There are, roughly speaking, three ways to encounter the legacy of Sir Francis Drake, the first successful circumnavigator and the hero of the Battle of the Spanish Armada: in the field, in the library, and on the map.
Drake was a son of Devon and its undulating hills in Southern England. He was the eldest of 12 children, and his father, a farmer, was forced to abandon Devon for Kent, to the east, where he became a minister. At the time, religious conflict was rife, and which side of the Protestant-Catholic divide you were on determined your life’s course.
It was always apparent that Drake would have to make his own way in the world. He went to sea, first as an assistant slaver (his cousin John Hawkins had the dishonor of bringing the practice to England), and later as a celebrated global explorer. It was all possible because he was Protestant and enjoyed the covert backing of his Protestant sovereign, Queen Elizabeth I.
Field, Library, Map
Among artifacts of Drake’s career, the visitor to London can board a remarkably accurate replica of his flagship, Golden Hind, which is tied up at the readily accessible St. Mary Overie Dock, on Cathedral Street.
Another significant Drake site to visit is the spectacular house that Queen Elizabeth indirectly bestowed on him in honor of his accomplishments. Buckland Abbey is a 700-year-old former Cistercian monastery near Yelverton, Dorset. Drake refurbished the place and lived there with his second wife, Elizabeth Sydenham, although he left behind little evidence of feeling at home amid its dank interior spaces.
Always happier at sea, Sir Francis, as he was then known, spent much of his time continuing to explore and to fight England’s main enemy, Spain, rather than in residence with his new wife. Buckland Abbey is today a museum open to the public and administered by the National Trust. It contains several artifacts traditionally associated with Drake. Perhaps the Abbey’s most important holding is a somber self-portrait by Rembrandt.
In addition, the Tower of London, a tourist perennial, is redolent of Drake’s era. When he returned to England after his three-year-long circumnavigation, he brought with him more gems and gold stolen from Spain than anyone on British shores had ever seen.
It was all possible because he was Protestant and enjoyed the covert backing of his Protestant sovereign, Queen Elizabeth I.
Fearing retribution, Elizabeth and her minions adamantly denied that Drake, the renowned pirate, had brought back anything of value from his years of globe-trotting. Meanwhile, she stashed his plunder in the Tower of London, where it was kept under guard until it was determined that it was safe to move.
Drake’s voyages and battles generated a considerable number of records, and these can be seen at the Public Record Office, on Chancery Lane, in London, and at the National Archives, in Kew, a charming suburb with a history dating back to Julius Caesar, if not further.
Finally, there are the many geographical locations associated with Drake in England. Plymouth was his home port, and it is easy to imagine his fleet tied up there, sails furled, awaiting orders to raise anchor. Almost the entire coast of England has associations with the complicated and sprawling Battle of the Spanish Armada, in which ships from England’s rival engaged in do-or-die combat at sea. Hundreds of ships from both armadas washed up on the shores of Ireland and Scotland, blown off course by an exceptionally violent sea storm in a year of violent sea storms.
Laurence Bergreen’s In Search of a Kingdom: Francis Drake, Elizabeth I, and the Perilous Birth of the British Empire is out now from Custom House