Drake: England's Greatest Seafarer

Drake: England's Greatest Seafarer

by Ernle Bradford


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781497637856
Publisher: Open Road Integrated Media LLC
Publication date: 08/19/2014
Pages: 252
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Ernle Bradford was born in 1922 and died in 1986. He was a noted British historian specializing in the Mediterranean world and naval topics. Bradford was an enthusiastic sailor himself and spent almost thirty years sailing the Mediterranean, where many of his books are set. He served in the Royal Navy during World War II, finishing as the first lieutenant of a destroyer. Bradford lived in Malta for a number of years. He did occasional broadcast work for the BBC, was a magazine editor, and wrote many books, including  HannibalPaul the TravellerJulius Caesar: The Pursuit of PowerChristopher Columbus , and  The Mighty Hood.

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England's Greatest Seafarer

By Ernle Bradford


Copyright © 1965 Ernle Bradford
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4976-1715-5


Voyage into Sunset

It was August 1595 and the slopes of Plymouth Hoe were patterned with men, women and children eager to see their first and greatest citizen preparing to set sail. Landsmen, but almost all of them allied in one way or another to the sea, they knew through whose grace it was that their clothes sat snug upon them, that enseignes sparkled in the merchants' hats, and enamelled galleons sailed on the breasts of their women. Their children drank the clean water that he had (almost miraculously it seemed) conveyed down from the bare ridges of Dartmoor into their city. But for him there might have been no city standing, and but for him certainly no press of shipping would have been sidling alongside the quays of the Barbican or riding in the lee of St. Nicholas's Island. Soon his ships would be leaving Plymouth.

After years of eclipse and royal disfavour, the Member of Parliament for Plymouth and—appropriately enough—for King Arthur's Tintagel, was about to embark once more for the scene of his youthful triumphs. His destination was the warm Caribbean sea, the islands broomed by the northeasterly trade winds—the golden lifeline of Spain. This was to be no piratical escapade, but an expedition that had the blessing of the Queen, and one from which it was hoped the whole kingdom would reap some benefit. When two such names as Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Hawkins were coupled together in a venture, it was reasonable to expect that any investment would pay ample dividends.

It was true that neither of the men was young: Sir John Hawkins was in his sixties—a good age for those days—while Drake himself was in his middle fifties. Both of the men had been out of favour, and it was surprising perhaps that the Queen should have placed them in joint command of an expedition at such a stage in their lives. But the Queen too was ageing and it is possible that she hoped, like many another gambler, to bring off a coup by backing the names that had proved magical in her youth. Then again, like any ruler or statesman, she could only make use of such talent as was available to her. The disgrace of Raleigh, and the deaths of Grenville and Frobisher, had removed some of the brightest stars from her military heaven.

Sir William Monson in his Naval Tracts wrote that: 'These two generals [Sir John Hawkins and Sir Francis Drake], presuming much upon their own experience and knowledge, used many arguments to persuade the Queen to undertake this voyage to the West Indies, assuring her what great services they should perform, and promising to engage very deeply in the adventure themselves, both with their substance and their persons: and such was the opinion every one had conceived of these two valiant Commanders, that great were the expectations of the success of this voyage.' Unusual for those days, there was no need for pressed men to man the ships. The lure of Drake's name was so great that volunteers came in their hundreds, and many of them had to be sent back to their homes.

The Queen herself had put at the disposal of her admirals some of the finest ships in her Navy. The Defiance, Drake's flagship, and the Garland, Vice-Admiral Hawkins' ship, were both new vessels of the Revenge class. They were 95 feet on the keel, with a beam of 33 feet, and a draught of 16 feet. Rated at some 700 tons, their main armament consisted of sixteen culverins which fired a 17-lb. ball, a secondary armament of fourteen demi-culverins or 9 pounders, four minions or 4 pounders, and four quick-firing guns. Other Naval vessels were the Bonaventure, Hope, Foresight and Adventure, the last being commanded by Captain Thomas Drake, a brother of the admiral. Twelve chartered merchantmen made up the bulk of the squadron. Sir Thomas Baskerville, whose reputation was at its peak after his success in capturing Brest, was appointed Commander of the Land Forces. All in all, there seemed every reason for confidence in the expedition, and the news that Drake was about to sail for the West Indies caused such a panic on the continent that the Spanish exchequer declared a moratorium. Thousands of her soldiers deserted the colours. Lisbon was abandoned by every citizen who could afford to, and an English spy had reported to Lord Burghley that in all Spain there was 'no talk of anything but Drake'.

