Home | The Drake Exploration Society

In Drake's Wake

Essential Biographical Information for the General Certificate of School Education - [GCSE]

Susan Jackson BEd/BA
(edited by Michael Turner)

Susan Jackson is a secondary school teacher of history in Shropshire, England and outlines how students can achieve an A* grade in GCSE History - an exam usually taken by Year 11 students aged 16, just before leaving secondary education.

Sir Francis Drake

Sir Francis Drake - from the book "Sir Francis Drake Revived", published 1628

Francis Drake, the eldest of a family of twelve sons, was born in 1540 at Crowndale Farm near Tavistock in Devon. Research by Kelsey suggests that Drake was born in February or March. Francis's father, Edmund Drake, worked on the family farm. His wife was probably named Anna. Edmund was a Puritan in a largely Catholic community and so was obliged to leave Tavistock when the Catholics rebelled against the imposition of a new prayer book in 1549.

Edmund took his wife and three small sons, Francis, John and Joseph to Kent where he secured a job as a reader of prayers to the sailors in the naval fleet in and around Chatham Dockyard on the River Medway. Edmund's wages were poor and irregular. The growing family lived in poverty aboard a disused ship moored at Gillingham Reach. The family was so poor that, at about the age of eight, Francis was apprenticed to the captain of a coastal trader. Young Francis was now motivated to despise Catholics, embark on a life at sea and pursue wealth. For the next ten years Drake enthusiastically worked his way up from a cabin boy to first mate, which is second in command. Drake knew that he was good at his job. Later documents from English, Dutch, German, Spanish and Italian archives all say that Drake was the most brilliant navigator of the 16th-century.

When Drake was about eighteen years old, the captain and owner of the coaster died and left the ship to the ambitious, young Francis Drake. Drake wanted to progress to deep sea oceanic sailing. Therefore Drake sold the ship and joined the trading company of the Hawkins family in Plymouth. Drake's grandmother, Margery had been a Hawkins and was living in her dower house in Looe Street, so she would have been able to provide Drake with the necessary introductions to the local maritime community.

Drake made three voyages as a junior officer employed by Hawkins firm and on his final trip with the company, rose to become captain of the Judith under the overall command of John Hawkins. However, in 1568 the Hawkins fleet was treacherously attacked in the port of San Juan de Ulua in México and only about eighty men escaped with their lives.

Revenge added another motivation for Drake's voyages, since Drake never forgave nor forgot what happened at San Juan de Ulua which cemented his hatred of Catholic Spain. Drake had shipmates and friends who had died horribly in the battle, or died screaming from torture and burnt at the stake in Spain. One of the men tortured and burnt was his cousin Robert Barrett. Furthermore Drake had lost all the money that he had invested in the voyage.

Drake decided that if peaceful trade was not possible then he was going to "go back with sword in hand" The following year Drake struck out as an independent privateer. Still working in conjunction with the Hawkins company and another Plymouth trading company, but not employed by them, Drake made two voyages of reconnaissance to the Caribbean Sea. Here his career began.

In 1572 Drake embarked upon his third voyage to the Caribbean Sea with the Swan and the Pasha. In July he attacked the port and treasure terminus of Nombre de Dios, Panamá but being shot in the leg by an harquebus ball, he was prevented from taking a fortune in gold and silver. In the following February, Drake climbed a tree on the east coast of the Isthmus of Panamá, and became the first Englishman to sight the Pacific Ocean. Drake asked God to "grant me life and leave to sail once in an English ship upon that sea." This experience was significantly to shape Drake's career. In April Drake and his crew struck it rich when they waylaid a mule-train 2.5 miles before it reached its destination of Nombre de Dios. Drake reached home with a reputation acknowledged by all fellow sailors, the English government and Spain.

From his first two voyages of reconnaissance Drake was already well-known in Plymouth. He was listed as a merchant as early as 1571. However, now Drake was being discussed as an efficient commander by the queen's courtiers and by the war party, headed by the Earl of Leicester, Sir Francis Walsingham and Sir Christopher Hatton, all of whom seem to have become Drake's friends and patrons.

In response to Spanish demands for retribution against Drake, the government needed to distance themselves from Drake's robberies by seeming not to be aware of his whereabouts. For instance, in 1575 Drake served in Ireland helping to suppress the Catholic uprising. He returned to England in 1576 to gather support for what would be his greatest voyage.

The war party were interested in Drake's cherished idea of sailing into the Pacific Ocean and arranged for Drake to have an audience with the queen who then sanctioned Drake's proposed voyage. Between December 1577 and September 1580, Drake passed through the Strait of Magellan, discovered Cape Horn, and captured a vast amount of treasure from Spanish ships off the coasts of Chile, Perú and Ecuador. Drake then discovered "Nova Albion", near San Francisco. He then transcended his dream by not just sailing in the Pacific Ocean but crossing it, becoming the first Englishman to circumnavigate the world.

