Sir Francis Drake: Daring pirate or celebrated seafarer?

Who was Sir Francis Drake (1542–96)? Discover the life of the Tudor seafarer, famous for traveling the world on the Golden Hind and fighting the Spanish Armada.

What was Drake’s early life like?

Francis Drake was born in Tavistock, Devon, in 1542 and first went to sea aged 12. 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. New markets and colonies were needed so that English produce 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.

What did Drake do at sea?

While Drake is considered a hero in England, he is remembered as a pirate in Spain. He famously plundered Spanish ships that were sailing back from their colonies in South America. If the attacks were successful, Drake took the treasure for himself and for his queen. He also raided Spanish and Portuguese ports in the ‘New World’ and the Atlantic.

When did he circumnavigate 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.

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, and the Elizabeth returned home. By October 1578 just 58 were men left, all on the Pelican, which Drake renamed the Golden Hind.

What did Drake discover?

Sir Francis Drake became the first Englishman to navigate the Straits of Magellan. He discovered that Tierra del Fuego, the land south of the Magellan Strait, was not part of a southern continent as had been believed. It was instead a group of islands. This meant that ships could sail between the Atlantic and Pacific around the bottom of South America (later known as the Cape Horn route). 

Drake also sailed further north along the coast of the Americas than any other European had before. On the way, he landed in what is now California, naming it Nova Albion (New England).

Drake returned from his voyage with plundered Spanish silver, some gold, and spices bought in the East.

What was Drake’s relationship with Queen Elizabeth I?

Queen Elizabeth dined on board the Golden Hind at Deptford on the River Thames, when Drake returned from his circumnavigation. She also knighted him, much to the offence of the King of Spain, whose ships he had raided.

What was Drake’s role in the battles against the Spanish Armada?

One of Drakes most famous attacks was on Cadiz and Corunna in 1587. He himself called this the ‘singeing of the King of Spain's beard’. In a daring raid between 20 and 30 ships were sunk or captured. The attack delayed the Armada and the Spanish were short of some important supplies for their fleet.

Drake was also involved in battle against the Spanish Armada in 1588, most notably the capture of the Spanish flagship Rosario.

How did Drake die?

Drake died at sea off the coast of Panama, in Nomber de Dios Bay. He contracted dysentry whilst on a sea voyage. He was around 54 years old.

What is Sir Francis Drake’s legacy?

He is remembered as one of the naval heroes of Elizabethan England. His circumnavigation of the world led to an increased knowledge of its geography. He was one of the greatest early European navigators.

Visit the Pigott Family Gallery: Tudor and Stuart Seafarers

Discover more about Sir Francis Drake and pirates at the Pigott Family Gallery: Tudor and Stuart Seafarers, one of the four new galleries at the National Maritime Museum. Discover Britain’s emergence as a maritime nation through key events and personalities of the 16th and 17th centuries.

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