Drake, Sir Francis


Drake, Sir Francis
(1540?-96)
   According to West Country folklore, Drake was a *wizard - a notion possibly taken from the Spaniards, who believed in all seriousness that the Devil helped Drake in battle. The fact that his surname means 'dragon' added to his prestige. In the 1830s Devon people said he could turn chips of wood into fireships, draw a river from Dartmoor to Plymouth, and fire a cannonball straight through the earth from the Antipodes, to warn his wife that he was still alive and she must not remarry. This cannonball is still displayed at Combe Sydenham Hall; it is said always to return if shifted, and to roll about at times of national danger. Other tales are that he once built a barn with the Devil's help, and that his ghost drives a hearse on stormy nights, drawn by headless horses and followed by headless hounds.
   The most famous Drake legend is a modern one concerning his drum, kept at Buckland Abbey. A rousing poem written by Henry Newbolt in 1895 and set to music in 1904 by C. V. Stanford, says that when Drake lay dying he ordered that his drum should be taken home to England, and promised that if it were struck when invasion was threatened, he would return to drive off the enemy. There is nothing to show that this 'tradition' existed before Newbolt wrote. In 1916 another poet, Alfred Noyes, added a further marvel: that the drum need not be struck by human hand, for it sounded of its own accord. This legend was exploited as patriotic propaganda in both world wars, and it is claimed that drum-beats have indeed been heard, for example at the evacuation of Dunkirk.
   ■ Hunt, 1865: 230; Bray, 1836: ii. 170-3; both are summarized in Briggs, 1970-1: B. i. 138-9; ii. 38-9. For the drum, see E. M. R. Ditmas, Folklore 85 (1974), 244-53.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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