|Died||28 January 1596 (aged 55)|
Portobelo, Colón, Panama
|Nickname||El Draque (Spanish, "The Dragon")|
|Allegiance||Kingdom of England|
|Base of operations||Caribbean Sea|
Golden Hind (previously known as Pelican)
|Wealth||Est. Equiv. US$144.7 million in 2021; #2 Forbes top-earning pirates|
Sir Francis Drake (c. 1540 – 28 January 1596) was an English explorer, sea captain, privateer, naval officer, and politician. Drake is best known for his circumnavigation of the world in a single expedition, from 1577 to 1580 (the first English circumnavigation, the second carried out in a single expedition, and third circumnavigation overall). This included his incursion into the Pacific Ocean, until then an area of exclusive Spanish interest, and his claim to New Albion for England, an area in what is now the U.S. state of California. His expedition inaugurated an era of conflict with the Spanish on the western coast of the Americas, an area that had previously been largely unexplored by Western shipping.
Elizabeth I awarded Drake a knighthood in 1581 which he received on the Golden Hind in Deptford. In the same year he was appointed mayor of Plymouth. As a vice admiral, he was second-in-command of the English fleet in the victorious battle against the Spanish Armada in 1588. After unsuccessfully attacking San Juan, Puerto Rico, he died of dysentery in January 1596.
Drake's exploits made him a hero to the English, but his privateering led the Spanish to brand him a pirate, known to them as El Draque. King Philip II of Spain allegedly offered a reward of 20,000 ducats for his capture or death, equivalent to around £7,207,135.56 (or $8,816,416.86 USD) in 2022.
Francis Drake was born in Tavistock, Devon, England. Although his birth date is not formally recorded, it is known that he was born while the Six Articles of 1539 were in force. His birth date is estimated from contemporary sources such as: "Drake was two and twenty when he obtained the command of the Judith" (1566). This would date his birth to 1544. A date of c. 1540 is suggested from two portraits: one a miniature painted by Nicholas Hilliard in 1581 when he was allegedly 42, so born circa 1539, while the other, painted in 1594 when he was said to be 52, would give a birth year of around 1541. Lady Elliott-Drake, the collateral descendant, and final holder of the Drake Baronetcy, argued in her book on 'The Family and Heirs of Sir Francis Drake' that Drake's birth year was 1541.
He was the oldest of the twelve sons of Edmund Drake (1518–1585), a Protestant farmer, and his wife Mary Mylwaye. The first son was alleged to have been named after his godfather Francis Russell, 2nd Earl of Bedford.[unreliable source]
Because of religious persecution during the Prayer Book Rebellion in 1549, the Drake family fled from Devon to Kent. There Drake's father obtained an appointment to minister the men in the King's Navy. He was ordained deacon and was made vicar of Upnor Church on the Medway. Drake's father apprenticed him to his neighbour, the master of a barque used for coastal trade transporting merchandise to France. The ship's master was so satisfied with the young Drake's conduct that, being unmarried and childless at his death, he bequeathed the barque to Drake.[when?] 
Francis Drake married Mary Newman at St. Budeaux church, Plymouth, in July 1569. She died 12 years later, in 1581. In 1585, Drake married Elizabeth Sydenham—born circa 1562, the only child of Sir George Sydenham, of Combe Sydenham, who was the High Sheriff of Somerset. After Drake's death, the widow Elizabeth eventually married Sir William Courtenay of Powderham.[unreliable source]
Scholars think it is likely Francis Drake was illegitimate, and that is probably why he was placed at an early age into the household of William Hawkins of Plymouth. Drake began his seagoing training as an apprentice on Hawkin's boats. By 18, he was a bursar, and in the 1550s, Drake's father found the young man a position with the owner and master of a small barque, one of the small traders plying between the Medway River and the Dutch coast. Drake likely engaged in commerce along the coast of England, the Low Countries and France. On the death of the barque's owner, Drake was given the barque, though it is possible the small boat may already have belonged to one of the Hawkinses, for whom Drake was working it. Loades says: "Whatever the truth of the matter, Drake seems to have completed his training out of the Medway".
Anecdotal evidence indicates Francis next served in a fairly humble capacity, as a seaman, on a series of voyages on the ships of William's cousin, John Hawkins, between 1560 and 1568. As a humble sailor, Drake is seldom mentioned by name in any of the records. They carried mainly cloth and manufactured goods, often contraband, but piracy was also a lure. On a trip to Guinea, John Hawkins brought home to England valuable cargoes of gold, ivory, pepper, and an idea. The West African slave trade was officially a Portuguese monopoly, but John Hawkins devised a plan to break into that trade, and in 1562, enlisted the aid of friends and family to finance the venture. It was a success: Hawkins returned in 1563 a rich man.
