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Sir Francis Drake, the Queen's Greatest Seaman.


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When people saw the Queen pacing up and down the paths with Sir Francis Drake in Greenwich Gardens, and heard her laugh heartily as she stopped with her hand to her side, they knew he was entertaining her with stories of his mad adventures in the Pacific, bracing her to resist Mendoza and King Philip, and putting tough spokes in many of the wheels of his Holiness the Pope.

Twice had Mendoza asked for an audience, but no, Elizabeth had no wish to talk about returning all those pretty jewels and the muckle treasure, now safely stored in the strong-rooms at the Tower.

The little stout seaman, with the crisp brown hair and high, broad forehead, the small ears, and grey-blue eyes lit with merriment, and sometimes with fiery wrath, seemed to have won for a time his Queen's full confidence.

The palace servants stared with awe at the bronzed and bearded face, and the loose seaman's shirt belted at the waist and the scarlet cap braided with gold. For they recognised in the wearer a king of men - one who could make a nation of traders into great conquerors, and who might, if only he were allowed, convert a small island into a world-wide empire.

Drake was teaching the Queen and her ministers the uses of a strong navy. Elizabeth had always been proud of her royal ships, but she was apt to treat them like her best china, and liked to see them securely placed on some high shelf, where they would not be broken. She had often written to her captains and admirals to be prudent and take no risks - "Don't go too near any batteries - don't let my ships catch fire - do be careful."

Now Drake was instructing her in the art and policy of taking risks. And the Queen, as she looked down upon her jewelled dress, found merry Sir Francis a very incarnate fiend to tempt her out of her devious ways of caution and political jugglery - for a time, at least.

Now Terceira, one of the Azores, refused to recognise the Spanish conquest, and Don Antonio, who had been hunted from the throne of Portugal, was now in Paris and imploring help against Philip.

"Here, madam," we may fancy Drake saying, "is a splendid opening for your honest seamen. Terceira lies on the direct road of the fleets coming home both from the East and West Indies. Permit your humble servant to seize this island as a base, and we will destroy the trade of Spain, and thereby secure this island-realm from Spanish invasion."

Walsingham was on Drake's side. Hawkins and Drake were preparing the fleet, courtiers and merchants were subscribing, and brave young noblemen were offering to serve on board. Fenton and Yorke, Frobisher's trusty lieutenants, had command of ships; Bingham, Carleill, and many others were getting ready; Don Antonio had come over secretly; and all had been arranged.

But the admirals waited in vain for the order to sail. Was the Queen losing heart, fearing the perilous risk? trying to make terms with King Philip instead of fighting him?

Drake began to swear very loud, especially when he received a scolding letter from the Queen, because he had spent two thousand pounds more than the estimate. Officers, having nothing to do, began to be quarrelsome; many resigned their commissions; and at last the expedition was broken up.

The Queen was waiting until she could get France on her side. She thought Drake's idea too risky, so she let him be chosen Mayor of Plymouth, just to keep him busy with plans for defence.

Drake had a great sorrow this year, as well as a bitter disappointment, for his wife fell ill and died. To add to his anxieties, King Philip had offered forty thousand pounds reward to any who would kidnap and stab the British corsair. John Doughtie, the brother of that Thomas whom Drake had tried by court-martial for treason, was approached; and out of revenge, though Drake had once forgiven him his share in the treason, John embraced the opportunity to get rich and rid himself of an enemy.

Unfortunately for him John Doughtie could not help boasting of what he was going to do. His arrest was obtained from the Council, and he spent the remainder of his life in some discomfort and squalor in one of her Majesty's prisons.

So the months went by, and Drake became member for Bossiney or Tintagel, and made some fiery speeches at Westminster, where they began to believe that an invasion was really possible - nay, if Drake thought so, even probable.

In February 1585 he married Elizabeth Sydenham, a Somersetshire heiress; but news came at the end of May that Philip had invited a fleet of English corn-ships to relieve a famine in Spain, and then had seized the ships.

This was too bad. This was to imitate Drake a little too closely.

Everybody, from the Queen to the newest cabin-boy, felt that such an outrage must be severely dealt with.

