Sailor of the century

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 55, Summer 2018

Page 12

Merchant, pirate and hero of the Armada, Sir Francis Drake was no mere man of his time. As Sam Willis argues, Drake defined the era

It is one of the great storeys of British history and, sadly, one that sensible historians routinely disparage: that, as his nation faced existential peril at the hands of its mortal enemy, Sir Francis Drake (c.1540-1596) chose first to finish the game he was playing.

The tale is well known, but bears retelling. In 1588, Philip II of Spain launched an invasion fleet of 130 ships against England. Drake was one of a handful of leading captains who organised and led the naval defence of the country. The first sighting of the Armada from English soil, on 30 July, was momentous, but Drake was playing bowls on Plymouth Hoe. Once he had received the news, he continued to play, claiming there was "plenty of time" both to win the game and to defeat the Spanish.

Many argue this is most unlikely: surely he would rather have rushed to the harbour and forced his ships out to sea rather than risk his fleet being trapped and destroyed in a lightning raid? The claim, however, that some 'Commanders and Captaines' (Drake not being named) 'were at bowles upon the hoe of Plimouth' first appeared in print as early as 1624 and is entirely convincing. The story, moreover, encapsulates so beautifully Drake's character – all wrath and charm – that it deserves to live on, just in case it is true.

This was a time of war. Elizabeth I was the Protestant daughter of Henry VIII and had assumed power after the death of her Catholic half-sister, Mary I. Mary had renewed the relationship with Rome after Henry VIII's split from the Catholic church in 1533, when he had made himself head of the church in England instead
of the Pope.

But it was during Elizabeth's rule that the relationship between England and the continental Catholic powers disintegrated. The tension came to a head between Protestant England and Catholic Spain, ruled by the Habsburg king, Philip II. The Pope excommunicated Elizabeth in 1570, and war between Spain and England broke out in 1585, when Drake was 45. By then, Drake had already established an astonishing reputation.

He was the son of a farmer from Devon, who went on to become a merchant, pirate, sea captain, slave trader, explorer, ircumnavigator, and English naval hero. Born seven years before the death of Henry VIII and dying seven years before the death of Elizabeth, Drake lived almost his entire adult life in the reign
of that great Tudor queen.

The Tudor period was culturally rich and vibrant, particularly under Elizabeth. It saw the flourishing of the creative arts and some of the greatest writers the English language has ever seen, among them Shakespeare and John Donne. It saw increasing levels of education and literacy in all ranks of society. Print flourished and books circulated in ever greater numbers spreading knowledge, ideas and news – and, of course, fame.

For this was also a time of great discovery. Equipped with better ships than ever before and a navy that had built on the strong foundations laid by Henry VII and Henry VIII, explorers such as Drake, John Hawkins, Walter Raleigh and John Cabot discovered new parts of the world and returned to bathe in the warm glow of Tudor celebrity.

The new knowledge of the wider world that they were bringing back with them led to an interest in expanding English control overseas, a subsequent growth in empire and more reasons for conflict both at home and abroad.

Drake's earliest voyages, in his mid 20s, had been made with Hawkins – his cousin – who, in the 1560s, sailed on several occasions to the Caribbean via Africa. He is now believed to be the first example of an English merchant engaged in the maritime trade of African slaves. Hawkins was also a fighter: he attacked Portuguese towns and ships in Africa, and fought with Spanish ships in Mexico, all with Drake at his side.

These early experiences profoundly influenced Drake: he cultivated a vocal and calculating hatred of the Spanish that is only, perhaps, matched in English naval history by Horatio Nelson's vocal and calculating hatred of the French. And just as Hawkins made a fortune from slaving and plunder, and is known to have dressed well and lived in richly appointed quarters both at sea and on shore, so Drake too made significant, but unknown, sums of money in this period – as well as developing a taste for the finer things of Tudor life. Hawkins's influence in fine style and the trimmings of wealth can be clearly seen in the portrait that is offered by Bonhams at the Old Master Paintings sale in July.

It is believed that this portrait dates from the mid-1570s, which is a fascinating period in Drake's life that pre-dates his greatest exploits. He is shown wearing enormously expensive blackened and gilded half-armour, decorated with depictions of trophies of arms. He has a rapier and, beside him, a helmet of the type used for jousting. Around his neck is an exquisite lace ruff.

Drake had married in 1569 – his new wife, Mary Newman, was quite possibly the sister of one of his shipmates – but soon after resumed his career raiding Spanish ships and settlements in the Caribbean. A voyage in 1571 is believed to have made him and his crew around £100,000, a phenomenal amount at the time, perhaps a quarter of the annual income of the English crown.

In 1572 Drake sailed again for the Caribbean, and the following year took the Spanish silver train in Panama: 14 mule-loads of gold and jewels. On his return to Plymouth, Drake bought a house, acquired a servant, and was listed as a 'merchant', a rather loose term considering his activities. He subsequently invested some of his money in an attack on Antrim in what is now Northern Ireland, led by the Earl of Essex. Through the Earl, Drake came into contact with Sir Francis Walsingham, who had recently become Elizabeth I's Principal Secretary, one of the most powerful men in the Elizabethan state, responsible for both foreign and domestic policy.

So, by the time this portrait was painted, Drake had made another 'big break'. By allying himself with Hawkins, he had risen from the clutches of a future as a Devon farmer; by succeeding as a maritime merchant and adventurer, he had made himself rich; now, by forging links with some of the most powerful men in the country, he was to take a step towards nobility. His subsequent adventures, however, were
what made him a hero.

In the late 1570s, now with the support of the formidable scheming brain of Walsingham and sailing with the official backing of the Queen of England herself, Drake sailed from Plymouth to raid the Spanish settlements in the Pacific – not just the Caribbean, as had previously been the case, but the other side of the world – an entirely unprecedented proposal that would require outstanding maritime and military skill. Not only did Drake undertake this extraordinary feat, which was a remarkable thing even to attempt, but in doing so he met with exceptional success.

Drake was the first Englishman to sail around the world – and only the second man in history to do so. He achieved the feat at a time when navigation was mostly guesswork, no charts existed for most of his journey, and the most talented and experienced navigators were Spanish and Portuguese. Not only did Drake successfully circumnavigate the globe but, during his voyage, he captured a Spanish treasure galleon, the Nuestra Señora de la Concepción, which made him rich beyond imagining. On his return – and with the blessing of the Queen – Drake purchased Buckland Abbey, a former Cistercian monastery near Plymouth (the property is now maintained by the National Trust), where this portrait was exhibited in 2017.

Six years after his return, now knighted by his Queen and again sailing with her express blessing, Drake captured Santo Domingo and Cartagena, two of the most important Spanish cities in the West Indies. The Spanish empire funded itself with silver from South America. Drake's attacks, although having a limited effect on the Spanish economy, had a profound psychological effect on King Philip, who firmly set his eyes on England itself.

So it was that the Armada was assembled and dispatched. When Drake finally dusted off his game of bowls and made it to sea, he was instrumental in the running fight up the Channel (in which, ever the pirate, he took the time to capture a valuable ship) and also, the pinnacle of the campaign, the Battle of Gravelines. Fought off the coast of northern France, near Dunkirk, Gravelines finally broke the Spaniards' hopes of landing.

Which brings us neatly back to the Buckland Abbey portrait, where Drake – with the ruddy glow of the international seafarer – stands, famous and proud, in expensive armour, a man who was the product of a new era of Empire, an era that he had helped to create.

Sam Willis has published 14 books on naval history and, in 2017, presented the BBC4 documentary Sword, Musket and Machine Gun.

Sale: Old Master Paintings
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