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Sir Francis Drake


Sir Francis Drake was an English sea-captain, probably most famous today for his part in the defeat of the Spanish Armada.

In the twenty-five years before the Armada, however, Francis Drake sailed several times to the Americas. During these expeditions, he attacked Spanish ships and ports along the coast of the Americas, and plundered a great deal of gold and silver from the Spanish both on land and at sea.

In December 1577, he set out to sail all the way around the world, which had only been done once before, by the Portuguese explorer, Ferdinand Magellan, who died before he could complete the voyage.

Drake left England with 5 ships and 164 men. He captured another ship along the way, but by the time he reached the Pacific ocean, at the southern tip of South America, he had only one ship left, which he renamed The Golden Hind. He made it back to Plymouth in September 1580 with just 59 men, but with a great deal of Spanish treasure, and was knighted by Elizabeth I in 1581.

Sir Francis Drake, painted by Jodocus Hondius (Hans Holbein was unfortunately dead by now).

To Elizabeth, he was a hero, but to the Spanish, he was a pirate, which goes to show that how history remembers you all depends on point of view. Drake's repeated looting of Spanish treasure made King Philip II of Spain very angry, which is partly why he sent the Armada to attack England. I doubt very much that Philip felt any calmer after Drake dispatched his fleet of burning ships to scatter the Armada. In fact, the story goes that Philip put a price on Drake's head of 20,000 ducats, which is about £4 million in today's money. Quite a reward!

However, one of the most famous parts of the story of Drake and the Armada is sadly unlikely to be true: Sir Francis Drake is supposed to have been playing bowls on Plymouth Hoe when someone came to warn him that the Armada was coming. Legend has it that Drake said coolly that there was plenty of time to finish his game and still defeat the Spanish. Unfortunately, nobody at the time heard him say this, and the first account of it wasn't written down until almost 40 years later. It's rather like Nero allegedly fiddling while Rome burned - human beings hate to let truth get in the way of a good story!

Sir Francis Drake died of dysentery while his ship was moored off the coast of Panama. He was buried at sea, wearing his suit of armour, in a coffin made of lead. Divers are still looking for the coffin now.

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