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Kathryn Gillett, Elizabethan HistorianTours > Sir Francis Drake > Outer Plymouth

In Search of Sir Francis Drake
by Kathryn Gillett, Elizabethan England on Britannia

Outer Plymouth
53 Miles South-West of Exeter

Cothele House, Cornwall During the next few days, I went on my own sort of adventures - a series of safe drives to see a number of historical landmarks. My first stop was St. Budeaux's church where Drake and his first wife were married. I walked through the soundless churchyard, heavily padded with long, wet grass. Inside the dark, silent church I imagined the wedding ceremony. Being before Drake's fame and wealth, there would have been reasonable concerns about the groom's prospects. As they exchanged their vows, the couple must have anticipated a life of struggle on a mariner's income. Little did anyone in attendance know that in just a few years, Drake would become wealthy beyond anything they could dream of. And so famous he would be knighted by - and given private audiences with - the Queen herself.

I drove through quiet, low rolling hills to get to the Antony House grounds, a home of wealth in which Drake socialized in the 1590s. I was disappointed that the house itself was closed, it being winter, but enjoyed a quiet drive through the beautiful grounds, taking in the house from a distance. I wondered if Drake ever looked out onto these same hills, trees and meadows and considered his life's story: how unlikely it was that a wretched boy, raised in a wrecked shell of a ship, would grow up to become a national hero, mingling in the highest of social circles.

It was a bit tricky navigating by myself through the maze of country lanes, but I eventually wound my way to Trematon Castle. It is an ancient castle, possibly some 800 years old, that remains a private residence. I stopped the car in the tiny lane that winds around the castle knowing that somewhere inside, over 400 years ago, a magnificent treasure had been stored there.

When Drake returned from circumnavigating the globe, he did so with an immense cache of gold, silver, and emeralds - the result of plundering Spanish ships along the unguarded west coast of South America.

At the time, England and Spain were locked in an unstable, cold war standoff - an unsteady accord that could have suddenly exploded into bloody warfare. Drake's exploits pushed the line between privateering and piracy: The English thought Drake was a valiant privateer, legitimately taking booty from their Spanish foes; while the Spanish thought he was a dreaded pirate, wantonly stealing what was rightfully theirs.

Drake's treasure was the cause of a diplomatic dispute that could easily have fanned the fire to open warfare. The Spanish wanted it returned; Elizabeth wanted her lion's share of it in her coffers. Because of this, the counting and moving of the booty was highly classified, so much so that we still do not know how much treasure Drake and his crew brought back. Some say there was so much that Drake escorted 20,000 pounds worth of the booty for his own "safekeeping" - but nobody noticed it was missing. Some say even the cabin boy became a millionaire. But we really don't know. Regardless of the myriad myths surrounding the booty - we do know it was so massive, it replaced all the ballast in the bottom of his great, top-heavy ship. We also know that before being transported and stored in London Tower, this magnificent plunder was taken off the Golden Hinde and stored here at Trematon Castle.

I headed on to Cohetele (pronounced: coat-EEL) House, a beautiful medieval great house that has been restored and is maintained by The National Trust. It being winter, most of the house was closed, but the Main Hall was open and decorated with traditional Christmas garlands. I was delighted that they have maintained its ancient feel with such details as not installing electric lights. It added a truth to the experience for me, being in a great house as it would have been hundreds of years ago - low lighting and all.

Buckland Abbey is also just outside of Plymouth. Sir Richard Grenville bought the Abbey to give to his son Roger when Henry VIII was selling church property as part of his much-disputed suppression of the monasteries. But - as history so often intertwines otherwise unrelated stories - Roger became commander of The Mary Rose and died when the ship sank in 1545. His son, the second Richard Grenville inherited Buckland Abbey and by 1576, he had turned it into a comfortable house with fireplaces, a vast kitchen and an elegant great hall. Since Grenville was a seasoned snob, he refused to sell the Abbey to baseborn Drake, even though the Queen had just recently honored Drake with knighthood. But an owner refusing to sell was no obstacle for the persistent Drake, who acquired the Abbey through a third party solicitor in 1581. It was then, with one eye still set on the sea, Drake settled into a successful, yet less-than-contented life as a wealthy landowner and civic leader.

Next Stop: Leaving for Home

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