Galleon San Salvador in San Diego Maritime Museum

Researching Francis Drake’s Ship the Tiger

Historical naval fiction novel Sic Parvis Magna is set in the period of Francis Drake’s youth. There are no records, leaving me to speculate what his apprenticeship was like. In this research post, I explore the ship that he apprenticed on.

Francis Drake’s ship the Tiger is almost a character In the historical fiction novel Sic Parvis Magna. It even has its own “voice” of popping and groaning planks. Since no records of Drake’s apprenticeship exist, this vessel was lost to history. I wanted a very detailed, historically-accurate and realistic setting for the novel which necessitated my recreation of this ship.

Difficulty in Recreating Francis Drake’s Ship

We know that Francis Drake became an apprentice at an early age, and that his apprenticeship was at sea[1]. At that time, the typical starting age of an apprentice was around 11-13, and the apprenticeship lasted a number of years (Wallis states that contract lengths were negotiated and that 3-5 years was common, but in some cases as many as 7[2]). What was it that he likely learned as his trade? How did he come by that knowledge?

Most stories have Drake being an apprentice on a barque. Kelsey goes further in supposing that his apprenticeship was aboard a Hawkins-owned merchant raider named the Tiger. He also states that this ship was known[3] to conduct privateering voyages.

I think that this is as close to a fantasy license as a historical fiction writer gets.

What was this ship like? Since the was stated to be a barque and not a caravel, carrack, or cog from the descriptions, I started to research 15th and 16th century barques. One issue came up early—the “barque” is a very generic description. The etymology of the word is from French, which generally means “any small ship or boat.” So, I expanded my research to include similar ships — galleons, carracks, and other vessels to get a sense of how to portray the Tiger in the novel. Here is some of that research.

Galleon San Salvador

If you are in the south-western United States and have not had an opportunity to visit the wonderful San Diego Maritime Museum, I encourage you to do so.

The replica San Salvador is a ship that the museum commissioned, and you can purchase excursion tickets to go out on her. 

What Francis Drakes Ship Could have been like. This is a model of the galleon San Salvador in the San Diego Maritime Museum
What Francis Drake’s Ship could have been like. This is a model of the galleon San Salvador in the San Diego Maritime Museum.

Sailing on the San Salvador is a wonderful experience, and it gave me a sense of what a period ship must have felt like.

The San Salvador is a three-masted galleon – an armed trading ship, with some demonstration guns aboard her, including breech-loading swivel guns (setbangs). Setbangs use a canister that is loaded into the aft (breech) part of the cannon, in contrast to a muzzle loader where a powder bag is rammed home along with wadding and a shot.

On the San Salvador, All of the guns are on the main deck, and the hold of the ship contains some built-in berths for her modern crew.

The Newport Ship

Sometimes, historical fiction themes deal with finds of archeological wonders. In the case of the Newport ship, historical fiction became historical reality as a very well-preserved ship was discovered in the river Usk when the riverfront was excavated for an improvement project. The Newport Ship predates Francis Drake by about 100 years. This is a three-masted, square-rigged caravel, constructed a little after 1449.[4] The date of construction was based on the dendrochronology of the timbers that were used.

The Newport Ship is 116’ long by 27’ of beam and is of 160 tons (tuns) of burden. There are some renderings on the site of what the ship must have looked like, based on the archeology and preservation work. 

Those renderings make it appear very similar but larger than the Matthew, Cabot’s ship of 50 tons. The general form of the ship is like the galleon (high stern / aft castles, which allow some defensive advantages against boarders that would be coming from pinnaces and onto the lower main deck).

The ship was armed with what appears to be defensive weapons such as swivel guns firing stone shot and in the artifacts, the project discovered other weapons or accessories for weapons. The site posits that she was a pure trading vessel, carrying weapons for defense. 

This would not do for an adventure story that Francis Drake is to tell us.

