The Age of Drake
As the title implies, the book is not solely about Drake. The author documents all Drake's oceanic voyages within the context of other 16th-century maritime activities. These include voyages to Newfoundland, Guinea, and the East Indies by sailors such as Oxenham, Cavendish and Richard Hawkins, the son of Sir John.
Williamson holds Drake, Hawkins and the other principal protagonists in the highest esteem whilst noting some of their shortcomings. Williamson identifies Drake's daring actions of flair and genius at Vigo and Cádiz as unique in the 16th- century and certainly as setting Drake apart from his contemporaries. The author applies intelligent analysis and interpretation to actions and consequences. For example, Drake's attack on Vigo in 1585 is singled out as a pivotal moment in the 16th century. Drake had angered King Philip II by plundering his ships and settlements in the New World but now enraged the king onto a war footing by insulting him on his home soil. Drake's daring incursion, by a man who the king saw as a foreign commoner, emphasised his personal duel with Philip. Other authors have referred to this aspect of interpretation and analysis as a result of reading this book.
Williamson's knowledge of the period is impressive and the seasoned Drake scholar will learn much from his pen. For me, new information included that Hawkins was despatched in 1569 for the relief of La Rochelle. This further strengthens the likelihood that Drake sailed and was home in time for his wedding. We also learn how rich Drake was becoming up until 1588. For the short voyage to Spain in 1587, Drake's share from the Sao Felipe was £17,000, which was over five times the sum he had paid for his Buckland mansion. Williamson's tenacious research includes the retro-calculation of tide times during the Armada battles. The author provides the usual reasons why the 1589 voyage failed and ensures the queen shouldered some of the responsibility.
Williamson is very eloquent without the use of many "big" words that require a dictionary. His main literary prowess comes from the use of familiar words cleverly selected and married into powerful sentences such as: "The inertia of traditional practice could not be overcome". Williamson wrote more books on Hawkins than Drake. However if you read Hawkins you will learn more about Sir Francis since their lives were entwined. Hawkins gave Drake his first oceanic sailing experience and further employment after the San Juan de Ulua debacle. Hawkins was the nation's premier sailor until 1580, became treasurer of the navy and influenced ship design, which Drake put to good use. They were life-long business partners. Hawkins was in Drake's life until near the very end, when Hawkins died only weeks before Drake off Puerto Rico.
Corbett was the first author to publish a comprehensive Drake biography. A century later Sugden produced the modern reference biography. In between it was Williamson in the 1920s and 1930s, who provided the stepping-stone between the two scholars. I thank Dr John Sugden who recommended that I read The Age of Drake.