Drake had set out with a fleet of six ships but only one - the Golden Hind returned home literally ballasted with silver. We do not know how much treasure Drake brought back because it was a big state secret! We know that the crew shared about £15,000 - £20,000 between them. The investors received £47 for every pound invested. Crown expenses were paid at least for the following year. Queen Elizabeth began an extensive investment programme in trade, industry and ship building. We have no idea of the amounts the queen and Drake kept for themselves.

Drake was allowed to extract at least £10,000 of treasure unaided from the keep at Trematon Castle near Saltash, Cornwall. It is clear that Drake was now a very rich man. He invested a lot of money in property in Plymouth and became a big local landowner. He paid well above the market price of £3,500 for Buckland Abbey, his country seat. Drake was now the most famous sailor in Europe! He had made Spain the laughing stock of Europe because a super power could do nothing about a sea captain with only about sixty men and a 120 ton galleon! Drake had shown exactly what England could do and England was proud of him. Consequently the queen conferred a knighthood upon Drake. Sir Francis became England's premier adviser on naval affairs. This was Drake's last voyage as a commander in the private sector. From now on he would be a senior commander in the queen's navy.

English sailors flocked to sail under Drake. Having worked his way up through the ranks, Drake was able to understand the common seaman because he had done their jobs. He treated his crews fairly, listened to them, paid them well and promptly and treated them with respect and affection. In return Drake was loved by his men. Even the Spanish documents state that Drake was adored. This was proven at Nombre de Dios when his men decided to retreat from inside the treasure house to save the life of their semi-conscious, injured Captain Drake and forsake the bullion. Drake was also witty and made his crews laugh. Drake always performed his full share of the menial work, even when he was admiral of the fleet. For instance in Cuba in 1586, Drake was standing in the water pit loading buckets with water. Drake led from the front and by example, rather than directing from the rear. The Spaniards were absolutely terrified of Drake. They believed that he possessed supernatural powers but they respected him as a brilliant navigator who did not ill-treat his prisoners.

Drake's next voyage was as the leader of an expedition to the West Indies where he and his twenty-three ships caused havoc in King Philip's colonial possessions. The principal cities of Santo Domingo and Cartagena were sacked and ransomed. Drake had dealt a severe military blow to King Philip's pride.

In 1587 Drake sailed to Cádiz in Spain as the commander of a fleet commissioned to destroy as much as it could of the Armada of ships being prepared to invade England. This was Drake's greatest single military strike against Catholic Spain. He destroyed over one-third of Philip's naval fighting force. Drake had destroyed the seasoned wood destined to make barrels to carry the Armada's stores; thus Philip's ships sailed with its stores of food and water going rotten and with damp gunpowder. On the Cape Sagres Peninsula in Portugal, Drake captured a vital network of forts. He also captured Philip's own personal treasure ship the Sao Felipe, and took a large fortune of £114,000 back to England.

In 1588 Drake's next exploit was the defeat of the Spanish Armada. Drake was vice admiral in name, but admiral in practice. Admiral Lord Howard of Effingham was sensible enough to act upon the suggestions of his highly experienced subordinate. It was Drake's tactics and the Hawkins-designed, race-built galleons that engineered the English victory.

In 1589 Drake sailed as the commander of an English fleet destined to try and install Dom Antonio on the throne of Portugal. Although Drake did his best with the fleet, the land commanders were not effective and the Portuguese did not support Dom Antonio. The voyage was both a military and a financial disaster which cost the lives of 10,000 men from a complement of 20,000 soldiers and sailors.

Once home Drake took up the life of the country gentleman as Plymouth's mayor and MP. However the Privy Council had other ideas to exploit Drake's leadership qualities. They appointed Sir Francis to the position of Deputy Lord Lieutenant for the county of Devon. Since the Lord Lieutenant, the Earl of Bath, was a privy counsellor, Drake was in charge of the county and the various teams of JPs. He did an extremely good job, to such an extent that the government would not allow him to sail beyond the English Channel while he was needed in the West Country, where he is still affectionately known as the "Old Bugger".

Drake's final voyage was to the Caribbean Sea as joint commander with Sir John Hawkins. The military aims of the voyage gave way to a fruitless treasure hunt. The voyage became a failure. Both commanders died of fever. Francis Drake died on 28 January 1596 between 4am and 7am aboard the Defiance just west of Nombre de Dios Bay. He is buried at sea in a "Cophin of Lead" off Portobelo. The legend is - if England is ever in danger, Drake will return, summoned by his drum which is kept at Buckland Abbey.

Sir Francis Drake was and still is England's greatest sailor; a talented and humane man, who never received full credit for what he achieved!

Examination Questions

Any question you will be asked on Sir Francis Drake in the examination will not require a detailed account of his life but acknowledgement and analysis of certain aspects of it. The question(s) will probably be similar to the following:

1. Why did the English people regard Sir Francis Drake as a hero?

You need to mention his voyages:

and what they achieved for England: in terms of money, security, respect, fame.

