1. Sir Francis Drake was the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe 

... and the second ever to complete a circumnavigation of the globe. Drake’s circumnavigation of the globe was also a secret pirate mission sanctioned by Queen Elizabeth against the Spanish. Drake was a privateer, which meant that he was given permission by the crown to raid enemy ships and cargoes. Elizabeth commissioned Drake to lead an expedition against the Spanish colonies on the Pacific coast of America.

2. Drake was one of the first British slave traders

... undertaking voyages as early as 1560 with his cousin John Hawkins to West Africa to capture men and women. They also attacked Portuguese slave ships in order to steal their human ‘cargo’.

Learn more about the origins of the transatlantic slave trade

Thomas Cavendish (1560-92), Sir Francis Drake (1540-96) and Sir John Hawkins (1532-95)
Thomas Cavendish (1560-92), Sir Francis Drake (1540-96) and Sir John Hawkins (1532-95)

3. Drake was hated by the Spanish who nicknamed him ‘El Draque’ or the Dragon

This was due to numerous raids he made against Spanish ships and settlements on his voyages. Some Spanish mariners were so afraid of Drake that they believed he practiced witchcraft. Drake was rumoured to be in league with the devil and to possess a magic mirror that allowed him to see the location of all the ships in the sea.

4. Drake was buried at sea off the coast of Portobelo, Panama

He died from dysentery on 28 January 1596 during a sea voyage. He was buried in a lead coffin, dressed in a full suit of armour. Numerous dives have been attempted to locate the lead coffin, but his body remains lost at sea.  

Launch of fireships against the Spanish Armada, 7 August 1588
Launch of fireships against the Spanish Armada, 7 August 1588

5. Drake was made mayor of Plymouth for a term in 1581

Some years later Drake took a municipal contract to reconstruct a shallow canal bringing water to the town. This business arrangement has given rise to the myth that Francis Drake brought the first supply of water to the inhabitants of Plymouth. The supply of water is thought to have lasted up to 300 years. 

6. A cannon ball is said to have flown straight through Drake’s legs but he was uninjured

This was during a battle in the harbour at Palma on Drake’s raid on the West Indies. One cannon ball 'strake atwixt our Generalls legges' (BL, Harley MS 2202, fol. 57v). 

7. Drake is often (incorrectly) credited for introducing the potato to England after his circumnavigation of the globe

The first potatoes to reach England were most likely brought by the Spanish by the 1570s (a decade before Drake’s travels). However, he did return to England with tobacco and potatoes on the conclusion of his 1586 voyage to America. During this voyage he also rescued the failed colonists at Roanoke.

8.  Drake did not make an inventory of the booty he had acquired to avoid taxes from the Spanish or claims for it to be returned

Only Queen Elizabeth I and Drake knew the exact amount he looted on his circumnavigation. His voyages were classified as “the Queen’s secrets of the Realm.”  The Queen made Drake and other participants of his voyages swear to secrecy all information related to their travels, on pain of death. 

 Francis Drake in an audience with Queen Elizabeth.
Francis Drake in an audience with Queen Elizabeth

9. Drake ordered a surgeon to open up his brother’s body after he died of an unknown disease

He wanted to learn his brother's cause of death as this unknown disease was ravaging his ship.

10. Drake’s father was a fugitive from the law

Edmund Drake was a tenant farmer for Francis Russell, 2nd Earl of Bedford. He fled his native county after being charged for “assault and robbery” in 1548.

Sir Francis Drake by Marcus Gheeraerts (1591) and the Armada Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I
Sir Francis Drake by Marcus Gheeraerts (1591) and the Armada Portrait of Queen Elizabeth

Tudor and Stuart Seafarers

Discover more about Sir Francis Drake at the Tudor and Stuart Seafarers gallery at the National Maritime Museum