Skip to main content
Select Source:

Drake, Francis

Francis Drake

Born: c. 1541
Tavistock, England
Died: January 28, 1596
Puerto Bello, Honduras

English navigator and ship captain

The English navigator Sir Francis Drake was the first of his countrymen to sail around the world. His daring adventures at sea helped to establish England's naval supremacy over Spain and other European nations.

Forced from home

Francis Drake, the eldest son of a farmer, was born near Tavistock, Devonshire, England. His father, Robert Drake, later became a preacher and raised his twelve children as Protestants (followers of the Christian religion who are not part of the Roman Catholic Church). Raised in a poor environment, Drake's family, like many Protestants, was forced from their home after a Catholic uprising. Young Drake soon developed a hatred for Catholics, especially those from Spain, Europe's most powerful Catholic country.

Drake received some education, and he later learned the basics of navigation (getting a ship from one place to another by plotting position and direction) and seamanship and did some sailing near his home. The Drakes were related to the Hawkins family of Plymouth, England, who were well-to-do seamen and shipowners. The Hawkins connection got Drake a place on a 1566 slave-trading voyage to the Cape Verde Islands in Africa and the Spanish Main (South America's northern coast).

First command

In 1567 John Hawkins (15321595) made Drake an officer in a larger slavetrading voyage. Drake ultimately was given command of one of Hawkins's ships, the Judith, and accompanied his relative to Africa, Rio de la Hacha, and Santa Marta (a port on the coast of northern Colombia). The English were caught, however, in the harbor of San Juan de Ulúa (an island near Veracruz in eastern Mexico) by a Spanish fleet that opened fire without warning and destroyed most of their ships. Only Drake's Judith and Hawkins's small vessel escaped to England. Angered by this, Drake decided to devote his life to war against Spain.

By 1576 England's relations with Spain had worsened. Drake returned to England, where a new expedition (a voyage made for a specific reason, such as to discover a new route or area) was being planned and in which Queen Elizabeth (15331603) had a financial share. Drake's main instructions were to sail through the Strait of Magellan (a narrow waterway in the southern tip of Argentina) and probe the shores of Terra Australis Incognita, the great southern continent that many thought began with Tierra del Fuego. Drake received five ships, the largest being the Pelican (later named the Golden Hind ), and a crew of about 160.

Adventures on the Golden Hind

The fleet left Plymouth in December 1577 for the southern Atlantic, stopping at Port San Julián in southern Argentina for the southern hemisphere winter. Ferdinand Magellan (c.14801521) had once crushed a mutiny (rebellion) there, and Drake did the same.

When Drake passed through the strait and entered the Pacific Ocean, only the Golden Hind remained; the other ships had been lost or had parted company. Bad winds forced him southward, and he perhaps sighted Cape Horn (the very southern tip of South America). In any event, he realized that the two oceans came together and that Terra Australis would not be found there. He traveled along the coasts of Chile and Peru, capturing and destroying Spanish ships but sparing Spanish lives.

Drake's trip around the world continued through the Indian Ocean and the Cape of Good Hope (the southern tip of Africa). Drake arrived in Plymouth in 1580, praised by the public and the queen. In April 1581 he was knighted on the deck of the Golden Hind.

Spanish Armada

As relations between England and Spain grew even worse, Queen Elizabeth unleashed Drake on the Spaniards in 1585 and 1586. Drake captured several Spanish cities and inflicted great damage on Spanish morale. Now there was no avoiding formal war. Philip II (15271598) began assembling his Armada (a fleet of warships) in Portugal, which had been in his possession since 1580.

Queen Elizabeth appointed Lord Charles Howard of Effingham commander of her fleet and gave Drake, Hawkins, and Martin Frobisher supporting posts. Drake called for a strong blow at Philip's unprepared Armada and received permission to strike. In April 1587 he recklessly sailed into Cadiz and destroyed or captured thirty-seven enemy ships. He then occupied the Portuguese town of Sagres for a time and finally, in the Azores (a group of islands in the North Atlantic), seized a large Portuguese carrack (ship) with a rich cargo bound homeward from Goa.