Hawkins immediately began planning his next trip, gaining both Queen Elizabeth's support in the form of a ship, Jesus de Lubeck, and the rest of his needed venture capital from a consortium of investors. Drake was twenty (c. 1563–1564), and not a member of that consortium when he sailed on Hawkins' second voyage, but the crew would have received a share in the profits. Therefore, scholars such as Kris Lane list Drake with Hawkins as one of the first English slave traders.
That second run was also a success. However, the Spanish and Portuguese had become aware of what the English were doing, so they sent their London ambassadors to lodge complaints with Queen Elizabeth. Spain and Portugal were the major seafaring powers of the sixteenth century, holding established trade monopolies, including the west African slave trade. England was small, relatively poor, and struggling from civil and religious division. Elizabeth was not willing to risk war with Spain, so the Queen instructed Hawkins not to undertake a third trip that year. Hawkins agreed, then covertly furnished John Lovell with the fleet to do it for him. Drake's presence on earlier voyages has been mostly assumed, but there is firm testimony that Drake was on board one of Lovell's ships for this voyage.
In 1566–1567, sailing under Captain John Lovell on one of a fleet of ships owned by the Hawkins family, they attacked Portuguese settlements and slave ships on the coast of West Africa and then sailed to the Americas and sold the captured cargoes of enslaved Africans to Spanish plantations. The voyage was largely unsuccessful and more than 90 enslaved Africans were released without payment. When Lovell arrived back in Plymouth in 1567 with these disappointing results, Hawkins' "Third Troublesome Voyage" (fourth if Lovell's is included) was planned. It would be a turning point in Drake's life.
One account of "The Troublesome Third voyage" has Drake as Captain of Hawkins' ship Judith from the beginning of the voyage, whereas another account places him as a junior officer aboard the Jesus of Lubeck instead. Whitfield says, "The voyage began badly, and it grew progressively worse". The voyage ended in the ill-fated 1568 incident at San Juan de Ulúa.
Storms, Spanish hostility and African resistance, armed conflict, and finally a hurricane, separated one ship from the fleet to find its own way home, and damaged the others forcing them to find a port where they could make repairs. After arriving in San Juan de Ulua, the port of Vera Cruz, the newly appointed viceroy of New Spain arrived with a fleet of ships. While still negotiating to resupply and repair, Hawkins' ships were attacked by the fleet of Spanish warships, with all but two of the English ships lost. The Jesus de Lubeck was set on fire. Drake escaped, surviving the attack by swimming. The Judith departed leaving Hawkins and the Minion to limp along alone toward safety. Hundreds of English seamen were abandoned. Drake's hostility towards the Spanish is said to have started with this incident.
Details of the aftermath have remained unclear. Hawkins accused Drake of desertion and of stealing the treasure they had accumulated. Drake denied both accusations asserting he had distributed all profits among the crew and that he had believed Hawkins was lost when he left. Other eyewitness accounts seem to exonerate Drake. "Whatever the truth about this episode, there is no doubt that it turned Drake's ambitions into a new channel. Thereafter, Spain and all things Spanish became his prey: slaving and trading voyages no longer interested him... An ignoble ambition perhaps, but the circumstances of European politics in the 1570s and 1580s, combined with Drake's personal brilliance and tenacious character, served to transform it into a plan of historic importance".
Main article: Drake's expedition of 1572–1573
In 1572, Drake embarked on his first major independent enterprise. He planned an attack on the Isthmus of Panama, known to the Spanish as Tierra Firme and the English as the Spanish Main. This was the point at which the silver and gold treasure of Peru had to be landed and sent overland to the Caribbean Sea, where galleons from Spain would pick it up at the town of Nombre de Dios. Drake left Plymouth on 24 May 1572, with a crew of 73 men in two small vessels, the Pascha (70 tons) and the Swan (25 tons), to capture Nombre de Dios.
Drake's first raid was late in July 1572. Drake formed an alliance with the Cimarrons. Drake and his men captured the town and its treasure. When his men noticed that Drake was bleeding profusely from a wound, they insisted on withdrawing to save his life and left the treasure. Drake stayed in the area for almost a year, raiding Spanish shipping and attempting to capture a treasure shipment.