You must think about his achievements in the political field.

You need to think of Drake the man, what aspects of his personality made him popular. Remember he cared for those who were dependent on him; he was: kind, funny and witty, generous, a good speaker and humane.

Also the ordinary people adopted him as their hero because he was not from the middle or upper classes. He was a working man's son who by his own efforts achieved knighthood for sailing around the world. Therefore he became a gentleman and was the only Elizabethan to do so. He gave the English sailors the confidence to believe in the power and ability of the English navy to defeat our enemies. Drake gave the ordinary working Elizabethan a role model; if he could achieve a high level of success then many others could be social climbers. Drake never forgot his origins and responded to people, showing them that he was a people person. Moreover, he was ambitious and arrogant with the upper classes. The ordinary English people love a hero who is slightly wayward and, most importantly, he had made a fool of England's major enemy - Spain.

For extra marks you need to acknowledge that not everybody liked Drake. A small minority of merchants felt that Drake's hostile acts would disrupt trade with Spain. Some members of the upper-classes, especially the older members of the aristocracy, regarded him as a low-born, common, arrogant upstart.

2. Why did the Spaniards regard Sir Francis Drake as a villain?

You need to describe how Drake:

Additionally you need to take into account that the Spanish thought that because Drake's feats of navigation were so spectacular, Drake must have had supernatural aid from the Devil. Therefore the Spanish were terrified of him, which Drake found amusing. The Spanish thus lost confidence in their ability to face England in a sea battle. You could add extra qualification by making the point that there were some Spanish naval commanders who instead of hating Drake, after meeting him as his prisoner, praised his qualities. These included Don Francisco de Zarate and Señor Juan de Anton, whom Drake captured during his world voyage, and the Spanish grandee, Don Pedro de Valdés seized during the Armada battle. Spanish sailors respected Drake because his personal creed would not let him make war upon an unarmed man, a prisoner, a woman or a child. Thus he treated his captives kindly and only killed those who fought him in battle. A Spanish life was usually safe with Drake, even if Spanish treasure was not!

3. Was Sir Francis Drake a villain, a hero or an explorer?

The examiner will expect to read that Drake was a mixture of all three. Thus you need to consider the points for the previous two questions, plus evidence to prove that he was great explorer.

4. Why did some people in the past and also some people in the present have such different opinions about Sir Francis Drake?

Think about the fact that Drake sailed to 42 countries and 4 overseas dependencies. An example of the latter is the Azores. Drake met so many different races of people who saw different aspects of his character. They described Drake's actions to others such as in official documents. Therefore there are many different views expressed about him in the primary sources. Obviously King Philip II hated Drake but Queen Elizabeth admired him. Some Spanish commanders spoke well of him. The queen's courtiers, Walsingham, Hatton and Leicester genuinely liked him. The majority of the English people liked and admired Sir Francis Drake, along with his ships' officers and crews who furthermore truly respected him. He was loved by his West Country friends and the citizens of Plymouth. He seems to have been happily married twice. Even the Pope had a great deal of respect for Drake and wished that he were a Catholic.

Some of the upper-classes, as we have seen, did not like Drake, and showed it. Drake had the confidence to respond to their distain and contempt with arrogance and self-glorification, to conceal his discomfort. Drake often made "tongue in cheek, off the cuff" remarks and people formed a misguided view of him. Hence some of the ruling elite saw the worst facets of his character.

Drake wrote very little about himself, so we know little about his personal feelings and attitudes. In present times, views of Drake are confused by what sources are being studied. For example Harry Kelsey's book gives a very negative view of Drake because he had deliberately only used the negative primary sources. On the contrary, John Sugden's biography gives a balanced viewpoint because he has used a wide variety of contemporary sources. Therefore the 21st century has different views about Drake according to which primary or secondary source is being read.

People have commonly made the error of judging Drake by the moral standards of the 21st century instead of analysing his character within the time in which he lived. Drake's actions have therefore been taken out of context. Drake has thus been condemned for just being an Elizabethan. Drake's reputation has also suffered because he is judged to be 'politically incorrect'. He is condemned as a slave-trader, simply because he participated as a junior officer on three voyages. Drake's prime motive was to gain oceanic sailing experience. Once he had achieved this, he resorted to the more humane profession of privateering. He was the first white man to work on equal terms with black people and took every opportunity to free slaves from their Spanish masters. The escaped black slaves of 1573 in Panamá revered Drake.

Drake is unjustifiably labelled as a pirate since this is the first common word that people can think of. Drake was a privateer which was a legal profession until 1902.

Whatever the views that have formed Drake's reputation since the 16th century, remember he was human with faults and virtues just like the rest of us. Your opinions will be more accurate if you can interpret the full range of sources.

So Year 11, you now have all the information and, as Drake would have said to you, "Go Forward And Here's Drake's Luck To You!""

- Back to top ^^