Sir Francis Drake: England’s Greatest Seafarer

Discover the life of Sir Francis Drake; one of England’s greatest seafarers.

May 23, 2023By Cale Gressman, BA History, BA Philosophy
sir francis drake


Born during the Age of Exploration, Sir Francis Drake stands out as one of the most famous seamen of his day. By the time of the New World’s discovery in 1492, European powers were already deep into their individual attempts to find a route to Asia. The Portuguese made their way around Africa by 1498, while the purpose of Columbus’ expedition west was to find an alternate route. However, the promise of wealth and land in the New World was immediately inviting European explorers.


The Treaty of Tordesillas (1494) granted the right to colonize the New World to the Spanish and Portuguese. The other European powers were left out in the proverbial cold as they scrambled for a way to catch up. This was the world that Drake was brought up in.


Sir Francis Drake’s Younger Years 

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Sir Francis Drake, by Marcus Gheeraerts, 1591, via National Maritime Museum, Greenwich


Born to Edmund Drake and Mary Mylwaye in Tavistock, Devon, England around 1540, Francis was the eldest of 12 sons. Edmund Drake, a tenant farmer on the estate of Lord Francis Russell, 2nd earl of Bedford, would be forced to flee the estate where he worked in 1548. Multiple accounts exist explaining as to why; one states that it was due to anti-Protestant persecution another that Edmund was being arraigned for robbery. Either way, the family made their way to Kent, where Edmund would be ordained as a minister.


Before the age of 12, Drake would be sent as an apprentice to the Hawkins family, who were related to the Drakes, in Plymouth. The Hawkins family had the soluble vocation of being merchants and pirates.  By the age of 12, Drake worked aboard a vessel that conducted trade across the English Channel. He would come to command that same vessel by the age of 20 after the captain of the ship had passed away.


The First English Slavers

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Thomas Cavendish (1560-92), Sir Francis Drake (1540?-96) and Sir John Hawkins (1532-95), British School, 17th Century, via Royal Museums Greenwich

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Between 1562 and 1568, Sir John Hawkins, a cousin of Drake, would strive to break the Iberian monopoly on the slave trade in West Africa. Of the four voyages that took place between these dates, there is evidence to suggest that Drake was present, although the extent of these earlier expeditions is not clear and is hotly debated among historians.


In 1562, Hawkins and his fleet seized several Portuguese ships off the coast of Africa and sold them illegally in the Caribbean. Hawkins and Drake, thus, went down in history as being among the first Englishmen to engage in the transatlantic slave trade. They would not be the last.


By 1568, Drake took command of his own ship and sailed to the New World on another Hawkins expedition to the Caribbean to conduct more illicit slave trading. However, it was a trip to the Spanish port of San Juan de Ulúa would imbue him with a hatred of the Spanish. While it was illegal for the Spanish colonists to buy slaves from anyone except their fellow Spaniards due to the practice of mercantilism, it was common for the colonists to simply “surrender” to non-Spanish slave traders and be “forced” to buy the slaves offered.


While in San Juan a Spanish fleet would attack the English while at anchor; killing a large number of them. Drake managed to slip away by swimming to safety aboard the ship Judith. Of the six English vessels only the Minion (which John Hawkins managed to escape on) and the Judith managed to escape. For the rest of their lives, both Hawkins and Drake would harbor a grudge against the Spanish for their “perfidy.” After these events, he would later return to the West Indies on two smaller expeditions.


A Glimpse of the Pacific 

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Sir Francis Drake, 1580, via


In 1572 Drake began to garner fame as a privateer. After obtaining a privateering commission from Queen Elizabeth, he departed England with the Pasha and Swan for the Caribbean. There they would target Spanish ships and vessels around the Isthmus of Panama, then known as Tierra Firme. It was from here that the Spanish transported most of the riches they had plundered along the Pacific coast of their New World empire to Spain.


