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Queen Elizabeth I’s Sea Dogs


During the Elizabethan period the term ‘Sea Dogs’ was allotted to various buccaneers and adventurers enlisted by Queen Elizabeth I as privateers, or sea-raiders.

Despite its shaky legal and moral foundation, the practice of privateering formed a key part of Elizabeth’s naval strategy as she developed a ‘supplementary navy’ to help bring piracy on the seas – then in its so-called ‘Golden Age’ – under control. Pirates and freebooters roamed coastal waters virtually unchallenged, plundering ships in the Atlantic, Caribbean and ever-closer to home which resulted in heavy losses for English commerce. 

Essentially a privateer was a privately owned merchant ship (or an individual serving aboard it) equipped at their own expense, that had been commissioned by the Crown with a Letter of Marque to legitimately (used in its loosest sense here) take or raid vessels belonging to an enemy government. Proceeds from the captured ships and their loot were then divided between the shipowners, captains and crew with a percentage of the bounty given back to the government. 

As Anglo-Spanish relations to deteriorate during her reign, Elizabeth went one step further in authorising a branch of privateers – the Sea Dogs – as a way to bridge the gap between the Spanish and English navies. The Sea Dogs would sail around and attack the Spanish fleets, picking off and looting ships in order to bring back treasure whilst simultaneously significantly reducing the size of the Spanish navy. By 1585 hostilities with Spain had reached boiling point and war was imminent. The Crown lacked sufficient funds to build an efficient navy, but privateering helped subsidise state power by mobilising armed ships and sailors.

Having been authorised by the Crown, the plundering of Spanish ships by the privateers was technically legal in England – despite the countries not officially being at war with one another. Unsurprisingly, the Spanish did not see things the same way. To them Elizabeth’s Sea Dogs were nothing more than lawless pirates.

Here we present some of Queen Elizabeth’s most notable Sea Dogs:

Sir John Hawkins (Hawkyns)

Sea rover John Hawkins (1532-1595) was born in Plymouth into a wealthy and sea-faring family. Hawkins’ father was captain who traded overseas and when he died he left a small fleet of ships to his two sons. As he was growing up Hawkins would sail with his father on trading trips and evidently learned about the sea, but his interest lay in slave trading. Despite being known as ‘England’s first slave trader’, Hawkins was not the first to bring slaves back to England but was one of the first to profit from the Triangle Trade, selling supplies to colonies ill-supplied by their home countries and the demand for African slaves in the Spanish colonies in the Americas. Hawkins made several financially lucrative slave trade voyages in the 1560s and in 1564 Queen Elizabeth I invested in him by leasing the 700-ton ship Jesus of Lübeck along with three smaller ships for a more extensive voyage.

Hawkins sailed with his cousin (and soon-to-be Sea Dog) Francis Drake to the West African coast in order to capture slaves for trade in the Caribbean and South America, privateering along the way. Hawkins’ third voyage began in 1567; he and Drake obtained more African slaves for trade and apparently took and looted seven Portuguese ships. The fleet managed to sell most of the slaves at Spanish ports in the Americas using bribery and force, but on the way home encountered a major storm and had to stop to repair and refit. Whilst anchored in the port of San Juan de Ulúa to carry out this re-provisioning the fleet encountered a strong Spanish escort fleet under the command of Don Francisco Luján. Having been informed of Hawkins’s trade, which the Spanish deemed illegal and systematic, Luján attacked Hawkins’s fleet, considering them to be pirates. The Spanish destroyed all but two of the English ships – Minion and Judith – and the voyage home was a miserable one with starvation, dehydration and disease all rife.

Despite only being involved in the slave trade for around five years, Hawkins enslaved between 1,200 and 1,400 people and made so much money that Queen Elizabeth I granted him a special coat of arms which prominently featured a bound slave. Following this third and final voyage, Hawkins turned his attention to counter-espionage for the English government and in 1571 entered Parliament as MP for Plymouth and was later appointed Treasurer of the Royal Navy in 1578. Whilst in charge of the Navy, Hawkins instigated financial reforms and was determined that England should have the best fleet of ships in the world, as well as the best seamen. He petitioned and won a pay increase for sailors and made important improvements in ship construction and rigging resulting in faster more manoeuvrable ships, the effects of which were tested against the Spanish Armada in 1588. Hawkins, as Rear Admiral, was one of the main commanders of the English fleet against the Armada alongside Francis Drake and Martin Frobisher and received a battlefield knighthood for his role in the great sea battle.

