Who is Sir Francis Drake?

Sir Francis Drake is a name evocative of romantic images in a fabled Elizabethan world—one peopled by a virgin queen, gallant noblemen, swashbuckling corsairs, and generally anonymous peasants. Those romantic images form a solid base for the reality of Drake’s adventurous life and times. As Sir Francis Drake, his name resounds through the centuries as Elizabethan England’s greatest sea warrior. He and his fellow sea dogs helped England grow from a minor nation into a world power of reckoning.

No one knows for certain when Francis Drake was born, just that it was sometime around the year 1540. He rose from the poverty and obscurity of childhood in an old hulk to an apprenticeship in a small trading ship at age twelve. Through crewman’s experiences in the trading fleets of his cousin John Hawkins in voyages to Africa and the Spanish New World he learned how to test the limits of Spanish tolerance of foreign merchants. Drake also developed deep maritime knowledge and sea ken, an unknowing preparation for history changing voyages.

Drake’s defining moment came in 1568, near the end of a financially successful slaving and trading voyage, when Hawkins’s seven ships were forced into the Mexican port of San Juan de Ulua by storm damage. The Englishmen were purchasing supplies and repairing their ships after having been given safe harbor by the Spaniards. Shortly, the annual Spanish trading fleet, bearing the new Viceroy of Mexico, Don Martín Enriquez arrived and entered the harbor under these mutual guarantees of peaceful intercourse.

Two days later, the Spaniards attacked the Englishmen, hammering them with cannon and sending waves of infantrymen to storm the ships’ sides. Only two English ships escaped: Queen Elizabeth’s ship Minion with Hawkins in command, and the tiny Judith under Captain Francis Drake. More than two hundred Englishmen were killed or left to the dire ministrations of Don Martín and the Spanish Inquisition. From that point on, until the end of his life, Francis Drake was personally at war with Spain’s King Philip. The treachery of Philip’s viceroy, Enriquez, would cost Spain and Philip dearly. The San Juan de Ulua betrayal proved to be a taproot for Drake, feeding on an inexhaustible source of vengeance.

The treachery of Enriquez, could have been dealt with if Queen Elizabeth authorized retribution. Under the well-established law of reprisal, Hawkins could obtain a license to attack Spanish ships to recoup his losses. But John Hawkins was too well known and too useful to Elizabeth for her to openly send him to the Azores, the West Indies, or the Spanish Main. The struggle between Protestant England and Catholic Spain over trade, closed seas, European alliances, and religion was not yet an open war. The unknown Francis Drake, however, could be let loose to pursue his personal war with Viceroy Don Martín Enriquez and King Philip II of Spain. Besides, to Drake this grudge was very personal. Quixotic? Certainly—at that point.

But the determined Drake led a series of reconnaissance and raiding voyages to Panamá and the Spanish Main—the area around the north coast of South America. Drake’s final Panamá voyage of 1572 to 1573 culminated in his capture of a mule train carrying gold and silver across the peninsula from the Pacific to the port of Nombre de Dios on the Atlantic coast. Drake had scored his first significant victory and he came home a wealthy and admired man.

However, the Panamá raids did not satisfy Drake’s restless soul. His thoughts kept returning to the New World’s silver, pearls, gold, and emeralds. In the interior of Panamá, escaped black slaves had aided Drake’s raids, and on one occasion, had led him to a tree from whose top he had viewed the Pacific Ocean for the first time. He had “besought almighty God of his goodness to give him life and leave to sail once in an English ship in that sea.” He had come to understand the flow of silver from the mines of Potosí in upper Peru, through Peru’s port of Callao, to Panamá, across the isthmus, and then on to Spain via Havana and the Azores. This route was King Philip II’s economic lifeline, and that wealth was a continual threat to the survival of Elizabeth’s England, of her Dutch allies, and of all Protestant Northern Europe. It was supplemented by a rich and vigorous trans-Pacific trade. Each Spanish galleon carried a fortune.

