On this day: a remarkable (and rich) Devon man

Posted in Blog, Devon

On this day, 432 years ago on 26 September 1580, Drake and the Pelican arrived in Plymouth, Devon, ending an astonishing three-year voyage around the world and carrying treasure beyond imagination.

Once home Drake’s first move was to send a message to London, notifying Queen Elizabeth I and the other investors of his arrival. The first replies were ominous, speaking of royal embarrassment and Spanish demands for restitution, but private messages from the Queen told Drake that he had nothing to worry about. He thereupon put most of his treasure under guard in a tower near Plymouth and set off for London with several horses carrying packs of gold and silver. In a private audience with the Queen that lasted all day a decision was made on how these astonishing riches would be handled. Most of Drake’s booty hadn’t been registered by the owners, who were trying to evade the Spanish levy on shipments of gold and silver. Therefore, Drake advised that it might be better to make no inventory. If the Spanish government didn’t know how much he had stolen, there could scarcely be an intelligent request for its return. As a result Drake and the Queen knew what he had brought home, but no one else did. No doubt Drake kept a large part of the treasure for himself. The Spanish ambassador reported that 20 tons of silver were placed in the Tower, together with five huge boxes of gold and a great quantity of pearls. Investors were said to have received double their money. The crew may have shared £40,000 and Drake had an extra £10,000 for himself. But the real total was vastly larger. The Spanish ambassador thought it might have reached a million and a half pesos. Others thought it was 2 million.

Though tight-fisted with his crew, Drake showered rich gifts on the Queen and others. The Queen was well pleased and ordered Drake’s ship to be taken ashore at Deptford as a permanent memorial of his astonishing voyage. Then, with royal approval, Drake bought Buckland Abbey, a former Cistercian monastery near Plymouth that had been converted into a private estate when Henry VIII suppressed the religious houses. Typical of Cistercian foundations, most of Buckland’s buildings were simple, austere structures. Only the church possessed ornate architectural features, and it became a home with the installation of two wooden floors inside the nave. The arcades were blocked with stone and a great hall was formed in the space under the crossing tower, where the south transept was removed to allow for the installation of windows. When Drake bought the place it was already remodelled and furnished, and he seems to have made few or no changes during his occupancy.

In the spring of 1581 the Queen knighted Drake, making a gentleman of the one-time pirate. You can visit Buckland Abbey today for a vivid reminder of this remarkable Devonian.