The replica Golden Hind poop deck lantern
hangs above the entrance to the Middle Temple Hall
© Michael Turner 1997-2007
The average person when asked what they know about Drake would mention the legendary game of bowls, the Spanish Armada and some might know that he sailed around the world. Since Drake frequented the Inner and Middle Temples, this article will also lend itself to provide a rare insight of the great admiral's life as a merchant, property magnate, landowner, gentleman farmer, civic leader, and a member of the judiciary.
Drake was born in Tavistock, Devon in 1540. He began his nautical career as an apprentice aboard a barque that sailed out of the River Medway. Young Francis sufficiently impressed his master for him to bequeath Drake the vessel. Drake sold the ship and returned to his native West Country to gain trans-Atlantic sailing experience with his second cousin, John Hawkins. Between 1566-8, Drake sailed as a logistician on two slaving voyages. The second venture ended in disaster at the treacherous hands of the Spanish near Veracruz, México. Drake discovered whilst extracting revenge against the Spanish in the New World, that privateering was a far more lucrative occupation. In 1572, Drake climbed a tree in the middle of the Panamanian Isthmus and saw the Atlantic Ocean, which he had crossed. However, he was awe-struck by the sight of the Pacific Ocean upon which no Englishman had ever sailed. Before returning home, Drake led in an audacious raid upon the treasure-laden mule trains that plodded across the Isthmus. Drake invested his loot in merchant vessels and paid to have the Pelican built which he later re-named the Golden Hind. Drake sailed on his world voyage carrying some of the gentlemen investors. The following had legal training: the brothers John and Thomas Doughty, Leonard Vicary, John Cook and Charles Cauby. Captain Drake's treetop dream materialised in 1578 when he plundered his way along the unprotected Pacific Spanish settlements of South and Central America. In 1580, Francis Drake sailed into Plymouth and became the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe. Since Ferdinand Magellan had been slain in the Philippines, Drake was the first commander to complete this epic feat.
The queen was eager to examine her share of the treasure so Drake spent six hours closeted alone with Elizabeth at Richmond Palace. Drake presented the queen with the log of his voyage, his paintings and maps of the coastlines and the details of the trading agreement with the Sultan of Ternate, in the Spice Islands. Drake rewarded his investors forty-seven times over. For example, Sir Christopher Hatton, Captain of the Queen's Guard and senior privy counsellor, was one of Drake's main investors, recovered a rumoured profit of £2,300.
On 4 April 1581, the queen boarded the Golden Hind at Deptford to confer knighthood upon her Devon seaman. It was a typical Elizabethan scene! A bridge collapsed and hurled onlookers into the Thames. Elizabeth then lost her garter, retrieved by the French Ambassador. Elizabeth expressed her appreciation by promising to send it to him as a memento. She then tied it back on in full view of the delighted onlookers. Elizabeth reminded Drake that the King of Spain had demanded his head and that she had a gilded sword with which to strike it off. She passed the sword to the French Ambassador to bestow the accolade, a cunning move that signalled to Spain the impending Anglo-French alliance. The subsequent banquet reputedly rivalled the grandeur of those held in the days of King Henry VIII.
Drake had become the most famous and celebrated man in England, a national hero, especially amongst the common people. The contemporary commentator John Stow recorded that "In court, town and country his name and fame became admirable in all places. People swarmed daily in the streets to behold him." The queen singled him out for attention nine times in one day and Drake loved it. Sir Francis, a wonderful raconteur of personality and charm relished being centre stage.
Drake had already invested wisely in property. After the Corporation and the Hawkins family, he was the largest property owner in Plymouth. The queen gave him the manor of West Sherford located east of Plymouth; the Crown gave him half of Yarcombe Manor near Chard and he then purchased the remainder in 1583. Drake bought the picturesque Sampford Spinney manor on the west edge of Dartmoor and consolidated his status as a regional landowner when he purchased Buckland Abbey from Sir Richard Grenville for £3,400 as his countryseat, located twelve miles north of Plymouth. Plymouth-based lawyers John Hele and Christopher Harris secured Drake's share of the treasure and his property acquisitions.