By the end of July Sir Francis received letters of marque to release the corn-ships, and hoisted his flag in the Elizabeth Bonaventure, with Frobisher for his vice-admiral and Carleill as lieutenant-general with ten companies of soldiers under his command. The squadron consisted of two battleships and eighteen cruisers, with pinnaces and store-ships. There were two thousand three hundred soldiers and sailors, and it was no easy matter to get stores for so many. Before Drake could get away Sir Philip Sidney came down to Plymouth with the intention of joining the expedition.

Drake remembered too well how unpleasant the presence of courtiers had been on a former voyage, and he secretly sent off a messenger to Court, asking if Sir Philip had the Queen's permission to join.

The Queen replied by ordering her naughty courtier back to Greenwich, and Drake sailed for Finisterre, though still short of supplies.

Resolved to get water and provisions before he started on his long voyage, he ran into Vigo Bay and anchored under the lee of the Bayona Islands.

His officers were dismayed at their leader's effrontery. Does he wish to let all Spain know what he is about to do?

But Drake knew that this very insolence would paralyse the hearts of the foe. He ordered out the pinnaces and so frightened the governor that he offered the English water and victuals; wine, fruit, and sweetmeats were also sent, as if the Spaniards had been entertaining their best friends.

A three days' storm compelled the ships to go up above Vigo, and there many caravels laden with goods were taken by Carleill.

On 8th October Drake sailed for the Canaries, while the Spanish Court was buzzing with rumours, and the Marquis of Santa Cruz advised his master that a fleet should sail out in pursuit of the English, before they sacked Madeira, the Canaries, and the Cape de Verde Islands, or crossed the Atlantic and did worse.

However, the Spaniards, as is their custom, took a long time to get ready, and Drake passed by the Canaries and pounced upon Santiago, the chief town of the Cape de Verde Islands, where William Hawkins had been treacherously attacked some years before. They seized the town easily and stayed there a fortnight, the inhabitants having fled inland, and much they enjoyed the pleasant gardens and orchards. All might have gone well, and no great damage done, had not some Spaniards seized and killed an English boy and shamefully treated his body; for they found him lying dead, with his head severed and his heart and bowels scattered about in savage manner.

This so enraged the men that they set fire to all the houses except the hospital, and left in various places a paper declaring the reason why they had so acted.

The English had not been many days at sea when a disease broke out, and in a few days over two hundred men had died. A hot burning, and continual agues seized the sick, followed by decay of their wits and strength for a long time.

In some there appeared small spots as of the plague; but in eighteen days they came to the island of Dominica, inhabited by savage people whose naked skins were painted tawny red; strong, well-made fellows, who very kindly helped to carry fresh water from the river to the boats. They brought also, and exchanged for glass and beads, a great store of tobacco and cassava bread, very white and savoury.

Thence the English went on to St. Christopher's, a desert island, where they spent Christmas, refreshed the sick, and cleansed their ships.

Then they sailed for Hispaniola and the city of St. Domingo, the largest Spanish city in the New World, founded by Columbus in 1496.

Drake learned from a frigate that it was a barred harbour commanded by a strong castle, but that there was a landing-place two miles to the westward of it.

About 150 horsemen opposed them, but the English ran in so fast that the Spaniards had only time to fire one volley and flee. There was no gold or silver, only copper money, but good store of fine clothes, wine and oil. The native Indians had all been killed by the cruelty of the Spaniards, and the work in the mines was stopped.

Drake ordered the troops to entrench themselves in the Plaza, or Square, and to occupy the chief batteries; so he held the city for a month.

Two hundred and forty guns were taken and put on board the English ships, and a ransom equal to fifty thousand pounds of our money was exacted. A great fleet of Spanish ships was burnt, and hundreds of galley-slaves were set free, to their surprise and delight.

Thence Drake sailed for Cartagena on the mainland, the harbour of which he knew as well as any local pilot. The fleet entered about three in the afternoon without meeting any resistance. In the evening Carleill landed about three miles west of the town; the idea being that the land forces should advance at midnight along the shore, while the fleet drew the attention of the Spaniards by a false attack upon a fort in the inner haven.