The Gresham Ship, AKA the Cherabin

I think that the most interesting historical prototype for Francis Drake’s ship Tiger of my historical fiction novel is the carvel-built, armed-to-the-teeth merchantman of 1574. She mounted 12 guns which were a mix of calibers, and were both breech and muzzle loaders[5]

Her fragments were found when the Princess channel was dredged out to facilitate the Port of London port expansion for container traffic. In a great talk about the find, Dr. Gustav Milne takes us through some of the history at the time of her service, in both armed conflict and trade. She is far less preserved as was the Newport Ship, with only a portion of her side recovered.

However, she had gun ports that were cut in as a part of her design. 

She is believed to be the Cherabin[6], sunk on her outbound voyage during a storm in the Thames estuary after losing both her rudder and sails in 1603. The Cherabin was laden with metal ingots (British lead and tin, and German iron bar) for trading. 

We know anything about the barque that Francis Drake apprenticed on other than it engaged in coastal trade. However, we can make some inferences based on William Hawkins merchant trade, naval archeology and discoveries

We can also draw on some of the maritime history of post-medieval England. 

Elizabeth’s early reign was on the back foot, with powerful enemies in France and Spain. Within her realm, there were concerns of Catholic sympathizers taking direction from the Pope’s excommunication, which also released the “good” English Catholics from obedience to the crown. There was interest in having plausible deniability – a privateer fleet that could harass Spanish ships coming back from the New World, taking them as prizes. 

Cherabin’s bills of lading suggest an extensive trading network – Spain, Portugal, France, Russia and the Baltic states, a mix of long distance, cross-channel and coastal trade.

Armed more like a small warship than to a trading ship Cherabin’s prize records support the idea of trade mixed with privateering. In 1591 she took two prizes, valued at over £2,200 at the time.

Given Hawkins’s history of mixing trade with privateering (and piracy), their merchantmen would have been heavily armed, which gives me creative freedom to style Francis Drake’s ship as a cross of the Cherabin and the San Salvador.

Final Thoughts on Francis Drake’s Ship

In the historical fiction novel Sic Parvis Magna and the short story Retribution, I named the Tiger’s captain Gregory Trelawney, and I the ship Tiger. Her purpose was trade, but she did not shrink back from a fight, both defending herself and serving as a Tudor privateer, harassing enemy ships.

This ship, likely part of Hawkins’s fleet of armed merchant raiders, became the maritime classroom for young Francis Drake, teaching him the arts of ship handling, navigation, trade and business, but also tactics and strategies of naval warfare.

Further Reading

Holloway, April. “Thames Shipwreck Identified as Cherabin, English Pirate Ship That Pillaged for the Queen | Ancient Origins.” Accessed December 28, 2021.

Kelsey, H. Sir Francis Drake: The Queen’s Pirate. Nota Bene Series. Yale University Press, 2000.

Milne, Gustav. “The Gresham Ship: An Armed Elizabethan Merchant Mang Recovered from the Thames.” Gresham College, May 6, 2014.

Maritime Museum of San Diego. “San Salvador – Maritime Museum of San Diego.” Accessed December 29, 2021.

Wallis, Patrick. “Apprenticeship and Training in Premodern England.” The Journal of Economic History 68, no. 3 (2008): 832–61.

Friends of the Newport Ship. “What Is the Newport Ship? – Friends of the Newport Ship : Friends of the Newport Ship.” Accessed December 29, 2021.

[1] Kelsey, Sir Francis Drake: The Queen’s Pirate.

[2] Wallis, “Apprenticeship and Training in Premodern England.”

[3] “San Salvador – Maritime Museum of San Diego.”

[4] “What Is the Newport Ship? – Friends of the Newport Ship : Friends of the Newport Ship.”

[5] Milne, “The Gresham Ship: An Armed Elizabethan Merchant Mang Recovered from the Thames.”

[6] Holloway, “Thames Shipwreck Identified as Cherabin, English Pirate Ship That Pillaged for the Queen | Ancient Origins.”

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About Paul Jariabek

I am a father, husband, historical fiction author, and technology executive. Get in touch with me through the social platforms below or by emailing me.

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