Who Is Sir Francis Drake? A Biography

Sir Francis Drake went from poverty to riches as a privateer raiding Spanish treasures.

The exact date of birth for Sir Francis Drake is not known. Some historians place it as early as 1738 while others say as late at 1742. It is known he was born in Tavistock, near Devonshire, England to Edward Drake and his wife. Francis was the eldest of the Drake's twelve sons. While Edward's parents had a secure living on their one hundred and eighty acre farm, Edward wasn't the eldest son so didn't inherit their property.

A protestant who faced possible persecution by the Catholic church, he moved his family to Kent where he set up house in an old ship's hull. He made a poor living by preaching to sailors of the British navy. The influence of this life made a lasting impression on Francis.

He first went to sea as a young boy in the 1550's on a coastal freighter. While he began on the ship as an apprentice, he ended as her owner. The captain with whom Francis Drake died without children and left the ship to Drake.



Francis Drake married Mary Newman in 1569. There were no children from this union and she died in 1581, shortly after Queen Elizabeth I, had knighted Francis. By 1585 he was not only a famous but also a wealthy man who was able to marry the highly eligible, well-connected Elizabeth Sydenham. Together they purchased Buckland Abbey, an estate that is still standing today. Like his marriage to Mary Newman, this union was also childless.

Drake didn't come into his fame or fortune over night though. He was the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe in his ship, the Golden Hind, and was known for his aggressiveness in battle. Small in size, he stood only 5 feet 5 inches tall, but was an amazing leader and known to be passionately patriotic towards Mother England. During his circling of the globe, he stopped long enough on June 17, 1579 to claim the land that is now San Francisco as belonging to England and named it "Novia Albion."

Sir Francis Drake was considered a "privateer" more than a "pirate." While the nobility may have despised him as an upstart, Drake was honored as a hero in his continuous battle against his personal enemy, Spain. The Spanish feared him and nicknamed him, "El Draque," the Dragon. Over the years Drake led many successful expeditions against the Spanish Main, the raid of the Spanish city of Cadiz and played a major role in the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 when it was going to attack the southern coast of England.

During his early years he was a smuggler more than a privateer. He and cousin John Hawkins made trips to the Caribbean in the 1560s in which the goods were sold to the inhabitants of the Spanish colonies who welcomed the relief from the Spanish Crown taxes. During one particular trip their combined fleet of six ships were hit by a hurricane near Cuba. With no hope of returning to England without repairs, the ships entered the port at Vera Cruz. Before supplies and repairs could be had, the Spanish treasure fleet set upon Hawkins and Drake. In the end many men and all but two ships were destroyed. After a tortuous voyage of hunger and thirst, both ships did reach England and Drake had built a hatred for the Spanish. This hatred was further fueled after his brother John had died while leading an attack against the Spanish.

During the autumn of 1572 Drake led several failed raids on the "Spanish Silver Train" in the Cartagena area, and specifically the town of Nombre de Dios. The silver train was a scheduled stop by the Spanish treasure fleet that collected treasure from various areas and then transported it back to Spain. In the first attempt Drake was seriously wounded by a gunshot to the leg and no loot was acquired when they attempted a straight on attack of the town. The next attempt was to be an ambush against the mule trains that were headed to Nombre de Dios. This ambush went awry when one of Drake's men jumped the gun and alerted the Spanish guards.

Their next attempt was also against a mule train of about 180 mules. These mules were laden with gold and silver. While about fifty Spanish guards protected the train, they broke and ran when confronted by Drake's men. After the guards left, Drake had a new problem to contend with, how to transport the treasure? There was literally more than they could carry so the plan was made to bury what they couldn't carry and return later for it. Upon their return, it was discovered the Spanish had found the majority of the buried treasure but Drake and his men had already made a substantial haul. In all, they had stolen gold and silver that valued at over two hundred thousand pieces of eight. This was a very tidy sum for Drake and the thirty men who returned to England on August 9, 1586.

Drake made several expeditions to the New World. He died of a fever during one of these expeditions on January 28, 1596 and was buried at sea in a lead coffin.

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