Drake met with his first major defeat in 1589, when he commanded the naval expedition sent to take Lisbon, Portugal. Drake did not go to sea again for five years. He concerned himself mainly with Plymouth matters. He sat in Parliament (England's governing body), but nothing of note marked his presence there.

Final voyage

In 1595 Queen Elizabeth thought she saw a chance of ending the war victoriously by cutting off the Spanish treasure supply from the Isthmus of Panama (a thin piece of land that connects North America to South America). For this she selected Hawkins, then sixty-three, and Drake, in his fifties. The queen ordered that they must be back in six months, which was barely enough time to capture Panama. Hawkins soon died, leaving Drake in sole command. The Spaniards had strengthened their defenses, and Drake failed to capture the city.

After failed expeditions to capture Nombre de Dios (a port on the northern coast of Panama) and then Panama, Drake cruised aimlessly to Honduras and back and then fell ill of fever and dysentery (infection of the intestines). He died off Puerto Bello on January 28, 1596, and was buried at sea.

For More Information

Cummins, John G. Francis Drake: The Lives of a Hero. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995.

Duncan, Alice Smith. Sir Francis Drake and the Struggle for an Ocean Empire. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1993.

Kelsey, Harry. Sir Francis Drake: The Queen's Pirate. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Drake, Francis." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . 16 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Drake, Francis." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . (December 16, 2017).

"Drake, Francis." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved December 16, 2017 from

Drake, Sir Francis (1540–1596)

Drake, Sir Francis (15401596)

English navigator and privateer. The son of a yeoman farmer and devout Protestant, Drake was born near the town of Tavistock in Devonshire. He was a relation of the well-to-do Hawkins clan, a family of local shipowners, and through his connection to John Hawkins Drake was taken on as captain of the Judith in 1567 during one of Hawkins's profitable slaving expeditions. Although the fleet managed to capture and sell its human cargo, the voyage ended in disaster when it was attacked by hostile Spanish ships in the harbor of San Juan de Ulua. Only two vessels made it back to England, including Drake's own Judith. After this encounter, Drake made it his life's work to exact revenge on Spanish men, treasure, and ships, wherever he might find them.

Queen Elizabeth, unwilling to allow Hawkins to counterattack yet still in favor of naval operations against Spain, allowed Drake to return to the Spanish Main in 1570. Aboard the Susan, Drake explored the coasts of Panama and discovered the route followed by the Spanish treasure caravans from Peru, across the isthmus of Panama, to the Caribbean Sea. He intercepted and captured a large train of silver and brought the treasure safely back to England, making him a wealthy man. Not happy with this act of open warfare against Spain, Elizabeth banished him to Ireland for a time, where Drake served under the Earl of Essex to put down one in a long series of rebellions against English rule.

In 1577, Drake was commissioned by Elizabeth to lead a raiding fleet against Spanish ports on the Pacific coasts of the Americas. The navigator set sail with a fleet of five ships, but mutiny and poor weather hampered the voyage and only his flagship, the Golden Hind, made it through the Straits of Magellan and as far as the Pacific Ocean. Searching for a northerly passage back to the Atlantic Ocean, Drake's vessel landed somewhere near Drake's Bay, now in the state of California, and named the surroundings New Albion in the name of the queen and England. Instead of retracing his route, Drake then sailed west, across the vast Pacific to the Philippines, the East Indies, and the Indian Ocean and then around the Cape of Good Hope. Having collected a considerable fortune from Spanish treasure ships, he returned to England in September 1580. The voyage had made him the second European to circumnavigate the globe after Ferdinand Magellan had died accomplishing the same feat in 1519. On his return Drake was rewarded with a knighthood by the queen on the decks of the Golden Hind.

In 1581 Drake settled in Plymouth, where his renown as an adventurer and privateer earned him election as the town's mayor. Still yearning for the sea, in 1585 Drake accepted orders to disrupt Spanish preparations for an expedition against England. Drake and his crew attacked the Spaniards on the coast of Spain as well as at the Cape Verde Islands. The fleet then crossed the Atlantic Ocean, captured Spanish towns in South America, plundered the Spanish colony of Saint Augustine in what is now northeastern Florida, and reached the English colony at Roanoke, where he took on survivors and returned them to England. This voyage provoked open warfare between England and Spain, and King Philip II was soon ordering preparations for a naval assault. Elizabeth allowed Drake to strike the first blow, and in 1587 he reappeared in the port of Cadiz, where he destroyed about thirty Spanish vessels.

