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This edited article about Sir Francis Drake originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 873 published on 7 October 1978.
“Time enough to play the game and thrash the Spaniards afterwards,” Sir Francis Drake is supposed to have said when someone interrupted his game of bowls with the news that the Spanish Armada was approaching up the Channel.
Today, above the bowling green on Plymouth Hoe, Joseph Boehm’s 3-metre-high bronze statue of Drake stares out defiantly over the Sound, a monument to the great Devon sailor.
Did Drake really say those famous words, or are they just part of Devon folklore? No contemporary records support the story, but it is mentioned some 40 years after the Armada, so it is possible that the tale was based on an eyewitness account of what happened. Moreover, from what we know of the tide and weather on that day, Drake’s apparently casual behaviour may well have been justified.
It was on the afternoon of Friday, 29th July, 1588, that a Captain Fleming sailed into Plymouth with the news that he had sighted a large group of Spanish ships near the Scilly Isles. This must have been long-awaited news, for the Spanish attack had been expected for some time, but the message should really have been delivered directly to Lord Howard of Effingham, the British fleet’s Lord High Admiral.
Drake was only Vice-Admiral, but he was a local sailor. With the tide flooding into Plymouth Sound and a stiff south-west breeze blowing, no British ship could have left harbour until the tide ebbed. Knowing this, Drake must also have known that there was plenty of time to finish his game. So on balance it seems likely that the old story about the game of bowls is well founded on fact.
Although his monument stands on Plymouth Hoe, Francis Drake was in fact a native of Tavistock, where he was born about 1543. However, he was also at one time in his life Mayor of Plymouth. Although he was not the supreme commander of the British fleet, to most people Drake remains the hero who thwarted the King of Spain’s ambitious plan to invade Protestant England.
The son of a fervent Protestant lay preacher, Drake believed whole-heartedly that it was his duty to humble the forces of Catholic Spain in any way he could. But apart from his religious differences, he also had strong personal feelings in the matter: as a young man of 22, he had sailed to the Gulf of Mexico on a trading mission and narrowly escaped with his life when Spanish galleons had treacherously set upon the English ships.
Drake had reached home safely, but an unpleasant rumour spread that he had abandoned his fellow traders when he was most needed. Perhaps the story was true, since it would have been understandable for a young captain to be over-eager to safeguard his first command. Certainly, from that time on, Drake fought the Spaniards with extraordinary bitterness, as though by increasingly daring feats of arms he could make up for a youthful mistake.
Unofficially supported by Queen Elizabeth I, he harried King Phillip’s galleons on the Spanish Main and returned with his holds full of plunder. He marched across the Isthmus of Panama on foot, and from the top of a tree caught a glimpse of the Pacific Ocean, swearing that one day he would sail an English ship in what was at that time Spain’s private sea.
Drake not only sailed on the waters of the Pacific, in 1577; he also voyaged right round the world and returned home in triumph with such riches that those who had financed the voyage received a return of 4,700 per cent on their investment. The Queen herself had been a shareholder in the venture, so it is not surprising that Drake was knighted as a sign of royal approval.
The Queen also gave orders that his ship, the Golden Hind, should be preserved. It lasted for a hundred years until, its timbers finally rotted beyond repair, the historic vessel had to be broken up.
In 1581, Drake became mayor of Plymouth, but this did not prevent him from continuing to sail against his old enemies. In 1587 he received an intelligence report to the effect that the Spanish were assembling a large fleet in the bay of Cadiz, presumably as part of an armed force which was to sail against England.
By striking at the fleet in the harbour before it became operational, Drake “singed the King of Spain’s beard” and sunk no less than 10,000 tons of shipping as it lay at anchor. When, a year later, the Armada did at last set sail for England, the country was sure that with “Frankie” on their side, defeat by the Spaniards was impossible.
Quite apart from Drake’s personal reputation, the British navy was supremely confident that it could trounce any force in the world. It had recently been brought up to date with small, exceptionally seaworthy ships, equipped with superb cannon designed to batter an enemy at long range. On the other hand, King Phillip’s old-fashioned galleons were in a bad state of repair, and it seemed unlikely that they would make a good showing against the modern equipment of the English.
As it was, the British attack on the tight-packed mass of the Spanish Armada went almost, but not quite, according to plan. Chased up the Channel, the Spaniards were set upon by Drake’s ships off Portland Bill and mercilessly pounded at long range. After heavy fighting, the Spanish broke off the engagement, and in an effort to escape they headed for home by way of Scotland, where storms took a heavy toll on their ships.
However, neither Howard nor Drake was entirely satisfied with the result of the battle, even though their countrymen were overjoyed. The truth was that just when they had got the enemy on the run, the British fleet had run out of ammunition. So instead of being totally destroyed, as the British commanders had hoped, at least half of the great Armada managed to limp home to Spain.
Drake emerged from the Armada with his reputation even greater than it had been before. He had even captured a very large galleon without firing a shot, for the Spanish captain had surrendered without a fight as soon as he learned his opponent’s name.
Nevertheless, the defeat of the Armada was not the end of the war with Spain, and so long as there were Spaniards on the high seas, Drake could not hold back from fighting them. He was still in action against his lifelong enemies when he died on board his own ship during an operation in the West Indies, on 28th January, 1596.
Bustling, tough and ruthless, Francis Drake caught the imagination of the people of Devon as their ideal leader in time of war. Even today there are still many who believe the legend that should England ever be in dire peril, one has only to beat on Drake’s carefully preserved drum for the old adventurer to rise from his watery grave and put his country’s enemies to flight once again.