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Sir Francis Drake

Sir Francis Drake
Sir Francis Drake

Can you imagine having no satellite GPS to let you know where you are on the high seas? Francis Drake simply used his immense navigation skills, ship’s compass, the speed of the ship - visually assessed by using a multi-knotted rope - his intuition, dead reckoning and limitless courage, to know where he was when he circumnavigated the world between 1577 and 1580.

Drake was born around 1539 – his exact birthday in unknown - but when he grew up he became a master sailor. On the high seas, he was an English pirate, but one who was licensed by his queen, Elizabeth I, to be a privateer. This meant he was legally (by English law) to plunder for his queen as much gold, silver and valuables, from Spanish ships transporting their vast fortunes from Nombre de Dios, on the isthmus of Panama, to Seville in Spain. For fourteen years, from 1556, 40 million ducats of silver were transported to Spain, via a bi-annual convoy of lumbering and extremely vulnerable galleon transports.

The Golden Hinde
The Golden Hinde

In 1576, Drake built this ship for himself - the Pelican or Golden Hinde, a pocket-sized ship of 150 tons. On 15 November 1577, he set sail in her to circle the world. Drake began his incredible adventure by sailing south to Africa, then on to pass through the treacherous Magellan Straits before entering the Pacific Ocean.

Whilst on his journey, Drake amassed a huge fortune in plundered silver, gold and other valuables from Spanish ships. His wealth had to be (as usual) shared with his queen. However, she was quite happy to receive enough gold and silver from Drake to swell her coffers to run England for more than a year. The Privateer pocketed a sizeable portion of the stolen loot, enabling him to live as a nobleman.

After his sailing and privateering successes, his fame in England grew exponentially, which culminated in his queen knighting him in April, 1581.

Enjoying his enormous wealth and status, Drake bought a large estate at Buckland Abbey, situated within the county of Devon. The large estate house had been an abbey church, which had succumbed to Henry VIII’s Reformation rampage through the monasteries and abbeys of England between 1536 and 1541. The building had been ‘modernised’ by the previous owner, with three new floors inserted into the interior, after both transepts were demolished. Drake lived there with his second wife, Elizabeth Sydenham.



16th-century engraving showing the English navy sailing ships firing canons at the Spanish Armada galleons - lots of smoke
Ships firing canons at the Spanish Armada

In 1588 King Philip II of Spain sent a huge fleet to invade and take over England. The battle between the Spanish Armada and the English navy lasted for over a week along the English Channel, finally ending at a place called Gravelines, which, at that time, was in Flanders.

This ambitious crusade by King Philip II of Spain was a total disaster, since the colossal sailing force that left from Lisbon at the end of May 1588, failed in its objective to invade and take over England.

16th-century engraving of Gravelines battle between the sailing ships of the English navy and Spanish Armada in 1588
16th-century engraving of Gravelines battle

However, the initial sailing to England can be seen as a huge success, considering the Armada left Portugal with a hotch-potch of many ship designs, having huge differences in displacement tonnage, ranging from 100 to 1,000 tons. The commander, the Duke of Medina Sidonia, who had no sailing skills or experience, managed to cross the treacherous Bay of Biscay and keep a disciplined formation of the remaining 120 ships along the English Channel.

Below Dartmouth in Devon, the Duke lost one major ship - not through battle damage, but by collisions with other smaller vessels… and this… is when the Nuestra Señora del Rosario and its capture by Sir Francis Drake from Don Pedro de Valdés, entered The Rosario story.

The picture below shows the capitulation of Valdés, offering his sword to Sir Francis Drake, on board his captured Rosario.

Drake on board the Rosario Spanish Armada galleon accepting surrender of Valdez giving sword over
Drake on board the Rosario Spanish Armada

The English smaller, faster and better-cannoned ships, harried the Spanish Armada fleet as it passed Plymouth and approached the Isle of Wight - but without much effect.

After the fleet's ineffectual skirmishes, the English ships regrouped and were resupplied with gunpowder by lumbering hulks operating from Antwerp.

At daylight, the biggest battle between the Armada and English began, and raged throughout the day near the coastal village of Gravelines, with the Spanish losing nearly 1,000 killed and 800 wounded.

The changing wind finished the primary invasion aim of the Armada, causing the fleet to move into the North Sea, and crawl up the east coast of England. After sailing around the top of Scotland, the remaining ships were decimated by ferocious weather down the west coast of Ireland.

Medina Sidonia managed to return to Spain, entering Santander in September with nearly 65 ships, having lost 55, including some of his largest galleons of the Armada.

The Spanish Armada was an ambitious plan, but ended in failure, however it produced amazing displays of sailing skills from both combatants, especially the Spanish.

The English admiral, Sir Francis Drake, died on his ship, the Defiance, on 28 January 1596 and he was buried at sea, not far from Puerto Bello or now known as PortoBelo - once a major Spanish port in the 16th century.


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