fight with his fists if need be. He had the respect of his men and with a hearty manner, a wry sense of humour, and the ability to make them rich their love also.
Having sailed across the Pacific, through the Indian Ocean, and around the Cape of Good Hope on 26 September 1580, Drake returned to England on his flagship the Golden Hind in triumph becoming the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe with his ships so full of riches that the Queen’s share alone surpassed her treasury’s annual income for a year, and those who had provided the money for the expedition received a 4700% return on their investment.
The clamour surrounding Drake’s return was soon doused however as Queen Elizabeth, on the advice of her Intelligence Chief Lord Walsingham who feared the Spanish reaction, seized his log book, swore the crew to secrecy on pain of death, and suppressed all talk of the voyage.
But the Spanish were fully aware of what had been done and who was responsible for it, and such was the excitement engendered by Drake that it would have been impossible for it to remain a secret for long.
Indeed, Elizabeth herself was thrilled, not just by the great riches but by Drake’s own tales of his derring-do, no doubt exaggerated for public and regal consumption. She wanted to be associated with it and was to personally present him with the gift of a jewel with her portrait on, an almost unprecedented honour for a commoner and one of some expense for this most parsimonious of Queen’s.
On 4 April 1581, Francis Drake was knighted in Deptford on the deck of the Golden Hind and later that same year he became a Member of Parliament and the Mayor of Plymouth.
But unlike many of his contemporaries such as Sir Robert Dudley, Sir Walter Raleigh, and later the Earl of Essex power and political influence were never Drakes motivation, for him it was always wealth, adventure, and fame.
Between 1585 and 1586 Drake once again roamed the sea-lanes of the Atlantic intercepting Spanish Galleons and filling the gunnels of his own ships with the treasure he considered there for the taking.
A furious Philip II of Spain thought otherwise and instructed his representatives in London to demand that Drake be tried and executed as the common thief and pirate he no doubt thought he was.
Elizabeth deflected the accusation instead questioning the Spanish Ambassador on the intelligence she had been receiving ever since the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots in February 1587, that Philip had been building an Armada for his planned ‘Enterprise of England’ – she would not forsake a man of honour, a true Englishman, at the behest of those threatening the security of her realm!
No satisfactory answer was forthcoming from the Spanish diplomats at the Royal Court merely insincere deference of manner and implied threat in word and deed.
On 19 April 1587, in a pre-emptive strike Drake attacked the Spanish fleet moored at Cadiz capturing stores, setting the town ablaze, and destroying some 37 ships. He later did likewise to Corunna before proceeding down the Portuguese coast bombarding forts and seizing a treasure ship.
He returned to England once more the hero remarking that he had ‘Singed the King of Spain’s Beard’ which to his mind had grown rather too long. For an outraged Philip II, humiliated before the Crowned Heads of Europe it was the final straw - the Armada would go ahead and England with its heretical and impertinent Queen would be brought to heel.
A reward of 20,000 ducats, or £2 million, was also placed on the head of the pirate El Draque.
Frantic negotiation carried out with insincerity and obfuscation on both sides now occurred as neither wished to be seen as the progenitor of conflict - the Spanish demanded concessions they would never receive, the English merely brought time.
Conflict resolution was never really on the agenda and on 30 May 1588, the Spanish Armada set sail from Lisbon for the first time but was forced to return to port due to bad weather. In the meantime, Elizabeth had appointed her cousin Lord Howard of Effingham to command the English Fleet. His Vice-Admiral would be Sir Francis Drake, and his Second-in-Command Sir John Hawkins.
Lord Howard was a member of the Queen’s Privy Council and an experienced administrator but he was no man of the sea, at least not in the mould of Drake. He would devise strategy and he would make the final decision but few people doubted who truly stood between victory at sea and the troops of the Duke of Parma on English soil.
And Drake was supremely confident – yes, the Spanish ships were larger and their guns more numerous but his were faster and more manoeuvrable and he could attack and move away before the Spanish could adopt their favoured tactic of boarding the enemy vessels. Moreover, he knew the Spanish, he had fought them many times, and they held no fear for him.
Late one afternoon an animated Captain Fleming sailed into Plymouth Harbour with urgent news but instead of reporting to Lord Howard he raced to where Sir Francis Drake was playing a game of bowls breathlessly informing him that the Armada had been sighted off the Scilly Isles. An unruffled Drake continued with his shot remarking:
“Time to play the game and thrash the Spaniard’s afterwards.”
He knew the waters surrounding the West Country like the back of his hand and was aware that the tides were against the Spanish and that they posed no threat but the remark nonetheless epitomised the calm insouciance of a man that had grown unaccustomed to failure.
In the early hours of the morning of 29 July, Drake along with Howard organised an attack of Fire-ships upon the Armada moored at Calais. Stuffed full of pitch, brimstone, gunpowder, and tar eight ships were set alight and sent downwind at speed towards the Spanish ships at anchor and unable to move.
Despite the Fire-ships doing little practical damage they sowed panic among the Spanish Captains many of whom despite express orders not to do so in the event of just such an attack upped-anchor and sailed from port breaking up the tight V Formation that had so far proved almost impervious to English attack.
The following day off the coast of Gravelines with their enemy dispersed the English assailed the now vulnerable Spanish ships pounding them at close range sinking 5, capturing others, and damaging many more but such had been their rate of fire that by late afternoon they had used up their supply of shot and had to withdraw.
As night descended Drake departed to plunder the stricken galleon Rosario but wishing to maintain secrecy he had extinguished the lamp that was intended to be the beacon around which the English ships would gather during the hours of darkness causing chaos and forcing the fleet to disperse - piracy remained in the blood even at times of national crisis.
Despite their success both Drake and Howard were disappointed by the day’s events and their frustration spilled over as they rowed furiously over Drake’s behaviour.
Unknown to them however, the Spanish Commander the Duke of Medina Sidonia had already made the decision to break off the engagement ordering his ships to make for home via the coast of Scotland and the Irish Channel but they were to run into some of the most violent storms seen for years and much of the Armada was wrecked with more than 5,000 Spanish sailors and soldiers drowned.
The magnitude of the victory at Gravelines would not be recognised for some time and to many it appeared that the Armada had been thwarted rather than defeated but they would never return, and in that both Howard and Drake had triumphed.
Following the defeat of the Armada, Drake’s reputation soared but it wasn’t long before it was dented.
In 1589, he was ordered by Elizabeth to destroy what remained of the Armada and to assist where possible those Portuguese rebels resisting Spanish occupation. But he was to prove a better deputy than Commander-in-Chief and in a disastrous campaign he was to lose 20 ships and 12,000 men killed for little gain.
As a man in the public eye it was the first serious setback of his life.
He returned to England a chastened man and for a time at least returned to Plymouth to concentrate on his duties as Mayor but retirement was never really in his lexicon and he was champing at the bit for the opportunity to restore his reputation.
The wait seemed interminable but at last in 1595, the Queen called upon him to once more ‘Singe the King of Spain’s Beard’ – he would cut Spain’s trade links to their South American colonies thereby depriving them of the financial resources to resume the war against England. But it wasn’t to be.
Not long after arriving in the Caribbean, elderly by the standards of his day and no longer the robust figure he had once been, he contracted a fever and his health deteriorated rapidly.
Sir Francis Drake died on 27 January 1596, aged 55.
Ignoring his wishes that in the event of his death his remains should be returned to England he was buried at sea in a lead coffin the exact location of which remains a mystery - so ended in the shadow of mystery a life that had been lived in the spotlight of glory.