In 1588, as the Spanish Armada was gathering, Drake was appointed a vice admiral of the English fleet. Drake disrupted the expedition by raiding supply ships, delaying and weakening the Spanish fleet. The Armada then set out for the English Channel, but turned back after losing several skirmishes with Drake and other English commanders as well as very poor weather. In 1595 Drake was again in command, along with John Hawkins, of an expedition to Panama ordered by the queen. This time, the Spanish were warned ahead of time and were waiting for the English privateers. Off the port of San Juan, Puerto Rico, Hawkins died and Drake was beaten back from the harbor. On reaching Panama, Drake was ambushed by Spanish troops and forced out to sea, where he soon died of a fever.

See Also: Elizabeth I; Magellan, Ferdinand; Spanish Armada

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Drake, Sir Francis (1540–1596)." The Renaissance. . 16 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Drake, Sir Francis (1540–1596)." The Renaissance. . (December 16, 2017).

"Drake, Sir Francis (1540–1596)." The Renaissance. . Retrieved December 16, 2017 from

Drake, Sir Francis

Drake, Sir Francis (c.1543–96). In legend and perhaps in reality, Drake was the greatest of the Elizabethan ‘sea-dogs’. A skilled seaman and naval tactician, an inspiring leader of men, he was, nevertheless, capable of greed, disloyalty, injustice towards associates, and poor judgement as a naval strategist. His career was a key part of the process by which England emerged as an oceanic power. Though of yeoman stock, Drake became closely associated with a predatory and aggressive ruling aristocracy ready to sanction piracy and privateering against the French, Portuguese, and above all, the Spanish. The contests with the latter also had a religious edge as Drake was a determined protestant. Yet the Spaniards who knew El Draque admired him.

Originally from Devon, Drake learned seamanship apprenticed on a coastal bark plying from the Thames, but in the 1560s joined a kinsman, Hawkins, on ventures to Spain and then to west Africa and the Caribbean, procuring and selling slaves in the face of Portuguese and Spanish hostility. By 1569, Drake was in command of a ship. Details of his life are obscure, but he made at least three piratical expeditions to the Caribbean, with that in 1572 capturing 30 tons of silver, part of the Spanish treasure annually brought across the Isthmus of Panama. After an Irish venture, in 1577 Drake embarked on a circumnavigation of the globe financed by the queen and other great people. This was at once further plundering of the Spanish—now on the western coast of the Americas—a search for the Pacific end of the North-West Passage, and an attempt to reach the spice islands by going west. Drake's expedition was the second to circuit the globe and also led to his claiming California for Elizabeth. Just where Drake landed in California and whether a plaque which came to notice in 1937 was actually the one he left there in 1579 remain in dispute. On the return of the 70-foot-long Golden Hind in 1580, Drake, rich and famous, was knighted, while England, it has been said, began to think globally.

There followed further raids on Spain and, most notably, assaults on key Spanish positions around the Caribbean in 1585–6 and Cadiz in 1587. These actions, combined with the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 with Drake second in command, ended Spain's unquestioned supremacy at sea, though they did not break Spain's naval power. Nor was Drake's role in the defeat of the Armada the key one.

In 1589, Drake led an expedition against Lisbon before settling to active involvement in the life of Plymouth, including becoming its MP. He was encouraged to resume a privateering career in 1595 since Elizabeth's policy favoured predation on Spain as a means of increasing England's stake in world trade. But the attacks in the West Indies failed and Drake died at sea. This disaster was soon forgotten as the legend was elaborated in subsequent years and centuries.

Roy C. Bridges

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Drake, Sir Francis." The Oxford Companion to British History. . 16 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Drake, Sir Francis." The Oxford Companion to British History. . (December 16, 2017).

"Drake, Sir Francis." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Retrieved December 16, 2017 from