Sir Francis Drake


The Spanish called him a pirate. To them, he was El Draque, the dragon who devoured their gold-laden galleons and plundered their treasure cities. To the English, and the Protestant world in general, he was a hero—a privateer, explorer, naval tactician, and front-line soldier. He was a defender of the Protestant faith and of the Protestant world.
Drake was born in Devon about 1540. Some nine years later, during the Prayer Book Rebellion, his Protestant parents fled to Kent. There, Drake’s father served as a deacon, a pastor, and a navy chaplain. He and his wife had eleven more sons, most of whom were born in the remains of an old ship. Francis Drake grew up in a world of religious persecution and life and death commitment.
At ten Drake began an apprenticeship aboard a barque, a small square-rigged ship. The ship’s captain was so pleased with his skill and industry that “at his death he bequeathed his bark unto him by will and testament.”1 With that preparation Drake was ready at twenty-three to leave England behind and set sail with his cousin, John Hawkins.
Hawkins was a slave trader. Their first trip together was a great financial success. The second was a disaster. For the end of their voyages lay across the line of Papal Demarcation, the line the pope had drawn to mark off the territories he had assigned to Spain. The Spanish guarded that line very jealously. And so, while Drake and Hawkins were taking on supplies at San Juan de Ulúa, they were attacked by a Spanish fleet and lost all but two of their ships. Drake took this personally; it marked the beginning of his own crusade against Roman Catholic Spain.
In 1572, seeking both gold and retribution, Drake set out for Nombre de Dio on the Isthmus of Panama. This was the shipping point for gold from the Andes mines. Drake had only two ships, the Pascha and the Swan. Drake’s assault on the town seemed to be going well until Drake was wounded. His men insisted on leaving the town and getting him to safety. The rest of the mission was a complete failure. Drake lost first the Swan and then its captain, his brother John. As Drake and his men waited for the next round of treasure ships to arrive, they were struck by yellow fever. It decimated Drake’s crew and took his brother Joseph.
About this time Drake was able to make an alliance with a group of escaped slaves, the Cimmarons. With eighteen of his strongest men and a contingent of Cimmarons, Drake struck out over land to attack the mule routes that led to the Spanish warehouses at Venta de Cruces on the upper Chagres River. Along the way, from the top of an enormous tree, Drake became the first Englishman to see the Pacific Ocean. Drake “besought almighty God of his goodness to give him life and leave to sail once in an English ship in that sea.”2 But his present mission ended in failure.
Back on the Atlantic side of Panama, Drake met up with Captain Guillaume Le Têtu, a French Huguenot and a privateer. Le Têtu brought news of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in Paris. As fellow Protestants, Drake and Le Têtu decided to make one last attempt on the overland treasure route. They routed the Spanish, though Le Têtu’s men suffered significant losses. They captured nearly twenty tons of gold and silver. Drake ordered what they could not carry off buried, and he and his men fled before the Spanish could rally and return. But Le Têtu stayed behind, wounded, and when Drake returned for him, he found Le Têtu dead from torture and beheaded. Drake set sail for Plymouth with a large fortune.
Over the next three years Drake turned his part of that fortune into a successful shipping business. But he was far from through with his crusade against the Spanish.
Through a letter of introduction, Drake was eventually able to present himself to Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s spymaster. He was looking for an assignment. Walsingham unrolled a map and asked Drake where Spain could be hurt the most. Drake pointed to the Pacific. With Walsingham’s help, he created a syndicate of investors, men drawn largely from the navy and the court. Drake’s plan was to follow Magellan’s route through the southern tip of South America and then head north along the coast, collecting Spanish gold along the way. For the journey home, however, he hoped to find the fabled Northwest Passage from the Pacific side. Elizabeth eventually gave the mission her blessing, though she stress-ed the need for secrecy. Relations with Spain were deteriorating, and Mary Stuart, the Roman Catholic heir to the throne, was still in England under house arrest. Elizabeth wanted plausible deniability.
Drake had a new ship built at the Queen’s expense: he named it the Pelican. The three-masted barque was small, fast, and deceptively well armed.
Drake left England in December of 1577. He started out with five small ships. Off the coast of Africa, he purchased a sixth, which he renamed the Mary. As he continued south, he added still more, both by capture or conscription.
It would be well at this point to say something of Drake’s character and faith. Bradford tells us that Drake was a strict disciplinarian who “would have no gambling with cards or dice aboard his ship, did not tolerate foul talk, would not have his crew hanging about bars and brothels when ashore.”3 He insisted that his men attend ship’s services, and he himself often read the Bible and preached to his men. And Drake carried with him a well-read copy of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. The war with Rome was never far from his mind.
