Story of Sir Francis Drake - Mrs. O. Elton

Sir Francis

It was in the autumn of 1580 that Drake returned from his three years' voyage. Winter had brought the news home that Drake had entered the Straits of Magellan, but since then only vague rumours of his death at the hands of the Spaniards had reached England. Had he met such a fate, Sir William Cecil (now Lord Burghley) and his party at Court would not have been sorry; for they disliked piracy, and wished to avoid a war with Spain.

This was more to be dreaded than ever, as at the death of the King of Portugal Philip had seized his crown and vast possessions, and was now the most powerful prince in Europe, since he owned the splendid Portuguese fleet. Hitherto, Philip had only warships for the protection of his treasure-ships, and they could not be spared. He was now known to be preparing, in his slow way, a great Armada.

But Drake had not been hanged for a pirate, and this the Spaniards knew very well. They clamoured for the restoration of his plunder, or the forfeit of his life. At this time an army of Italian and Spanish soldiers, under the command of a famous Spanish officer, had been landed in Ireland to help the Catholic Irish in their rebellion against Queen Elizabeth. These soldiers were said to have been sent by the orders of the Pope. Finding the prospects of success too poor, the Spanish officer withdrew his men, and they escaped by sea; but the Italian soldiers, who numbered 600, were overpowered by the English, and all except a few officers, who could pay a ransom, were slaughtered in cold blood. Thus Philip's attempt to strike a secret blow in Elizabeth's fashion was met by her with cruelty as relentless as his own; but Elizabeth made this attempt an excuse for refusing to make an inquiry into Drake's doings in the West.

"The news of his home-coming in England was," we are told, "by this his strange wealth, so far-fetched, marvellous strange, and of all men held impossible and incredible. But both proving true, it fortuned that many misliked it and reproached him. Besides all this there were others that devised and divulged" (made up and spread about) "all possible disgraces" (base charges) "against Drake and his followers, terming him the Master Thief of the Unknown World. Yet nevertheless the people generally with exceeding admiration applauded his wonderful long adventures and rich prize."

Drake at once sent a message to tell the Queen of his return. He was told he had nothing to fear, and was summoned, to Court. He took with him some horseloads of gold and silver and jewels. The Queen treated him with great favour, and refused to take the advice of Burghley and others, who wished to send the treasure back to Spain. Unlike them she took her share of the profits, and also the fine gifts Drake had brought for her. "But it grieved him not a little," we are told, "that some prime courtiers refused the gold he offered them, as gotten by piracy." He and his men had made golden fortunes.

The Spanish Ambassador naturally "burned with passion" against Drake, and considered his presence at Court an insult to his king. "For he passes much time with the Queen," he wrote to Philip, "by whom he is highly favoured."

[Illustration] from The Story of Francis Drake by Mrs. O. Elton


It was an insult Philip still felt himself unable to avenge. Elizabeth had made a fresh treaty with France, and Philip's best generals knew the difficulties of an attack on England thus strengthened. Besides, the Dutch, whom Elizabeth was helping, were his desperate enemies; for they were fighting for faith and country and freedom, and to do this makes bold soldiers. So Philip the prudent had to content himself with making plans for his great Armada.

Meantime Drake sunned himself in the Court favour, and books and pictures and songs were made in his praise.

The Golden Hind  was brought ashore at Deptford, and became a resort for sightseers. But in spite of much patching she became so old that she had to be broken up, and the last of her timbers were made into a chair, which is still kept in a quiet Oxford library. So the ship ends her days far away from the sound of the sea, and of the gay throngs that used to make merry and dance on her decks.

On the 4th of April the Queen paid a State visit to the ship, and ordered that it should be preserved for ever. A fine banquet was served on board, and there, before the eyes of hundreds of onlookers, Elizabeth knighted the "pirate captain." She said jestingly that the King of Spain had demanded Drake's head, and now she had a gold sword to cut it off. Thus Elizabeth openly defied the Spaniards, who were still raging over their stolen treasure.

But there were some not in Spain who also thirsted for revenge upon Drake. Thomas Doughty's young brother was his unforgiving foe. The case was never brought to Court or indeed to light; but young Doughty wrote a letter in which he said "that when the Queen did knight Drake she did then knight the greatest knave, the vilest villain, the foulest thief, and the cruelest murderer that ever was born." The Spaniards bribed him to try and murder Drake. We hear that he was put in prison, and we never hear of his release.

In 1581 Drake was made Mayor of Plymouth. In 1583 his wife died. He was then a member of Parliament. Two years later he married Mary Sydenham. He never had any children.

The Queen now appointed Drake among others to inquire into the state of the navy; he was to see to the repairing of ships, to the building of new ones, and to the means of furnishing them with stores in case of sudden war. From this time onwards the thought of a Spanish invasion was a constant fear in the minds of the English people. But Philip was unready, and Elizabeth unwilling to be the first to begin a war. Elizabeth changed her mind and her plans in a way that must have been maddening to the men who did her work. One good result of her indecision was that England was better prepared for the invasion, In those long years of private warfare money had been gathering, and the navy made strong and ready for work. But for men of action, who like to make a plan and stick to it, and go through with it at all costs, Elizabeth's delays and recalls were bewildering and unreasonable.

