Celebrity, Politics and Francis Drake

Drake’s exploits in the New World made him perfect material for the English gutter press and a figurehead for rising Hispanophobia.

Francis Drake, 1652. Courtesy University of California Libraries

Francis Drake returned to Plymouth in 1580 as the first seaman to lead and successfully complete a voyage around the globe. It was some feat for a low-born Devonshire lad and, unsurprisingly, the voyage elevated him to the first rank of early modern celebrity. Drake’s achievement and his legacy were used to propagate ideas of Britain’s seafaring prowess, as it moved from the colonial aspirations of the 17th century to the 19th-century expansion of empire. Yet this is not what he is best remembered for today and nor was it his crowning glory during the 1580s. Keen to capitalise on the Hispanophobia that was rife in the latter decades of the Elizabethan era, the attention of English printers turned from Drake’s navigational triumphs to the construction of his legend: the hero who calmly led England to victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588. Printed materials from this period show that using celebrity to promote a political ideology is far from a purely modern concern.

After the death of Queen Mary in 1558, Phillip II of Spain and Elizabeth I maintained a diplomatic peace for over two decades. Hispanophobia in print was sporadic and was focused on Spanish military actions in the Low Countries. It is not surprising, then, that Drake’s daring but unsuccessful attack on the Central American town of Nombre de Dios in 1572 and his subsequent return to Plymouth, laden with gold from his attack on a mule train, did not appear in print in the 1570s. On the surface, English attitudes towards Spain were amicable for the sake of peace. 

The printing of The Spanish Colonie in 1583, however, marked a change in the relations between England and Spain and, as a consequence, how the Spanish were to be portrayed. The pamphlet was a translation of Bartolomé de Las Casas’ Short Account of the Destruction of the Indes, originally printed in 1552 in Seville, in which the Dominican friar provided a scathing account of the conquistadors’ brutality in the Americas. Its translation for an English audience 30 years later suggests increasing anti-Spanish sentiment in popular culture in line with the political stance taken towards Spain in the early years of the 1580s. Phillip began preparations for his Armada in 1583 and Spanish military success over the previous century made the idea of a Spanish invasion of England a daunting prospect.

When a society feels threatened by a seemingly unstoppable enemy, a demagogue can unite a community or nation by targeting a common foe. Admittedly, Drake did not set out to become a populist figurehead; he did not personally seek support by appealing to popular desires and prejudices – but his exploits were fodder for pamphleteers with an eye for a profit, who were on the lookout for a unifying figure. 

Drake, who had risen to a knighthood by beating the Spanish and stealing their gold, may have irked the political elites with his social mobility, but his exploits in the New World provided tales of English glory at the expense of Spanish pride. This was a useful narrative for the political elites to propagate at a time when Catholic Spain was the most present danger to fledgling English Protestantism, encouraging support for the upcoming war by appealing to an already embedded prejudice towards the Spaniards.

Drake’s voyage of 1585-86 was similar in intent to his previous venture to Nombre de Dios, with one significant difference: this time he was successful. Thomas Greepe’s 1587 pamphlet, The true and perfecte newes of the woorthy and valiaunt exploytes, performed and doone by that valiant knight Syr Frauncis Drake, describes successful raids upon the Spanish-held Caribbean towns of Santo Domingo and Cartagena. Written in verse for easier comprehension and thus better sales, it begins with the treatment of the natives of the Americas by the Spaniards, as recounted in The Spanish Colonie, stating that, by his sword ‘many Captiues did [Drake] sette free, Which earst were long in misery’. It paints a vivid picture of how Drake and his men:

all at once ranne valiantlie,
Their shot discharged, with
weapons then,
They lay one loade on either side:
Though fiue to one, yet durst not bide.

The Spanish gunner, upon seeing Drake’s men ‘running in a rage’, abandoned his weapon and fled, as did the rest of the men defending the town. To add insult to injury, Drake and his men enjoyed the basted chickens and roast meat from the tables laid and left in haste by the fleeing Spaniards. 

A 1653 account of his West Indian voyage. Courtesy University of California Libraries

This extract is typical of pamphlets written about Drake and others who faced the Spaniards in this period. Yet the rhetoric and the use of motifs relating specifically to Drake ensured that the themes of anti-Spanish prejudice and the greatness of the English reached the largest audience possible thanks to the charismatic nature of this ‘living legend’. 

Drake’s popularity is evidenced by another pamphlet about the same voyage to the New World: A Summarie and True Account of Sir Francis Drakes West Indian Voyage (1589). Not only was this twice as long as its predecessor, it was also interspersed with maps to be sold separately for those who wanted to follow Drake, both figuratively and literally. His popularity must have been such that people were willing to spend the extra money on these. This pamphlet ran to at least seven editions by 1589, where similar pamphlets may have achieved two or three print runs at most. By appealing to both the prejudice against the Spaniards’ ‘brutal’ nature and the desires of the English to overcome this new threat to their emerging Protestant identity, the rhetoric surrounding Drake and his celebrity status both reflected and hardened deepening Hispanophobia. While one should be cautious about drawing direct parallels to the past, the use of celebrity to incite action from a fractured and fearful population is not confined to our own age.

Sara Bradley is a PhD candidate at Nottingham Trent University exploring the role of anti-Spanish sentiment in Elizabethan-era cheap print.