Sir Francis Drake: Pirate, Hero, Both?

Sir Francis Drake: Pirate, Hero, Both?

1590_or_later_Marcus_Gheeraerts,_Sir_Francis_Drake_Buckland_Abbey,_DevonImage in the Public Domain

Sir Francis Drake was a pirate, politician, and privateer from Devon, whose real life exploits and aid to the Crown were conflated over time with folklore and legends pertaining to his abilities.  He is a man around whom a great deal of legends and myths have arisen.  His life typifies the journey from man to myth perfectly: he began as a man, who did (based on perspective) great deeds, which where then exaggerated and conflated with rumor and stories as he became a legendary hero to the English and terror to the Spanish.  This legendary status, in turn, led to fame which paved the way to the creation of a swath of mystical and devilish tales surrounding him.  Thus when we talk about Drake, we are talking about the man, the myth, and the legend, or, in his case, the man, the legend, the myth.

The Man

Sir Francis Drake is one of Devon’s most famous local sons, having been an important privateer and integral knight in England’s battles with the Spanish.

Though much of his early life, including his birth, was not well documented, Francis Drake was born circa 1540 in Tavistock (  The eldest of 12 sons, he and his family fled to Kent due to religious persecution, where he was apprenticed to the ship master of a trading barque, who was later so impressed by and satisfied with Drake that he bequeathed his barque to him (Southey).

The most famous and well-known period of his life would truly begin when he was in his twenties, when he began his real sailing career, first sailing to the Americas with his cousin Sir John Hawkins.  It was during this time when he had his first real run in with the Spanish, who trapped their fleet in a Mexican port.  He and his cousin escaped, but this began his hatred of the Spaniards, and he promised revenge (Britannica).

In 1572, he and his men, captured the town of Nombre de Dios, and claimed the Peruvian treasure that was waiting for the Spanish there.  He was injured, however, in the failed attack, and his crew left the treasure to save his life.  He stayed in the area for more than a year, raiding Spanish ships, and building the foundations of his fortune (Britannica).

Drake at the Rio de la Plata - Image in the Public Domain

The next year he joined the French buccaneer Guillaume Le Testu, and captured twenty tons of silver and gold.  On the way to bury and hide it, Le Testu was killed and their boats were stolen (Andrews).  Being a sound leader, however, Drake rallied his men, built a raft, and sailed back to his own ship.  He reportedly feigned downheartedness for his men, who were alarmed by his shabby appearance, but then produced a necklace of Spanish gold, shouting “Our voyage is made, lads!” (Kieding 399).

Four years later, he was sent by the Queen on an expedition against the Spanish on the American Pacific Coast.  After some setbacks, he eventually entered the Pacific with only his flagship, the famous Golden Hind.  He captured several ships, dining with the officers of the wealthiest and letting them go free.  This privateering gave way to a complete circumnavigation of the Earth, with his adventures including friendships with a Sultan king of the Moluccas, and stops in California and Sierra Leone (Britannica). 

Map of Drake's Possible Path - Image in the Public Domain

He had fifty-six remaining original crew members and a cargo bay full of treasures when he returned to Plymouth in 1580, the first man to Captain an entire circumnavigation.  Due to he service, he became favored by Queen Elizabeth, who soon knighted him aboard the Golden Hind, and granted him his own coat of arms (Britannica).

After this he became the mayor of Plymouth for many years, and a three-time Member of Parliament.  He purchased Buckland Abbey from Sir Richard Grenville anonymously-- as Grenville hated him-- and began to live there (Britannica).

Another series of raids in the war against Spain would turn him into a hero for the English, but, possibly his most famous act would come in 1587 to 1588.  King Philip II of Spain planned an invasion of England.  Drake, to “singe the King’s beard” sailed a preemptive strike fleet into Cadiz and occupied the harbors, destroying many ships and delaying their attack, which ultimately played an integral part in the Armada's ultimate defeat (Britannica).

In 1595, however, failure in conquering the port of Las Palmas, in a campaign against Spanish America, and a battle in San Juan marked the beginning of the end, as he and his fleet were decimated by fever (Britannica).

Finally, in January of 1596, as Drake lay dying of dysentery outside of Panama, he was, per his request, buried at sea in a lead coffin, dressed in his full armor (

The Legend

At Sir Francis’s home in Tavistock, Buckland Abbey, one can see a collection of historical artifacts associated with Drake, and be surrounded by paintings, stories, and historical information about his exploits.  Tucked into an upstairs room of the house, past a massive plaster statue of Drake, one comes to an area meant for younger visitors. Below the historical information and panels in this area are questions and activities aimed at a younger audience.  One of these, and the one that caught my eye most of all, was this: 


"Was Sir Francis Drake a hero, a pirate, or both?  What do you think is the best thing he did?"

