Queen Elizabeth I and Sir Francis Drake brought the Catholic kingdoms to their knees through the perfect symbiosis of political deception and high-seas hi-jinks.
by Anjuli McDonald of Clanranald
Though not a pirate in the buccaneering sense of the word, Sir Francis Drake was the oft-demonized public face of the foreign policy of Elizabeth I. Vilified by his victims, particularly Philip of Spain, this freebooter was quietly sanctioned and bankrolled by the queen, who profited from his forays into international waters. Although Elizabeth repeatedly disavowed Drake’s depredations, only a fool would have believed that she would cut off such an important source of revenue… and such a thorn in the flesh of her rivals.
Elizabeth occupied a unique position in the world of 16th-century politics. The notoriously heretical “bastard” queen of a Protestant-leaning island realm, she was a source of worry to the fanatical Roman Catholic world. Torn by what it saw as the spreading malignancy of Lutheranism and its Protestant offshoots, the Holy See was desperate to retain its domination over Europe.
Excommunicated by the Pope and often undermined by her own Catholic subjects, Elizabeth was fair game for any would-be assassin. Yet she was also a prize catch on the marriage market and led the royal houses of Europe in a successful dance for nearly 40 years, dangling herself first before one and then another, juggling her suitors in a balancing act that kept each off kilter with hope long enough to serve her political purposes… at which point the poor unfortunate swain would be dropped, albeit gently, until it became politic for Elizabeth to once more offer a glimmer of hope.
When Elizabeth’s erstwhile brother-in-law, the Catholic Philip of Spain’s wife died, he briefly considered marrying Elizabeth. She played the courtship card for as long as was practical, and then turned to even more nefarious means of harassing him by unleashing her most talented seafaring marauder on the coasts and shipping lanes of Spain: Sir Francis Drake.
The Queen’s Right-Hand Man
Sir Francis Drake, or El Draco (the Dragon) as he was known in Spain, was Elizabeth’s right hand on the high seas. The Spanish made a legend of Drake, fearing his menace and his almost supernatural ability to slip in and out of Spanish waters unmolested. The King himself believed that Drake had made a pact with the devil that rendered him nearly unstoppable. This, however, did not keep Philip from trying.
Elizabeth used Drake to keep Philip on edge to her own advantage. She employed the pirate to cripple Philip’s plans to make trouble for her throne in Ireland, where Philip was not-too-secretly supporting a rebellion, as well as in England, where Philip had blatant designs on the British Crown.
Drake had learned his trade thoroughly at an early age, his family having had to take refuge in an abandoned ship on the Thames during a Catholic rebellion in 1549. Apprenticed at age 13 to a ship’s master, he trained in navigation and piloting on the rough North Sea, making such an impression on his master that, at the older man’s death, he willed the ship to Drake.
But Drake soon gave up his vessel to serve his rich and influential Hawkins relatives, who had invested in trade in the newly discovered Americas. Drake came to hate the Spanish while serving in the West Indies. The Spaniards were known for their mistreatment of foreign traders and their swaggering arrogance. Drake’s crew was once ambushed off the coast of Mexico by the Spanish, and the loss of many of his companions added fuel to his anger. He became from that point on a devoted sea robber, preying on Spanish shipping wherever he could, to the enrichment of himself and his royal mistress.
Forays into Piracy
One of his first forays into piracy, sanctioned by Elizabeth with an official privateering commission, was the sack of Nombre de Dios, a Spanish port town in Panama in 1572, from which he returned with great riches and the Queen’s approbation. Despite his success, he was forced to abandon his trade temporarily, in recognition of an accord recently signed by Elizabeth and Philip, and to make his living for a time supporting the Earl of Essex’ suppression of the Irish rebellion.
But in 1577, hostilities once more erupted between Philip and Elizabeth. So Drake set forth on his famous voyage around the world, carrying with him instructions for diplomacy and exploration from Elizabeth, and her express command to harry and damage Spanish shipping wherever he encountered it. Drake also bore Elizabeth’s blessing in the form of a cap and a scarf of green silk on which was embroidered the motto: “The Lord guide and preserve thee until the end.”
Despite Elizabeth’s endorsement, Drake sailed on the Pelican (later renamed the Golden Hind) without the knowledge or approval of the queen’s lord treasurer, risking Elizabeth’s investment of 1,000 crowns in the venture and, more critically, the investment of her international prestige. Elizabeth was keen for revenge on Philip for “divers injuries that I have received.”
Though he began his expedition with five ships, by the time he reached the Pacific through the Straits of Magellan only the Golden Hind remained, two other ships having been abandoned and one lost with all hands in fierce seas, and the Elizabeth, having been blown back into the Straits, returning in disgrace to England.
