We start with perhaps one of the best known names to come out of Devon and Cornwall: Sir Francis Drake.
Drake is most famous for his explorations at sea, although he made plenty of contributions to his home county of Devon, too. But despite all his good work, some regard him as more of a villain than a hero – after all, there has to be a reason why he became known as the “Queen’s Pirate”.
Drake’s nautical achievements
Born in Tavistock c. 1540-1544, Francis Drake took to the seas from a young age as an apprentice and was given command of his own ship in his early twenties.
His early voyages included trips to Africa, Spain, and the Americas, but his biggest achievement was arguably his circumnavigation of the globe from 1577-1580. He was the first Englishman to successfully complete this voyage, and in 1581 he was knighted and appointed Mayor of Plymouth.
But it wasn’t the maritime achievement in itself that saw him find favour with Queen Elizabeth I – she was more interested in the plunder he presented her with from his attacks on the Spanish and Portuguese.
Clashes with the Spanish
Drake had plenty of run-ins with the Spanish, and was generally successful.
He was badly injured during a raid in Panama in 1573, but after recovering, he and his men swept through several Spanish settlements, returning to Plymouth with around 20 tons of gold and silver.
In 1578, during his circumnavigation, he captured a Spanish ship near Lima which was laden with treasure worth about £7 million in today’s money.
The relationship between England and Spain worsened during the 1580s, culminating in an attack by the Spanish Armada in 1588 which Drake, as vice admiral of the English Navy, helped to see off.
Drake died at sea off the coast of Panama in January 1596 after series of unsuccessful attacks. He contracted dysentery and died several days later from a fever. He had asked to be buried in his full armour. His lead coffin was slipped overboard near Portobelo, and divers are still searching for it to this day.
Francis Drake’s impact in Devon
Closer to home, in 1580 Drake purchased Buckland Abbey near Yelverton, Devon, funded by his plundering. He lived there for fifteen years until his death, and the manor stayed in his family for several generations. It is now a National Trust site which houses a museum featuring items of interest from Drake’s life and voyages.
In 1581, in his role as Mayor, Drake facilitated the construction of Drake’s Leat. This 17-mile watercourse gave Plymouth a freshwater supply from the River Meavy on Dartmoor, making it one of the country’s first municipal water supplies. It operated for three hundred years but was replaced by a reservoir in 1891, although parts of the trench are still visible today.
Plenty of places in Plymouth are named after Sir Francis Drake and there is a statue of him in Tavistock and on Plymouth Hoe. His name has reached much further afield too; take a trip to California and you’ll be able to visit Drakes Bay and Sir Francis Drake Boulevard.
As a lasting reminder of Drake’s contribution to the expansion of the British Empire, a replica of his ship the Golden Hind is housed in Brixham Harbour.