A Very Basic Biographical Sketch of Francis Drake

Although this web site is focused on Francis Drake's "Famous Voyage" - the circumnavigation of the world in 1577-1580 - many requests have been made for basic biographical information on Drake. This sort of information, insofar as it is known, is not very hard to find, for example in John Sugden's recent best-selling biography Sir Francis Drake (NY: Holt, 1990) and in most encyclopedias and similar works. However, for the convenience of my visitors, here follows a brief sketch of the personal aspects of the great mariner's life.

It should be understood that this information is taken from secondary sources - I have not personally examined any of the original documents on which it is based. This is something that I warn others not to do when dealing with anything relating to Drake, because there is so much conflicting information and bad scholarship floating around. Thus I make no claims for the accuracy of any the following and suggest that it only be used in a casual way.

Typically, Francis Drake's life begins with a mystery - the date of his birth. 1540 is often mentioned, 1542 has been heard as has been 1538, and other years pop up here and there. Often the given date is based on a portrait which itself is dated and which includes the comment that it shows Drake at a particular age. The only safe conclusion is that he was born around 1540.

His place of birth was Tavistock, in Devonshire, along the river Tavy (which eventually empties into the sea near Plymouth). Here his grandparents held a lease on about 180 acres of farmland and made what was probably a reasonably secure living as farmers.

Here also Edmund Drake, who became Francis Drake's father, had been born. Some reports state that he was a sailor, but there are records that contradict this, and it seems likely that he too made his living from the land.

Edmund Drake's wife, the mother of Francis, was of the Mylwaye family but her first name is unknown. The couple had twelve sons; Francis was the eldest.

Papa Edmund had some difficulties, in part because he, not being an eldest son himself, did not inherit the bulk of the Tavistock lease. He also seems to have gotten into some legal trouble, perhaps involving petty crimes. Additionally, there have long been rumors that protestant Edmund was the victim of some sort of religious persecution. In any event, when Francis Drake was still a young boy the family left Tavistock and moved to Kent, nearer the sea, where they lived in the hulk of an old ship and where Edmund made a bare living as a preacher to the sailors of the navy. So, young Francis now was living (and learning) among the ships and seamen that would become the focus of his life.

Francis Drake first went to sea sometime in the 1550's, as a young boy apprenticed to the elderly master of a small coastal freighter. He apparently did well both nautically and personally, because the old captain, having no family of his own, willed the little ship to Drake. This marks the beginning of Drake's nautical career, about which this brief sketch will say no more.

Drake married Mary Newman, about whom little is known, in 1569 when he was still a young unknown sailor; they had no children and she died twelve years later, leaving the then-newly knighted Sir Francis Drake a widower. In 1585 the now-famous and wealthy Drake married Elizabeth Sydenham, some twenty years his junior, who unlike Mary Newman came from a wealthy and well-connected family. The couple moved into Drake's recently purchased estate, Buckland Abbey (which today is still a major monument to his memory). Again, there were no children.

In 1596 Sir Francis Drake was stricken by a tropical disease - "the bloody flux" (perhaps yellow fever) - during a less-than-sucessful expedition against the Spanish in the Caribbean. On January 28, on board his flagship Defiance, in the pre-dawn hours and after rising from his sickbed intending to don his armor so that he would die as a soldier, Sir Francis Drake passed quietly from this world. He was buried at sea off Puerto Bello, Panama, in a lead coffin.

Note:Because Francis Drake left behind no children, his title passed to a nephew - who happened also to be named Francis. This second Sir Francis Drake, to the everlasting confusion of librarians and casual students of Drake, is the person who published, in 1628, the chronicle of the circumnavigation The World Encompassed.

Author's Note: Much of the material on this web site (but as it happens not that on this page) is adapted from my forthcoming book Francis Drake in Nova Albion - The Mystery Restored, in which these and neighboring thickets are explored much more deeply than on these few web pages. Thus there may be references here not fully explained, or answers missing their questions. Also lacking here is documentation, provided in the book by 782 endnotes. - Oliver Seeler

Nova Albion Research
Copyright 1998 by Oliver Seeler
Please feel free to send your comments to oseeler@mcn.org
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