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by Geoff Ledden


Statue of Sir Francis Drake on Plymouth Hoe

The statue to Sir Francis Drake on Plymouth Hoe

To discover the story behind this statue, go to



From the website of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich:

“Francis Drake was an experienced and daring seafarer. Among many adventures, the 'famous voyage', his successful circumnavigation of the world between 1577 and 1580 ensured that he would be one of the best remembered figures of Tudor England. In his own lifetime, he was thought of with mixed feelings, both at home and abroad. Some English people regarded him as a hero, but he was distrusted by others, who saw him as having risen 'above his station'. Although he was feared and hated by the Spanish, he was also regarded by some with secret admiration.”


In his Will, Admiral Sir John Hawkins refers to Drake as his cousin and I have tried to determine how close the relationship was. Some sources say that ‘cousin’ and ‘kinsman’ were loose terms in Elizabethan times, but it is very likely that the two were related, either via Drake’s mother or, more likely, his grandmother. There is no doubt that Hawkins took Drake under his wing and they remained together until their last voyage, which they commanded jointly and on which both were taken ill and died.



John was born about 1490 and died in 1566. He acquired a lease from the noble Russell family on 180 acres of farmland called Crowndale Farm, near Tavistock. Evidently, the two families became close as John’s grandson, (Sir) Francis, was named after Francis Russell, 2nd Earl of Bedford, who was his godfather. There is doubt about the identity of John’s wife. Some sources say that he married Margaret Cole, but most suggest Margery Hawkins, who was possibly the sister of John Hawkins, grandfather of Admiral Sir John Hawkins, who - like the Drakes - lived in Tavistock. Sir John was about 9 years older than Sir Francis, so of the same generation. John and Margery, or Margaret, had five children: Edmond, John, Robert, John and Joan.


   Edmond was probably born about 1515. Again, there is doubt regarding the identity of his wife. It has been suggested that she was Elizabeth Hawkins, but later research suggests that her family name was Millwaye, or Maylwaye. They married in 1541.   Drake came from a very ordinary family, certainly not rich or powerful. The family was devoutly Protestant. When Francis was still a small boy, the Catholic Queen Mary came to the throne. It was a period of religious intolerance and, in 1549, following the Catholic Cornish Rebellion against the introduction of the new Book of Common Prayer, Edmund and his family were forced to flee the district, firstly to Plymouth, where they stayed with their cousins, the Hawkins family, and eventually to the Medway  where for a time they lived on an old, laid-up ship. Edmond was admitted as Vicar of Upchurch, Kent, on 25 June 1560. They had 12 children, the eldest being Francis.



His early experiences had a profound effect on the young Francis. The Protestant religion was to be one of the most important things to him throughout his life. On his voyage around the world he led religious services on board ship twice a day.

His date of birth is not certain, but was about 1541.He was born on Crowndale Farm, Tavistock, where his parents and grandparents lived.


From the Royal Navy’s website:


The greatest sailor of his generation, the navigator Francis Drake was famous in his own lifetime. He first went to sea aged 13 while living in Chatham, an apprentice on a small trading ship. The master left the ship to Drake who sold it and sailed with his cousin Sir John Hawkins. Hawkins and Drake made the first English slave-trading expeditions.

The dream of French and English privateers in the sixteenth century was to capture Spanish silver mined in the Andes and then transported back to Spain. The most vulnerable part of the journey was crossing the isthmus of Panama in Central America. It was here with the help of the cimarrones, escaped slaves who fought the Spanish, that Drake ambushed a treasure train in February 1573. He returned to England a wealthy man.

In 1577 Drake was commissioned to circumnavigate the globe, Queen Elizabeth being among the sponsors of the expedition. On the three year voyage aboard the Golden Hind Drake sailed through the Straits of Magellan into the Pacific. Here he raided Spanish treasure ships before proceeding up the coast of the Americas and landed in what is now California, naming it Nova Albion (New England). Turning west across the Pacific, Drake visited the East Indies and loaded his ship with spices before returning to England via the Cape of Good Hope.

Drake’s feat of navigation was extraordinary. Only one man, Magellan, had ever circumnavigated the globe before and he had not lived to tell the tale. The expedition captured an estimated £600,000 worth of booty and demonstrated the wealth and vulnerability of the Spanish empire. The Queen’s share of £300,000 was more than the crown’s income for a whole year. [Upon his return in 1580, Drake was knighted aboard the Golden Hind at Deptford by Queen Elizabeth and made Mayor of Plymouth].

War broke out with Spain in 1585. Drake sailed for the West Indies and stormed the Spanish cities of Santa Domingo and Cartegena. On the way back to England Drake captured the Spanish fort of San Agustín in Florida. As a result of these attacks King Philip II of Spain ordered planning to begin for an invasion of England.

The following year Drake famously ‘singed the King of Spain’s beard’ when he boldly sailed a fleet into Cadiz, one of Spain’s main ports, occupied the town for three days and destroyed 26 enemy ships as well as a large quantity of stores. This attack delayed the Spanish invasion by a year.

When the Spanish Armada was sighted on 19 July 1588, Drake was playing a game of bowls on Plymouth Hoe. Legend has it that he finished the game before boarding the Revenge. As the English fleet pursued the Armada up the Channel, Drake captured the Spanish galleon Rosario causing confusion in the English fleet in the process. He was also present at the Battle of Gravelines off Calais on 30 July 1588. [Contrary to popular opinion, Drake did not command the English fleet. He was Vice Admiral to the Lord Admiral, Lord Charles Howard, and commanded the Western Squadron, one of four squadrons. His cousin, Sir John Hawkins, was Rear Admiral and commander of another squadron].

Under orders from the Queen to destroy the remains of the Armada, Drake led an unsuccessful expedition in 1589. After destroying a few Spanish ships in Corunna, Drake and Sir John Norris, commanding the troops, decided to excite a popular uprising in Portugal. An attack on Lisbon failed and with no Portuguese support the expedition returned to England empty handed. The Queen was furious and Drake was in disgrace.

Drake undertook a further privateering expedition to the West Indies in company with Hawkins. He died of yellow fever at Puerto Bello in Panama in 1596."


Buckland Monachorum Abbey 1823
Buckland Abbey in 1823


Sir Francis Drake was committed to the sea in a lead coffin and two captured ships were burned in his honour. Sir John Hawkins had already fallen sick and died on the same voyage.

Francis married Mary Newman in 1567. She died about 1583, shortly after they had moved into Buckland Abbey, which he had acquired with part of the proceeds of his circumnavigation of the world. In 1585, he married Elizabeth Sydenham, an extremely wealthy woman, who was some 20 years younger than him. Elizabeth was the daughter and heiress of Sir George Sydenham, of Combe Sydenham in Somerset, a rich landowner of a prominent family. Following Drake’s death in 1596, she married Sir William Courtenay of Powderham. Neither marriage produced any children and Sir Francis’ heir was his brother, Thomas.


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