Who Singed the King of Spain’s Beard?
Sir Francis Drake (c. 1540-96) the most celebrated of the English “sea-dogs” of Queen Elizabeth I, “singed the King of Spain’s beard” during the daring raid in 1587. It was Drake’s own phrase for the action. He led a force of small ships into Cádiz harbor in Southern Spain and burned 33 vessels and a large quantity of stores that were being prepared to take part in an invasion of England.
By so doing he delayed the sailing of the Spanish Armada and gave his country an extra year to prepare for the coming attack. When in 1588 King Philip II’s navy of 132 ships did come sailing up the Channel, Drake, as Vice-admiral of the English fleet, played a chief part in the running fight that drove the Spaniards to disaster.
The story goes that when news of the Armada’s approach reached the waiting fleet, Lord Howard of Effingham, the English commander, was playing bowls at Plymouth, Devon, with some of his captains. He was for putting to sea at once, but Drake persuaded him to wait, remarking that there was plenty of time to “finish the game and thrash the Spaniards, too”.
The delay lured the Spanish ships into the trap. Next day the English ships poured out of the Channel ports to attack the rear of the Armada as it sailed eastwards in a great-half-moon. After a week of harassment with the English “plucking the feathers” of the Armada one by one, the Spanish galleons anchored off Calais.
But at night they were forced to put to sea when Drake sent fire ships drifting down on them. Still attacked from the rear, the Spaniards decided to try to escape by sailing northwards round the British Isles. Fewer than half their ships reached Spain.
Documents seized by the English with the São Filipe, which had details of the East Indies maritime traffic and the lucrative trade in the area, would years later be used as the basis for the founding of the East India Company.
Drake was born at Tavistock in Devon but was brought up in the port of Chatham in Kent where he talked to sailors and nourished his love of the sea. One of his greatest exploits was to sail round the world (1577-80), in the Golden Hind, looting Spanish ships and settlements on the way.
On his return he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth aboard the Golden Hind in the Thames at Deptford. He made many other expeditions against the Spaniards. During one of them he died of dysentery.