In the 1590s he and Drake founded a charity and hospitals to care for sick and elderly mariners and in 1595 he accompanied Drake on a treasure-hunting voyage to the West Indies, during which both men fell sick. Hawkins died at sea off Puerto Rico on 12 November 1595.

Sir Martin Frobisher

Born c. 1535, Frobisher is believed to be the son of merchant Bernard Frobisher of Altofts, Yorkshire, but was raised and educated in London by his uncle Sir John York, a merchant of the City of London and Master of the Mint. Having acquainted himself with London seamen and developed an interest in exploration and navigation, Frobisher first went to sea as a cabin boy in 1544.

His travels truly began in the 1550s when he explored Africa’s northwest coast, particularly Guinea. However, in 1554 he was captured by the Portuguese and spent some time in captivity before setting up business as a merchant in Morocco. In 1555 Frobisher became a privateer, authorised by the English Crown to plunder enemy ships. Frobisher soon gained a reputation for preying on French trading ships off the coast of Guinea and was arrested several times on piracy charges, but never tried. 

Like many explorers of the time Frobisher’s ultimate goal was to discover the fabled Northwest Passage – a sea route above North America linking the Pacific and Atlantic oceans – as a trade route to Cathay (India and China). Frobisher worked on obtaining funding for his expedition for five years, finally convincing the Muscovy Company, an English merchant consortium, to license his journey. With the help of the Muscovy Company’s director, Michael Lok, Frobisher raised enough capital for three vessels – Gabriel, Michael and an unnamed pinnace – and a crew of 35.

Frobisher set sail on the first of three attempts to find the Northwest Passage on 7 June 1576. The pinnace was lost in a storm and Michael later abandoned, but on 28 July 1576, Gabriel sighted the coast of Labrador. Frobisher managed to reach Resolution Island, one of many uninhabited Canadian arctic islands, which he thought might have been the entrance to the passage. Instead he had actually discovered a bay on the south of Baffin Island which is now known as Frobisher Bay. Here the expedition met some local Inuit and five of Frobisher’s men were kidnapped, never to be seen again. Returning home, Frobisher reached London on 9 October. Included in the items he brought back was a piece of black stone, an ore which was believed to contain gold.   

The potential discovery of gold was enough for Frobisher’s backers to fund further voyages. For his second voyage in 1577 he had additional funding, ships and men. He returned with 200 tons of the black ore, which turned out to be worthless iron pyrite or ‘fool’s gold’ that was eventually used for road repairs in Kent. Queen Elizabeth I had faith in the fertility of this newly-discovered territory, so sent Frobisher back for a third, much larger, expedition consisting of 15 vessels and items to establish a 100-man colony. It was during this third voyage in 1578 that Frobisher visited Greenland and returned with some iron nails, which suggested that other European sailors had reached Greenland before him. Frobisher and his men failed to establish a settlement due to discontent and dissension and returned to England.

Disillusioned after failing to find anything of value and forced to seek other employment, Frobisher returned to military action. A shrewd leader of men and masterful commander, he was given the command of Primrose on Drake’s attacks on the West Indies between September 1585 and July 1586, where he served as Vice Admiral. In 1587 Frobisher was given the command of the Channel fleet during the Spanish Armada and in 1588 commanded Triumph, leading one of four naval squadrons under Lord Howard of Effingham. He was knighted as a result of his leadership during the Armada.

Between 1589 and 1592 Frobisher made three expeditions to the Azores, capturing a number of valuable Spanish ships and in 1594 he commanded a force sent to aid the Huguenots at Brest. He received a gunshot wound during the Siege of Fort Crozon, a Spanish-held fortress and died on 15 November 1594.