The most celebrated of Drake's adventures along the Spanish Main was his capture of the Spanish Silver Train at Nombre de Dios in March 1573. He raided the waters around Darien (in modern Panama) with a crew including many French privateers including Guillaume Le Testu, a French buccaneer, and Maroons, enslaved Africans who had escaped from their Spanish slaveowners. One of these men was Diego, who under Drake became a free man; Diego was also a capable ship builder. Drake tracked the Silver Train to the nearby port of Nombre de Dios. After their attack on the richly laden mule train, Drake and his party found that they had captured around 20 tons of silver and gold. They buried much of the treasure, as it was too much for their party to carry, and made off with a fortune in gold. (An account of this may have given rise to subsequent stories of pirates and buried treasure). Wounded, Le Testu was captured and later beheaded. The small band of adventurers dragged as much gold and silver as they could carry back across some 18 miles of jungle-covered mountains to where they had left the raiding boats. When they got to the coast, the boats were gone. Drake and his men, downhearted, exhausted and hungry, had nowhere to go and the Spanish were not far behind.
At this point, Drake rallied his men, buried the treasure on the beach, and built a raft to sail with two volunteers ten miles along the surf-lashed coast to where they had left the flagship. When Drake finally reached its deck, his men were alarmed at his bedraggled appearance. Fearing the worst, they asked him how the raid had gone. Drake could not resist a joke and teased them by looking downhearted. Then he laughed, pulled a necklace of Spanish gold from around his neck and said "Our voyage is made, lads!" By 9 August 1573, he had returned to Plymouth.
It was during this expedition that Drake climbed a high tree in the central mountains of the Isthmus of Panama and thus became the first Englishman to see the Pacific Ocean, mirroring the achievement of the Spaniard Vasco Núñez de Balboa in 1513. Drake remarked as he saw the Pacific Ocean that he hoped one day an Englishman would be able to sail it – which he would do years later as part of his circumnavigation of the world.
When Drake returned to Plymouth after the raids, the government signed a temporary truce with King Philip II of Spain and so was unable to acknowledge Drake's accomplishment officially. Drake was considered a hero in England and a pirate in Spain for his raids.
Drake was present at the 1575 Rathlin Island massacre in Ireland. Acting on the instructions of Sir Henry Sidney and the Earl of Essex, Sir John Norreys and Drake laid siege to Rathlin Castle. Despite their surrender, Norreys' troops killed all the 200 defenders and more than 400 civilian men, women and children of Clan MacDonnell. Meanwhile, Drake was given the task of preventing any Gaelic Irish or Scottish reinforcements reaching the island. Therefore, the remaining leader of the Gaelic defence against English power, Sorley Boy MacDonnell, was forced to stay on the mainland. Essex wrote in his letter to Queen Elizabeth's secretary, that following the attack Sorley Boy "was likely to have run mad for sorrow, tearing and tormenting himself and saying that he there lost all that he ever had."
In 1580, Drake purchased Buckland Abbey, a large manor house near Yelverton in Devon, via intermediaries from Sir Richard Greynvile. He lived there for fifteen years, until his final voyage, and it remained in his family for several generations. Buckland Abbey is now in the care of the National Trust and a number of mementos of his life are displayed there.
Drake was politically astute, and although known for his private and military endeavours, he was an influential figure in politics during the time he spent in Britain. Often abroad, there is little evidence to suggest he was active in Westminster, despite being a member of parliament on three occasions.
After returning from his voyage of circumnavigation, Drake became the Mayor of Plymouth, in September 1581. He became a member of parliament during a session of the 4th Parliament of Elizabeth I, on 16 January 1581, for the constituency of Camelford. He did not actively participate at this point, and on 17 February 1581 he was granted leave of absence "for certain his necessary business in the service of Her Majesty".
Drake became a member of parliament again in 1584 for Bossiney on the forming of the 5th Parliament of Elizabeth I. He served the duration of the parliament and was active in issues regarding the navy, fishing, early American colonisation, and issues related chiefly to Devon. He spent the time covered by the next two parliamentary terms engaged in other duties and an expedition to Portugal. He became a member of parliament for Plymouth in 1593. He was active in issues of interest to Plymouth as a whole, but also to emphasise defence against the Spanish.
War had already been declared by Phillip II after the Treaty of Nonsuch, so the Queen through Francis Walsingham ordered Sir Francis Drake to lead an expedition to attack the Spanish colonies in a kind of preemptive strike. An expedition left Plymouth in September 1585 with Drake in command of twenty-one ships with 1,800 soldiers under Christopher Carleill. He first attacked Vigo in Spain and held the place for two weeks ransoming supplies. He then plundered Santiago in the Cape Verde islands after which the fleet then sailed across the Atlantic, sacked the port of Santo Domingo, and captured the city of Cartagena de Indias in present-day Colombia. At Cartagena, Drake released one hundred Turks who were enslaved. On 6 June 1586, during the return leg of the voyage, he raided the Spanish fort of San Agustín in Spanish Florida.
