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The Drake Exploration Society

Sir Francis Drake's Celebrated Turtle Shell

Margaret Grassam

Once Francis Drake became a knight in 1581, other important family names begin to appear in his life. There is also the appearance of a giant green turtle shell which he had brought back from his military expedition to the Caribbean in 1586. Strangely this carapace connected various family names over the ensuing generations.

Map of the area south of Watchet

After the death of his first wife in 1583, Sir Francis Drake courted Elizabeth, the daughter and heiress of Sir George Sydenham of Combe Sydenham. The house is situated in a picturesque wooded valley in West Somerset. They were married by 1585 possibly at Monksilver Church, half a mile north of Combe Sydenham. Lady Elizabeth then resided at Drake's country seat of Buckland Abbey, twelve miles north of Plymouth. Sir Francis gave his turtle carapace to his wife's family as a souvenir.

Living not far to the north from Combe Sydenham were the Wyndhams of Orchard Wyndham who had inter-married with the Sydenhams and would have seen the turtle shell.

Sir George Sydenham died on 17 January 1590. The funeral was held in nearby Stogumber Church. His tomb is in the family chapel. Sir Francis and Lady Elizabeth were present and Elizabeth proved her father's will at the manor house. In 1596 Sir Francis died of dysentery and was buried at sea off Portobelo, Panamá. Lady Drake was left at Buckland Abbey as a widow for about nine months, still in her early thirties and childless. The following year she married Sir William Courtenay of Powderham Castle who had a large family. Elizabeth had died by 1598 possibly in childbirth.

Meanwhile where was the turtle shell? The generations moved on. For the Drake family whose succession had continued through Thomas Drake's son Francis, who was created the 1st Baronet, Sir Francis Drake in 1620. The generations again moved on through the Sydenhams and the Wyndhams as did the succession of royalty. Queen Elizabeth died in 1603 and James I succeeded, followed by Charles I and then came the Civil War when some families were split apart. The 2nd Baronet became Col. of the Horse for Parliament, but with his sister, Joan still clinging to the Royalist cause like her mother, the widow of the 1st Baronet.

During the war, Hugh Wyndham was knighted for his service to Charles I. At the same time an interesting romance blossomed between Hugh and Joan Drake. Soon afterwards Hugh was imprisoned at Pendennis Castle at Falmouth, Cornwall for treason. However he was considered a low risk, so allowed parole to meet Joan Drake. Needless to say, Joan's brother, the 2nd Baronet was initially opposed to the marriage but happily it took place at Buckland Monachorum Church on 4 February 1650.

The turtle shell

The turtle shell

The turtle carapace appears to celebrate the wedding since it was painted with one half bearing the Wyndham coat of arms on the left and the Drake coat of arms on the right. The shell probably hung at the Wyndham House of Kentisford near Saint Decuman's Church. Sir Hugh died a number of years before his wife, Lady Joan Wyndham. Their ledger-stones are in Saint Decuman's Church but the turtle shell had vanished again when other Wyndham families occupied Kentisford House.

Three hundred years passed, as did the generations of the three families, until at Orchard Wyndham in 1980 when the historian, the late Dr Katherine Wyndham, with her father, was investigating their medieval buildings. Amazingly they found amongst some old boxes a very old and fragile, dirty object which was the Drake carapace. With superlative care and research the turtle shell has been restored and is now displayed high up on the wall of the present dining hall which was the great hall built by the Sydenhams. The colours and detail of the coats of arms of the two families are now wonderfully preserved. Sir Francis Drake the circumnavigator has pride of place at the top with the Golden Hind being guided around the globe by the hand of God. Happily the turtle shell will remain in the care of the Wyndham family. The house is open for all to visit during the summer seasons.

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