The first major action conducted by Drake was to, with the help of local Maroons and French privateers, take control of the Spanish settlement of Nombre de Dios. It was here that the Spanish managed to drive them out and Drake was badly wounded. However, Drake and his fleet would still manage to capture a fortune in gold and silver. In Panama, after he and his crew buried a large quantity of treasure they could not take with them, Drake reportedly climbed a tall tree and became the first Englishmen to glimpse the Pacific Ocean. It was also this expedition that earned Drake the nickname el Draque (the dragon).


While Queen Elizabeth was quite pleased with the success of the voyage, she and Phillip II of Spain had come to a tentative truce and so could not publicly praise Drake for his efforts. Realizing that he would not be able to continue his campaign against the Spaniards at that moment, Drake and a small fleet set sail for Ireland where he served under the Earl of Essex. It would be in 1575 that Drake reportedly became part of the notorious massacre of Irish civilians on Rathlin Island.


Circumnavigating the Globe

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Map that shows the circumnavigation travel of Francis Drake between 1577 and 1580, via Wikimedia Commons


In 1577, Drake was chosen to lead a voyage through the Straights of Magellan. Officially, the voyage was to discover a Northwest Passage to Asia. However, Drake also considered this a great opportunity to raid Spanish shipping along the Pacific coast of their New World empire, which the Queen gave her private approval for. With the private backing of the crown, five small ships, and under 200 men, he set out in December of 1577. They would arrive at the Straights in August of 1578, and after 16 days they would make their way through the Straights to the Pacific Ocean.


Unfortunately for Drake, his flagship the Golden Hind would be the only one to make the rest of the voyage. The fleet had abandoned two provision ships as they entered the Straights, while another was sunk in a storm. The other ship had become separated from the Hind in the Straights and presuming it had sunk, returned to England.


Drake was on his own.  However, he continued up the Pacific Coast and fell upon the unprotected Spanish treasure galleys. It was unheard of at this point for hostile ships to be on the Pacific side of the continent. The Hind would make its way north, raiding shipping and ports along the way; accruing a massive amount of wealth.


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Replica of the Golden Hind, Southwark, by Jose L. Marin, 2007, via Wikimedia Commons


Drake and his crew would make their way all the way up to 48° N (approximately parallel to modern-day Vancouver) in search of the Northwest Passage, but meeting nothing but frigid cold, they made their way south landing near modern-day San Fransisco. Drake would call this whole area New Albion and he claimed it for the English Crown. They would then make their way west and arrived in the Philipines where they resupplied. Sailing then to the Moluccas, Drake would purchase spices from the local sultan. After several more stops, the Hind made its way across the Indian Ocean and around the Cape of Good Hope. They would limp their way into Plymouth Harbor on September 26, 1580, with only 59 surviving crew members out of around 100.


Besides being the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe, Drake would return with a massive amount of wealth. Queen Elizabeth I would receive a 4700% return on her investment in the voyage, more than the entire Crown’s annual income. Queen Elizabeth would personally board the Golden Hind on April 4, 1581, where Drake was knighted. In order to keep relations with the Spanish somewhat intact, she would express official regret over the whole affair. The same year Sir Francis Drake would be appointed the Mayor of Plymouth, as well as a member of Parliament.


Singeing the King’s Beard

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Sir Francis Drakes West Indian Voyage by Giovanni Battista Boazio, 1585-86, via Library of Congress


Conflict with Spain would break out once more in 1585, and Queen Elizabeth would order Drake to inflict as much damage as possible on the Spaniards. He did just this. Setting off with 21 ships and 1,800 soldiers, he first made his way to Cape Verde where he would sack the city of Santiago. Then he and his fleet would sack the ports of San Domingo (Santo Domingo) in Hispaniola and Cartagena in Columbia. Making his way north, he would then capture the Spanish fort of San Augustine in Florida. As Queen Elizabeth’s principal minister Lord Burghley would succinctly put it, “Sir Francis Drake is a fearful man to the king of Spain.”


