Francis Drake was an experienced and daring seafarer. Among many adventures, the 'famous voyage', his successful circumnavigation of the world between 1577 and 1580 ensured that he would be one of the best remembered figures of Tudor England.
In his own lifetime, he was thought of with mixed feelings, both at home and abroad. Some English people regarded him as a hero, but he was distrusted by others, who saw him as having risen 'above his station'. Although he was feared and hated by the Spanish, he was also regarded by some with secret admiration.
What was England like at the time of Drake?
For most of Drake's life, Queen Elizabeth I ruled the country. It was a time when England was growing in population, power and wealth, and was also becoming more outward looking. New markets and colonies were needed, so that English produce, especially wool, could be traded. England was also keen to gain from the huge profits to be made from the 'New World' of the Americas and from the Eastern spice trade, as Spain and Portugal were already doing.
It was a time when religion was extremely important to people, especially the question of whether England was to be a Protestant or a Catholic country. Arguments about religion and trade meant that England was at war with Spain for much of Drake's life.
Where was Francis Drake born?
Francis Drake was born in Tavistock, Devon, sometime between 1541 and 1543.
What sort of family did he come from?
A very ordinary family, certainly not rich or powerful. His family was a devoutly religious one. When Francis was still a small boy, the Catholic Queen Mary came to the throne, and there were religious disturbances in Devon. The family left, and moved to Chatham in Kent where for a time they lived on an old, laid-up ship. Drake's father became a Protestant preacher.
These early experiences had a profound effect on the young Francis. The Protestant religion was to be one of the most important things to him throughout his life. On his voyage around the world he led religious services on board ship twice a day.
When did Drake first go to sea?
He first started going to sea while living in Chatham, at the age of 12 or 13. He was an apprentice on a small trading ship which was left to him when the master died. After selling this ship, he returned to Devon and sailed with his relative John Hawkins. Together, Hawkins and Drake made the first English slaving voyages, bringing African slaves to work in the 'New World'.
Did Francis Drake marry?
Yes. He married twice. When he was 25 he married Mary Newman, who died in 1583. He married again in 1585. His second wife, Elizabeth Sydenham, came from a much more influential family. He did not have children with either of his wives.
What was Drake looking for on his voyages?
Spanish ships, sailing back from their new conquests in South America were extremely attractive, as they were laden with silver. Drake attacked such ships, and if he was successful in capturing them, took their treasure for himself and for his queen. He also raided Spanish and Portuguese ports in the 'New World' and the Atlantic. On Drake's voyage to Panama in 1572–73, he was helped by cimarrones. The cimarrones were former slaves, who had escaped to live in the forest and mountains as outlaws. Many were prepared to help the English as they blamed the Spanish for their position. One cimarrone in particular, named Diego, became especially close to Drake, accompanying him to England and later around the world.
How long did it take Drake to sail around the world?
The circumnavigation took three years, from 1577 to 1580. Originally, the voyage was probably planned as a raid on Spanish ships and ports. Five ships, manned by 164 seamen, left Plymouth, with Drake himself sailing in the Pelican. Almost all the crew thought they were heading for the Mediterranean.
After reaching America, Drake was worried that his ships might get separated from each other, so he gave orders for two of them to be destroyed. Then the Marigold was lost, with all her crew, and the Elizabeth turned back and sailed home.
By October 1578, as the company started up the western coast of South America, there were just 58 left, all on the Pelican. Drake renamed his ship the Golden Hind.
What did Drake find out on his voyage around the world?
Drake's voyage helped to give a more accurate picture of the true geography of the world. During the course of the voyage, Drake discovered that Tierra del Fuego, the land seen to the south of the Magellan Strait, was not part of a southern continent as had been believed previously, but an archipelago, or group of islands. Francis Fletcher, the chaplain on Drake's ship described it like this:
In passing along we plainly discovered that same Terra Australis to be no continent, but broken islands and large passages amongst them....