The expedition had been designed to sail in the spring of that year, but intrigue at court and the Queen's notorious inability to commit herself to a decision had delayed it for month after month. Supplies which should not have been broached until the ships were at sea were eaten up, and men who had been willing volunteers had already started to desert. Drake, who had sold the lease of his London house in order to invest in the expedition, was distraught at the delay, while Sir John Hawkins was both irritated and dismayed. The idea of a divided command was the Queen's, and it was unfortunate that, kinsmen though they were, there was no great affection between Drake and his distinguished relative. At one point early in their lives something had happened which seems to have strained their relationship—but that was long ago now. Hawkins, indeed, had over the years invested in some of Drake's projects, but the two men had not sailed together on an expedition since the disaster at San Juan de Ulua in 1567.

While Hawkins was an admirable organiser and could stand the long wait, having amply provisioned and victualled his ships, Drake was the same opportunist that he had always been. As July went by, it was reported that he was being forced to scour the West Country to get provisions for the men in his half of the squadron. Although the two commanders preserved their superficial appearance of friendship and unanimity, sufficient to deceive the citizens of Plymouth or the rank and file of the fleet, those who were in a position to know recognised the friction that existed between them. As one of their captains wrote about their attitude towards each others' subordinates: 'Whom the one loved, the other smally esteemed.'

From the start, the aim of the expedition had been to capture Panama. This was a scheme that had haunted Drake since the first days when he had cruised the Caribbean and landed on the hot shores of the Spanish Main. By capturing the great city of the Spanish Western Empire he would cut the lifeline by which the gold of Peru was channelled to the waiting ships of King Philip II. Had the expedition sailed as Drake had intended in the early spring of the year, the plan would have had a good chance of success. But, as the months went by, more and more time was granted the Spaniards to make their preparations, for the objective of Drake's venture had long been known to King Philip's efficient espionage service. By the beginning of June there was still just time for the expedition to sail and achieve its objective. But already the delay had meant that the English ships would be arriving off the eastern seaboard of America during the hurricane season and, as the old sailors' rhyme has it:

In July, stand by
In August, you must,
In September, remember,
In October, all over.

September would be a bad time to arrive in those treacherous waters. It was towards the end of July, when it seemed that nothing could any longer delay the sailing of the expedition, that the Spaniards made a daring raid on the Cornish coast. Four galleys disembarked a large number of troops, who began firing the fishing villages in Mount's Bay. Mousehole, Newlyn, Penzance, and a number of small villages were burned or razed to the ground. In the ensuing panic there could be no question of Drake and Hawkins being allowed to sail. Although the raid was no more than a gesture, apprehension was naturally felt that this might be the forerunner of a full-scale invasion. It was well known that King Philip was preparing a second Armada, designed to be considerably more formidable than the first, to subdue the Protestant island.

The two commanders of the English squadron were immediately ordered to leave Plymouth and cruise the Spanish coast. To this they rightly replied that their ships, laden with soldiers, were totally unsuitable for such a purely naval activity, and that the troops would merely eat up the provisions intended for their long voyage to the West Indies. Sir Thomas Baskerville, however, the Commander of the Land Forces, was ordered to make a circuit of the West Country to inspect the coastal defences and the local militia. In his absence, of course, the expedition could not sail, and the ships continued idle in Plymouth Sound and the Barbican. After considerable argument, in which the two admirals urged upon the Queen yet again the necessity for their sailing westward at once, while she attempted to keep them at home (or at the most to send them on a cruise off the Irish coast), it was finally agreed that they might go. But the condition which she attached to this was that they must be back in home waters within six months. It was now the middle of August.

Probably the only thing that finally made up the Queen's mind was the news that a large treasure ship had been reported as being laid up in the port of San Juan in Puerto Rico, undergoing repairs. Owing to the many delays, the annual West Indies treasure fleet had already reached Spain safely without being attacked. Drake had always hoped to capture it and secure the expedition financially, before crowning it with an audacious success at Panama. But one treasure ship was better than nothing at all, and it was as clear to the Queen as to her admirals that their only chance of storming San Juan and capturing it lay in sailing at once. Already the rumour was current in Spain that the whole expedition had been so delayed that there was little or no chance of its sailing that year. An element of surprise, therefore, was still just possible.

On the 28th August, 1595, with drums beating and bright with flags, 27 ships carrying some 2,500 men sailed at last from Plymouth. Even now, they had not been permitted to make direct for their destination, but had been ordered, before sailing west, to make a cast down the coast of Spain. The endless series of setbacks, and the vacillating policy of the Queen, had strained the nerves of both commanders and men. Morale had sunk, and the old tension between Drake and Hawkins had come more into the open. Thomas Maynard wrote in his account of the voyage that Sir John Hawkins was: 'Old and wary, entering into matters with so leaden a foot, that the other's meat would be eaten before his spit could come to the fire.'

