Former Mayor of Plymouth.. pirate or hero? Who was Sir Francis Drake really?

Sir Francis Drake by Marcus Gheeraerts (1591) and the Armada Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I

Probably the most iconic figure in Plymouth, although born in Tavistock, Sir Francis Drake was many things: sea captain, privateer, slave trader, pirate and eventually a Vice Admiral in the Elizabethan era. But above all he was known for his explorations and battles. He led a very colourful life in the 1500s, becoming famous for lining the pockets of Queen Bess, the country and his own with Spanish treasures, defeated the largest fleet ever to have sailed, the 130 ship Spanish Armada, earning himself the title of El Draque by the Spanish king whose beard he singed only the year before when ransacking the port of Cadiz to delay the Spanish invasion plans.

Sir Francis Drake was also the first skipper to circumnavigate the globe, built a water duct for Plymouth as its mayor in 1581, and famously graced the bowling green on the magnificent Hoe while calmly commenting, “there is time enough to finish the game and defeat the Spanish.”

Launch of fireships against the Spanish Armada, 7 August 1588

To declare ‘some’ of his spoils, many a time would he have stepped through the grand doorway of the Old Customs House on the Barbican, which still stands today, though not overlooking the end of Sutton Pool as it did then, as the area has been filled in for hard standing. His homecomings across Plymouth Sound, aboard the Golden Hind, would no doubt have rivalled any welcome in history. Plymouth and in particular the Hoe is littered with stories of such characters of diverse talents and interests, spanning the breadth of human endeavours.

Delve into the history of his life with more info below:

Drake became the first European to sail and explore much of the Americas. However, Drake didn't strictly 'discover' these lands, as indiginous populations were settled long before Drake landed.

Francis Drake was born in Tavistock, Devon, around 1542. The eldest of 12 sons, he first went to sea as an apprentice aged 12. During the period in which he lived, there was a rise in England’s population and a desire to explore the world for trade routes and colonies, and to benefit from the huge profits being made from the Americas and the Eastern spice trade.

Edmund Drake, Sir Francis' father, was a tenant farmer for Francis Russell, 2nd Earl of Bedford. He fled his native county after being charged for “assault and robbery” in 1548.

Drake voyaged around the world between 1577 to 1580. The original purpose of the trip was to raid Spanish ships and ports. 

The expedition left Plymouth in southwest England on 13 December comprised of five ships: the Pelican, Elizabeth, Marigold, Swan, and Christopher, manned by a total of 164 seamen.

Drake himself sailed on the Pelican, which he renamed mid-voyage to the Golden Hind in honour of his patron Sir Christopher Hatton, whose crest featureda female red deer (a 'golden hind').

A Golden Hind replica in Brixham. The original was destroyed in the 1600s.

After reaching South America, Drake was worried that his ships would separate, so gave orders for two of the smaller supply ships to be broken up and the crew transferred to the remaining ships. Following a series of storms, the Marigold was lost at sea and the Elizabeth returned to England after being separated. 

By October 1578 only the Pelican made its final destination.

Drake was one of Queen Elizabeth’s most renowned sailors, making a name for himself as an enemy of the Spanish and obtaining much wealth for the Queen in the process. Drake did not make an inventory of the booty he had acquired to avoid taxes from the Spanish or claims for it to be returned. Only Queen Elizabeth I and Drake knew the exact amount he looted on his circumnavigation.

The Queen sponsored Drake's expedition to circumnavigate the earth, and upon his return Elizabeth dined on board the Golden Hind at Deptford on the River Thames. Drake was also knighted on board his ship.

The Spanish Armada led by King Philip II of Spain attempted to invade England in 1588, to avenge the death of Mary Queen of Scots in 1587.

It is reputed that Sir Francis Drake was told of the sighting of the Armada while playing bowls on Plymouth Hoe. He is supposed to have said, 'There is plenty of time to finish the game and beat the Spaniards.'

Queen Elizabeth put Lord Howard of Effingham in charge of the naval defence against the Spanish Armada; Drake was appointed second-in-command of the fleet.

One of Drake’s most famous attacks was on the Spanish ports of Cadiz and Corunna in 1587, which he called the ‘singeing of the King of Spain's beard’. Between 20 and 30 Spanish ships were sunk or captured during the raid.

Drake was also involved in many battles against the Spanish Armada in 1588, most notably the capture of the Spanish flagship Rosario.

During a battle in the harbour at Palma on Drake’s raid on the West Indies it is said that a cannon ball flew straight through his legs without injurin him.

Drake was made Mayor of Plymouth for one term in 1581, after being knighted by Elizabeth I on the Golden Hind. Some years later Drake took a municipal contract to reconstruct a shallow canal bringing water to the town. This business arrangement has given rise to the myth that Francis Drake brought the first supply of water to the inhabitants of Plymouth. The supply of water is thought to have lasted up to 300 years. 

King Philip II allegedly offered a reward for his capture or death of 20,000 ducats, about £6 million (US$8 million) in modern currency.

Sir Francis Drake died from dysentery on 28 January 1596 during a sea voyage. He was buried in a lead coffin, dressed in a full suit of armour. Numerous dives have been attempted to locate the lead coffin, but his body remains lost at sea.  

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