Perhaps the story comes a little too conveniently for a place which, after his lifetime, was to be called in his honour, ‘Drake’s Island’.
One thing is certain, the Drake family did not stay long in Plymouth, nor did Francis Drake again know a truly permanent home in the West of England until he came back in the full flush of pride and power to buy Buckland Abbey from the Grenvilles at the age of forty.
That act was to be poetic revenge for a young boy who had left Devon penniless— to return in his prime and buy for his private seat one o f the once powerful centres o f Catholicism.
Until 1549 the history of Drake is as faint as the crumbling, lichened characters on a gravestone . But from now on the words begin to appear more and more legibly, until in the end we come into the possession of facts and documents a great deal more enduring than ‘the gilded monuments of princes’.
From the contemporary historian William Camden and from Drake’s own nephew we now have confirmation that the family fled to Kent .To make for the east coast of England was a very natural action since the eastern counties were the home of Protestantism . In his work Sir Francis Drake Revived, his nephew , who had much of the information from Drake himself , had the following to say about the early family fortunes: . . it pleased God , to raise this man , not only from a low condition , but even from the state of persecution; his father suffered in it, being forced to fly from his house near South Tavistock in Devon , into Kent, and there to inhabit the hull of a ship, wherein many of his young sons were born: he had twelve in all, and as it pleased God to give most of them a being upon the water, so the greatest part o f them died at sea’ . In one of the old naval hulks near Chatham in Kent, Edmund Drake and his wife and children made their home. The vessel lay almost certainly in Gillingham Reach, where paid-
the tides turn and the waves lap, the shifting groan o f the timbers as the
old ship settled back upon the mud, the sigh and creak as she lifted off
again, and the waterborne sway o f her when the flood was up the river.
The Devon farmer’s son grows up to the smell o f damp rich earth,
animals steaming after the rain, and the many scents and sounds o f the
coombes in summer. Such might well have been Drake’s childhood
memories, but all was changed now to the rhythm o f tides, ribbed
mudflats, the wind harsh over them when it blew from the east—across
A C H I L D OP HIS T I M E
the unfriendly banks and cold steep waves o f the North Sea. The slop o f
water in the bilges, the bitter smell o f old oak frames and timbers long
soaked in salt, the scent o f deck-
when the mist steamed off the estuary and the shapes o f other ships
rode into view —these became the background to his world.
Where there are ships there are always small sailing and rowing
boats, and where there are boys and small boats a love o f the sea is often
born. He became familiar with the narrow tideways that filled or
emptied with a sudden almost miraculous rush, the winding channels
through the flat lands, and the banks that stood up like islands at low
water—only to hide their treacherous heads when the flood-
In later years it was to seem an integral part o f his nature that he handled
his small ships upon the sea, not with the dogged resolution o f Hawkins
or Frobisher, but with a happy ease—rather like the acrobat who can
afford to appear casual because o f his perfect expertise.
‘After the death o f King Henry,’ Camden tells us, ‘he [Edmund
Drake] got a place among the seamen in the King’s Navy, to read
prayers to them.’ But Henry VIII had died in 1547, before the Drakes
left Devon, so it would seem that it was at some time during the brief
reign o f Edward VI that Francis Drake’s father secured his position as a
preacher in the Fleet. The sailors o f England, and particularly those o f
the east coast, were a bulwark o f Protestantism during these years o f
religious strife. It seems likely that Lord Russell may have been
responsible for securing this respectable position for his old tenant.
One cannot doubt that Francis Drake absorbed from his father an
early familiarity with the Bible, and it is most likely that it was from
his father also that he received the rudiments o f education. As he was to
show in later years, he could write a vigorous and simple English, but
111 one letter a mistake in a simple classical reference shows that though,
like all educated Englishmen o f the time, he paid a profound respect
10 the ancient world, he was little familiar with it. If Shakespeare had
‘Small Latin and less Greek’, it is doubtful whether Drake had any of
cither. But he will certainly have heard from his earliest years the
sonorous English o f the Great Bible, seven editions o f which had issued
from the presses between 1539 and 1541. Drake’s father, in his capacity
.is preacher, will have had access to this translation, o f which an Act of
1‘arliament had stated that no woman (unless she be noble or gentlewoman), no artificers, apprentices, journeymen, serving men, under
the degree o f yeoman’ might be permitted to read it. In his will,
.uldressing his youngest son, Edmund Drake adjured him to ‘make
much o f the Bible’, and one can be sure that this precept was instilled
into Francis as well as his other eleven brothers.