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Elizabeth's Sea Captains

Portrait of John Hawkins

Portrait of John Hawkins (1581)

John Hawkins was from Plymouth, a sea port in Devon. He and his crew were buccaneers - a name given to sailors who "officially" pirated Spanish and Portuguese ships and raided their settlements in the New World. Elizabeth I publicly expressed her "displeasure" over such activities whilst secretly pocketing a percentage of the profits. Hawkins was promoted to Admiralty Treasurer and took an active part in the sea battles against the Spanish Armada.*


Martin Frobisher was a Yorkshireman. In 1576 he set sail to find a North West passage to the Far East. When he reached the northern coast of what is now Canada, he met some formidable glaciers which he called "mountains of ice". These floating "mountains" forced him to turn back. Humphrey Gilbert later explored the same area, which he called Newfoundland, and claimed it for England. John Davies went even further west and discovered Baffin Bay. The Davis Straights are named after him.

Sir Martin Frobisher

Portrait of Sir Martin Frobisher (c. 1590)



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The Spanish Armada

In the early 1570's, there was much rivalry between Spain and England over the riches to be gained from the New World. Spain plundered a fortune in gold and silver from South America, and England wanted some of these riches too. Elizabeth I was secretly proud of the way her sea captains, such as Francis Drake, privateered the Spanish ships and coastal towns.

Another dispute between Spain and England was religion. Spain was devoutly Catholic, and the Spanish king, Philip II, saw it as his duty to maintain the Catholic religion. He had been married to Elizabeth's half-sister Mary and, as queen of England, Mary had persecuted Protestantism. After her death, England had seen a return to the Protestant religion under Elizabeth.


The Spanish Armada


To make matters worse, in the 1560's, Elizabeth had sent money and troops to the Low Countries to help the Dutch Protestants in their battle for independence from Spain.

Philip II had had enough of this English interference. By 1580, he was already planning to put together a great fleet of ships, known as the Armada, to destroy the English fleet and give Spain supremacy of the seas. By January 1586, the Armada was almost complete and its ships were assembled at Cadiz. Its sailing was delayed, however, because Drake, in 1587, daringly attacked Cadiz harbour and destroyed several ships and a warehouse.. The remainder of the Spanish fleet took to the sea, and the Armada was re-assembled and completed in Lisbon harbour (since Portugal was under Spanish control at that time).

Although the Armada must have been a great sight to behold with 130 men-o'-war, its ships were too big and too slow-moving. The commander of this fleet, the Duke of Medina Sidonia, was no sailor and was totally inexperienced in naval battles. In stark contrast to this, the English fleet, which had been increased in number by newly-armed merchant ships, was made up of smaller, more manoeuvrable vessels and was controlled by experienced and skilful sailors, such as Admiral Lord Howard, Francis Drake and John Hawkins.

On May 30th, 1588, the Armada left Lisbon harbour and headed for the English Channel. By August 6th, it was anchored off Calais. The English came to Calais at night and sent eight fireships into the centre of the anchored crescent of ships. These fireships, which were unmanned but loaded with gunpowder and barrels of tar, were then set alight. Some Spanish ships escaped damage but they were forced to cut their anchors. They were pursued to Gravelines, off the French coast, where they were attacked by sixty of the English fleet. Two of the Spanish ships were sunk and the remainder fled into the North Sea. These ships were forced to take the long and dangerous sea route northwards around Scotland to return to Spain. As the ships sailed southwards past the Irish coast, many were lost due to heavy winds from the Atlantic . Only sixty seven ships made it back to Spanish ports.


Elizabeth's Sea Captains

Portrait of Sir Francis Drake

Portrait of Sir Francis Drake by Marcus Gheeraerts (1591)

Francis Drake was a fellow westcountryman of John Hawkins. In fact Drake sailed under Hawkins when he was busy harassing the Spanish and Portuguese. Later, as a captain in his own right, he continued to play the buccaneer on the seas around the West Indies. In 1577 he left England in his ship, The Golden Hind, to find a southwestern sea route to the Far East. His journey took him around Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope, and made him the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe. On his return he was knighted by Elizabeth I on the deck of the Golden Hind. The queen joked about cutting off his head for being a "pirate" before she touched the sword to his shoulders to confer his knighthood on him. The public honouring of Drake enraged Philip II of Spain and it was probably one of the deciding factors in the formation of the Armada, the great Spanish fleet which Drake helped to defeat.



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