Home|In Drake's Wake

The Drake Exploration Society

Francis Drake of Crowndale

Susan Jackson


The River Tavy at Crowndale

Drake was a common name in Devon from the Middle Ages onwards. It is possible that the family originated in Exmouth and migrated to Tavistock sometime during the 14th century. The family were located at various places in and around Tavistock. However at the end of the 14th century a Simon Drake was living at "Crumbadael" or "Crumpled Valley" or "Winding Ravine" of the River Tavy anglicised to Crowndale. From the Lay Subsidiary Rolls and the leases of Crowndale Farm held in the Devon County Records Office in Exeter, we learn that Henry Drake leased a 180 acre farm with a longhouse, cob cottages and outbuildings from the Abbot of Tavistock in 1441. His son, Simon, took over the tenancy in 1481 and received a forty-one year lease on messuages lands and tenements for £4. On 8 September 1519 Henry's grandson, John, who we assume was the eldest, and Simon's son took over the tenancy and moved in with his wife Margery, whose brother was William Hawkins, father of John Hawkins.

In 1539 Tavistock Abbey was dissolved and its lands were given to John, Lord Russell, by the Crown. On 8 October he renewed John and Margery's Crowndale lease on the same terms after a renewal payment of £6 13s 4d worth several thousands pounds at modern day face value. There was a yearly rental of £4 6s 8d probably paid in two instalments on Lady Day and at Michaelmas. There was a clause in the lease to allow Margery and/or their eldest son John to inherit the farm and carry on the tenancy on the same terms if John senior pre-deceased them, so long as they gave up their best live beast as heriot. In return John and Margery had to guarantee to maintain the hedges and ditches on their land and to keep the buildings in good repair.


Looking north-east over the site of Drake's birth place towards Whitchurch

The fact that the tenancy was not renewed as soon as Russell gained his estates indicates that he let the tenancy agreements with Tavistock Abbey reach their expiry dates and then allowed good tenants to renew them upon the same terms.

John and Margery ran a prosperous holding. This is indicated by the Tavistock Lay Subsidiary Rolls of 1544. The average rating for Tavistock was £4 but John and Margery were rated at £20, son John at £6 and younger son Edmund at £5. This demonstrates that the Drakes were yeoman farmers, able to send their sons to grammar school and give dowries to their daughters.

In 1546 John and Edmund were married men living in cottages on their parents' farm. Edmund had been a sailor in his younger days but the Lay Subsidiary Rolls of 1544 say that he derived a living from the land although a legal document of 1548 specifically describes him as a shearman. What was not clear was that it could mean sheep shearer on his parents' farm or a cropper at the fulling or tucking mill, for the finishing of cloth finer than the coarse kersey which was traditionally made in the area. This mill had once been a corn mill but it was converted into a fulling mill. The name it was given and which still remains was Shillamill - the sound which the hammers make when they are moving up and down to beat the cloth. Edmund could have been of either profession or of both, since men often turned to work in the woollen and cloth industry when work on the land was slack, especially in the 16th century when unemployment was rising. Also Edmund needed money because he had married, probably to a girl named Anna Milwaye some time in the late 1530s. In 1540 they had a son who they christened Francis. This was not a traditional family name but taken from the Russell family, who seem to have been patrons and friends of Grandfather John.

As was traditional, Edmund's wife would have given birth in the main farmhouse where she could be under the care of her mother-in-law, rather than in Edmund's and her cottage. Despite the absence of parish records, we know that Drake was born at Crowndale Farm because Drake told this to contemporary biographer William Camden.

It is not clear when the Drakes left Crowndale. We know that Edmund had moved to Kent by 1548 after robbing a man at the village of Peter Tavy, who owed him money. John died in 1566 and John Junior in 1567. In 1570 Margery was living in her house in Plymouth which was part of her dowry. She died in 1571. The farm was perhaps given up after the two Johns died or even before because the Crowndale Drakes do not appear on the Lay Subsidiary Rolls of a later date, but this in itself cannot be said to be [certain] since they are not complete.

Perhaps after Edmund's disgrace and the insecurity engendered by the Western Rebellion, John and Margery, being Protestant and getting on in years, felt safer in their Plymouth property. We know that this property, which was probably either on Notte Street or Looe Street, was left to the first born grandson from Crowndale Farm who was given a Russell family name after his godfather rather than a traditional Drake family name, the name being Francis.

Edmund's cottage was probably of stone from the local quarry, roofed with thick stone slates or thatch and would have probably been either a "cob" cottage or a long-house. The ground floor would be of rush covered stone with partitions of oak. Typically the stairs ascended around a central newel post. There would usually be only one room downstairs and two upstairs. The upper floor was of wood and carried on joists from wall to wall or rested on great beams placed centrally across the rooms, without relation to the positioning of doors, windows or fireplaces. Furniture was scarce perhaps a trestle-table, a carved chair for Edmund, stools for the rest of the family, a clothes chest, earthenware pitchers, pots and pans, a spit, a skillet and an iron cauldron or "crockke".

The farmhouse was situated on slightly higher ground and would have been built on similar lines but on a larger scale, with more rooms and more lavishly furnished and equipped.

From the age of five, Francis like all boys living in a rural area in the 16th century would have helped with the simple tasks around the farm, collecting eggs, scaring birds away from the crops, removing stones from the path of the plough, fetching water from the well or food from its slate shelves and cleaning with mother and grandmother.

Crowndale Farm

Crowndale Farm

According to a local resident in 1914, the remains of this cottage were clearly visible in a small orchard or copse in a field at Crowndale Farm. A few metres downhill from the sites of the farmhouse and cottage are the remnants of a Tudor well head with slate storage shelves. The well is very similar to an 1883 sketch that appears in a book called Scenery of the Rivers Tamar and Tavy, by Frederic Lewis. Close by is also the remains of an old stone sewer taking water to the River Tavy, via an old culvert under the present Crowndale Road, which may have served the needs of the Drake family. Up hill to the south-west remains the medieval barn with arrow slits.

The little boy, described by Julian Corbett as "restless and venturesome", would have found plenty of scope for adventure in his wooded valley, pierced by the fast flowing River Tavy. Crowndale Farm is therefore where Drake lived, worked and played. It is wonderfully evocative and stirs the emotions when one realises that the hand that guided the Golden Hind around the globe once reached into the old stone well at Crowndale and rested, like mine, on the old grey slates.

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