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Drake’s Drum is preserved at his unique country house: Buckland Abbey

Posted in Architecture, Conservation, Country House, English Literature, Famous battles, Heroes and Heroines, Historical articles, History, Ships on Friday, 30 December 2011

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This edited article about Francis Drake originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 887 published on 20 January 1979.

Drake's Drum, picture, image, illustration

Drake dies of fever in the West Indies visited by rousing memories of the Spanish Armada and his famous drum, by John Millar Watt

The most famous man in England, newly-knighted, was on his way home to Devonshire. He and his men had sailed round the world in their tiny ship, the Golden Hind, reaching Plymouth Sound after a three-year voyage in 1580. His name was Francis Drake.

The crew brought home with them the richest haul of treasure ever taken from the Spaniards (or anyone else) by the English. After being knighted by Queen Elizabeth I, Drake set off for home.

Home was called Buckland Abbey. It had been owned by the Grenville family, whose most famous member, Sir Richard Grenville, captained the Revenge against a fleet of 53 Spanish warships off the Azores in 1591 and died after a battle that ensured his fame.

Drake bought the house in 1581. He did not die there, but of fever in the West Indies in 1596. In Drake’s Drum the Victorian poet Sir Henry Newbolt wrote:

Take my drum to England,
hang it by the shore,
Strike it when your
powder’s runnin’ low;
If the Dons sight Devon
I’ll quit the port o’
An’ drum them up the
Channel as we drummed
them long ago.

The last line, of course, refers to the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, by which time Drake had become second-in-command of the English fleet. When he died, his drum was indeed carried home and is now the most famous of the Drake relics that can be seen by visitors to Buckland Abbey.

“Abbey”? Once upon a time, Drake’s house certainly had been an abbey. It had been founded by Cistercian monks at Buckland in 1278, and they no doubt enjoyed a good and quiet life until Henry VIII’s time, when their home was taken over by the Crown, which was busily grabbing all the monasteries. As there were only 12 monks at Buckland by that time, it was not too big a purge.

The abbey was sold to Sir Richard Grenville, grandfather of the fiery captain of the Revenge, for £233, a huge sum in the 16th century. Unlike most of those who suddenly found themselves owning a monastery, Sir Richard did not pull the church down, but it was his grandson who transformed it into the building that stands there today.

He had three floors built within the walls of the church and made these into his living quarters. The great hall has a fireplace dated 1576, and on top the old church tower still stands. Visitors can detect many remains of the church within the house, and these give the place a rather unusual atmosphere.

So it is that there are more Grenville than Drake touches to be seen in the rooms, though the panelling of the drawing-room is Drake’s. There were some later additions by members of the Drake family, including the present main staircase. It is worth noting that two of Drake’s descendants were high-ranking sailors, both vice-admirals.

There is a fine naval museum full of Drake and Grenville relics, established by Plymouth Corporation, who run this fascinating property for the National Trust.

Outside the abbey-house is a magnificent 14th century tithe barn with a very fine timber roof. Tithes were a form of taxation whereby the local people supported the clergy and church by handing over a tenth of their possessions, usually in “kind” – corn, farm animals, eggs, etc. Later, tithes usually meant money. The tithe barn at Buckland must have held a lot of taxes!

Buckland is near Plymouth and is open throughout the year, including Sunday afternoons.

From October to Good Friday visiting hours are confined to Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday afternoons from 3 to 5. The rest of the year the hours are 11 to 6 and 2 to 6 on Sundays. But check these times before setting out on your trip to this shrine to two of England’s best-known sea-dogs.

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