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The Drake Exploration Society

Drake Legends

Susan Jackson

Drake playing bowls, according to legend

Drake playing bowls, according to legend

I have always been aware of the legends the game of bowls and the drum. However, it was when asked by the editor for an article on this subject, that I began to give far more thought to the credence of the rest.

  1. Drake had a magic mirror, in which he could see all the movements of Spanish ships.
  2. Drake and Grenville expelled the monks from Buckland Abbey and were thus cursed by them.
  3. Drake received the aid of the devil to renovate Buckland Abbey.
  4. Drake was playing bowls when the news of the Armada's arrival prompted him to utter, "There's time to finish the game and beat the Spaniards too."
  5. Drake sat on Devil's Point, in Plymouth Sound, whittling a stick and throwing the pieces into the water. As each piece hit the water, it became a fully manned fireship, ready to defeat the Armada.
  6. Drake fired a cannon ball across the world to prevent his wife, who thought he was dead, from making a bigamous second marriage.
  7. Drake brought water into Plymouth by magical means.
  8. Drake's ghost rides across Dartmoor with headless hounds and haunts Buckland Abbey.
  9. Drake on his death bed, pointed to the drum in his cabin and said that if anybody banged his drum, then he would return from the dead and help England.
  10. Drake circumnavigated the world by shooting the gulf and then in one legend shot, or in another legend, threw overboard a cabin boy for knowing exactly where they were. [Shooting the gulf was a medieval legend that you could get to the other side of the world by passing through it rather than going around it.]
Dartmoor, where Drake's ghost is said to ride

Dartmoor, where Drake's ghost is said to ride

I wonder if any other character in British history has generated so many legends and how many of which, would be based upon any shreds of fact. I cannot think of any more, but I would be pleased to read of other legends sent in by other members. [Editor - Drake left a hoard of treasure in La Herradura Cove, Chile]

I think legends 2, 3, 5, 6, 8 and 10 can be discounted. Let us analyse any measures of truth in the remainder.

Drake and Grenville did not expel the monks from Buckland Abbey: the Crown did. The Abbey was then rented out for a while before it was sold to Richard Grenville's father. At that time, Grenville was a infant and Drake a baby: both hardly in a position to expel anybody.

Any consorting with the devil would have been a non-starter to a devout Christian like Drake.

As far as we know, Drake never made any renovations at Buckland Abbey: he seemed to like it as it was.

Devil's Point, where Drake is said to have sat whittling

Devil's Point, where Drake is said to have sat whittling

When the Armada was sailing up the channel, Drake would have had something better to do than sit on Devil's Point whittling a stick and we know that such magic is not possible.

The cannon ball has been associated with both of his wives. An 18th century cannon ball resides in the great hall at Coombe Sydenham Hall. The legend is romantic but fatuous because the longest Drake was out of the country, was two years and ten months, when he circumnavigated the world. If Elizabeth Sydenham was contemplating a second marriage, Drake was home within ten months. The wife of an Elizabethan sailor expected long separations and unless specifically told that their husband was dead, tended to wait longer than two years and ten months before remarrying. Drake would have needed the sort of satanic powers which would have horrified him, to have both known about the event and to have prevented it.

Legends of packs of headless hounds (the wild hunt) exist all over Britain. Drake has merely been grafted on to local folklore and if he haunts Buckland Abbey, the National Trust are keeping very quiet about it. However, I always don my make-up to go to Buckland just in case.

Shooting the gulf, is patently absurd and I find this the silliest of the Drake legends, along with the shooting or drowning of cabin boys. This was not Drake's mode of operation.

This leaves 1, 4, 7 and 9. These four possess some factual basis.

I think Drake's Dial now housed in the National Maritime Museum, was the original magic mirror. The Spaniards seeing Drake consulting such a device, drew their own conclusions.

I do believe that Drake was playing bowls on Plymouth Hoe when the news was brought to the commanders that the Armada had been sighted. The story can be traced back to the 17th century when many of the eyewitnesses were still living. There is no record of anybody contradicting the account until the 20th century, when the historians of the 1960s, seemed to take pleasure in de-bunking many of our most cherished anecdotes. Also, we know that there was no possibility of the English fleet even being able to warp out of Plymouth Sound for at least another three hours, a fact which Drake, more than most, was well aware of. Showing confidence and making people laugh, was a good way of quelling panic and instilling confidence. The famous quotation is very much in Drake's style.

Drake himself gave rise to the legend, about the water magically following him into Plymouth.. When somebody who is already a local legend, rides down a leat with water frothing at his horse's heels, jumps off and clips his cloak in the water, it is logical that the ill-educated and credulous people of the 16th century, will ascribe the event to the supernatural, rather than to careful planning, a lot of digging and an excuse in public relations.

Drake's drum is the most well known and loved of the legends. The drum is a 16th century snare or side drum. For some reason it was returned to Buckland Abbey and has always been carefully preserved by the Drake family.

Drake's Drum

Drake's Drum (photo: Michael Turner)

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