Before Drake’s small fleet reached the bottom of the world, discontent and mutiny were already brewing among his men. The chief instigator was Thomas Doughty, an investor, gentleman, and captain of the Mary. He had been accused of pilfering the ship’s spoils, but placed the blame on Drake’s brother, Thomas. Somehow the matter was smoothed over, and Drake made Doughty the temporary captain of the Pelican, while Drake took command of the Mary.
Once onboard the Pelican, Doughty made a formal speech to the crew that ended with Doughty claiming a share in Drake’s right to execute those worthy of death. Drake let it pass, but Doughty continued to push for power and a following.
Aboard the Pelican Thomas Doughty’s antics continued. Approaching Master Cuttill and some of the mariners individually, he promised they would be rewarded if they did his bidding, and that he would use his influence to square whatever they did with the Queen and her council when they got back to England. It appears that Doughty’s aim was to break away from Drake. At the same time Doughty’s younger brother John allegedly boasted that the two of them possessed powers of witchcraft, claiming that they could call up the Devil in the form of a lion or bear, or poison their enemies by supernatural means. If the younger Doughty did make such claims, he was inviting serious trouble, because the Elizabethans commonly believed in and feared witchcraft, and nowhere was that dread more acute than among a group of superstitious sailors.4
We may also observe that Drake himself would have had no truck with witchcraft or poisoning of any variety. But Drake didn’t move against Doughty until he had one of Drake’s messengers bent over a barrel and beat as entertainment for the crew. Then Drake finally ordered Doughty’s arrest.
Drake had to move Doughty from one vessel to another as necessity compelled him to abandon one failing ship after another. But on each ship Doughty continued his subversion. Drake soon understood that he had to deal with Doughty or see the whole voyage ruined.
On June 30th Drake assembled the combined crews of the fleet and informed them of the charges against Thomas Doughty. He showed them written statements from witnesses, statements that confirmed the charges Drake had made. Then Drake had Doughty brought forward. He repeated the charge. Doughty disputed Drake’s authority to try him, but Drake continued on. He empaneled a jury of forty sailors and gentlemen and read them the evidence. After some deliberation, the jury returned a verdict of guilty. Drake then put the question of the penalty before the whole company. They voted for death.
On July 2, knowing that his execution was at hand, Doughty asked to received communion from the fleet’s chaplain. Drake offered to join him, “for the which Master Doughty gave hearty thanks, never once terming him other than ‘my good captain.’”5 Then they dined together in Drake’s tent, “each cheering up the other, and taking their leave, by drinking each to the other, as if some journey only had been in hand.”6 Doughty was taken to an improvised block and executed.
It was about this time, perhaps as a distraction, that Drake rechristened his flagship the Golden Hind.
The worst of the journey lay just ahead. Tierra del Fuego was a jigsaw puzzle of large islands and rocks. Seaman and cartographers assumed that the south side of the strait was the northern end of a large polar continent and the passage through the strait the only path to the Pacific Ocean. Drake moved forward on that assumption.
The voyage was harrowing. The channel was narrow, the currents swift. Ice-covered peaks towered over the ships. The fierce winds drove the ships back more than once and threatened to smash the little ships any time they sought anchorage beside the rock-like islands. Furthermore, in the midst of the storms, the Marigold perished and the Elizabeth disappeared. Its captain, worn thin and terrified by the forward journey, had broken away and set sail for England. But the Golden Hind survived, and Drake reached the Pacific.
Finally, in November, Drake set sail for Peru. At Valparaiso, the port of Santiago, Drake seized a Spanish ship, together with its Greek captain and its cargo: wine, cedar, and seventy-five pounds of gold. He set the Spanish crew ashore, unharmed. The small port town yielded bread, bacon, and a golden church bell.
The Hind and its new Spanish companion continued north. Along the way, Drake and his crew assembled one of the pinnaces stored aboard the Hind.
At Arica Drake captured still another ship and, with intelligence from a black slave, set out after a galleon that had just left port. He found himself too late to acquire its gold, but he did secure the empty galleon and so brought his new fleet up to five ships. But Drake quickly thought better of it. News of his approach was moving quickly up the coast. Drake needed to move even more quickly. He set his three prizes adrift under full sail and set off north again with just the Hind and the pinnace.
When Drake reach-ed Callao, he found seventeen ships in the harbor. It was night, and most of them were deserted. There was little treasure, but there was news. Drake’s former second in command, John Oxenham, was in prison in Lima, waiting to stand trial before the Spanish Inquisition for his own raids on Spanish towns. Drake considered herding the empty ships out of the harbor for later use as bargaining chips to obtain Oxenham’s freedom. But he ran out of time.
