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In Search of Sir Francis Drake
by Kathryn Gillett, Elizabethan England on Britannia
National Portrait Gallery
Trafalgar Square, Westminster, Middlesex
After years of reading Tudor history books, I have portraits of my favorite historical characters etched in my memory. The Portrait Gallery is the place to see many of the originals. The cabbie who took me there dropped me off at Trafalgar Square and told me the Gallery was directly across the Square. So as an unexpected treat, I got to experience a walk across Trafalgar Square - pigeons and all.
I was delighted to find that admission to the Gallery was free. What a civilized country! I asked at the Information Desk where I could find the Tudor portraits and was given directions by way of the elevator. I did as I was told and as I stepped off the elevator, I stood stock still in my tracks, causing the people behind to bump embarrassingly into me. Just off to the right was the portrait of Mary Tudor, Elizabeth I's half-sister. It was the same portrait I had seen dozens of times in books. But now here was the original, right in front of me, just hanging on the wall. It was quite a moment for me. (But clearly of no importance to the people behind me. They squeezed around me and headed off skippingly to see a portrait of Prince Charles.)
I stood in front of Mary's portrait for some time, oblivious to my surroundings, absorbed in my thoughts. It was Mary's mother who was Henry VIII's first wife, and it was she who refused to divorce him. This was the proverbial straw on the camel's back that pushed stubborn King Henry into breaking from Catholicism and creating the Church of England. Not surprisingly, he was soon granted an annulment (and a bunch of valuable monastic properties into the bargain). Soon after Henry's death, a wave of 'Lutheranism' flooded the land. A subsequent Catholic rebellion against this religious revolution forced Drake's Puritan family to leave their native Devon and seek the relative safety of Kent.
It was there they took up home in the hulk of a ship, moored on the River Medway. Just at the mouth of the Thames, this was no doubt where Drake first learned about ships and the sea. As a young lad of about nine, he would have lived among, and played around, ships of all kinds as they lay anchored nearby. Small, elegant pinnaces; elaborately decorated river barges; and functional, sea-worthy merchant and fishing vessels. He most certainly would have seen the ornate Royal ships and barges as well, perhaps stopping his play long enough to wonder at them as they passed. Little could this base-born boy have known that he would one day be knighted by royalty aboard his own ocean-going vessel.
In this way, one by one, I visited with the rest of my favorite characters. I was no longer in a portrait gallery, but a kind of welcoming line, where they all waited patiently to be presented to me. Finishing with one, I would move onto the next, instantly recognizing the face in the portrait, letting their visages take me to far away memories that we somehow seemed to share.
I especially loved the one of Francis Drake. It's larger-than-life size. I stood there getting a crick in my neck, looking up at him. Even though he must have been all excited that he had just been knighted, he seems to be completely out of his Devonshire element, looking clown-like in his overdone courtier's clothes. This portrait was painted right after his circumnavigation of the globe, and he was making the most of his new-found fame. I like to think that his stiffness is not just a posing style of the era as much as it's because he's not quite comfortable in his new role as Sir Francis Drake.
Next Stop: National Maritime Museum
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