Sir Francis Drake

Born in Crowndale, near Tavistock in Devon c.1540, Francis Drake was one of the most profitable and successful Sea Dogs of all time. The eldest of 12 children, in 1563 Drake made his first voyage to the Americas, sailing with his cousin John Hawkins. He made three voyages with this fleet, attacking Portuguese towns and ships on the coast of West Africa and capturing slaves which were sold to Spanish settlers in the ‘New World’. In 1568 Drake took part in the Battle of San Juan de Ulúa, returning to Plymouth with gold and silver worth over £40,000 and in 1570 and 1571 he made two voyages to the West Indies, seizing gold and silver in the Americas and Atlantic, continuing to attack Spanish treasure ships. The Spanish were to become a lifelong enemy for Drake; they in turn considered him a pirate, branding him El Draque (The Dragon).

Drake embarked upon his first major independent enterprise, planning an attack on the Spanish Main at Nombre de Dios, a valuable port target which stored valuable silver and treasures from Peru. Drake left Plymouth on 24 May 1572 with a crew of 73 men in two small vessels, Pascha and Swan. He managed to successfully capture the town in the first raid in July 1572, but he and several of his men were wounded by musket fire and unable to get the treasure. To prevent total failure Drake and his men continued raiding Spanish ships for almost a year. In March 1573 Drake captured the Spanish Silver Train at Nombre de Dios, looting around 20 tons of silver and gold and by 9 August 1573 he had returned to Plymouth. During this expedition he climbed a tree in the central mountains of the Isthmus of Panama, becoming the first Englishman to see the Pacific Ocean. 

Drake’s success did not go unnoticed. Capturing the attention of Queen Elizabeth I and her Privy Council members, Drake was enlisted to start an expedition against the Spanish along the Pacific coast of the Americas. Crucially Elizabeth issued no formal commission, so Drake’s exploits were tantamount to piracy. Setting out on 15 November 1577, Drake and his fleet were forced to take refuge in Falmouth due to bad weather. Following the setback, Drake set sail again on 13 December aboard Pelican with four other ships and 164 men. A sixth ship was soon added when they captured Mary (formerly Santa Maria) a Portuguese merchant ship near the Cape Verde Islands. The next landfall was Brazil, but along the way Drake and his co-commander Thomas Doughty became enemies. On 3 June 1578 Drake accused Doughty of witchcraft and charged him with mutiny and treason in a shipboard trial. Doughty was beheaded on 2 July 1578 and Drake apparently held up the head and told the assembled crew: ‘This is the end of traitors.’

Continuing towards the Magellan Strait at the southern tip pf South America, Drake and his remaining convoy made it to the Pacific Ocean in September 1578. Violent storms destroyed the Marigold and caused another, Elizabeth, to return to England. Now reduced to just one ship, Pelican (now re-named Golden Hind in honour of Sir Christopher Hatton), Drake sailed up the Pacific coast of South America, raiding and capturing ships as he went. Landing on the coast of California in June 1579 he claimed the land for the English Crown, calling it Nova Albion (Latin for ‘New Britain’). From here Drake left the Pacific coast and headed southwest reaching the Moluccas, a group of islands in eastern modern-day Indonesia, a few months later. After further adventures Drake and his men made multiple stops on their way towards the tip of Africa. They eventually rounded the Cape of Good Hope and reached Sierra Leone on 22 July 1580. Golden Hind sailed into Plymouth on 26 September with Drake, 59 remaining crew and a rich cargo of spices and captured treasures aboard – those who survived the voyage had been away for almost three years. During the expedition Golden Hind had become the first ship to sail into the Pacific Ocean and by the time he returned Drake was the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe and the voyage became only the second circumnavigation of the world in a single expedition ever (after the Magellan-Elcano expedition). Seven months after his return Queen Elizabeth I knighted Drake aboard the Golden Hind and in September 1581 he became Mayor of Plymouth.

