Sir Francis Drake (1540-96) is one of England’s most cherished heroes. A sea captain at the time of Elizabeth I, Drake circumnavigated the world, and secured his popularity when England was faced with invasion by the Spanish Armada in 1588. Given carte blanche to do what was necessary to defeat the threat by Elizabeth, Vice-Admiral Drake responded by destroying much of the Armada anchored in the port of Cadiz (remembered as âSingeing the King of Spain’s Beard’). The Armada was effectively defeated at the Battle of Gravelines, after which most of the fleeing ships were destroyed by the Irish Sea.
Defeating the Armada offered Drake a form of redemption. His previous exploits were decidedly unsavoury, and many in England (and all of Spain) saw him as a pirate for robbing Spanish galleons and raiding settlements in the Americas. Elizabeth drew criticism for her decision to entrust the defence of the realm to a pirate, but of course his success vindicated the queen’s gamble. Victory, likewise, turned Drake into a national hero, and tales of his pluck and derring-do proliferated. One such story has a confident Drake finishing a game of bowls on Plymouth Hoe before entering the Battle of Gravelines.
The image of the prodigal son come good at the time of England’s greatest need was irresistible, and we find his ghost attached to a legendary musical instrument. Drake’s Drum is a drum decorated with his coat of arms that accompanied him around the world and even, on occasion, into battle. According to legend, Drake promised, as he succumbed to fatal dysentery, that if the drum was played when England was at war he would return from the grave to defend the realm. It was heard beating at during the Napoleonic Wars and at the start of WWI and WWII.
The historical context of the drum being heard beating is significant. In the Napoleonic Wars, Britain was faced with invasion for the first time since the Spanish Armada, before Napoleon was defeated. France’s proximity to Britain made this prospect terrifying. Again, in both WWI and WWII, Britain was faced with invasion by foreign powers. Though largely ineffective, German bombing raids in WWI severely damaged Britain’s confidence, and by the time of the aeronautical advances of WWII invasion was a daunting prospect. The idea of a fallen hero rising from the grave to fight off a fearsome enemy was clearly irresistible.