The son of a wanted tenant farmer who became the most famous voyager of the Elizabethan age, Francis Drake was born in Devon circa 1540. At the age of nine, he moved to Kent where he lived with his relatives, the Hawkins family. Merchants and occasional plunderers by trade, the Hawkins apprenticed Drake on one of their ships where he revealed a great flair for seamanship.

Aged 23, Drake bequeathed a small vessel. Now in command of his own ship, he and his cousin Sir John Hawkins became two of the first English slave traders. Their second voyage to the Caribbean ended in disaster after they fell prey to a Spanish ambush. Drake survived by swimming to safety but many members of his family perished.

A map illustrating Drake’s West Indian voyage
An English privateer

Drake avowed vengeance and soon returned to the waters of the New World to exact it upon the Spanish. After boarding his flagship having scooped the greatest of the expedition’s bounties, Drake teased his crew with a downcast expression. He then ripped a plundered gold necklace from his neck, cast it onto the deck, and declared “our voyage is made, lads!” He arrived home laden with Spanish treasure and with a reputation as a privateer of formidable skill. Hearing of Drake’s exploits and realising his potential, Queen Elizabeth I appointed him captain of a secret mission to raid the wealthy, ill-defended Spanish colonies scattered along the western American coast.  

Circumnavigation of the globe

The mission began badly. Drake lost four of his five ships navigating the treacherous Straits of Magellan, but persevered aboard his last, a ship he rechristened The Golden Hinde. He accumulated hordes of Spanish loot as he sailed up the western American coast. After abandoning his search for a northern passage home, he set sail west.

Drake returned to England with a huge bounty of treasure and as the first Englishman and second captain of any nationality to have circumnavigated the globe. His feats earned him a knighthood. In England, he was hailed as a hero. In Spain, he was denounced as ‘El Dragon,’ a marauding pirate rumoured to possess a magic mirror that revealed the location of all ships sailing upon the sea.

Drake receiving his knighthood
Return to Plymouth

After the voyage, Drake returned to Devon. There he duped his fierce rival and frequent denigrator, Admiral Sir Richard Grenville, into selling him Buckland Abbey, a stately pile that became Drake’s permanent home. Drake became Mayor of Plymouth, and, later, MP for his local constituency.

The defeat of the Spanish Armada

In 1587 Drake was recalled into the service of the queen. She appointed him vice admiral of the English navy and charged him with defending England against the Spanish Armada, the largest fleet that had ever been amassed. Drake was instrumental to the Armada’s defeat, despite, as an apothecial story tells, having refused to engage the Spanish until he’d finished a game of croquet.

Statue of Drake in Plymouth, England
The final voyage

Aged 55, Drake succumbed to disease during his final voyage. He was buried at sea off the Panamanian coast. Drake’s life is perhaps best surmised by the motto inscribed on his family crest:

Great things from small beginnings.

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