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27 January 1596 – The death of Sir Francis Drake

Francis Drake

Francis Drake

On the 27th January 1596, Sir Francis Drake, explorer, sea captain and pirate, died of dysentery in Portobelo harbour, Panama. When he realised that death was near, he asked to be dressed in his armour. Although he requested burial on land, Drake was buried at sea in a lead coffin, along with his second cousin, Admiral Sir John Hawkins.

Drake made his first voyage to the New World at the age of around twenty-three, with Hawkins, whose family owned a fleet of ships based in Plymouth. Another voyage saw the fleet trapped by Spaniards in the Mexican port of San Juan de Ulua in 1568. Fortunately, the two men managed to escape, but they lost all but two of their fleet. In 1570 and 1571, Drake undertook two trading voyages to the West Indies, and in 1572 took two ships on a marauding campaign against the Caribbean's Spanish ports. Drake was able to capture the port of Nombre de Dios and return to England, his ships laden with Spanish booty. In 1573 Drake attacked a mule train with the help of Guillaume Le Testu, the French buccaneer, capturing around 20 tons of gold and silver.

In 1577, Elizabeth I secretly commissioned Drake to lead an expedition to the American Pacific coast where there were Spanish colonies. Drake left Plymouth on the 15th November 1577, but only one of his fleet made it to the Pacific Ocean, his flagship the Pelican, which arrived there in October 1578. The ship was renamed the Golden Hind (after Sir Christopher Hatton's coat of arms), and Drake became the first English sailor to navigate his way through the Straits of Magellan. The Golden Hind made its way north, along South America’s Pacific coast, plundering towns and Spanish ports as it went, and capturing Spanish ships laden with gold, silver and jewels. In June 1579, Drake landed just north of Point Loma (present day San Diego, California), which was Spain's northernmost holding in the Americas. He claimed it for England in the name of the Holy Trinity and called it Nova Albion, “New Britain”. He then turned south and made his way back home, arriving in England in September 1580. He was the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe.

His achievements and his rich cargo of treasure and spices led to Elizabeth I knighting him on board his flagship on 4th April 1581. Drake presented Elizabeth with a jewel to commemorate his successful circumnavigation. It was from Mexico and was made of enamelled gold decorated with an African diamond, and a ship with an ebony hull. In return, Elizabeth presented Drake with a jewel and a portrait of herself.

In 1585, Drake set sail for the West Indies and the Florida coastline where he did what came naturally to him - plundering. He captured the Spanish port of San Augustín and returned home with some unsuccessful English colonists from Roanoke Island. His actions made Philip of Spain furious and war was imminent, but worse was to come for the Spanish king: in 1587, Drake sailed to Cadiz and Corunna, in Spain, where he destroyed 37 ships with which Spain was preparing to attack England.

In 1588, Drake was Vice Admiral of the English fleet under Lord Howard of Effingham, the fleet which defeated the Spanish Armada. On 29th July 1588, Drake and Howard organised fire ships to send into the Spanish fleet at Calais to break their formation and to force them out to sea. The next day, Drake was present at the famous Battle of Gravelines.

In 1589, Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Norreys were given orders to 1) Seek out and destroy any remaining Spanish ships, 2) Help the rebels in Lisbon, Portugal and 3) Take the Azores for England. Unfortunately, 12,000 lives and 20 ships were lost off the Spanish coast.
Drake's final voyage to the West Indies and South America was a bit of a disaster. He failed to take the port of Las Palmas, and also San Juan in Puerto Rico. He managed to survive a Spanish attack which saw a cannonball shot through the cabin of his ship, but he died of dysentery in 1596.

Click here to find out more about Drake's circumnavigation of the globe.

Tudor Society members can read a bio of Sir Francis Drake - click here.

(Taken from On This Day in Tudor History by Claire Ridgway)

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27 January 1596 – The death of Sir Francis Drake

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