In 1585 Drake sailed to the West Indies in command of 21 ships with 1,800 soldiers under Christopher Carleill to attack the Spanish colonies. On his return voyage he picked up the unsuccessful colonists of Roanoake Island, the first English colony ion the New World. In 1587 war with Spain was imminent and in a preemptive strike Drake sailed a fleet into the ports of Cadiz and Corunna, occupying the harbours and destroying Spanish naval and merchant ships, ultimately delaying the Spanish invasion by a year. In 1588 Drake was a vice admiral in the fleet that defeated the Spanish Armada alongside John Hawkins and Martin Frobisher. According to legend, Drake was playing bowls on Plymouth Hoe when the Spanish fleet was first sighted. In 1595 he joined his cousin Hawkins on an ill-fated voyage to the West Indies, during which he suffered a number of defeats. Drake died of dysentery in January 1596 and was buried at sea.

Sir Walter Raleigh

Walter Raleigh (or Ralegh) was born into a well-connected family at Hayes Barton, Devon c. 1552. The half-brother of explorer Sir Humphrey Gilbert, nephew of Sir Francis Drake (through his first wife Alice) and brother-in-law of sailor Sir Richard Grenville, he attended Oriel College, Oxford, for a time before leaving to volunteer his services fighting with the Huguenots in the French religious civil wars. Finishing his education at the Inns of Court, in 1575 he was registered at the Middle Temple, although at his trial in 1603 he stated that he had never studied law. 

Raleigh attempted to sail to North America with his half-brother Sir Humphrey Gilbert in 1578 but their fleet was hit by storms and forced back to port some six months later. The only vessel to have penetrated the Atlantic by any great distance was Falcon under Raleigh’s command.

Between 1579 and 1583, Raleigh took part in the suppression of the Desmond Rebellions, in the Irish province of Munster. Present at the Siege of Smerwick, Raleigh led the party that beheaded some 600 Spanish and Italian soldiers. He received 40,000 acres upon the seizure and distribution of land following the attainders arising from the rebellion, including the coastal walled towns of Youghal and Lismore. This made him one of the principal landowners in Munster, although he had limited success inducing English tenants to settle on his estates.

Having come to the attention of Elizabeth I following his help in suppressing the uprising in Munster, he rose rapidly in the favour of Queen. In 1584 Raleigh entered parliament for Devon and Elizabeth granted him a royal charter authorising him to explore, colonise and rule settlements in the New World in return for a percentage of all the gold and silver which would be mined there. He never visited North America himself, but was instrumental in paving the way for future English settlements. In 1585, the same year that he was knighted by the Queen, he sponsored the first English colony in America on Roanoake Island. This colony failed and a further attempt at colonisation also failed in 1587. 

Appointed Captain of the Queen’s Guard in 1587, Raleigh was never far from Elizabeth’s side. However, in 1591 he secretly married Elizabeth Throckmorton, one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting. When Elizabeth discovered the marriage in 1592 both he and his wife were imprisoned in the Tower of London. Eventually released, he remained banished from court for a number of years, but returned to Parliament. It was several years before Raleigh returned to favour. In 1595 he set off on an unsuccessful expedition to find El Dorado, the fabled city rumoured to be located beyond the mouth of the Orinoco River. 

In 1596, Raleigh took part in, and was wounded at, the Capture of Cadiz. He also served as the rear admiral of a voyage to the Azores in 1597. Chosen as the Member of Parliament for Dorset in 1597, and Cornwall in 1601, Raleigh was unique in the Elizabethan period in sitting for three different counties. In 1600 he became governor of Jersey, doing much to improve the island’s trade. Yet in 1603, following Queen Elizabeth’s death, he was accused of plotting against her successor, James I of England and VI of Scotland, and arrested. After a suicide attempt, Raleigh was tried at Winchester, found guilty and condemned to death, but his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment when he was on the scaffold. Sent back to the Tower of London, he turned to writing and scientific study.

In 1616 Raleigh was released again to lead a second expedition to search for El Dorado, but it was a failure and he also defied the King’s orders by attacking the Spanish. Upon his return to England the death sentence was reinstated and Raleigh was executed on 29 October 1618 at Whitehall.

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