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In Search of Sir Francis Drake
by Kathryn Gillett, Elizabethan England on Britannia
The National Maritime Museum
At Greenwich Palace, on the Thames, the centre of Greenwich, Surrey
The next morning, I was up bright and early and out the door…on my way to the Thames to take a boat to Greenwich. I wanted to be on the Thames, see the water flow, and sense the size, color, and texture of it to imagine the London of Drakes' time from that perspective. Perhaps a scene in my book will take place here, when he goes to Greenwich Castle for one of his private meetings with Elizabeth I. Although Greenwich Castle no longer exists, the river is very much the same. And I delighted at the thought of taking the same river route Drake most likely took on the auspicious occasions when he was called to court.
Once the boat took off, I watched the cold water go by, intense syrupy gray. The Thames was pretty quiet. Hardly any boats on her at all. But as the chilled air, thick and moist, whipped my face, I imagined the Thames of 450 years ago - congested with boats bustling up and down what was the superhighway of its day. Despite the dangerous white water that swept through the bridges when the tides changed, the Thames was still the preferred route to get most places, especially around London. Roads were slow, rutted, muddy messes. So rivers were the fastest, most comfortable and efficient way to move goods and people. On the Thames near London, oared barges were kept busy ferrying people of various means. Fishing vessels thronged the docks, delivering their catch to sell at the market, while merchant ships from the corners of the known world swarmed the river, transporting provisions of all sorts to and from London.
We landed at Greenwich in about 20 minutes. A few blocks from the dock is the Maritime Museum. Unfortunately, due to massive reconstruction of the other exhibits, the only thing open was the new and improved Nelson exhibit. Despite my disappointment at not seeing the Drake-related exhibits, I was glad I took the trip. For me, the Nelson exhibit illuminated the incredible immediateness of sea battles in his era. Ships would get so close, each frantically trying to disable the other with thunderous canon fire, that it was not uncommon for one ship's rigging to get stuck in the other. The smoke from canon fire would be thick as fog and the noise deafening. Although Nelson fought for Britain two hundred years after the Spanish Armada, sea battles were similarly 'intimate' during Drake's day, with strategies designed to hit and cripple enemy ships so they could be physically overtaken with swarms of soldiers.
Next Stop: Hampton Court Palace
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