Francis the Dragon
The Spanish called him a pirate. To them, he was El Draque, the dragon who devoured their gold-laden galleons and plundered their treasure cities. To the English, and the Protestant world in general, he was a hero—a privateer, explorer, naval tactician, and front-line soldier. He was a defender of the Protestant faith and of the Protestant world.
Francis Drake was born about 1540 and came of age about the time Elizabeth ascended the English throne. His parents were Protestants, who had suffered persecution for their faith. Francis had grown up on the Bible and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.
As a young man, Francis apprenticed aboard a small ship that carried goods along the Thames and across the channel to France, a ship he later inherited. He mastered navigational skills early and came to the attention of his privateer cousins, the Hawkinses.
Drake made his first American voyages with his cousin, John Hawkins. On their 1568 voyage, the Spanish trapped their small fleet in the Mexican port of San Juan de Ulúa and attacked. Only Drake’s and Hawkins’s ships escaped the ensuing battle. Drake vowed vengeance and began his own war against Philip and Catholic Spain.
In 1572 Drake obtained a privateer’s commission from the queen and set out for Panama. He attacked the town of Nombre de Dios, a collection point for Spanish silver and gold from Peru. But he was wounded in the skirmish, and his crew pulled their captain out of harm’s way, leaving the treasure behind.
After Drake recovered, he and his men continued to raid Spanish settlements, gathering as much gold and silver as they could. During these days, Drake crossed the Isthmus of Panama and, from the top of an enormous tree, became the first Englishman to see the Pacific Ocean. In a few years he would be the first Englishman to sail it. Drake and his crew returned home in 1573.
Around the World
Four years later Elizabeth sent Drake out against the Pacific coast of Spain’s American empire. He was to plunder ships and towns and search for western end of the fabled Northwest Passage. This he did. The privateering was a success; the exploration was a dead end. But along the way Drake and his crew stopped somewhere along the Northern California coast to repair his ship and replenish its supplies.
There, he and his crew met the local natives, possible members of the Miwok tribe. While the natives watched, Drake led his men in prayers and psalm singing and read aloud whole chapters from his English Bible. Communication between the two groups was limited, but Drake tried to make it clear that he and his men weren’t gods; that God resided in heaven and ought to be worshipped in terms of that reality.
In the name of the Holy Trinity, Drake claimed the California coast for England. He called it Nova Albion, in memory of the white cliffs of Dover. Then he set out across the Pacific. He passed through the Indian Ocean and rounded the Cape of Good Hope. So he returned at last to England and became the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe. He was knighted by the queen and settled down for a while into a life of public service, first as the Mayor of Plymouth and then as a Member of Parliament.
The Spanish Armada
When England’s relations with Spain began to deteriorate, Queen Elizabeth sent Drake on a series of raids against the Spanish Main. The plan was to deter King Philip of Spain from any further imperial pursuits. In that regard, Drake’s strikes were ineffective. Philip began to construct and assemble his Armada, a huge fleet of war ships aimed at England.
In 1587 Drake made a preemptive strike against the Spanish city of Cadiz, where many of these ships had gathered. He destroyed some 37 of them together with thousands of tons of supplies. Drake’s strategic blow bought England an extra year.
But in 1588 Philip’s Armada set sail for England. Philip’s goals were 1) to subdue England and place himself on the throne—he had been husband to Mary Bloody and co-regent earlier; 2) end English support to the Calvinist Netherlands; and 3) deal a fatal blow to the Reformation in Britain and Holland.
The Armada consisted of 22 galleons and 108 armed merchant vessels. Together, these ships carried 1, 500 brass guns and 1000 iron guns. Aboard were 17, 000 armed soldiers and 180 priests. For the Spanish, as for the English, this was a religious war.
The issues at stake were enormous. If the Armada succeeded, if England fell, the Protestant faith would suffer an incredible set back. The Calvinist Netherlands would be ground under the Spanish heel. A now-papist England would colonize the eastern coast of North America. There would be no United States of America. There would be no Protestant British Empire. There would be no world-spanning missionary outreach in the 18th century. Very likely, there would be no Industrial Revolution. Like Nicea, like Tours, this sea battle was a turning point in Earth’s history.
Once the Armada approached the Channel, the smaller and lighter English ships were able to distract and harass their larger and slower counterparts. When the Spanish fleet stopped off the coast of Calais to take on even more soldiers, the English admiral, Lord Howard, and Sir Francis, now the vice admiral, set eight flaming ships right into the middle of the Armada. The damage was negligible, but Spanish ships scattered.
A wind carried the Armada into the Channel, and the English followed. The battle began. Drake and the English took quick advantage of the speed and maneuverability of the smaller ships blasting the Spanish ships with broadsides from their cannon—a tactic Drake himself had perfected earlier. In the ensuing battle, eleven Spanish ships were sunk or damaged.
The battle continued until most of the ships were out of powder. When a strong and unexpected wind pushed the Armada northwards, the Spanish withdrew and Howard let them go. The Spanish ships rounded Scotland, and then fierce gale winds drove many of them into the rocks of the Irish coast. Most of the ships never reached home. England and the Netherland struck two medallions to commemorate the defeat of the Armada and to celebrate God’s providential intervention: “Jehovah blew with His wind, and they were scattered,” and “Man proposes, God disposes.” Both medallions reflecting the Reformation belief that God, rather than man, decides outcomes of not only battles but all of life.
The next year Drake took his fleet against Lisbon but with very different results. He returned home and took up the office of Mayor of Plymouth perhaps the most famous man living at the time.
The Last Commission
In his mid 50s, Drake took on one last assignment from the Queen against the Spanish Main. He and Hawkins were supposed to assault Spain’s treasure cities in Panama. The expedition failed. Off the coast of Portobello, Drake contracted dysentery and died. He was buried at sea in a lead coffin. He died a hero to the English people and the Protestant world.
Sometimes one man changes the course of history in huge and visible ways. Sir Francis Drake was such a man. Through his faith, courage, skill, and determination, he elevated English spirits, opened up a broader vision for the English people, deflated Spanish arrogance, and helped turn back the forces of Rome when the future of the Protestant faith hung in the balance. He fought the good fight when lesser men sought comfort and fortune. He remains one of the greatest heroes of the Reformation.
For Further Reading
Ernle Bradford, The Wind Commands Me (New York: Harcort, Brace & World, Inc., 1965).
John Sugden, Sir Francis Drake (London: Random House, 2006).
William Wood, Elizabethan Sea-Dogs: A Chronicle of Drake and His Companions (Cambridge, MA: Yale University Press, 1918).
Samuel Bawlf, The Secret Voyage of Sir Francis Drake (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc., 2003).
Otto Scott, The Great Christian Revolution, How Christianity Transformed the World (Windsor, NY: The Reformer Library, 1994).