Drake withdrew, and in the morning two Spanish ships set out in pursuit. The ships recovered some captives Drake left behind, adrift—including the Greek captain, who told marvelous tales of Drake’s prowess and plans. The viceroy, upon hearing all of this, immediately sent out ships to warn the coastal cities and ground the treasure galleons; then he ordered the Inquisition to examine Oxenham for intelligence concerning Drake. Oxenham spoke largely of Drake’s abilities, resources, and intentions. The viceroy was worried. He hastened his son on to search for Drake as far as Panama; but from there he was to carry word of Drake’s outrageous escapades directly to King Philip in Madrid.
Meanwhile, Drake set out after the Cacafuego,7 a galleon that he learned was sailing north. After some adventures along the way, he found her just above the equator. He trailed wine jars behind his ship to slow her speed and give her the appearance of a heavily laden merchant ship. The Cacafuego suspected nothing, and the Hind came up along side the galleon. Before the captain and crew of the Cacafuego could understand what they were facing, Drake ordered his crew to fire. According to the Cacafuego’s captain, Juan de Anton:
At once, they discharged what seemed to be about sixty arquebuses, and then many arrows which struck the side of my ship. Shortly, a heavy gun was fired with chainballs which carried away the mizzen-mast into the sea with the sail and the yard. Another heavy gun was fired, someone saying that I should strike. At this point, the launch came along side on the portside with a matter of some forty arquebusiers . . . The English ship lay alongside on the starboard and made me strike sail.
In the morning Drake found that the ship was carrying 1,300 bars of silver, eighty pounds of gold, and thirteen chests full of silver coins. It took three days to transfer it to the Hind. In the meantime, Drake entertained Anton at his table, and when it was time for Drake to leave, he sent Anton and his men away with rich gifts and a message for the viceroy: Don’t kill the Englishmen you have in custody (Oxenham and his men) or it will cost the lives of two thousand Spaniards.
Drake crossed directly to Nicaragua, six hundred miles in nine days. There, he captured yet another ship, which he hoped to use to carry treasure home to England. Among her passengers were two pilots sent by the viceroy of New Spain to convey the new governor of the Philippines to Manila—and they had with them the charts and sailing directions for that voyage. These would soon prove invaluable.
After a few more adventures, Drake took the Hind north, beyond Mexico. It was time to plan a way home. First, Drake sailed up along the California coast and beyond. He hoped to find the Strait of Anian, the Northwest Passage. It wasn’t there. And so, with captured charts in hand, he set his eyes on the Pacific. He would duplicate the voyage of Magellan.
Before he set out, however, he stopped somewhere along the mid-Californian coast to refurbish his ship. The white cliffs above the harbor reminded him of Dover, and so he named the surrounding lands Nova Albion, “New Britain.” The local natives (a Miwoks tribe) received him graciously and with elaborate rites. Drake thought that he and his men were being honored as gods. Drake tried to dissuade the natives.
. . . Our general with his company, in the presence of those strangers, fell to prayers; and by signs in lifting up our eyes to heaven, signified unto them, that God whom we did serve, and whom they ought to worship, was above, beseeching God if it were his good pleasure to open by some means their blinded eyes; that might in due time be called to knowledge of him the true and everliving God, and of Jesus Christ whom he hath sent, the salvation of the Gentiles. In the time which prayers, singing of psalms, and reading certain chapters of the bible, they sate very attentively; and observing the end of every pause, with one voice still cried Oh! greatly rejoicing in our exercises.9
But when the natives presented Drake with what seemed to be a crown, he decided to claim all of Nova Albion in the name of the Triune God for England and Elizabeth.
It took Drake and his men two more years to finish their course around the world. They sailed into Plymouth Sound on September 26, 1580. The first question they asked as they passed a random fisherman was, “Is the Queen alive?” She was, and England was still Protestant.
England’s collective chest swelled over Drake’s monumental accomplishment. Elizabeth knighted him. For the moment, then, Drake was rich and a national hero, and Elizabeth, also a good deal richer, had to play politician and smooth Spain’s feathers. But the cold war was still underway.
For several years Drake was able to retire from the sea and the dangerous work of privateering. He served as Mayor of Plymouth and later as a Member of Parliament.
But by 1585 the political tensions between England and Spain were reaching the breaking point. Elizabeth summoned Drake for one more mission, a surgical strike at the Spanish Main. Walsingham, of course, had his hand in this. He saw it as a pre-emptive strike, one aimed at stopping a war, not starting one. If Drake could shift enough New World treasure from Philip’s coffers to Elizabeth’s, the king would not be able to pay for a war. Elizabeth publically expressed her support for the voyage: she called Drake, “my pirate.”
Despite its twenty-nine ships and twenty-three hundred men, the expedition was only a marginal success. Typhus and malaria took a severe toll on the crew. The captured treasure proved a mere 75% return on the up-front investment. But Spain had suffered political humiliation and lost credibility with investors, and that was real capital for England.