This question seems to completely encapsulate both the central reason for cultural fascination with Drake, and the tensions and complications in that.

The historical details have been so tied up with affective responses, with his place in the protection of his country, with his place in legend, that there is no longer a clear or easy way to describe Drake.

By all accounts, he made at least a portion of his wealth capturing West Africans and selling them to Spanish Plantations in the Spanish Main, and absolutely engaged in piracy and robbery (Britannica).

On some level, he was aware of and self-conscious about his reputation.  He bought Buckland Abbey anonymously, worked to be knighted and seen as legitimate, and in my reading of the copy of his will at Buckland Abbey, regularly reminded its beneficiaries that his money was lawfully earned.

His hatred of the Spanish arose due to hatred of Catholicism and personal grudges.  This is, of course, problematic.  However, because the English opposed to the Spanish, and because he was an integral part of the defense against the Spanish Armada, he naturally became—and was willfully billed as—a hero to the English people (Britannia).

The English knew him as a politician, hero, knight, and favorite of the Queen.  He was a folk figure, who "saved them" from their Catholic rivals.  One only has to look around Devon, such as in Plymouth and Tavistock, to see the sheer volume of businesses bearing his name and the statues built in his honor and to understand the way he has captured the minds of the English people.


 The Statue of Drake in Tavistock

The Spanish, however, knew him as a ruthless and troublesome pirate, and offered the equivalent of 4.5 million pounds in modern money for the capture of the man they called El Draque, The Dragon (Cummins).  He burned and captured their ships and gold, and sowed conflict.  He can’t be severed from either the good or bad parts of his legend.

Outside of the simple fact that he was both a hero and a pirate, there are plenty of other odd things about him that made him legendary, with dubious anecdotes abounding about even the things we know Drake to have done. 

Just a few examples:

There is an account, possibly (and probably) apocryphal, of Drake finishing a game of bowls at which he was warned of the coming of the Spanish Fleet, because, he quipped, there would "still be time to finish the game and beat the Spaniards to0” (Hutchinson 120-1).

The Legendary Bowls Game on the Drake Statue, Tavistock - Image in the Public Domain

The story of his burying of tons of silver and gold is often considered to be the birth of the mythic construction of pirates burying their treasure (Kieding 399).

He definitely did become friends with a Sultan in Indonesia, and American Indians in California (Britannica), but the secret Californian colony he was rumored to have founded-- New Albion-- has never been located (Smith).

Theodore de Bry's "The Indians of California greet Sir Category:Francis Drake" - Image in the Public Domain

These realities mix with the myths because he was a monumental figure as it is. These exaggeration are not far off from his historical realities, and they seem very much in line with his character as we know it.  But they show how a folk hero can evolve from seeming larger than life, and encompass endless stories. 

All of this, and our lack of knowledge about certain portions of his life, coalesce in a clearly legendary folk hero, or terrifying folk villain, based entirely on the place from which you view him.  This, of course, is a constant in the world of folklore; every story’s bent comes completely from the perspective of what side you are on.  Francis Drake is an ideal example of the folk hero because of the degree to which he has become an icon, and because of the scale of the true events of his life.

The Myth

The importance of Drake in Devon can be seen even more clearly in the way myths have grown around him, even whilst he was alive.

Buckland Abbey is associated with his mystical drum, but his myth permeates the world outside of this house as well.

During his life, many dark legends arose around him, seemingly running counter to his heroic image.  The Legendary Dartmoor group emphasizes the anthropological understandability of this fact: “It must be remembered”  they say “that there has always been a deep belief in witchcraft on the moor and anybody who performed such feats as Drake could be regarded as possessing magical powers, in some cases these could have been believed to have come from the Devil” (Legendary Dartmoor).

If one counts the number of myths in which Drake sells his soul to the devil, it will quickly clear he must have had quite a few souls.  Perhaps being associated with Dartmoor, being the bane of many and the hero of as many, it was inevitable that his legend would become myth.

In 1585, Drake was part of a committee to approve and execute the building of a leat, a trench for the delivery of water, from the River Meavy to Plymouth, where water was desperately needed (Moseley).

Drake's Leat Today - Image in the Public Domain

One version of this tale claims that he road along with the flow of the water when the leat was completed.  This legendary description then evolved into the mystical; some say Drake went to Dartmoor, found a spring, and, with a few magic words, forced the water to follow his horse, or at least that he road ahead of the coming water (Moseley).  Others, tying this to other myths, said this magic was obtained from the Devil (Underwood).

The origin of his first Devilish pact is even more disputed.  Some, including Peter Underwood, the paranormalist and former President of “The Ghost Club,” adhered to the myth that his defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 was based less on his understanding of Spanish ships and their capabilities, and more on a pact with the Devil conjuring a storm that helped to drive them away (Underwood).

