Home | In Drake's Wake

The Drake Exploration Society

Buckland Abbey

Susan Jackson

In 1951 Britain celebrated the end of the austerity years and the country's growing prosperity with the Festival of Britain. The celebrations included the opening of Buckland to the public by Lord Louis Mountbatten. To celebrate Buckland being a National Trust property, there will be a Grand Gala Concert on 7 July. The varied programme of activities includes the opening of the Elizabethan Garden. In the summer of 1581 - 420 years ago, Sir Francis and Lady Mary Drake took up residence at Buckland.

Buckland Abbey from the North-West

Buckland Abbey from the North-West

The story of Drake purchasing the Abbey is worth telling to dispel a most peculiar legend. The Abbey had passed to Sir Richard Grenville the younger of the Revenge fame. He had completed the conversion and created Buckland's great hall. This Sir Richard wished to sell Buckland and Sir Francis wanted to buy it. However, Sir Richard hated Drake so much that he refused to sell. Hence, John Hele and Christopher Harris purchased it on Drake's behalf. Consequently, Grenville left the area in a temper when he found out. This legend has no basis in fact. There is no evidence of antipathy between these great men. It is clear that Grenville knew the identity of the real buyer. It is my theory that Grenville wished to lease or sell Buckland, possibly because he owned more important properties and was hard-pressed for cash due to recent land and other business deals. Grenville knew that Drake would be searching for a country seat to reflect his newly acquired status. Therefore, Grenville approached Drake via their mutual friends Hele and Harris. Drake and Grenville then reached an agreement. Drake would buy Buckland Abbey, plus 500 acres of land and the fishing rights that had been granted to the Grenvilles by the Marquis of Winchester, for the total sum of £3,400.

Hele and Harris did the conveyencing, who according to the documents were the purchasers. A more detailed examination of the documents shows that Drake was the real purchaser and that Grenville knew this. The whole arrangement, under which Buckland was sold, was not unusual practice, is very typical of Drake and Grenville and suggests that these two so-called enemies came to a mutual agreement. Drake was to own Buckland for two years. If however Drake became dissatisfied, Grenville would repay the £3,400 and repossess the property. An absence of any subsequent documentation suggests that both men were very satisfied with the transaction. Another example of Grenville's goodwill is the fact that he gave a surety of £300 against any confiscation. This might occur by the court of exchequer, who were investigating charges against him of illegally "enclosing" nearby woodland and pasture and adding it to the Buckland domains.

Drake's Arms

Drake's Arms

It is my theory that to some extent, both men did deal directly with each other. Drake would have also been busy in London. Therefore, the employment of mutual friends with legal backgrounds would enable both men to lead their highly charged lives whilst avoiding the lesser excitement of being present to witness the legal process. On 19 December 1580, Drake became the new owner of Buckland Abbey. However, it was a further two years before all the legal formalities, such as the redemption clause, were completed.

The Drakes came to a house which was basically "L" shaped, nestling in a valley between the River Walkham, the village of Buckland Monachorum and the River Tavy. Buckland had started life as a Cistercian monastery and after the dissolution of the monasteries, passed into the hands of the Cornish knight, Sir Richard Grenville. Sir Richard began the process of converting the Abbey into a manor house. However, in true Grenville fashion, Sir Richard took a somewhat unusual approach. Instead of pulling down the church and converting the domestic buildings into living accommodation, he demolished the domestic buildings and converted the church.

Therefore, Buckland Abbey is unique in the west country because it is a house that was once a monastic church. However, the Abbey is special for a more important reason - it is one of Drake's few possessions that still remain. It was to Buckland he came after his days of triumph after the great West Indies raid; Cadiz; and the Armada. He spent much of the six years at Buckland after the failed Iberian venture of 1589, during which time he was planning to re-gain royal favour. The voyages and even the leat were all probably planned at Buckland.

Arched view of Buckland

Arched view of Buckland

I am sometimes asked why the very rich Sir Francis, being such a vain-glorious personality, did not build a home on the scale of a Hardwick Hall. "Buckland they say is somewhat small compared to other Elizabethan houses belonging to Elizabethans of less stature than Drake." My answer is that Drake bought Buckland Abbey, lived in it and ensured that it remained in his family because he was a shrewd businessman, a realist and an artist. Drake wanted a good return for his investment from the proceeds from his world voyage. He purchased plenty of smaller properties that would yield a good dividend, rather than one that would be expensive to build and costly to maintain. Drake knew his limitations. He was not as socially adept as he appeared and deep down not as socially confident and he, and certainly his wife, would not have felt at home in larger property with retinues of servants. The Drakes probably wanted a home, not a mausoleum, and Buckland was a larger property in the 16th century.

Drake seems to have been artistic. Maybe when he first saw Buckland, it was with his artist's eye, and having seen "Beautiful Buckland", Sir Francis, like many others including myself, fell in love with this incredibly lovely building.


Cote Lane

Cote Lane

Cote Lane ran from the SW corner of the Abbey to the River Tavy. Drake was therefore able to avoid the muddy road of winter to Plymouth by sailing to Plymouth and to his influential neighbours in his private barge. Adjacent to Cote Lane was a pond which still remains; this would have served as a store for fish. The forest served as a source of firewood.

Buckland is well worth a visit. It houses many Drake artefacts, including the drum. It is of great architectural interest. In summer it is open daily from 10.30 until 5.30pm. Most of the programme of events are Drake orientated. Buckland Abbey, Yelverton PL20 6EY, telephone 01822 853607, lies in blissful seclusion two miles west of the main A386 Plymouth to Tavistock road, WSW of Yelverton. The Abbey is about twelve miles from both Tavistock and Plymouth.

- Back to top ^^