The earliest naval activity from Plymouth which has been recorded was in 1442. Eight ships were used for patrolling purposes from Candlemas to Martinmas, when attacks by Bretons from France could be expected.  Each ship was manned by 150 men.

In the latter half of the sixteenth century Devon was the foremost county in England, and Plymouth its foremost town. Henry VIII was concerned with Plymouth’s fortification and Elizabeth called the men of Devon her right hand.

Many of the merchant adventurers assembled their forces in Plymouth before attempting new ‘discoveries or inhabitancies’.  Men such as Thomas Stukleigh who sailed to Florida, Sir Richard Grenville to Virginia, Sir Humphrey Gilbert to Newfoundland, Sir Martin Frobisher and Master Davis to the NW passage, Sir Walter Raleigh to Guiana and, of course, Sir Francis Drake himself.

Britain first showed herself to be a formidable sea power when the GOLDEN HIND anchored under the lee of what is now called Drake’s Island on 26 September 1580 after her 3 year voyage round the world.

As a child, Drake was brought by his parents into Plymouth for protection during a time of civil disturbance, finding shelter, it is said, on St Nicholas Island. The island was named Drake’s Island in the late eighteenth century, but even early in the nineteenth century charts still showed it as St Nicholas Island.

Drakes Famous Round the World Voyage

In 1577 Drake obtained a commission from the Queen by which he was appointed Captain-General of a fleet of 5 vessels: the PELICAN, 100 tons, commanded by himself; the ELIZABETH, 80 tons, commanded by John Winter; the MARIGOLD, 30 tons, commanded by John Thomas; the SWAN, 50 tons, commanded by John Chester; and the CHRISTOPHER, 15 tons, commanded by Thomas Moche.  With 164 men on board, they left Plymouth on 15 November, but owing to heavy weather were forced to return. They finally set forth on 13 December, making their way to the Barbary coast.  On 17 February they crossed the Equator, and having sailed for 63 days without sight of land, they arrived on 5 April on the coast of Brazil. Sailing southwards, Drake reduced his squadron to 3 ships by burning the other 2 before entering the Straits of Magellan on 20 August 1578. Here he renamed his own ship GOLDEN HIND. On entering the Pacific, violent storms were encountered for 52 days during which time the MARIGOLD foundered with all hands and the ELIZABETH returned home. Drake was driven far to the southward, but at Valparaiso he provisioned his ship from the Spanish storehouses and captured several rich prizes. He was determined to return home by crossing the Pacific.  Touching California he there nailed a brass plate to a post, taking possession of the land in the Queen’s name, calling it, in allusion to the white cliffs along the shore, New Albion.  For 68 days afterwards, he did not sight land until he made the Pelew Islands and Mindanao.

After refitting at Java, he made for the Cape of Good Hope which he passed on 15 June. Calling at Sierra Leone on 22 July, he arrived in England on 26 September 1580. In the course of this voyage he had completely circumnavigated the globe and he and his ship’s company discovered that they had lost a day in their reckoning of time, it being Sunday by their journals, but Monday by the general computation ashore.

The Queen’s recognition was slow, for it was not until 4 April 1581, during a visit to Deptford, that she went on board his ship and conferred on him the honour of a knighthood.   The Queen also ordered his ship to be preserved as a monument to his own country’s glory. It remained at Deptford a long time and when it decayed a chair was made from its planks and was presented to the University of Oxford.

After his return from his circumnavigation, Drake was busily engaged in the local politics of Plymouth and for one year (1581-2) was Mayor of the Borough. In 1584, while MP for Bossiney in Cornwall, he was one of the Select Committee involved in the Plymouth Haven Bill, which received the Royal Assent in 1585.

Drake was a prime mover in getting the Bill - to bring water into Plymouth - put into action, because he realised how much easier it would be to water a fleet in the harbour of Plymouth. Although the Plymouth Haven Bill was passed in 1585, it was another 5 years before the work commenced. Drake’s association with it was purely of a business nature, although few can doubt the wisdom of the Corporation in entrusting the work to him. He was paid £200 for the execution of the work, and £100 with which to pay compensation to owners of the land affected. Additional payments were made to other persons, including Robert Lampen of St Budeaux, the Surveyor who planned the course of the Leat.  Drake cut the first sod in December 1590 and by 23 April 1591, the work was completed. The original leat was simply a ditch, 6 to 7 feet in breadth and 17 miles long; but it sufficed, with certain improvements, to convey the water from Plymouth for the next 300 years.

To Drake and his friend Hawkins the Nation is indebted for the establishment of the Greenwich Hospital, first known as the Chatham Chest, planned to relieve the wants and reward the merits of seamen maimed in the service of their country. It was founded at Chatham in 1590, removed to Greenwich in 1804, and by 1814 was, by Act of George III, consolidated with Greenwich Hospital.

The Armada

In the early summer of 1588 King Phillip of Spain sent 130 ships, carrying 27,000 men under the command of the Duke of Medina Sidonia, to invade England.  This invasion would have crushed England’s aspirations once and for all, restoring a Catholic monarchy and reducing the country to the status o£ an appendage of Spain. Queen Elizabeth mobilized nearly 200 ships of all sizes, 34 of them her own. Most of these ships were sent to Plymouth.

Lord Admiral Charles Howard of Effingham was in command of the English fleet, with Drake as his deputy. It was Drake who led the attack after the Armada had first been sighted. Whether a game of bowls was in progress on Plymouth Hoe at the time of this sighting is open to doubt. This battle, the first to go on the long list of honours won by the Royal Navy, is reproduced in the Armadarama in the SE corner of the Drill Shed.

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