Therefore, rich and influential friends, especially in the West Country, surrounded Drake. Sir Francis gained power and position as both MP and Mayor of Plymouth. He thus automatically became a JP. In 1583, his wife Mary died and two years later, Drake married the wealthy Elizabeth Sydenham of Monksilver, Somerset, twenty years his junior.
After the circumnavigation, Drake spent much time in London. In 1580 Drake was living in Elbow Lane, which was located between the north end of Southwick Bridge and the present day Cannon Street Station, running north and then east from Lower Thames Street. By 1584, Drake was living in a house belonging to the father of Sir Julius Caesar. The latter was the deputy judge and commissioner of the admiralty court located in Cheapside. Perhaps these houses were in fact one the same house. We do not know whether the property was rented or Drake lodged with the Caesar family. However, it does indicate that hitherto, Drake did not have his own base.
Drake had become the victim of his own success, as he was unable to exploit his successes in the Far East. Sir Francis wanted to decorate the coasts of the Spice Islands with ships and return to Nova Albion, California. Elizabeth did not want her most able seaman and King Philip's most potent enemy to be on the other side of the world if war were to breakout with Spain. In addition, the government found that Drake was extremely efficient at "getting things done." His celebrity status, allied with his natural energy and drive made him an ideal committee member. We see him from1580 to 1585, making the adjustment from mariner to public servant, which he did with flare and enthusiasm, which underscored all his undertakings. One naturally assumes that during the boring moments of such meetings, Drake yearned to tread the creaking decks of a galleon or to paint in his garden at Buckland. However, Drake would have injected life into the proceedings with his inquiring and intelligent mind as he asked pertinent and probing questions.
Middle Temple Hall
© Michael Turner 1997-2008
Drake performed valued duties as an MP, earning a reputation as an eloquent and forceful speaker in the House of Commons. He served on four known parliamentary committees, which considered naval and local affairs. In St Stephen's Chapel at Westminster on 27 November - 3 December 1584 Drake was appointed to a committee to make better provision of the Sabbath. On 10 December, he debated the importation of fishing and ling. On 14 December, Drake sat on a committee to issue Sir Walter Raleigh a patent for the colonisation of Virginia. On 19 December, there was a sitting for the maintenance of the navy. On 19-21 February 1585, the committee convened at the Middle Temple for the preservation of Plymouth harbour.
Of course, this was not Sir Francis's first excursion into the hallowed portals of the Temple. On 28 January 1582, Sir Francis was admitted as a member of the Inner Temple. Their records tell us that there was "Admission of Sir Francis Drake upon a fine (fee) at the discretion of the treasurer." We do not know if any fee was paid - but knowing Drake, it probably was as he relished an opportunity to perform a generous gesture. Caesar and Hatton were both luminaries at the Inn from at least 1580 and probably sponsored Drake's admission. In Sir John Baker's, An Inner Temple Miscellany we read that around 1583 the benchers were trying a number of the Inn's butlers for making insulting remarks about Drake, calling him a thief and a robber. Drake had become accustomed to these comments from various establishment personalities. Some dignitaries had refused Drake's gifts based upon their provenance.
Drake presented the benchers of the Middle Temple with
the Golden Hind's fore-hatch, which is now a tabletop
© Michael Turner 1997-2007
Sir Francis did not become a lawyer, since he did not have the social status or the education. The award of membership of the Inner Temple was an accolade similar to our modern system of bestowing an honorary degree on a celebrity. The Inns of Court, like Oxford and Cambridge, not only fulfilled their expected educational and vocational functions for the sons of the middle classes but also acted as a type of finishing school for polishing manners and ensuring social aplomb to the sons of gentlemen. Drake presented the benchers of the Middle Temple with the Golden Hind's fore-hatch, which is now a tabletop. Drake's membership would have conferred social cachet upon both Drake himself and the Inner Temple, coupled with his work in the Middle Temple would have been commensurate with the expectations of his upper class wife.