The following year Walsingham uncovered a plot against Elizabeth. Her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, was right in the middle of the whole affair. Mary’s execution came quickly, and so ended the last threat of a Roman Catholic queen on the throne of England. Elizabeth continued her policy of support to the Calvinists in the Netherlands. English privateering was on the rise. And Philip had finally had enough. He took the cold war to the next level: he ordered the construction of a great fleet, the Armada.
Drake pushed for another preemptory strike, this time against the ports where the Armada was being assembled. Eventually, Elizabeth gave in. Drake took sixteen ships. He struck at Cádiz and then Corunna. The English fleet destroyed some thirty-seven vessels and de-livered a year’s set back to Philip. Drake continued to harass Spanish ships over the next month. But Philip would not abandon his plan.
On July 12, 1588 the Invincible, Armada set out for England. Philip’s plan: depose Elizabeth, declare himself king, and return the English Church to Rome. England stood alone as far as the battle itself was concerned.
The Armada included 130 ships, 8,000 sailors, and 18,000 soldiers. There were also 180 priests aboard. For the Spanish as for the English, this was a religious war. The Armada took two full days to clear Spanish ports. Despite its size, its commander was nervous and warned Philip that it wasn’t as prepared as it ought to be.
Elizabeth appointed Lord Charles Howard of Effingham admiral of the English fleet and Drake vice-admiral. The English commanders were experienced; their ships were fast and light. Across the sea, the Dutch Calvinists kept their overlord, the Duke of Parma, from supplying the Armada at a critical moment. And then there were the storms.
The failure of the Spanish Armada is well-known. A tempest wrecked Spanish plans, Parma’s barges could not be used, and English tactics created confusion. Most of the Armada actually withdrew unscathed, but was buffeted by continuing storms and encountered nearly final disaster off the coast of Ireland while trying to get home.10
A medallion struck that year summarized the outcome. The reverse showed a shattered galleon with its crew frantic or jumping ship; the obverse showed a family kneeling in prayer and was rimmed with the words (in Latin), “Man proposes; God disposes.” A Dutch medal carried a similar message. It showed the Armada driven onto the rocks and bore the words from Psalm 86 (again in Latin), “Thou God art great and does wondrous things; thou art God alone.” Protestants on both sides of the Channel hailed the defeat of the Armada as a victory for Christ’s kingdom.
But that defeat did not end the war or destroy Spanish sea power. It did save England and with it English Protestantism in all its flavors: the next generation would see the Protestant colonization of the North American sea-board.
In the epilogue of his best-selling classic, The Armada, Garrett Mattingly writes, “Drake and his fellow Puritans dreamed of spreading the religious revolution throughout Europe until Anti-Christ was hurled from his throne.”12 Strictly speaking, Drake wasn’t a Puritan, but he was most certainly an evangelical Protestant and an enemy of all things Romish. Like all Protestants, he believed the pope was the Antichrist. And long before Elizabeth was ready for all out war, Drake was fighting his own war with Roman Catholic Spain. He carried that war around the world and back. His nation and the evangelical world honored his service. Victorian writers remembered him as a swashbuckling hero, the founder of England’s maritime tradition, and a symbol of courage and achievement in the face of adversity. Even today there is a legend that when England stands in great need, Drake’s drum, the one he took around the world, will beat of its own accord and summon him back from heaven to face England’s foes.

1 Camden’s Annals in E. F. Benson, Sir Francis Drake (Paderborn, Germany: Salzwasser-Verlag GmbH, 2012 [1927]), 10.
2 John Sugden, Sir Francis Drake (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1990), 67.
3 Ernle Bradford, Drake, England’s Greatest Seafarer (New York: Open Road Media, 1965), 21ff.
4 Samuel Bawlf, The Secret Voyage of Sir Francis Drake, 1577-1580 (New York: Walker & Company, 2003), 92.
5 “Narrative of John Cooke,” Appendix IV, in Francis Drake, The World Encompassed (London: The Hakuyt Society, 1854), 208.
6 Francis Drake, The World Encompassed (London: Nicholas Bourne, 1628), 32. This author was Drake’s nephew.
7 The proper name of the galleon was Nuestra Señora de la Concepción, “Our Lady of the [Immaculate] Conception.” The nickname, which is more properly spelled Cagafuego, means to defecate fire.
8 Henry R. Wagner, Sir Francis Drake’s Voyage Around the World, Its Aims and Objectives (San Francisco: John Howell, 1926), 361, in Bawlf, 142.
9 Drake, 72.
10 Otto Scott, The Great Christian Revolution, How Christianity Transformed the World (Windsor, NY: The Reformer Library, 1994), 126.
11 We have records of two privately owned ships attached to Drake’s squadron: the Mayflower and the Speedwell. Visit <> for British historian Susan Jackson’s interview with Bill Heid.
12 Garrett Mattingly, The Armada (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1959), 399.