In 1585 Philip seized a fleet of English corn-ships trading in his own ports. Then, at last, Drake's long-talked-of expedition against the Spanish settlements was got ready and sent out. He had about thirty ships, commanded by some of the most famous captains of the time, men like Fenner, Frobisher, and Wynter, who afterwards fought against the Armada. His general of the soldiers was Christopher Carleill, "a man of long experience in wars both by sea and land," and who was afterwards said to direct the service "most like a wise commander." Drake's ship was the Elizabeth Bonaventure.

After a week spent in capturing ships, the fleet anchored at the Bayona Islands, off Vigo Bay. The Governor of Bayona was forced to make terms. He sent "some refreshing, as bread, wine, oil, apples, grapes, and marmalade, and such like." The people, filled with terror, were seen to remove their possessions into boats to go up the Vigo River, inland, for safety. Many of these were seized; most of them were loaded only with household stuff, but one contained the "church stuff of the high church of Vigo a great cross of silver of very fair embossed work and double-gilt all over, having cost them a great mass of money."

The fleet now went on its way by the Canary Islands, When Santiago was reached, Carleill landed with a thousand troops and took possession of the fortress and the town, for both had been forsaken. Here they planted the great flag, "which had nothing on it but the plain English cross; and it was placed towards the sea, that our fleet might see St. George's Cross flourish in the enemy's fortress." Guns were found ready loaded in various places about the town, and orders were given that these should be shot off "in honour of the Queen's Majesty's Coronation day, being the 17th of November, after the yearly custom in England. These were so answered again by the guns out of all the ships in the fleet, as it was strange to hear such a thundering noise last so long together." No treasure was taken at Santiago, but there was food and wine. The town was given to the flames in revenge for wrongs done to old William Hawkins of Plymouth some years before.

They had not been many days at sea before a mortal sickness suddenly broke out among the men. They anchored off some islands, where the Indians treated them very kindly, carried fresh water to the ships, and gave them food and tobacco. The tobacco was a welcome gift, to be used against the infection of the mysterious sickness which was killing the men by hundreds. They passed Christmas on an island to refresh the sick and cleanse and air the ships.

Then Drake resolved, with the consent of his council, to attack the city of St. Domingo, while his forces were "in their best strength." This was the oldest and most important city in the Indies, and was famous for its beauty and strength. It had never been attempted before, although it was so rich, because it was strongly fortified.

Some boats were sent on in advance of the fleet. They learned from a pilot, whose boat they captured, that the Castle of St. Domingo was well armed, and that it was almost impossible to land on the dangerous coast; but he showed them a possible point ten miles from the harbour. In some way Drake had sent messages to the Maroons, who lived on the hills behind the town. At midnight, on New Year's Day, the soldiers were landed, Drake himself steering a boat through the surf. The Maroons met them, having killed the Spanish watchman.

"Our General, having seen us all landed in safety to the west of that brave city of St. Domingo, returned to his fleet, bequeathing us to God and the good conduct of Master Carleill, our Lieutenant-General."

The troops divided and met in the market-place; and as those in the castle were Preparing to meet Drake's attack from the sea, they were surprised from behind by the soldiers marching upon them with flags flying and music playing. The fleet ceased firing while the fate of the town was decided in a battle. By night Drake was in possession of the castle, the harbour, and shipping. One of the ships captured they named the New Year's Gift.

But after all there was little of the fabled treasure to be found. The labour in the gold and silver mines had killed the native Indians, and the mines were no longer worked. There was plenty of food and wine to be had, woollen and linen cloth and silk. But there was little silver; the rich people used dishes of china and cups of glass, and their beautiful furniture was useless as plunder. The town had to pay a large sum of money for its ransom, and the English stayed a month, and fed at its expense, and took away with them guns and merchandise and food and numbers of galley-slaves, whom they set free.

Cartagena, the capital of the Spanish Main, was the last town to be taken, and it had been warned. It had natural defences, which made it very difficult to attack. Drake, as we know, had been there before, and often, since then, he must have dreamed of taking it. He triumphantly steered his fleet by a very difficult channel into the outer harbour. He then threatened the fort with his guns while the soldiers were secretly landed by night. They made their way to the town by the shore, "wading in the sea-wash," and so avoiding the poisoned stakes which had been placed in the ground in readiness for them. They also routed a company of horse soldiers sent out from the fort, as the place where they met was so "woody and scrubby" as to be unfit for horses. So they pushed on till they made a "furious entry" into the town, nor paused till the market-place was won, and the people fled into the country, where they had already sent their wives and children.

A large price or ransom was paid for this town, equal, it is said, to a quarter of a million of our money; but it was far less than Drake had at first demanded. But "the inconvenience of continual death" forced them to go, for the sickness was still taking its prey from among the men, and it also forced them to give up an attempt upon Nombre de Dios and Panama.

The voyage had been disappointing in the matter of plunder. Most of the treasure had been taken away from the towns before the English came, and many of the officers had died.

They considered the idea of remaining in Cartagena and sending home for more troops. They would have had a fine position; but they decided that their strength was not enough to hold the town and also man the fleet against a possible attack by the Spaniards from the sea. So the lesser ransom was accepted; the officers offering to give up their shares to the "poor men, both soldiers and sailors, who had adventured their lives against the great enemy." They then returned to England, only stopping to water the ships. They landed again at St. Augustine, on the coast of Florida, where they destroyed a fort and took away the guns and a pay-chest containing two thousand pounds.

"And so, God be thanked, we in good safety arrived at Portsmouth the 28th of July 1586, to the great glory of God, and to no small honour to our Prince, our Country, and Ourselves."