14 October 2020

Book Review of Drake - Tudor Corsair (Elizabethan Series Book 1)



1564: Devon sailor Francis Drake sets out on a journey of adventure. He learns of routes used to transport Spanish silver and gold, and risks his life in an audacious plan to steal a fortune.

There seems to be so much ‘mis-speaking’ about historical figures at present that it came as a welcome relief to read this balanced, thoughtful and meticulously researched narrative of the life of Sir Francis Drake based on primary sources and first-hand accounts by one of his crewmen.

Written in the first person creates an enthralling immediacy, combining fascinating details about ships and sailing with the personal themes of family, marriage and betrayal.

Eldest of the twelve sons of a Devon farmer Drake seems to have suffered from the snobbishness of Queen Elizabeth’s court throughout his life and maybe it was this that spurred him on to a buccaneering life at sea where the only status a man has derives from his own true grit.

Armchair critics might take a look at the 150-foot replica of the Golden Hinde docked at London’s South Bank if they doubt the courage of its commander and crew who risked the storms and other dangers, real and fabulous, of the world’s oceans.  

Riches pens a racketing good yarn from Drake’s earliest days when he took command of his first ship, to his bloody battles with England’s enemies, his famous circumnavigation and  knighthood, to his last voyage at an age when most sea dogs would be content to stay in harbour. That Drake and his men had courage is without question, that he was also a shrewd and audacious commander is worth repeating.  He succeeded in making allies of the indigenous peoples he met in South America, freed slaves where he could, and invited some to become paid members of his crew. Diego, the black man figured on the Drake jewel in the V &A, becomes his right-hand man until his death. 

Brought to the queen’s attention by his successful piracy against the treasure ships of the Spanish, he was sent on a secret mission by Queen Elizabeth I, to disrupt the Spanish and Portuguese slave trade which was yielding those countries a vast and previously unimagined exchange in gold, Peruvian silver and pearls, as well as a monopoly of the much desired trade in porcelain and silk from China.

The fear of the queen’s ministers in England was that the Spanish king, Philip II, would use this wealth to fit out a fleet for a planned invasion with the aim of forcing England back into Catholicism. This fear was most prescient and without Drake’s impudent attack on the  massive armada fleet anchored in Cadiz harbour the eventual invasion could have had a vastly different outcome.

There is no mention of bowls as that story only came decades after the event but there are many other delights, such as the derivation of the name for the flightless birds that charmed a Welsh sailor, who called them pen gwyns, white heads.

Drake’s personal life, two marriages and no children, is an enduring sadness but his brother Thomas sailed with him and was loyal to the end.  Drake was eventually defeated by the fever that intermittently swept throughout the fleet killing hundreds.

Wearing the green silk scarf given to him by Elizabeth I herself and with his father’s prayer book in his hand, he died with the same courage that characterised his life.  I admit I shed a tear as he arranged himself in his best armour with his ceremonial sword at his side to wait for death and imagined he heard his father reading from his prayer book:  Return unto thy rest, O my soul, for the Lord hath dealt bountifully with thee…  

A cracking story deserving several readings.

Cassandra Clark

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About the Author

Cassandra Clark has an M.A. from the University of East Anglia and taught for the Open University on the Humanities Foundation course in subjects as diverse as history, philosophy, music and religion. Since then she has written many plays and contemporary romances as well as the libretti for several chamber operas.  Find out about Cassandra's books on her website at www.cassandraclark.co.uk   and follow her on Twitter @nunsleuth

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