Defeat of the Spanish Armada by Philip James de Loutherbourg - Image in the Public Domain

Shortly after its purchase at his hands, Drake began building an addition to the Abbey which experienced many difficulties before eventually being completed, an event that led to multiple myths.  In one, Drake transforms himself into a Seagull and drives the Devil off, thus establishing in Seagulls the propensity to dive.  In others, it is piskies that ruin his building plans.  In others, it is a servant that stops a hideous demonic specter from stealing the materials.  In one story, however, curated by Peter Underwood, Drake himself makes a deal with the devil to complete the addition at all.  Underwood and Legendary Dartmoor discuss many of these diverse myths, but tons of different versions can be found all over the internet and in books.

He is, then, in some way tied to magic, a further exaggeration of his legend, but the nature of it changes depending on whether he is a folk hero, or a more Faustian figure, who saves his country-- or stokes his vanity-- for a terrible cost.

Clearly, each story, on balance, had a different Idea of Drake’s Morality.

These myths don’t end, of course, with his death.

Today, in Buckland Abbey, there is a room containing many of Drake's personal affects.  The centerpiece, however, with no doubt as to its mythical importance, is Drake’s Drum, the reason I visited in the first place.


It sits in the center of the room, surrounded by display cases on all sides, but always visible.  The piece itself is beautiful, carefully constructed and displaying Sir Francis Drake’s coat of arms.  It survived his circumnavigation of the globe, and was clearly of import to him, but the reason I mention it here is the story associated with it.

It is said that on his deathbed, out at sea, Drake ordered that it be brought back to Buckland Abbey and “vowed that if England should ever be in danger from a foe and someone were to beat upon the drum he would return again to defend her shores” (Mount). 

The Drum has sat in Buckland Abbey ever since, inspiring many.  Poet Henry Newbolt was moved to such a degree that he wrote a poem about this very myth, which can be read here.  Some have claimed to hear it beating when war has come to England, but by all accounts it sits, awaiting the arrival of the day where Drake will arise in his not-so-ancestral birthplace, and ride—or sail—to the defense of his beloved county (Mount).

If you ask many others, it is said that the ghost of Sir Francis Drake rides the moor at night for a far less noble purpose, alongside ghostly hounds, either as a member of The Wild Hunt, as a lone huntsman seeking out nonbelievers and sinners, as a companion of Old Crockern or, perhaps consistently, with the Devil himself (Westwood).

This just goes to show the degree to which good folkloric myths and legends evolve and expand, folding new folk heroes and stories into them, but also seems to emphasize the ways in which, as someone becomes more and more legendary, and sees further and further scrutiny, people will either idolize or reject them.  He is tied to so many different myths, and because he is such an important legendary figure, he permeates magical, spectral, and religious myths and legends.  There can be no clearer example of the evolution of the mythology of a man in Devon than Francis Drake.


Works Cited

Andrews, Kenneth R. Trade, Plunder, and Settlement: Maritime Enterprise and the Genesis of the British Empire, 1480-1630. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1984. Print. Writers. "Sir Francis Drake's Body 'close to Being Found off Panama'" BBC News. BBC News, 25 Oct. 2011. Web. 31 July 2016. Editors. "Francis Drake Biography." The Website. A&E Television Networks, n.d. Web.  1 May 2016.

Cummins, John G. Francis Drake: The Lives of a Hero. New York: St. Martin's, 1997. Print.

Hutchinson, Robert. The Spanish Armada. New York: Thomas Dunne, 2014. Print.

 Kieding, Robert B. Scuttlebutt Tales and Experiences of a Life at Sea. N.p.: IUniverse, 2011. Print.

Legendary Dartmoor. N.p., n.d. Web. Dec. 2016. <>. 

Moseley, Brian. "Water Supply to Plymouth." Plymouth Data: The Encyclopaedia of Plymouth History., 14 Jan. 2013. Web. 1 May 2016. <

Mount, John. "Drake's Drum (Article Courtesy and Copyright John Mount 2000)." Drakes Drum., 2000. Web. 18 May 2016.

"Sir Francis Drake". Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.  Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2016. Web. 31 Jul. 2016 <>.

Smith, Dinitia. "Drake's Secret Trip Up the West Coast." The New York Times. The New York Times, 08 Aug. 2003. Web. 31 July 2016.

Southey, Robert. English Seamen — Howard Clifford Hawkins Drake Cavendish, London: Methuen and Co., 1897. Print.

Underwood, Peter. Ghosts of Devon. Bodmin: Bossiney, 1982. Print.

Westwood, Jennifer. Albion: A Guide to Legendary Britain. London: Granada, 1985. Print.

Works Referenced

Wikipedia contributors. "Francis Drake." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 10 Jun. 2016. Web. 31 Jul. 2016.

Text and photos copyright Alex Kirshy unless otherwise noted.