It became known in 1586 that the Spanish were preparing a grand armada to take England by force. As a preemptive strike, Drake took a fleet of 21 ships to attack the Spanish fleet at the port of Cadíz in southwestern Spain. Arriving on April 17, 1587, the English under Drake would launch a surprise assault on the port. In 36 hours, they destroyed 33 Spanish ships, all the while only losing one vessel that was captured by the Spanish. The attack would be called the “singeing of the king of Spain’s beard” back in England. This would effectively set the Spanish plans for the invasion of England back a year; buying the English precious time to prepare.


The Armada 

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English Ships and the Spanish Armada, August 1588, 16th century, via


By July of 1588, a Spanish Armada, under the command of the Duke of Medina-Sidonia, containing approximately 150 ships and 18,000 men was in the English Channel. To confront them, were around 100 English vessels under the command of Lord Howard of Effingham. Drake’s most active role was the capture of the Rosario which carried the funds to pay the Spanish army in the Low Countries. Despite this success, the English still faced a massive threat. After several smaller engagements, the English quickly realized that they could not break the Spanish Armada’s half-moon formation.


The Spanish would anchor at Calais Roads off the coast of France so that they could rendezvous with a Spanish army led by the Duke of Parma, an Italian noble and condottiere.  This is when Howard and Drake came up with a plan to use fireships to break the formation. On August 8 at midnight, the English would set fire to 8 unoccupied ships and send them toward the Spanish fleet. The attack succeeded in scattering the Armada; driving them into the open sea. At dawn, the English would attack the scattered vessels at the Battle of Gravelines, where they succeeded in sinking several Spanish vessels.


However, it would ultimately be weather and disease that ended the Armada’s chances. Heavy winds pushed the fleet out into the North Sea, ending any chance of it linking up with the Duke of Parma’s army. Disease, too, would set in. The Spanish belatedly decided to make the long journey home. Of the 130 ships and 18,000 men that began the voyage, approximately 60 ships and 15,000 men were lost.


Sir Francis Drake’s Failures, Death, and Legacy

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Sir Francis Drake buried at sea, one of 4 bronze relief plaques on the base of the Drake statue in Tavistock, Devon. Joseph Boehm, via Wikimedia Commons


With these astounding victories under their belts, the English sought to once again strike at the Spanish. In 1589, Drake would lead an “English Armada” against Spain, which would end in abject failure due to poor coordination and a lack of supplies. This would be followed in 1595, by the failure of the Drake-Hawkins Expedition, where Drake would suffer several disasters in Spanish South America. Here he attempted to take the Spanish settlement of San Juan but was forced to retreat. He then attempted to take the Spanish port of Panamá, but would again be defeated. Ultimately, it wouldn’t be a Spanish cannon or blade that killed Drake, but disease. On January 28, 1596, he succumbed to dysentery aboard his ship while it was at anchor off the coast of Portobelo, Panama.


Sir Francis Drake left no writings. So what we know of him comes from his contemporaries and is up to considerable interpretation. Having married twice, he was never able to have children. He was immensely wealthy and a hero to England, but was loathed by many in the aristocracy as a common upstart. For many, he is a great explorer and seafarer, who fought bravely on behalf of the English Crown. To others, he is nothing but a pirate, slaver, and war criminal (in regard to the Rithlan Island Massacre). However, it cannot be disputed that he is one of the greatest seafarers that England and the world, has ever seen.

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By Cale GressmanBA History, BA PhilosophyCale was born in Colorado and currently lives in Northern Minnesota. He completed his BA in History, Philosophy, and Religion at the University of North Dakota and graduated in May of 2022. He is taking a gap year before applying for graduate school to complete his PhD in history. He is passionate about history in a wide range of areas, including American, European, military, and intellectual/philosophical history. He also enjoys writing and historical research.