No more than four days out from Plymouth, Drake approached Hawkins with the information that he had three hundred more men in his half of the squadron than he had allowed for, and that his victuals were already short. His request for assistance from his Vice-Admiral was met with a somewhat natural refusal, the older man no doubt feeling a little self-satisfied at the proof of his organisational abilities when compared with Drake's lack of foresight. A council of war was held aboard Drake's flagship, Defiance, off Cape St. Vincent, and 'the fire which lay hidden in their stomachs began to break forth, and had not the Colonel pacified them, it would have grown further'. It was at this moment that Drake proposed an attack on the Canary Islands, before proceeding to the West Indies. He was supported in his scheme by Sir Thomas Baskerville, but Hawkins was very naturally opposed to the project. He pointed out that they were already late and that, with every day that passed, their chances of a surprise attack on San Juan grew less. Drake himself must have been fully aware of this, but owing to his inefficiency he needed to make a foraging raid in order to get more supplies, and particularly water, for the troops in his half of the command. At last, and reluctantly, Hawkins agreed. The ships put St. Vincent behind them and set a course for the Canaries.

The main object of the expedition was bedevilled from the start. Drake had never learned the lesson that a squadron of ships could not be sailed about the ocean as he had done in his youth, with two or three small vessels of 50 tons or less, and only a handful of young Devonians to be looked after and victualled. To the end of his life he remained the opportunist and simple man of action, while Hawkins foreshadowed naval admirals of the future, whose concern would be almost as much with administration and supply as with action. In his appeal to the popular imagination, Drake might be compared to the Beatty of Jutland, while Hawkins more nearly resembles the conservative and able Jellicoe.

The attack on the Canaries was a disaster. On arrival off Las Palmas, the troops were unable to make a landing because of the roughness of the surf. Furthermore, the beach was dominated by Spanish batteries and held in strength by their infantry. Baskerville immediately pointed out the futility of attempting an assault, so the fleet weighed anchor and coasted round the island to the western side, where they managed to put watering parties ashore. During these operations some of the English troops were captured, together with a surgeon from one of the ships.

It was not long before the Governor of Las Palmas had managed to extort from these prisoners the secret of their destination. In the lack of security-precautions that prevailed in those days, the intention of the English had almost certainly been known to King Philip even before the ships had sailed from Plymouth. Nevertheless, it is a fact that the Governor of Las Palmas now despatched a caravel post-haste to Puerto Rico, to warn his compatriots that Drake and Hawkins intended to attack San Juan with a view to capturing the treasure ship.

With the trade winds filling their sails, the English squadron now set off across the Atlantic. They were bound first of all for their rendezvous off Guadeloupe, a large island in the Leeward group, some 300 miles south-east of Puerto Rico. Here they intended to make their final preparations before attacking San Juan. While they were rolling in the long swell of those blue seas—the soldiers marvelling at the unfamiliar flying fish and at the snorting dolphins around their bows—five Spanish frigates, unknown to the English, were coming up hard astern of them. They had been ordered from Spain with all dispatch to Puerto Rico, to embark the treasure before 'the pirate Drake' could get his hands on it.

The ill luck that had dogged the expedition from the start began to envelop them like a storm cloud. It was October, and in that season of the year the normally predictable weather of the Caribbean can be dangerous and capricious. A violent gale, possibly the skirting fringe of some hurricane moving northward towards America, separated Drake with one section of the fleet from Hawkins. After three days the two admirals were finally reunited in their anchorage off Guadeloupe on the 29th October. Two small ships, the Francis and the Delight, had unfortunately straggled astern of the main body. They were overhauled by the Spanish frigates, and the Francis was captured. The Delight just managed to escape, and made straightway for the rendezvous; only to be followed by the Spaniards, who were now able to confirm with their own eyes the information that they had already got from their prisoners. Seeing the English men-of-war and the attendant merchantmen at anchor, the Spaniards turned and made all sail northward for Puerto Rico, to let the Governor know that the enemy was in the Caribbean.

Now was the moment, if any, when Drake and Hawkins should have sailed for their destination. But they had just completed an Atlantic crossing and were burdened with troops; they needed to water ship and—most important in those days—to overhaul and clean them. In any event, the fleet could never have overtaken the fast Spanish men-of-war, since the progress of their convoy was necessarily determined by the speed of their slowest merchantmen. Drake, as was to be expected, was in favour of giving chase immediately with the Defiance and the other naval vessels. In the discussion that followed, he allowed himself to be overruled by Hawkins. This proved disastrous, for on this occasion Drake's judgement was undoubtedly right. If an attempt was ever to be made upon San Juan and its treasure ship, it should have been done at once. The moral here, as indeed in the abortive attempt on the Canary Islands, is clear. A division of command, in any venture where haste, secrecy, and surprise are all-important, must almost inevitably prove fatal.


Excerpted from Drake by Ernle Bradford. Copyright © 1965 Ernle Bradford. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Drake: England's Greatest Seafarer 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Kiss yoyr hand 3 times
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
He gets on apollos back and he gets flown there.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
looks at her bracer, twisting it around her wrist