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Vice Admiral Sir Francis Drake c1540-1596

The greatest sailor of his generation, the navigator Francis Drake was famous in his own lifetime. He first went to sea aged 13, an apprentice on a small trading ship. The master left the ship to Drake who sold it and sailed with his cousin Sir John Hawkins. Hawkins and Drake made the first English slave-trading expeditions.

The dream of French and English privateers in the sixteenth century was to capture Spanish silver mined in the Andes and then transported back to Spain. The most vulnerable part of the journey was crossing the isthmus of Panama in Central America. It was here with the help of the cimarrones, escaped slaves who fought the Spanish, that Drake ambushed a treasure train in February 1573. He returned to England a wealthy man.

In 1577 Drake was commissioned to circumnavigate the globe, Queen Elizabeth being among the sponsors of the expedition. On the three year voyage aboard the Golden Hind Drake sailed through the Straits of Megallan into the Pacific. Here he raided Spanish treasure ships before proceeding up the coast of the Americas and landed in what is now California naming it Nova Albion (New England). Turning west across the Pacific, Drake visited the East Indies and loaded his ship with spices before returning to England via the Cape of Good Hope.

Drake's feat of navigation was extraordinary. Only one man, Magellan, had ever circumnavigated the globe before and he had not lived to tell the tale. The expedition captured an estimated £600,000 worth of booty and demonstrated the wealth and vulnerability of the Spanish empire. The Queen's share of £300,000 was more than the crown's income for a whole year.

War broke out with Spain in 1585. Drake sailed for the West Indies and stormed the Spanish cities of Santa Domingo and Cartegena. On the way back to England Drake captured the Spanish fort of San Agustín in Florida. As a result of these attacks King Philip II of Spain ordered planning to begin for an invasion of England.

The following year Drake famously 'singed the King of Spain's beard' when he boldly sailed a fleet into Cadiz, one of Spain's main ports, occupied the town for three days and destroyed 26 enemy ships as well as a large quantity of stores. This attack delayed the Spanish invasion by a year.

When the Spanish Armada was sighted on 19 July 1588 Drake was playing a game of bowls on Plymouth Hoe. Legend has it that he finished the game boarding the Revenge. As the English fleet pursued the Armada up the Channel, Drake captured the Spanish galleon Rosario causing confusion in the English fleet in the process. He was also present at the Battle of Gravelines off Calais on 30 July 1588.

Under orders from the Queen to destroy the remains of the Armada, Drake led an unsuccessful expedition in 1589. After destroying a few Spanish ships in Corunna, Drake and Sir John Norris, commanding the troops, decided to excite a popular uprising in Portugal. An attack on Lisbon failed and with no Portuguese support the expedition returned to England empty handed. The Queen was furious and Drake was in disgrace.

Drake undertook a further privateering expedition to the West Indies in company with Hawkins. He died of yellow fever at Puerto Bello in Panama in 1596.

Further reading:

  • N.A.M. Rodger, The Safeguard of the Sea; A Naval History of Britain 660-1649 (London, 1997).