Background on the Drakes of Tavistock and the Western (Prayerbook) Rebellion
How does a farm boy become one of the greatest naval heroes of one nation, a pirate scourge of another? How does a boy from an inland market town venture across the globe and become its second circumnavigator? Did the turmoil of his youth—fleeing his homestead, living with relatives, and multiple contemporaneous rebellions shape his world view, and if so, how?
The Drakes have populated the Tavistock area for multiple generations, with the first records of the farm lease dating back to 1440s. The original lease from the Tavistock Abbey transitioned to the Russells following the Dissolution of the Monasteries Act. Francis Drake, born around 1540 (actual birthdate lost to history), grew up on the family farm in Crowndale (just South-West of Tavistock). The extended family lived together—grandparents John and Marjorie Drake, their son John Drake, their other son Edmund Drake, with his wife Mary Milwaye and Francis. Edmund and Mary had 12 boys, with Francis being the oldest.
Francis’ family was in good standing socially as well as economically. The Protestant Drakes benefitted from having an economic relationship with the Protestant Earl of Bedford, whose son (then 13-year-old Francis Russell) stood as godfather to Francis Drake. The family also had close relations with the Hawkins and Fitz families. Economically, Turner comments that as yeomen farmers, the Drakes commanded “above-average” income—not wealthy, but far from destitute.
Life changed following England’s split with Rome. The Monastery Act of 1538 (which reallocated assets of the religious houses to the crown and its supporters) disrupted the social safety net that the monasteries provided, especially during years of poor harvests. While not necessarily Protestant in its objectives, this act set off a Protestant chain of events when Edward VI took the throne. Because he could not govern in his own name yet, the boy king was advised by a body of advisors—one that had decidedly Protestant leanings.
Protector Somerset and Bishop Cranmer, having the ear of the young king, took actions that moved the realm towards Protestantism. The parliament repealed the Six Articles of Henry VIII, allowed changes such as the marriage of the clergy and other changes. The Uniformity Act introduced the English language Book of Common Prayer, replacing Latin missals, and other changes to remove Catholic vestiges of service.
While the Drakes were comparatively well off, there must have been many conversations about their neighbors’ future financial well-being and the impacts that this may have on them. Francis would have overheard the concerns. The family was Protestant, so the introduction of the new prayer book was likely not much of concern. However, they were also a part of a community where most of the population was Catholic. Their lives became increasingly more difficult, their lifestyles disrupted.
The April 1548 appointment of a detested William Body to oversee removal of Catholic service items was another insult to the western counties. A crowd gathered outside of a Helston church where Body was proceeding with his charge. He ran and hid in a nearby house, but this did not save him—the crowd dragged him out and multiple people stabbed him to death. The sessions courts were powerless to administer justice, and the local gentry could not control the populace.
To regain some control over the situation, the crown issued a general pardon for the killing—with 28 exceptions who were executed for treason as examples. The crown ordered the display of the drawn and quartered remains of one person in Tavistock. A year later, right before the introduction of the new prayer book on Whitsunday, the Devonians and Cornishmen revolted. The rebels captured land, burned barns, marched and laid siege to Exeter before being put down by a mercenary force led by John Russell, the Earl of Bedford.
Edmund Drake flees from Tavistock after April 1548. (Edmund and two other men were accused of 2 assaults and robberies.)It is unclear that the assaults and robbery were separate from the events of the rebellion or somehow related, and if he took his family with him. Ultimately, Edmund’s family settles in Kent (where there was a more favorable religious climate and he and his wife had relations). During this turmoil, the 7-8-year-old Francis starts to live in Plymouth with William Hawkins, who was a brother to Francis’ grandmother Marjorie.
Lessons to Francis Drake
What impact did these events have on Francis’ world view? How would they shape his character to act in certain situations of stress?
First, he experienced the class divisions early. While these hard divisions were an accepted societal norm, he had to have thought about and contrasted the opportunities available to his family versus what he saw in the house of William Hawkins, let alone those of the Russells. I wondered how this awareness sat with young Drake. My guess is that he, like all children, fantasized a lot about having things that he didn’t have—wealth and power, in his case. I believe that set him on a course to get such opportunities, otherwise he could have become a farmer after he grew up. While it is unclear if his grandparents left Tavistock, and he could have returned or established a copyhold lease in Kent because of family connections there. Instead, his life went onto a different, riskier path that he had some involvement in choosing.