That economic lifeline lingered as an open prey, one to be hunted and devoured in the near future. That hunt was initiated when Drake formulated a plan which eventually resulted in his circumnavigation. His scheme included investors and Queen Elizabeth’s tacit sanction. Sailing on his ship, the plucky Golden Hind, this plan took Drake into the Pacific where he found virtually defenseless, utterly unsuspecting, and richly laden quarries. Time after time Drake raided ships and towns along the west coast of King Philip’s colonial dominion. Even before he began raiding his last town, Guatulco, the Golden Hind, heavily loaded with treasure and in need of repair.

Searching for safe harbor, in June 1579 he landed at what is now Point Reyes, California. Claiming the land for his queen, Elizabeth I, he had mutually fascinating, respectful, friendly relations with the area inhabitants, the Coast Miwok. Leaving in July, he returned to England in September 1580 and was greeted with a hero’s welcome. The wealth be brought to England was tremendous, almost unthinkably rich in value.

Drake basked in the glory. With his share of the captured wealth, he purchased a home—Buckland Abbey—for himself and his wife, Mary. He became a member of Parliament and Queen Elizabeth bestowed the great honor of knighthood upon him. He was no longer an unknown—not by name, reputation, nor quality. Elizabeth, undoubtedly familiar with sycophants, recognized an original when she saw one. Drake became a trusted member of her circle.

It was so that the Queen ordered Sir Francis Drake to lead an expedition to attack the Spanish colonies in and along the Atlantic and Caribbean, a further exploit in a cold war that had plainly developed between the two countries. An expedition left Plymouth in September 1585 with Drake in command of twenty-one ships with 1,800 soldiers which successfully plundered and sacked numerous Spanish targets until returning home about nine months later. Popularly known as the Singeing the King of Spain's Beard, in 1587 Drake sailed a fleet into Cadiz and Corunna, two of Spain’s main ports. There his fleet destroyed 37 naval and merchant ships. These intolerable acts set the stage for the greatest fleet ever seen, the Invincible Armada. It also set the stage for further exploits by Drake and his fellow sea dogs.

Philip sent a fleet of 130 ships and approximately 20,000 men. This invasion fleet, though outmatching the English in size, lacked in leadership, planning, and ultimately success. Successfully repelled by the English, the hapless fleet was battered by storms on their return to Spain. Their losses were appalling—approximately half of their men and ships never returned home. Philip’s defeat was so devastating, Spain would never seriously threaten England again.

Drake's restless spirit unceasing desire to humiliate Spain fueled his seafaring career into his mid-fifties, and finally, Drake’s unforgiving resentment would cost him dearly. In 1595, he tried and failed to conquer the port of Las Palmas, and following a disastrous campaign against Spanish America where he suffered a number of defeats, he unsuccessfully attacked San Juan de Puerto Rico, eventually losing the Battle of San Juan.

He attempted to attack San Juan again, but a few weeks later, in January 1596—when he was about 56— he died of dysentery while anchored off the coast of Portobelo, Panama. Following his death, the English fleet withdrew.

Before dying, he asked to be dressed in his full armour. He was buried at sea in a sealed, lead-lined coffin near Portobelo, a few miles off the coastline. It is supposed that his final resting place is near the wrecks of two British ships, the Elizabeth and the Delight, scuttled in Portobelo Bay. Divers continue to search for the coffin. Drake’s body has never been recovered.

Hero or villain; pirate or savior? Each will have to determine that for themselves. What cannot be denied is the compelling, intensely curious nature of this complex man. All in all, Drake was an original, fully authentic. His influence upon the world cannot be denied.

This German commercial production is a video about Drake with a focus on his circumnavigation. While mostly in English, any German is translated via subtitles. It also features Drake collaborator Craig Campbell.

This video gives a brief biography of Drake and information about his home, Buckland Abbey.

  • Sugden, John (1990). Sir Francis Drake. New York: Touchstone.
  • Turner, Michael (2006). In Drake's Wake Volume 2 The World Voyage. United Kingdom: Paul Mould Publishing.