After the raids he then went on to find Sir Walter Raleigh's settlement much further north at Roanoke which he replenished and also took back with him all of the original colonists before Sir Richard Greynvile arrived with supplies and more colonists. He finally reached England on 22 July, when he sailed into Portsmouth, England to a hero's welcome.
Angered by these acts, Philip II ordered a planned invasion of England.
Main article: Singeing the King of Spain's Beard
On 15 March 1587, Drake accepted a new commission with several purposes: disrupt the shipping routes to slow supplies from Italy and Andalusia to Lisbon, to trouble enemy fleets that were in their own ports, and to capture Spanish ships laden with treasure. Drake was also to confront and attack the Spanish Armada had it already sailed for England. When arriving at Cadiz on 19 April, Drake found the harbour packed with ships and supplies as the Armada was readying and waiting for fair wind to launch the fleet to attack. In the early hours of the next day, Drake pressed his attack into the inner harbour and inflicted heavy damage. Claims of the Spanish ship losses vary. Drake claimed he had sunk 39 ships, but other contemporary sources are lower, specifically some Spanish sources which suggest losses as low as 25 ships. The attack became known as the “singeing of the King’s beard” and delayed the Spanish invasion by a year.
Over the next month, Drake patrolled the Iberian coasts between Lisbon and Cape St. Vincent, intercepting and destroying ships on the Spanish supply lines. Drake estimated that he captured around 1600–1700 tons of barrel staves, enough to make 25,000 to 30,000 barrels (4,800 m3) for containing provisions.
Drake was vice admiral in command of the English fleet (under Lord Howard of Effingham) when it overcame the Spanish Armada that was attempting to invade England in 1588. As the English fleet pursued the Armada up the English Channel in closing darkness, Drake broke off and captured the Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora del Rosario, along with Admiral Pedro de Valdés and all his crew. The Spanish ship was known to be carrying substantial funds to pay the Spanish Army in the Low Countries. Drake's ship had been leading the English pursuit of the Armada by means of a lantern. By extinguishing this for the capture, Drake put the fleet into disarray overnight.
On the night of 29 July, along with Howard, Drake organised fire-ships, causing the majority of the Spanish captains to break formation and sail out of Calais into the open sea. The next day, Drake was present at the Battle of Gravelines. He wrote as follows to Admiral Henry Seymour after coming upon part of the Spanish Armada, whilst aboard Revenge on 31 July 1588 (21 July 1588 OS):
Coming up to them, there has passed some common shot between some of our fleet and some of them; and as far as we perceive, they are determined to sell their lives with blows.
The most famous (but probably apocryphal) anecdote about Drake relates that, prior to the battle, he was playing a game of bowls on Plymouth Hoe. On being warned of the approach of the Spanish fleet, Drake is said to have remarked that there was plenty of time to finish the game and still beat the Spaniards, perhaps because he was waiting for high tide. There is no known eyewitness account of this incident and the earliest retelling of it was printed 37 years later. Adverse winds and currents caused some delay in the launching of the English fleet as the Spanish drew nearer, perhaps prompting a popular myth of Drake's cavalier attitude to the Spanish threat. It might also have been later ascribed to the stoic attribute of British culture.
Main article: English Armada
In 1589, the year after defeating the Armada the English sent their own to attack Spain, Drake and Sir John Norreys were given three tasks: seek out and destroy the remaining ships, support the rebels in Lisbon, Portugal against King Philip II (then king of Spain and Portugal), and take the Azores if possible. In the siege of Coruña, Drake and Norreys destroyed a few ships in the harbour of A Coruña in Spain, but lost more than 12,000 lives and 20 ships. This defeat in all fronts delayed Drake, and he was forced to forgo hunting the rest of the surviving ships and head on to Lisbon.
However, he wanted to change such a bitter thorn and, in order not to return empty-handed and with the morale of his troops sunk, he made a fleeting stop in the Galician rías, razing the defenseless town of Vigo to the ground without mercy for four days. His crew, without a government and eager for revenge, rampaged around the town until it was reduced to ashes. Even this abusive demonstration of power did not leave the corsair unharmed, as he lost some five hundred men on land, in addition to as many wounded. The growing defense of the inhabitants and the arrivals of militias from Portugal, put the ships in retreat again.
