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The Drake Exploration Society

Why the Knighting of Sir Francis Drake on 1 April 1581 should be Commemorated

Susan Jackson

On 1 April 1581, Queen Elizabeth I stood on the deck of the Golden Hind and, having handed her state sword to the French Ambassador to actually perform the ceremony, bestowed the accolade of the knighthood on Francis Drake.

The Tavistock Statue, Devon, depicting the knighting of Sir Francis Drake

The Tavistock Statue, Devon, depicting the poetic knighting

This event is one of the famous stories of English History and an integral part of the English psyche: an event much described, painted and depicted by our Victorian forebears, telling how an English queen rewarded her gallant captain. This is almost the stuff of legend, romance and chivalry, comparable with Arthur and Camelot.

So why in this prosaic and so-called politically correct era is it important to remember that Spring Day of 430 years ago? This a day which should be celebrated by the Royal Navy like they do Trafalgar Day, and acknowledged by historians as the day when England came of age as a maritime power.

The knighthood occurred because of a magnificent feat of navigation, which was unsurpassed by any in the great age of discovery and exploration. An English sea-captain, Francis Drake, and his crew had traversed 36,000 miles of the globe, which they actually circumnavigated, in a 120-ton galleon. England had finally broken the bounds of the Atlantic and had become a serious and acknowledged rival to the Iberian powers who, up until this time, had dominated European trade, and was England, in her newly developed awareness of her own identity, enjoying making an April Fool of Spain.

Yes, England was glorying in this tremendous achievement; she was no longer an unimportant island off the coast of Europe but a player on the world stage. And even more importantly, 1 April 1581 will always mark the day when England herself began to realise her own potential on the sea.

Drake's circumnavigation was inspirational to his countrymen and was a prime factor in initiating English oceanic development. An endeavour which was, one day, to make England the acknowledged mistress of oceanic exploration and to lay the foundations for Britannia to rule the waves. Also, on this day, was born the realisation that England's oceanic expansion could not depend upon men of noble blood or so-called gentle breeding but on mariners of proven ability. Francis Drake was the son of a poor preacher and had started his seafaring life as a cabin boy. He showed that it was ability that mattered and that all men were equal on the sea. Drake's insistence that the accepted social order of the land was not applicable aboard the galleon, that the gentlemen must haul and draw with the mariner and the mariner with the gentlemen was, how Drake aptly put it, laid the foundations of the Royal Navy. Thus 1 April is a significant day in both maritime and social history. Let us remember it every year!

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