I’m ashamed of how much I love Francis Drake. His daring badassery appeals to the baser sense of myself. The same part that watches Donald Trump’s campaign just because I keep wondering if he’s serious. Francis Drake is famous for being on the second man to captain a ship that circumnavigated the globe, but he also was loved by Queen Elizabeth because his piracy filled her coffers with Spanish gold and silver.
Seriously, he was a professional pirate, and we consider him a sort of hero. Yep, that sounds right.
For years he annoyed the King of Spain by attacking and pirating their ships coming back from the New World filled with South American cochineal, gold, and silver. Then he was Knighted by Elizabeth, which surely must have pissed off Philip in Madrid even more. But the final straw came in late April, 1587, when Drake raided the port of Cadiz and successfully delayed the Spanish Armada from invading England for a good year, giving England all that time to prepare for the invasion.
In early 1587 everyone in England knew an Armada was coming. It wasn’t a secret. Philip didn’t want it to be a secret – he wanted Catholics in England to get ready to rebel, and he wanted Protestants to be shaking in their proverbial boots. Elizabeth was preparing for war, but it was all sort of half hearted. Spain was the most powerful country in the world. How could England, this tiny outpost on the edge of the world, do anything to stop it?
Elizabeth’s advisors wanted her to strike early, and send Spain a message that they weren’t going to be so easily messed with. Elizabeth dithered and dathered, as was her MO, and she finally sent Drake on a mission to do some piracy. Drake left in mid April with 25 ships, mostly financed from merchants in London who were considered investors and would be rewarded proportionally to the amount they put in. He was originally going to go to Lisbon, where the Armada was reportedly gathering. But he found out that the supply ships were all in Cadiz, further south on the Atlantic coast, and so he decided to strike there.
His instincts were right. The harbor was protected by towers that could fire down on any ship trying to enter, but he kept his sails lowered until the very last minute, then raised them and found 60 ships ripe for the picking. 20 of them were French, who skedaddled out as quickly as they could, but that still left close to 40 Spanish ships who were anchored and unable to defend themselves properly.
I went to Cadiz yesterday with Hannah to record a videocast about the battle and the results, and what it meant for Spain. If you’re on my newsletter list, you’ll get it next week. If you’re not, why not sign up now? Additionally, you can learn more by listening to my podcasts this month. It’s Armada Month on the Englandcast, rather like Shark Week but not, and so we’re focusing on the foreign policy issues that led to the invasion in the first episode.