I think a different matter motivated him more than wealth—having freedom to act. Along with the peerage, there was a different “sub-elite” class of wealthy, land-owning merchants and knights that had considerably more freedom. Since Francis lived with his family after Tavistock, William Hawkins was Drake’s principal example. Francis likely have seen that Hawkins (and later his sons) had the freedom to project power through the deployment of their wealth—profiting in enterprise that was marginally legal (privateering), commanding resources of the township (Aside from being a Member of Parliament, Hawkins was at different points in time the receiver and the mayor of Plymouth). This was despite being previously imprisoned for piracy. I believe this—the ability of Hawkins to increase his influence while his family fled before the rebellion—was a vivid contrast in Drake’s mind.
Living in the household of William Hawkins, young Drake must have realized that Hawkins was valued for his early military service. That gave him connections, capital, and freedom to act. Drake’s 1560s slave trading voyages under John Hawkins reinforced that belief. Drake knew that his cousin got support and investment from respectable members of society to “trade.” (The investment syndicate included the queen and members of the Privy Council, as well as others and the “trade” was purchase or capture of people in Guinea to sell on the Spanish Main.) In fact, that was a patriotic enterprise at the time—England’s use of armed royal and private ships as a firm rebuke of papal authority to divide the world by the Treaty of Tordesillas and a rejection of Spanish right to restrict trade in the West Indies.
Francis received a lesson that, like his father, John Hawkins was an instrument of foreign policy for the queen; he commanded resources in the name of national interest while profiting from the enterprise. Later, Drake used this blueprint to finance and profit from his circumnavigation.While an eight-year-old boy does not come to such conscious conclusions, having such examples oriented him towards certain options over others and set his world view.
Francis Drake’s World View
In my historical fiction novel Sic Parvis Magna, I depict young Francis’ character as a servile youth, inexperienced in the ways of the world. He knows how to read, write, and count from his father’s schooling. His father’s religious beliefs also instilled a belief that whatever he did, Francis was fulfilling God’s plan for him.
Among his first memories was the trauma of his early life—flight from Tavistock and living with William Hawkins (likely as a page or other servant), as his father and mother moved east to find a friendlier place to live and work. Hawkins redefined what normal was for Drake by mixing legitimate trade in goods, service to the crown, and occasional piracy to extend his influence and project power. Francis’ observations of Hawkins gave him real world schooling in his world’s societal, political, and economic norms and values. Drake became an apprentice at sea at the approximate age of 13, possibly on a ship that had connections to the Hawkins business.
Being a mariner was a very hazardous occupation and surviving in that environment, Drake became an expert sailor, navigator, and merchant. These experiences honed Francis’ ability to survive adversity and defined his world view as an underdog. He looked for opportunities to aggressively exploit because he believed that God was on his side. Drake made his own legend. Sic Parvis Magna is on his coat of arms for that reason—from small things, greatness.
Batcho, Krystine. “What Your Oldest Memories Reveal About You | Psychology Today.” Psychology Today, April 4, 2015. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/longing-nostalgia/201504/what-your-oldest-memories-reveal-about-you.
Heldring, Leander, James A Robinson, and Sebastian Vollmer. “The Long-Run Impact of the Dissolution of the English Monasteries,” n.d., 83.
Kelsey, H. Sir Francis Drake: The Queen’s Pirate. Nota Bene Series. Yale University Press, 2000.
Stone, Lawrence. The Crisis of the Aristocracy, 1558-1641. London: Oxford University Press, 1967.
Sturt, J. Revolt in the West: The Western Rebellion of 1549. Devon Books, 1987.
Sugden, John. Sir Francis Drake. 1st American. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company, 1990.
Turner, Michael. “In Drake’s Wake – The Real Francis Drake.” Accessed February 6, 2021. http://www.indrakeswake.co.uk/Drake/realdrake.htm.
. Turner, M., In Drake’s Wake (Mould:2005), p. 4
. Refer to Heldring, et al. The Long-Run Impact of the Dissolution of the English Monasteries. In particular, it is interesting to observe that the re-allocation of the monastery land was theorized to have released the labor from the less efficient agricultural work to other pursuits and in several hundred years, resulted in higher levels of industrialization in England. My theory is that this also had an appreciable impact on the rents as the new landlords renegotiated leases—leading to the release of labor over time.
. Sturt, J., Revolt in the West (Devon Books:1987), p.14. Body was not an ordained priest, unqualified for the Archdeaconry and came into the position by, in effect, purchasing it.
. Ibid., p.15.
. Refer to Kelsey’s discussion of early history of the Drakes.