But the Golden Hind alone was enough. Spain, secure in its belief that no one would ever reach her outposts in the Pacific, failed to fortify or defend them and Drake plundered at will, sacking towns and Spanish vessels up the coast of South America, but shedding astonishingly little blood in the process. Drake collected an unimaginable booty of coin, jewels, gold and silver bullion, particularly after his capture of the Spanish treasure ship, the Cacafuego.
After completing his circumnavigation of the globe, and with only half his crew remaining, Drake returned to a hero’s welcome in England in 1580.
Reward for Outrageous Behavior
Many of Elizabeth’s advisors were outraged; unless an official state of war existed between two countries, piracy on the high seas constituted a flagrant breach of tradition. Though there was no standard international law in place at the time, certain practices of civility were expected to be recognized and Drake’s activities contravened them all. Elizabeth’s Secretary of State, William Cecil, Lord Burghley even demanded that the pilfered treasure be returned to Spain and that Drake be publicly punished for his actions. The Spanish ambassador concurred and lodged a formal protest with the Crown.
Elizabeth chose instead to invite Drake to court, requesting him to bring with him such souvenirs from his trip as he thought might interest her. She then promised the Spanish ambassador that she would “have a talk” with Drake.
The result of their six-hour conversation was the addition of £10,000 to Drake’s personal wealth, £10,000 more distributed amongst his cohorts, and a £47,000 return on her investment, which was locked in the Tower of London until such time as Her Majesty’s pleasure became known. Needless to say, the money never made its way back to Spain.
In 1581, Elizabeth, entertained the emissary of one of her suitors, the French Duke of Alençon, onboard Drake’s flagship. Knowing that the King of Spain demanded Drake’s head for his crimes, Elizabeth raised her Sword of State above Drake’s head in a pretended execution, then handed the sword to Alençon’s emissary and told him to knight Drake. In one fell swoop, Elizabeth triply infuriated the King of Spain: she had rewarded Philip’s tormentor, given tacit approval to Drake’s actions, and involved Spain’s traditional rival, France, in the ceremony.
Spain Dropped to her Knees
In 1585, from Elizabeth Drake received the command of a fleet of 25 ships, with which he was commissioned to attack Spanish shipping and ports. Against the advice of able seamen such as Frobisher and Grenville, and the ever-cautious Lord Burghley, Elizabeth sent Drake out to cut a wide swath in Spanish interests.
Drake more than satisfied the Queen’s expectations, capturing Santo Domingo in Hispaniola, Cartagena in Columbia, St. Augustine in Florida, and Santiago in the Cape Verde Islands… and nearly brought Spain to financial ruin. The Bank of Spain went bankrupt as its supply of gold and silver from the New World vanished. A similar fate nearly befell the Bank of Venice, which Philip depended on for the loan of vast sums and Philip’s credit became so damaged that getting loans from any source became difficult for Spain.
Unwilling to rest on their laurels, Drake and his Pirate Queen devised further devilment for Philip of Spain. In 1587, with Elizabeth’s permission to further “impeach the provisions of Spain,” Drake set out with a fleet of 30 ships. Arriving in Cadiz, He took only 36 hours to decimate the Armada that Philip had intended to employ in a planned invasion of England. Thousands of tons of shipping and supplies were demolished, effectively delaying the invasion for at least a year, and giving English forces time to prepare for the approaching battle.
When that battle came in 1588, Drake took ship once more and captured a rich Spanish vessel in the English Channel, and then sailed blazing unmanned ships toward the Spanish Armada, which forced the Spanish to abandon their safe harbor at Calais and expose themselves to attack on the open waters. The resulting debacle for Spain effectively ended Philip’s dream of conquering England.
Rarely in history have a pirate and a ruler joined in such a symbiosis of purpose and strategy as did Drake and Elizabeth I. In Elizabeth Drake found the support, both financial and personal, which he needed to achieve his ends, the confidence in his abilities, and the reward for his exploits that not only brought him fame but protected him from his enemies. Elizabeth brought him nobility and made his career possible.
For his part, Drake made England feared on the high seas and brought to his sovereign’s nearly bankrupt coffers desperately needed cash. And their plan, played out on the international stage, brought a logical and less destructive face to war, at least in terms of human cost. Drake’s triumphs resulted in the crippling of Spain financially and in its resources of credit and prestige, undermining Spain’s threat to England without murdering her people. It was a brilliantly conceived and executed strategy, and one that has never since been equaled… all due to one wily woman and her dauntless buccaneer.
Anjuli McDonald of Clanranald (Ellen McDaniel-Weissler) is a writer, actress, singer, teacher, and activist who lives on a mountainside with her husband, their two sons, and their dopey dog Bella. (Actually, the sons are dopey, too.) The family enjoys medieval re-enactment with the Society for Creative Anachronism. This article was originally published in Renaissance Magazine, and was reworked for Mystorical.