Some hundred horsemen met the troops, but hastened back to give the alarm. Then the soldiers under Carleill came to the neck of the peninsula on which the town was built. On one side was the sea, on the other a lake communicating with the harbour. The narrow roadway was fortified across with a stone wall and ditch, and the usual passage was filled up with barrels full of earth, behind which were placed six great guns, while two great galleys had been moored with their prows to the shore, carrying eleven guns, to flank the approach, and containing three hundred harquebusiers. The barricade of barrels was defended by some three hundred musketeers and pikemen.

The Spaniards fired in the dark down the causeway, but the English were marching close to the water's edge on lower ground and got no hurt. Then they clambered up the sides of the neck and assaulted the barricade. "Down went the butts of earth, and pell-mell came our swords and pikes together, after our shot had given their first volley, even at the enemy's nose."

The English pikes were longer than those of the Spaniards, so the latter soon gave way, and were followed with a rush into the town, where other barricades erected at every street's end had to be carried with yell and blow.

The Spaniards had stationed Indian archers in corners of advantage, "with arrows most villainously empoisoned." Some also were wounded in the fort by small stakes having the point poisoned. But when the city was taken divers courtesies passed between the two nations, and they met at feasts, so that the Governor and Bishop came to visit Sir Francis on his ship, finding him very merry and polite.

Cartagena yielded rich loot for the men, and for the merchants and courtiers who had taken shares a ransom of 110,000 ducats came in as a comfortable bonus.

By the end of April they were off Cuba and in want of water. After search they found some rain-water newly fallen. Here, we are told, Sir Francis set a good example to the men by working himself in his shirt sleeves. We can see how conduct like this endeared him to his men; for they said, "If the general can work with us in his shirt, we may well do our best."

"Throughout the expedition," says Gates, "he had everywhere shown so vigilant care and foresight in the good ordering of his fleet, together with such wonderful travail of body, that doubtless had he been the meanest person, as he was the chiefest, he had deserved the first place of honour."

On reaching Florida they took Fort St. Augustine and a treasure-chest; then they sailed north and sought Raleigh's colony in Virginia, whom they brought home. "And thus, God be thanked, both they and wee in good safetie arrived at Portsmouth the 2nd of July 1586, to the great glory of God, and to no small honour to our Prince, our Countrey, and our selves."

Some seven hundred and fifty men were lost on the voyage, most of them from the calenture or hot ague. Two hundred and forty guns of brass and iron were taken and brought home.

Sir Francis wrote at once to Burghley reporting his return. He apologised for having missed the Plate fleet by only twelve hours' sail - "The reason best known to God;" but affirmed he and his fleet were ready to sail again whithersoever the Queen might direct.

But the Faerie Queen was much harassed just now and affrighted; for the Babington plot to assassinate her had just been revealed, and it was known that Philip was making ready to spring upon England from Portugal and the Netherlands. Mary Stuart was in prison, and France for her sake was threatening war. So the Queen pretended to disavow the doings of Sir Francis and his men. No peerage or pension for him now, lest Philip should sail and invade her territory.

Drake understood the moods of his intriguing mistress, shrugged his strong shoulders and played a match at bowls on the Hoe.

But, if England was backward in applauding the hero, his name and exploits were being celebrated wherever the tyranny of Rome was feared or hated.

The Reformation had been losing ground latterly, the Netherlands still held out, but their strength of endurance was nearly spent.

Then came the startling news that the English Drake had again flouted and crushed the maritime power of Spain. Not only had he weakened her for actual warfare, but her prestige was shaken by his exploits, and the banks of Seville and Venice were on the verge of ruin. Philip found himself unable to raise a loan of half a million ducats.

The sinews of war were cracked by this sea-rover, who was raising the hopes of Protestant Europe once more, and winning the clamorous applause of the west country openly, and of Burghley in private.

"This Drake is a fearful man to the King of Spain!" he could not help confessing, though he wondered if England would not be obliged to give him up to the wrath of Philip. War was so expensive, to be sure! Then, to the delight of Elizabeth and the consternation of all true Catholics, Philip wrote and accepted the Queen's timorous excuses.

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