DRAKE, Francis (c.1540-96), of Buckland Abbey and Yealmpton, Devon.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1558-1603, ed. P.W. Hasler, 1981
Available from Boydell and Brewer



Family and Education

b. c.1540, s. of Edmund Drake. m. (1) 4 duly 1569, Mary Newman (d.1583), s.p.; (2) 1585, Elizabeth, da. of Sir George Sydenham of Combe Sydenham, s.p. Kntd. 4 Apr. 1581.

Offices Held

Mayor, Plymouth 1581-2; j.p. Devon from c.1583, Cornw. from c.1591; v.-adm. at Plymouth against Armada 1586-8, in command Cadiz expedition 1587, Portugal expedition 1589; West Indies 1595.


Drake’s career as navigator and admiral is too well-known to admit of repetition in these pages. A self-made man, his first wife’s origins were as obscure as his own, and his second marriage, into a gentry family, took place after he had made his name. The unofficial, almost clandestine nature of so many of his activities precluded him from receiving rewards from a government always reluctant to distribute them. The knighthood conferred upon him, after some hesitation, following his famous circumnavigation, was the only honour he received, and the fortune he made himself was moderate, sufficient to buy a country estate or two and to enable him to invest in his own voyages, but no more.

Considering the peripheral part that Parliament could have played in Drake’s life, and the scanty nature of the surviving records of the three Parliaments he attended, two of these three are of surprising interest. He first came in at a by-election for an unknown constituency a few months after the conclusion of the voyage round the world. Whether he wished to be at the centre of affairs at a time when his conduct was the subject of official inquiry; whether his friends perhaps thought his attendance a sensible precaution, or whether, having to attend to business in London, Drake thought simply of adding to his experience of life, cannot be known. A vacancy arising—there was one at Camelford, for example—he became a Member during the last session of the 1572 Parliament, which began on 16 Jan. 1581. He is not known to have taken any part in the proceedings, and on 17 Feb. he was granted leave of absence ‘for certain his necessary business in the service of her Majesty’.

Drake came into the next Parliament for Bossiney, probably through the influence of the 2nd Earl of Bedford, to whom he must have been well enough known by this time, whether or not there was a previous connexion between the Russell and Drake families. There is no mention of any speech by him in this Parliament, but he was appointed to the following committees: observing the Sabbath (27 Nov.), fish (7 Dec.), a bill for Ralegh’s colonisation in America (14 Dec.), for the navy (19 Dec.), Plymouth harbour (21 Dec.) and Devon cloth (15 Mar.). He missed the next two parliaments, being employed in command at Plymouth in 1586-7, and on the Portugal expedition in 1589. In 1593 he was at last elected for a major constituency, a place above all with which his name has been associated, which he had already protected as admiral and served as mayor, and whose interests, such as the canalisation into the town of the river Meavy, he was always ready to further. In this Parliament Drake took an active part in the complex negotiations over the subsidy, being named to the four committees (26, 28 Feb., 1, 3 Mar.) which discussed its terms, drew up the bill and preamble, negotiated with the Lords and so on. Drake’s interest in the subsidy is explained in his sole recorded speech in the House, 7 Mar. 1593, of which only a diarist’s note remains:

Sir Francis Drake described the King of Spain’s strength and his cruelty, where he came, and therefore wished a frank aid to be yielded to withstand him.

Other committees to which Drake was appointed in the 1593 Parliament concerned privileges and returns (26 Feb.), recusants (28 Feb.), fish (5 Mar.), the poor law (12 Mar.), Plymouth harbour and Plympton marsh and a bill for bringing fresh water to Stonehouse (26 Mar.), wounded soldiers (30 Mar.), ‘the avoiding of deceit used in making and selling of twice laid cordage, and for the better preserving of the navy of this realm’ (6 Apr.) and a bill about letters patent (7 Apr.). To all these Drake was specifically named, and of some he was in charge; in addition, as a burgess of Plymouth he was on committees dealing with cloth (23 Mar., 2 Apr.), and salted fish (5 Mar.).

In religion Drake was a puritan, the ‘loving and faithful son in Christ Jesus’ of John Foxe. He considered himself an instrument to defeat the Pope and his followers, ‘Antichrist and his members’. Reasons of state, such as not going too far against Spain while the French government’s attitude was uncertain, meant nothing to him, and any court opposition to his schemes he attributed to an anti-protestant conspiracy.

Drake died from dysentery, at 7 o’clock in the morning on 28 Jan. 1596 aboard the Defiance at Portobello Bay, on the same voyage with and a few weeks after Hawkins. The preamble of a will he had made the previous August stated that he was ‘called into action by her Majesty, wherein I am to hazard my life as well in the defence of Christ’s gospel as for the good of my prince’. On his deathbed he made a new will appointing his brother and heir Thomas sole executor. Probate was granted on 17 May 1596.

For works on Drake see Conyers Read, Bibliog. Brit. Hist. Tudor Period (1959), pp. 270-3. Among those used here are A. E. W. Mason, Francis Drake; J. A. Williamson, Age of Drake; Lady Elliott-Drake, Fam. and Heirs of Drake. Other sources used include DNB; CJ, i. 127; D’Ewes, 299, 333, 337, 339, 343, 345, 368, 471, 474, 477, 478, 481, 486, 487, 492, 499, 507, 510, 512, 513, 519, 520; Cott. Titus F. ii, anon. jnl. f. 49; I. A. Wright, Eng. Voyages to Spanish Main (Hak. Soc. ser. 2); G. Mattingly, Defeat of Spanish Armada; PCC 1 Drake.

Ref Volumes: 1558-1603

Author: P. W. Hasler


  • 1. Did not serve for the full duration of the Parliament.