This meant that if the American continent was not connected to a southern continent, the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans met at Cape Horn. It should be possible to sail ships around the bottom of South America, south of Tierra. This was the Cape Horn route, eventually discovered in 1616.
As Drake sailed further up the coast, he plundered Spanish ports in Chile and Peru and captured treasure ships. His biggest prize was the Cacafuego. Drake sailed further north along the coast of the Americas than any other European until then. On the way he landed in what is now California, naming it Nova Albion (New England) and claiming it for his queen. He then continued across the Pacific to the East Indies, or Spice Islands. Six tons of cloves were loaded onto the ship. Later, half had to be tossed into the sea in order to free the ship from a reef. His route through the East Indies lay along the uncharted southern coast of Java. Here Drake discovered that Java was an island, not connected to a southern continent as the Dutch believed.
Drake returned from his voyage around the world with the little Golden Hind packed full of spices from the Indies, and plundered Spanish silver and treasure. The good health of the surviving members of his crew was a remarkable achievement in itself. This was in marked contrast to the dreadful condition of those who had accompanied Magellan on the first circumnavigation of the world 50 years earlier.
How was Drake helped by others?
During the Tudor period, it was important that each explorer built on the experience of those who had gone before. Portugal and Spain had been involved in ocean exploration long before England. Francis Drake obviously recognised this, as he made use of this previous knowledge and expertise by seizing the Portuguese pilot Nuna da Silva to guide him on his passage to Brazil and the east coast of America. In the Pacific, he seized the charts of two Spanish pilots bound for the Philippines. He already had a chart of the world made in Portugal, and three books on navigation.
How did the Queen treat Drake when he returned after his three-year voyage?
Queen Elizabeth dined on board the Golden Hind at Deptford, on the River Thames. Afterwards, she knighted him so that for the rest of his life he was known as Sir Francis Drake. The king of Spain was insulted by the Queen's reward to Drake. His voyage may have been triumphant to the English, but to the Spanish it was highly destructive.
Was the circumnavigation the end of Sir Francis Drake's career at sea?
No. Drake was involved in several other battles with the Spanish. In 1585 he and more than 1000 men attacked Santiago in the Cape Verde islands. As no treasure was found, he ordered the town to be burnt down. In 1586 he captured Santo Domingo in Hispaniola (Santo Domingo is now the capital of the Dominican Republic).
One of his most famous attacks was on Cadiz and Coruna in 1587. This incident is sometimes known as the 'singeing of the King of Spain's beard.' In a daring raid, between 20 and 30 ships were sunk or captured. Perhaps of even more importance though, was the destruction of supplies intended for King Philip's planned Spanish Armada.
The attack delayed the Armada and the Spanish were short of some important supplies for their fleet. They were also forced to use unseasoned wood for barrels, as Drake had destroyed the seasoned wood. Later on this resulted in the rotting of many of their precious stocks of food for the Armada crews.
What was Drake's role in the battles against the Spanish Armada?
Sir Francis Drake was very active in the Armada battles of 1588. One of the most famous incidents involving Drake was when the Spanish flagship, the Rosario, collided with another ship. It lost its mast and became separated from the rest of the Spanish fleet. Drake captured it, even though he had been given the job of tracking the Armada with his stern lantern alight to guide all the other English ships following him. The prize of the Rosario must have been too difficult to resist. The ship was taken without a single shot being fired, still with the royal money chest on board.
How did Sir Francis Drake die?
He died at sea on his final voyage, off the coast of Panama, in Nombre de Dios Bay. He had been suffering from dysentery for several days and in January 1596 he finally died. His body was placed inside a lead casket and he was then slipped overboard. Two other ships, his most recent prizes, were sunk near his body. He was about 54 years old.
Why is he still remembered today?
His circumnavigation led to an increased knowledge of the geography of the world, particularly to a more accurate understanding of the 'southern continent'. As a navigator his skills put him in the same rank as Columbus. His claim of California, or Nova Albion, for England led directly to later plans to send people to live in colonies in America.
To find out more about Sir Francis Drake visit Tudor Exploration, our animated site for children and teachers.