It was July 1557, a month after England’s declaration of war against France. The Tiger moored at Plymouth after a long and successful trading voyage, calling on several European ports.
Francis Drake, who served as an apprentice aboard the ship, was aloft, dousing and furling the sails. He was looking forward to enjoying a few quiet days of shore leave—visiting with his cousin John Hawkins and enjoying food better than ship rations of hardtack and salted beef. It was at that point that he noticed the dour visage of Wilkins, John Hawkins’ personal secretary, standing amongst the bustle of the dock in front of a black carriage.
He sighed. There goes that plan.
With the ship secured to the dock and beginning to offload her freight, Gregory Trelawney, the captain of the Tiger, and Drake quickly debarked and got into the carriage with Wilkins.
“A terrible thing has happened, gentlemen! Master Hawkins is most disturbed!” Wilkins’ frustration raised the pitch of his voice to a squeak.
Trelawney never cared for his partner’s secretary. He narrowed his eyes and gave him a condescending glance. “What happened?”
“The Lionheart! She was captured two weeks ago!”
Trelawney’s face darkened and his body stiffened erect. The Lionheart was a sister ship to the Tiger—another of the Hawkins’ fleet of heavily armed merchantmen, bristling with 3 brass falconets on each side, stern and bow chasers, and several swivel cannons. Her capture was clearly not the work of some lone wolf pirate in a jolly boat.
“The French?” Said Trelawney, clenching his jaw.
“Be damned, Henri of France! Wasted no time… War hasn’t been declared but a month!” growled Trelawney.
The 17-year-old Drake ignored this exchange and reminisced, looking out the window. Nine years ago, his family fled from Tavistock before the Western Prayer Book Rebellion. Francis and his brothers went to live with their relatives, the prominent Hawkins family of Plymouth. It was not until some years later that they were able to re-join their parents at Kent.
To Drake, life at the Hawkins house was a turning point. In contrast with his family’s plight, he saw William Hawkins’ power, wealth, and freedom to act—as a direct result of Hawkins’ enterprise at sea. Francis felt that the Creator himself must have blessed Hawkins with good fortune. He craved that freedom more than anything else, and knew that if he followed in Hawkins’ footsteps, was diligent and virtuous, he would be similarly rewarded.
As he grew older, Drake became an apprentice aboard the Tiger, a merchantman co-owned by Hawkins and Trelawney. While having patronage helped him get the apprenticeship, it was his loyalty, quick mind, industry, and fearlessness that distinguished him early. As an apprentice, Drake became a strong sailor who earned the trust of Trelawney and the crew, and was rewarded for his efforts and enterprise.
However, for Protestants like him, the world turned for the worse. Mary Tudor’s ascent to the throne, Wyatt’s rebellion, the inquisition, Queen Mary’s marriage to a papist foreigner, and now England’s war against France—all put the English Protestants on the back foot. Even at sea, the Tiger’s skirmishes reminded him that the Church already divided the world between its loyal princes. Despite Drake’s Protestant work ethic, every step to his goal seemed a constant battle against some force that tried to take it all away – just like in Tavistock or the Lionheart. Francis balled up his fists as the sense of injustice welled up in his throat.
The carriage stopped in front of the stately house on Kinterbury Street that now belonged to Hawkins’ sons. Trelawney, Drake, and Wilkins alighted and went inside where the page conveyed them to the library.
“Trelawney! Drake!” John Hawkins sat at his father’s old desk, with a brandy to his left hand, and making entries in the book of business in front of him. Behind and around him were floor-to-ceiling walnut bookcases packed with books.
“Come in!” he waived them onto a tobacco-colored, over-stuffed couch. He finished his entries and looked up.
“I trust you already know what occurred?” asked Hawkins.
Trelawney and Drake nodded. Hawkins stood and paced the room several times, his face betraying the rage inside. Then he sat back down at his desk.
“I don’t know what makes me angrier. Her theft, and that of our investment, our men, and our cargo, or her capture by the French. BY THE FRENCH!” Hawkins flushed red.
“Well, this will not stand!” Hawkins slammed the desk with his fist, bouncing the inkwell. “The Lionheart is my property, and I’ll be damned if I shall cede her or her crew to the French!”
“And what do you intend to do?” Asked Trelawney.
Hawkins glared back defiantly. “I intend to take her back.” He reached below for a chart and unrolled it over the study table. It was a chart of the French coastline.
“According to one of my contacts, the Lionheart was brought here on her capture.” Hawkins pointed to Saint Valery sur Somme. “We shipped kersey there many times, remember, Trelawney? There is a shore battery of three to five pieces, probably a small garrison…”
“So, you intend to attack a French harbor, and steal the Lionheart back?” Interrupted Trelawney, raising his eyebrows.
“Aye. I shall take the William and John and would like to count on your help in the Tiger.”
A rush of excitement surged through Francis.
This is my time to stand up and fight.
He turned to Trelawney. “Captain, I know how it feels to lose all. I owe much to the Hawkins family for the opportunity I have received. I would like to participate if you grant me leave.” said Francis.
“Aye. Our families go back a long way too, Drake. And I did not care for the warm welcome that I received from the French.” Trelawney rubbed his shoulder.
Francis nodded, recalling their capture by a French privateer three years ago, Trelawney’s torture, and their harrowing escape.
Trelawney narrowed his eyes. “The Tiger will participate. It shall be my pleasure to pay back a little of the pain that I was given. What is the plan?”
Yes! Thought Francis, shaking his fist.
Wilkins knocked and entered. “Supper is served, Sir.”
“Excellent!” Responded Hawkins. “I thought you might agree, Trelawney, and I made preparations. Wilkins – send the word to provision the ships. We will put to sea on the high tide tomorrow.”
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