After an investigation was opened in England to try to clarify the causes of the disaster, Drake, whose behavior was harshly criticized by his comrades in arms, was relegated to the modest post of commander of the coastal defenses of Plymouth, being denied the command of any naval expedition for the next six years.
Drake's seafaring career continued into his mid-fifties. In 1595, he failed to conquer the port of Las Palmas, and following a disastrous campaign against Spanish America, where he suffered a number of defeats, he unsuccessfully attacked San Juan de Puerto Rico, eventually losing the Battle of San Juan.
The Spanish gunners from El Morro Castle shot a cannonball through the cabin of Drake's flagship, but he survived. He attempted to attack over land in an effort to capture the rich port of Panamá but was defeated again. A few weeks later, on 28 January 1596, he died (aged about 56) of dysentery, a common disease in the tropics at the time, while anchored off the coast of Portobelo where some Spanish treasure ships had sought shelter. Following his death, the English fleet withdrew defeated.
Before dying, he asked to be dressed in his full armour. He was buried at sea in a sealed lead-lined coffin, near Portobelo, a few miles off the coastline. It is supposed that his final resting place is near the wrecks of two British ships, the Elizabeth and the Delight, scuttled in Portobelo Bay. Divers continue to search for the coffin.
In Valparaíso, Chile, folklore associates a cave known as Cueva del Pirata (lit. "Cave of the Pirate") with Francis Drake. A legend says that when Drake sacked the port he became disappointed over the scant plunder. Drake proceeded to enter the churches in fury to sack them and urinate on the goblets. However he still found the plunder to be not worth enough to take it on board his galleon, hiding it in the cave. Another version of the legend says a treasure was left in the cave because the plunder had been more than he could take on board. Together with the treasure Drake would have left a man chained or a sentry to wait for them to return, which they did not. The treasure is said to still be there, but those who approach it drown.
Further north in Chile a tale says that because Drake feared falling prisoner to the Spanish he buried his treasure near Arica, these being one of many Chilean stories about entierros ("burrowings").
In the UK there are various places named after him, especially in Plymouth, Devon. Places there carrying his name include the naval base HMS Drake, Drake's Island, and a shopping centre and roundabout named Drake Circus. Plymouth Hoe is also home to a statue of Drake. The Sir Francis Drake Channel is located in the British Virgin Islands.
Several landmarks in northern California were named after Drake, beginning in the late 19th century and continuing into the 20th century. American historian Richard White has shown that these commemorations have origins in Anglo-Saxonism, a racist ideology that was variously used to justify manifest destiny, imperialism, slavery, nativism, and the genocide of indigenous peoples. Public scrutiny of these memorials intensified after the murder of George Floyd, when protests against police brutality and racism drew critical attention to place names and monuments connected to white supremacy. Several California landmarks that commemorated Drake were removed or renamed. Citing Drake's associations with the transatlantic slave trade, colonialism and piracy, Sir Francis Drake High School, in San Anselmo, California, changed its name to Archie Williams High School, after former teacher and Olympic athlete Archie Williams. A statue of Drake in Larkspur, California was also removed by the city authorities. Multiple jurisdictions in Marin County considered renaming Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, one of its major thoroughfares, but left the name intact when they failed to reach a consensus. In San Francisco, the Sir Francis Drake Hotel was renamed the Beacon Grand Hotel.
In British Columbia, Canada, where some theorise he may also have landed to the north of the usual site considered to be Nova Albion, various mountains were named in the 1930s for him, or in connection with Elizabeth I or other figures of that era, including Mount Sir Francis Drake, Mount Queen Bess, and the Golden Hinde, the highest mountain on Vancouver Island.
Drake's will was the focus of a vast confidence scheme which Oscar Hartzell perpetrated in the 1920s and 1930s. He convinced thousands of people, mostly in the American Midwest, that Drake's fortune was being held by the British government, and had compounded to a huge amount. If their last name was Drake they might be eligible for a share if they paid Hartzell to be their agent. The swindle continued until a copy of Drake's will was brought to Hartzell's mail fraud trial and he was convicted and imprisoned.
Drake's Drum has become an icon of English folklore with its variation of the classic King asleep in mountain story motif.
Drake was a major focus in the video game series Uncharted, specifically its first and third instalments, Uncharted: Drake's Fortune and Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception, respectively. The series follows Nathan Drake, a self-proclaimed descendant of Drake who retraces his ancestor's voyages.
Drake was the subject of a TV series, Sir Francis Drake (1961-1962). Terence Morgan played Drake in the 26-episode adventure drama.