Life of the Week: Sir Francis Drake

In November 1577 Elizabethan seaman Sir Francis Drake set out at sea to become the first Englishman to circumnavigate the earth. However, bad weather quickly forced Drake to return home...

English navigator and privateer, Francis Drake. Miniature from the studio of Nicholas Hilliard, c1591. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

English navigator and privateer, Francis Drake. Miniature from the studio of Nicholas Hilliard, c1591. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

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A few weeks later, Drake set sail for a second time. He did not return to England for nearly three years, until after completing his circumnavigation mission.

Alongside his exploratory successes in sailing across the earth, Sir Francis Drake was also one of the most prominent naval leaders of the Spanish Armada in 1588.

Here, we look at the seaman’s life…

Born: c1540 in Tavistock, Devon

Died: 28 January 1596, off of the coast of Portobelo, Panama

Remembered for: Being one of the most famous seamen of the 16th century and for becoming the first Englishman to circumnavigate the world.

Family: Drake was the eldest child of farmer Edmund Drake, who later became a Protestant preacher, and Mary Mylwaye. Drake had 11 younger brothers.

In 1569 Drake married Mary Newman, who died in 1581. Drake’s second marriage was to Elizabeth Sydenham, in 1585. He had no children from either of these marriages.

His life: The date of Francis Drake’s birth is unknown, but it is estimated that he was born in c1540 in Tavistock, Devon.

At around the age of 12, Drake began travelling at sea after becoming an apprentice on a trade ship. Drake must have made an impression on his master, as he inherited the ship when he was a teenager, after the death of his master.

In his early 20s, Drake sold his trade ship and began travelling to the Americas with his second cousin, Sir John Hawkins, who was a naval commander and slave trader. During these voyages, Drake and Hawkins raided foreign ships and ports, and stole masses of gold, silver and other treasure.

In 1568, Drake was onboard his ship in San Juan de Ulúa in Mexico, as part of a fleet of vessels owned by the Hawkins family, when Spanish ships began to fire. During this skirmish, Drake was able to escape along with Hawkins. The attack, however, spurred him to seek revenge on Spain.

In May 1572, Drake set off on his first independent expedition to Panama, between North and South America. Drake planned to raid Panama, as there were reports that the Spanish were storing tons of gold and silver there. In July 1572, Drake and his men successfully raided the town of Nombre de Dios, Panama, and seized around 20 tons of treasure. However, they were forced leave some of their booty behind, as they could not load all of it onto their ships.

Impressed by his success at sea, in 1577 Queen Elizabeth I sponsored Drake’s voyage to circumnavigate the earth. After failing to set sail in November 1577 because of bad weather, in December 1577 Drake began his venture from Plymouth aboard his ship, the Pelican (also known as the Golden Hind), with around 164 men and four extra ships. Drake began his journey by travelling to the Pacific coast.

After arriving in South America, Drake feared that his ships may become separated while at sea, possibly due to the hazardous weather conditions, and so ordered that two of them be destroyed. Drake and his crew then faced destructive storms during the journey to the Pacific Ocean, which ruined one ship, with another forced to return to England.

Despite this, Drake continued sailing on the Pelican and raided Spanish ports and settlements off the South American coast. He then sailed up the west coast of North America, and in June 1579 landed in present-day California. Drake claimed the land, naming it Nova Albion (or ‘New Britain’) on the behalf of Elizabeth I.

In July 1579, Drake sailed across the Pacific before travelling around the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, and then made his way back to the Atlantic Ocean. On 26 September 1580, Drake and his men returned to Plymouth, England, after successfully circumnavigating the earth, bringing with them all sorts of treasures from their travels.

Map of Sir Francis Drake's circumnavigation of the world, 1581. Illustration by Nicola van Sype, published in Belgium. (Photo by Buyenlarge/Getty Images)

A map of Sir Francis Drake’s circumnavigation of the world, 1581. Illustration by Nicola van Sype, published in Belgium. (Photo by Buyenlarge/Getty Images)

In 1581, Elizabeth I knighted Drake onboard his famous ship, the Pelican, in recognition of his achievement. Drake was now one of the most celebrated and respected seamen of his time, and became Mayor of Plymouth in September 1581. He then went on to become a member of parliament in 1581, 1584 and 1593.

Tensions between England and Spain increased greatly during the 1580s. In 1587 Drake led his fleet in a charge against Philip II of Spain’s troops in Cadiz and Corunna. Drake and his men successfully wrecked over 30 Spanish ships, consequently delaying the building of the Spanish Armada.

In 1588, Drake was the vice admiral of the English fleet during the Spanish Armada. During the battle, he captured Spain’s flagship, the Rosario.

After the defeat of the Armada, Drake continued to embark on expeditions across the world. In 1589, he was ordered to destroy any remaining Spanish ships that had been involved in the Armada. Drake then attempted to take control of the Azores in Portugal, which had come under the control of Philip II. Despite wrecking some ships, the expedition was a disaster for the English after they lost 20 vessels and around 12,000 lives.

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On 28 January 1596, Drake died of dysentery off the coast of Portobelo, Panama, aged around 56. Drake’s second cousin, John Hawkins, also died during this expedition. Both of their bodies were buried at sea.