However, Sir Francis was happy to leave his administrative duties, both local and national, his young wife and his beautiful West Country estate in order to do what he enjoyed most - being at sea and eroding King Philip's despised empire.
Spain had experienced a series of failed harvests and was compelled to import grain. Spain dealt an underhanded move by placing an embargo on foreign merchant ships supplying the grain. These ships were stripped of their arms, munitions and tackle to equip Philip's fleets at Seville and Lisbon. The crews were handed over to the mercies of the Inquisition. The English ship, Primrose, fought back and although boarded by the Spaniards, she escaped carrying a document, outlining Philip's specific instructions to his officials regarding the seizure of foreign ships - especially those from England.
England was incensed and the country's rising indignation pressed Elizabeth into action. The queen set in motion legitimate reprisals, which were not intended to precipitate open war. This included that El Draque should be unleashed upon the high seas. Drake received his commission in July 1585. His fleet was a combination of both merchants and naval shipping and underwritten by the usual blend of naval strategy, national needs and economic expediency. Drake's destination was the New World.
Drake commanded twenty-three ships that constituted the largest fleet to leave English waters. He captured Portugal's first colonial city of Santiago in the Cape Verde Islands. To be fair to the Spanish, he occupied and ransomed Santo Domingo, Spain's first city in the New World. Early 1586 Cartagena in present-day Colombia fell and then St Augustine in Florida was razed. Drake brought home Raleigh's struggling settlers from Roanoke Island in Virginia and since he was in a hurry to report to the government, the fleet did not dock at Plymouth but at Spithead off Portsmouth on 28 July.
On Thursday, 4 August, the Middle Temple Hall recorded a minute that Drake received a round of applause for the outcome of his West Indies raid as he entered the chamber during evening dinner. The investors only received 75p in the pound. However, the political ramifications were enormous; Drake had wounded Philip's prestige by destroying the heart of his American empire.
King Philip, more determined than ever to replace the heretic Elizabeth with a Roman Catholic monarch began to assemble an Armada. In 1587, Drake sailed into Cádiz and destroyed it. He then captured Cape Sagres in SW Portugal and was able to seize the unexpected ships that plied between Philip's Mediterranean and Atlantic ports. Drake then captured the king's personal carrack the Sao Felipe. The inventory compiled at Saltash declared that the treasure was valued at £113,000.
Drake had delayed the inevitable sailing of the Armada for one year. In 1588, Vice- Admiral Sir Francis Drake reached the pinnacle of his nautical career by playing a major role in defeating the Armada off Gravelines. The English had broken the disciplined formation of the Spanish ships with fire ships off neighbouring Calais. The superior guns, ships and seamanship of the English, along with the weather ensured that Spain could no longer threaten England in Drake's lifetime.
With the proceeds from the Rosario that Drake had captured during the Armada battles, he bought a lease on a London house called the Herbery, which stood on the site of present-day Canon Street Station. Drake spent much time in London raising money to launch an English counter armada in 1589. It had more success than the Spanish Armada but most of the voyage's aims were not realised. Drake had lost his flair and rendezvous with luck, partially due to the onset of late middle age. On 23 January 1590, Drake wrote to Sir Julius Caesar excusing himself from attending the Admiralty Court due to a slipped disc because of extinguishing one of his fires at the Herbery.
Until his last voyage in 1595, Drake was busy admirably executing civic duties as Deputy Lord Lieutenant of Devon such as fortifying Plymouth and bringing a fresh water leat to Plymouth that served the town for 300 years. Drake invested in sheep farming at Great Briscott near Tavistock. He then sold his Herbery lease to help finance his last voyage.
Drake died of dysentery in depressing circumstances on a West Indies voyage that was devoid of financial rewards. He lies buried in a lead coffin in 129 feet of water, about three nautical miles off Portobelo in Panamá. The motto on Drake's coat of arms translates from Latin as "from humble beginnings to great achievements." This philosophical aspect of Drake's perennial legacy will always inspire us.
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