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02 July 2024

Drake’s progress

From 1585 to 1586, an English fleet under the command of Sir Francis Drake (1540–1596) raided Spanish colonies across the Atlantic and the Caribbean. Part of an undeclared war between Protestant England and Catholic Spain, Drake’s expedition was a major escalation in the conflict, one that would culminate in the Spanish Armada’s attempted invasion of England in 1588. Among the Cotton Charters and Rolls, currently being catalogued as part of the British Library’s Hidden Collections project, is a copy of the original instructions given to Drake by Queen Elizabeth I (r. 1558–1603) for his Caribbean raid (Cotton Ch IV 25).

A draft charter with notes added in a second hand.

Elizabeth I’s draft instructions for Drake’s voyage: Cotton Ch IV 25

The document states that Elizabeth is pleased to approve the expedition of eleven ships, four barques and twenty pinnaces under Drake’s command. Most of the fleet’s vessels were owned by private individuals, each contributing ships in return for a share in the profits. The queen promises that each investor shall receive their portion and that, if she delays the expedition, it shall be at no cost to them.

To support the voyage, the queen also orders the Lord Admiral, Charles Howard, Lord Howard of Effingham (1536–1624), to deliver two of the Royal Navy’s ships to Drake, namely the Elizabeth Bonaventure and the Aide. The Bonaventure was a 47-gun galleon with a tonnage of 600. The Aide, with a tonnage of 200 to 250 and carrying 18 cannon, had already crossed the Atlantic once before as part of Martin Frobisher’s second expedition to Nunavut and Greenland in 1577. Frobisher would also join Drake’s fleet as his vice-admiral.

A model of a three-masted ship above a wall memorial inside a church.

A model of the Bonaventure, St Mary’s Church, Painswick, photo by David Stowell, CC BY-SA 2.0

Although undated, we know that this document relates to Drake’s 1585 expedition as it refers to the West Indies, and this campaign was the only time that he led a fleet containing both the Bonaventure and the Aide. The Bonaventure was later part of his attack on Cadiz in 1587.

In the margin and between some of Elizabeth’s instructions are notes written in a different hand, that of William Cecil, Lord Burghley (1520–1598), the queen’s chief minister. Cecil's additions clarify or finesse the wording of Elizabeth’s orders and show that the document was a draft, likely held in the crown archives. Sir Robert Cotton’s access to royal records as a Member of Parliament, as well as his interest in antiquarian and historical matters, led to several other draft government papers from Elizabeth’s reign finding their way into his collection, such as Cotton Ch XV 43.

A draft letter of Queen Elizabeth I

Draft letter of Elizabeth I to Thomas Bromley, lord chancellor, granting protection to John de Rivera of Zante, resident in London: Cotton Ch XV 43

In the end, Drake set sail from Plymouth on 14 September 1585 with twenty-five ships, including at least five barques, supported by at least eight pinnaces. The Bonaventure, with a crew of 250 to 300, served as his flagship. The fleet raided north-western Spain in October and Cape Verde in November before crossing the Atlantic, attacking Santo Domingo in what is now the Dominican Republic, Cartagena (modern Colombia), and St Augustine in Florida. Heading north, Drake visited the nascent English colony of Roanoke (North Carolina) before returning to England in July 1586. Despite pillaging so many Spanish colonies, the investors actually made a loss on the voyage. The Bonaventure and the Aide would both see service again two years later in 1588, as part of Lord Howard of Effingham's fleet defending England from the Spanish Armada.

A map in colour showing Britain, Ireland, and the coasts of France, Denmark, and Norway, with the route of the Spanish Armada marked

Robert Adams’ map of the Spanish Armada’s route, 1588: Maps, final folio

This just one of more than 1,000 Cotton charters and rolls that we are re-cataloguing for inclusion in our online catalogue. As the project progresses, further blogposts will highlight other interesting documents from the collection.


Rory MacLellan

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