On 4th July 1569 St Francis Drake married his young sweetheart Mary Newman in St Budeaux Church on the Tamar estuary. While Drake was to become a household name and the greatest seaman of the Elizabethan Age his Cornish wife remains an obscure figure. Something I hope to rectify that a little here.
Mary Newman becomes Mrs Drake
Mary Newman was born in Saltash in 1552 (or thereabouts the exact date is unknown), the only daughter of Richard Newman, a ‘Gentleman Mariner’ (her mother’s name is also unknown). Her father is said to have owned his own ship and along with men such as Captain Hawkins and Captain Lovell he took speculative voyages to the New World and would regularly take part in raids on Spanish ships, dividing up the bullion that they seized. As a consequence it seems that Mary had a comfortable upbringing in a large cottage, which still stands on Culver Road close to the waterside in Saltash.
Captain Hawkins, Richard Newman’s associate, had an ambitious cousin (some say nephew) called Francis Drake who became part of his crew and it seems likely that during those raids in the 1560s the young man met Richard Newman and then his daughter Mary.
“There is very little recorded about this courtship other than the observation that the young Drake courted Mary by water.”Leaflet, Mary Newman’s Cottage, Tamar Pretection Society, 1955
This courtship ‘by water’ probably refers to the idea that Drake would have been living across the water in Plymouth, perhaps on various ships moored in the Hamoaze, and without a bridge across the Tamar at that time he would have had to row across to meet with his sweetheart.
In 1569 Drake returned to Plymouth after a disastrous voyage to San Juan de Uluua in Mexico with Captain Hawkins. He had barely escaped with his life and soon after arriving home he married Mary Newman on 4th July 1569 in St Budeaux Church in Plymouth, which was at that time still in the parish of Saltash. Drake was 24 years old and Mary was about 17.
“The pattern of Mary’s marriage to Drake was soon set: only a few months after their wedding he was off to sea again.”John Cummins, Francis Drake – The Lives of a Hero, 1995
The Captain’s Wife
Mary must have grown used to her husband spending much of his time away at sea for the next thirteen or so years of their marriage. The pair never had any children which may explain why it is said that Mary was content to stay with her parents in their family home in Saltash for much of the time while Drake was off plundering ships!
The couple became increasingly wealthy thanks to Drake’s talents as a privateer and at one time they are thought to have owned as many as seventeen houses in Plymouth including one on Looe Street, several ships and a number of mills.
“It would be interesting to know something of Mary’s feelings in this period, as she became used to fine cloths, rich linens, tapestries and tableware, and waited touchily for the pregnancy which never arrived.”John Cummins, Francis Drake – The Lives of a Hero, 1995
The Golden Hind
In 1577 Drake left Plymouth on the galleon the Pelican on what was perhaps to be his greatest achievement, his circumnavigation of the globe. Five ships set off on the journey but one, the Marigold, was sunk in a storm in the Straits of Magellan and another, the Elizabeth, returned to Plymouth with the news that Mary must have dreaded. The Pelican, which Drake had renamed the Golden Hind mid-voyage, was lost and all hands were thought to have been drowned.
And for more than two years that was all that Mary knew.
Meanwhile Drake was actually still very much alive and sailing though the Pacific. In April 1578 he captured a ship belonging to Don Francisco Zarate which he expected to be loaded with treasure. Much to his disappointed there was no gold on board but Drake did select some silks and fine china. He apparently apologised to Zarate for taking them but explained that they were gifts that he thought might please his wife Mary.
Drake needn’t have worried that his wife would be disappointed however. In fact, while he continued to chart new territory, he was also filling the hold of the Golden Hind with treasure. When they eventually returned to Plymouth on 26th September 1580 the ship was heavily ladened with a rich cargo of spices and Spanish treasure.
When news of their arrival reached her Mary Drake immediately rowed out to meet the ship and was reunited with her long-lost husband.
Treasure in Trematon Castle
It is said that on that day Mary disembarked the Golden Hind with a large amount of jewels sewn into the hems of her skirts in an attempt to hide some of the treasure from the Queen. Whether this is true or not will never be known but what is known is that this voyage made Elizabeth I very happy and Drake very rich, also securing him his knighthood.
The hugely successful circumnavigation was said to have amassed a huge haul of gold and jewels worth an estimated £20 million in today’s money and to keep this treasure safe Drake is said to have stored it at Trematon Castle, a few miles from Saltash, until it could be shipped upcountry. The owner Edmund Tremayne took an inventory of the jewels and sent it, with a covering letter to London.
It is also said the Queen Elizabeth rewarded Drake with £10,000 of the plunder, as well as his customary share of the profits, and later soon after he and Mary moved into Buckland Abbey.
The Final Years
It is to be hoped that after so much time apart these last few years at Buckland were happy ones for the Drakes. There had been rumours that Mary had been attached to another man, Thomas Doughty, a friend and sometimes rival of Drake’s, while he was missing but as soon as she learnt her husband was alive that relationship ended.
The couple were made Mayor and Mayoress of Plymouth for one year in 1580, an honour that it must have pleased Mary greatly to enjoy with her husband after so many years alone.
Sadly their reunion was short-lived, in January 1583 Mary Drake died, perhaps of small-pox, aged just 30. She was buried in a vault inside St Budeaux Church.
Author’s Note: I have a feeling that this post might be a bit of a controversial one. So it would be remiss of me not to mention that there are some (possibly from Devon) that are not convinced that the cottage known as Mary Newman’s is actually the right one . . . This idea I suspect would be passionately dismissed by those who run the little museum it now houses.