Born near Tavistock, Devon circa 1540, Francis Drake was the son of Edmund and Mary Drake. Possibly named for his godfather, Francis Russell, 2nd Earl of Bedford, Drake took to the sea at the age of 13, serving aboard a merchant ship in the North Sea. Building his seafaring skills, he quickly ascended to master by age 20 and, following the death of his commanding officer, became captain of his own ship. At the age of 23, Drake made his first crossing of the Atlantic, sailing with his second cousin John Hawkins. He was with Hawkins in 1569, when their fleet was attacked by the Spaniards at Veracruz.
As a privateer, Drake held the rank of captain aboard his own vessels. Upon his successful return from circumnavigating the globe, Queen Elizabeth knighted him aboard Golden Hind on April 4, 1581. During the Anglo-Spanish War, Drake held the rank of vice admiral in the English Navy.
In 1569, Drake, then an unknown sailor, married Mary Newman. The two remained together until her death in 1581. Four years later, the now-famous Drake married Elizabeth Sydenham who came from a prominent, wealthy family. The two lived together at his estate, Buckland Abbey, near Yelverton, Devon. Neither marriage produced any children.
In 1572, Drake was commissioned as a privateer by Queen Elizabeth and given two ships and 73 men by Hawkins. Departing England, Drake launched an unsuccessful assault on the Spanish town of Nombre de Dios in Panama. Recovering, he was able to capture the Spanish silver train, a pack caravan of riches from the mines of South America, as it crossed the isthmus from Panama City. This victory brought Drake fame, wealth, and the favor of the queen. Returning home, Queen Elizabeth selected him to lead a raiding expedition to the Pacific Ocean.
Departing Plymouth in December 1577, with four ships and 164 men, Drake crossed the Atlantic and passed through the Straits of Magellan. While transiting the straights, one of his ships, commanded by Thomas Winter, turned back. Emerging from the straits, Drake’s small fleet was caught in a heavy gale which blew them far to the south. This incident showed Drake that Tierra del Fuego was not part of a southern continent as had previously been believed. At the southernmost point of his voyage, Drake reached 56 degrees south latitude, a mark that would not be bettered until Captain James Cook in 1773.
Turning north, Drake lost his two consorts when one was sunk in a storm and the other turned back. Renaming his flagship Golden Hind, Drake continued on alone. Proceeding up the South American coast, Drake and his men raided Spanish settlements and destroyed shipping. On March 3, 1579, lookouts sighted a large Spanish galleon on the horizon. Moving to intercept, Golden Hind closed on the enemy and opened fire around 6:00 PM. After a brief battle the Spanish ship, Nuestra Senora de la Conception surrendered to Drake. The prize proved to be one of the richest in history, as it carried £450,000 in coin and metals.
Proceeding up the coast, Drake landed somewhere in modern-day northern California on June 17, 1579, and claimed the land for England and naming it Nova Albion. Turning west, Golden Hind crossed the Pacific and reached the Moluccas. After trading with the Portuguese, he continued home via the Cape of Good Hope. Arriving at Plymouth on September 26, 1580, Drake presented the queen with treasure that exceeded the crown’s income for that year. In gratitude for his achievements, she knighted him on the deck of Golden Hind on April 4, 1581.
With hostilities continuing, Drake sailed for the Caribbean in September 1585, with 29 ships. Arriving at Santo Domingo on New Year’s Day 1586, Drake sacked the city before moving on to plunder Cartagena and St. Augustine. Returning home, he was dispatched in 1587, to attack the Spanish invasion fleet gathering at Cadiz. Forcing his way into the harbor, he captured six ships, while destroying 31 more and a vast quantity of supplies. The attack set back the sailing of the armada for over a year. As England prepared for the attack of the Spanish Armada, Drake was named vice admiral of the English fleet.
On July 19, 1588, the Spanish Armada was sighted off Plymouth. Sailing that night, the English fleet, led by Lord Howard of Effingham pursued the Spanish up the Channel. During the pursuit, Drake captured the galleon Rosario and led a major attack on the Armada off the Isle of Wight. On August 7, Drake aided in organizing a fireship assault on the Spanish off Calais. The next day, he played a key role in the English victory at the Battle of Gravelines, which forced the Armada to retreat north, ending the threat of invasion.
Following the defeat of the Armada, Queen Elizabeth sent Drake to Spain as the leader of the “English Armada.” Tasked with supporting an uprising by Portuguese rebels and establishing a base in the Azores, the endeavor collapsed when the English failed to take Lisbon and many of their men fell ill with disease. After serving as the mayor of Plymouth (1593), Drake again sailed for the Caribbean in 1595. Early in the cruise, he attempted to sack San Juan, but was driven off by the city’s defenders. On January 27, 1596, while anchored near Porto Bello, Panama, Drake died of dysentery at the age of 56. His body was placed in a lead coffin and was buried at sea.