Francis Drake became one of the most accomplished European seafarers of his time, with a varied career that saw him as merchant, pirate, mayor and even a brief period serving in Parliament.

Francis was the eldest of 12 sons, born around 1540 in Tavistock, Devon. His father, Edmund Drake, was a tenant farmer on the Crowndale estate of Lord Francis Russell. Religious insurgencies following the Reformation lead to Drake’s family fleeing to Kent and making their home in the hull of a ship banked on the River Medway.

Edmund began giving Protestant services at Chatham Dockyard. Here, he met an elderly merchant sailor who took young Francis on as an apprentice, teaching him sailing and navigating techniques as they sailed the English Channel.

Drake then returned to Plymouth and became reacquainted with his second cousin, a well-known pirate and slave-trader named John Hawkins. Hawkins took Drake on his first trans-Atlantic voyages, three very unsuccessful attempts to sell African slaves to new Spanish colonies in the Americas. The last of these ended in a fierce battle between the English and Spanish, with Drake and Hawkins narrowly escaping with their lives. Many English and African men were left behind, and were imprisoned, enslaved, executed or tortured.

On returning to England, Drake found his fellow West Countrymen aggrieved and calling out for reprisal. The following year, Drake gathered a small fleet and sailed to the Caribbean to begin the life of piracy that would characterise the next period of his life. Drake devoted his life to attacking and robbing Spanish ships, ports and settlements in the new world, occasionally joining forces with French pirates and African Cimaroons.

In 1575, Drake participated in The Enterprise of Ulster, a programme initiated by Queen Elizabeth to attempt to settle English entrepreneurs in Ireland, hoping to quell unrest against the English crown.The enterprise was largely unsuccessful and incorporated the infamous Raithlin Island Massacre.

In 1577, Drake set off on his three-year circumnavigation, and was knighted on board the Golden Hinde a few months after his return – a remarkable achievement for a man of his social background. He was considered a national hero by his contemporaries and King Philip II of Spain put a high price on Drake’s head.

As relations with Spain grew increasingly hostile, war between England and Spain seemed imminent. In 1587, Drake lead an attack on Cadiz, where the Spanish Armada was gathering in preparation for an attack on England. Drake’s fleet destroyed Spanish provisions and ships in an attack that became known as ‘the singeing of the King of Spain’s beard’. By the time the Armada sailed down the English Channel in 1588, Drake was a Vice-Admiral serving under Lord Charles Howard, and they engaged the Armada, relatively uneventfully, until the Battle of Gravelines. Weather and tidal conditions were a deciding factor in a narrowly won English victory.

The following year, Drake was tasked with pre-emptive strikes on Portuguese ports but failed horribly and was court-martialled.

In 1595, Queen Elizabeth enlisted Drake and his kinsman Sir John Hawkins on what was to be their final raiding expedition to the Caribbean. They suffered a number of defeats against the Spanish and both died of illness at sea within 3 months of each other. Drake was allegedlyburied at sea in full armour in a lead-lined coffin near Portobelo, Panama. Divers still search for his coffin to this day.

Drake married twice, to Mary Newman then to Elizabeth Sydenham and had no children.