Gold and Glory: Exploration and Armada





The age of Elizabeth was an exciting time in the history of British exploration, when some of the best sailors were able to triumph with strong backing from the throne. The names which resonate with us today include Walter Raleigh, Francis Drake, Martin Frobisher and John Hawkins, all of whom were knighted for their exploits. These explorers were greatly prized for their ability to establish valuable trading routes. With improvements in navigation and the increasing accuracy of maps, ships no longer had to stay close to shore, but could cross oceans. Exploring the globe became a reality and with it the financial incentives of trading in gems, perfumes, pigments and exotic spices. England and Spain aggressively competed in the ‘New World’ of America and Elizabeth sponsored privateers in return for a share of the spoils they brought home.

The ‘Sea Dogs’ were privateers who plundered Spanish colonial settlements and treasure ships with only a licence from their queen to distinguish them from pirates. Elizabeth had no money to rebuild her navy and so the sea dogs subsidised state power by helping to combat the Spanish fleet.

A ‘letter of marque’ from the Queen allowed a privately owned, armed vessel to capture enemy shipping, the spoils being divided between the shipowners, captain, crew and the Crown. Letters of marque were issued by the High Court of the Admiralty to anyone who wished to take prizes and had the price of a commission, but it appears that ships were frequently taken without a letter and without declaring war, on condition that the Admiralty received a share of the booty.

In 1572, Francis Drake, the son of a tenant farmer in Devon, obtained a privateering licence and set sail in two small ships, the 70-ton Pasha and the 25-ton Swan, for America. Drake failed to capture the town of Nombre de Dios, despite a daring attack, but instead successfully plundered a mule train carrying a vast amount of silver and gold, returning home to some renown.

Thirty years after Magellan of Portugal, Francis Drake became the second mariner to circumnavigate the globe. Magellan had been killed in the Philippines after trying and failing to convert the indigenous people to Christianity and so Drake had the distinction of being the first explorer to successfully return home. It is for this achievement that he is best remembered. In 1577, five ships commanded by Drake and manned by fewer than 200 men left England with the intention of passing around South America and through the Straits of Magellan. Elizabeth did not order an official commission for this expedition, and so Drake’s mission could be considered an act of piracy. With two ships abandoned, one returned to England and another wrecked, only his flagship, the Pelican, passed into the Pacific and along the coastline of South America. Along the way she seized provisions, valuable silver, pearls and Spanish gold coins.

In March 1579, Drake captured the Spanish treasure ship the Nuestra Signora de la Concepcion, taking 80 pounds of gold and 26 tons of silver, likely making him the wealthiest pirate in the world. He claimed to have sailed as far as Vancouver before being driven back by cold. Anchoring off San Francisco, he took possession of the surrounding land in the name of Queen Elizabeth I and called it ‘New Albion’. He then sailed across the Pacific to the Philippines, before crossing the Indian Ocean, rounding the Cape of Good Hope and entering the Atlantic. In September 1580, laden with spices and treasures, Drake and the Pelican returned to Plymouth harbour having sailed around 36,000 miles.

The ship’s name was changed to the Golden Hind and the Queen boarded it at Deptford to knight the now affluent and very famous Sir Francis Drake. The National Portrait Gallery displays a painting of Drake in fine clothing, with his motto, ‘Great things from small beginnings’, perfectly reflecting his rise in station.

Drake’s humble origins, followed by his rise to wealth and celebrity, caused resentment among some English contemporaries. In a letter to King Philip II of Spain, a Spanish nobleman wrote, ‘The people of quality dislike him for having risen so high from such a lowly family, the rest say he is the main cause of wars.’ Within Spain and her empire, he was viewed as a hated pirate and heretic, known as ‘El Draque’, the dragon. But, for generations of Englishmen, Drake was a national hero and the Victorians saw him and his fellow Sea Dogs as empire builders, in search of new worlds on their voyages of discovery.


Unknown English artist, 1588, oil on panel, National Portrait Gallery, London

Walter Raleigh was born in Devon around 1552 to a firmly Protestant family of landowners and rose to fame as a soldier, poet, explorer and Renaissance courtier. He was responsible for the first ever English colonies in the New World and holds an affectionate place in American history. It is claimed that he spoke with a soft Devonshire accent all his life and his reputation as a swashbuckling risk-taker appears to have been justified.

He left for France in 1569 and witnessed the Battle of Moncontour, near Poitiers, where Protestant Huguenots, under the command of Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, were crushed by the Catholic troops of Henri, Duke of Anjou. Returning to England, Raleigh registered as an undergraduate at Oriel College, Oxford, but left without a degree and finished his education in London.

In 1579, he went to Ireland, leading a party at the Siege of Smerwick during the suppression of the Desmond Rebellions. The siege lasted only three days but was followed by a massacre in which Raleigh led a particularly bloody attack. It saw the beheading of hundreds of Spanish and Italian soldiers, for which Raleigh received land that made him one of the major landowners in Munster. It was in Munster that he met Edmund Spenser, later the author of The Faerie Queene, and together they travelled to Elizabeth’s court in London, where Raleigh had excellent connections.


Sir Walter Raleigh rose to fame as a soldier, poet, explorer and Renaissance courtier, responsible for the first ever English colonies in the ‘New World’.

His mother, Katherine Champernowne, was the niece of Kat Ashley, who had been governess to Elizabeth. His elder brother, Carew, was a naval commander and politician, his cousin was the sailor and privateer Sir Richard Grenville and his half-brother was the adventurer and explorer Sir Humphrey Gilbert.

Tall, dark and handsome, Raleigh also knew how to participate in the ‘courtly game’ of gallantry. The sixteenth-century historian Thomas Fuller recorded a tale of Raleigh sacrificing his fine cloak so that the Queen might walk across a puddle. He soon became a favourite, showering her with romantic poems praising her beauty, while Elizabeth rewarded him with wealth and positions. In 1583, he was granted Durham Palace in the Strand, London, and a monopoly for wine, which brought an income of over £700 per annum. By 1586, he had been knighted and awarded lands previously belonging to the executed Anthony Babington, who had conspired with Mary, Queen of Scots, to assassinate Elizabeth.

There are few contemporary portraits of Raleigh and this triumphant depiction was painted in 1588, following the English defeat of the Spanish Armada. Raleigh did not command a ship, but he was the Queen’s naval advisor and, working with Sir John Hawkins, he had been able to suggest improvements to the design of English warships that contributed to the victory.

Raleigh is here portrayed at his most swaggering, dressed in the Queen’s colours of black and white. His confidence is tangible and his costume dramatic. The pearls on his cloak form the rays of a ‘sun in splendour’ and refer to Elizabeth. They were her signature jewels and he wears them again on his wrist and in his ear. The earring pearls allude to his daring and maverick nature and it is tempting to interpret them as a metaphor for the most masculine part of the male anatomy. They symbolise, too, his wealth and closeness to Elizabeth I. This is a portrait of Walter Raleigh, but it is one in which the Queen is strongly present.

The Latin inscription on the left reads Amor et Virtute (‘By love and virtue’) and refers to appropriate, chaste love. The lettering may be a later addition because it is not clearly visible in X-rays. On the right are the words ‘AETATIS SVAE 34/ANo1588’, the sitter’s age and the date of the portrait. The artist is unknown, but it has been attributed to Monogrammist ‘H’, perhaps the portraitist Hubbard? The lettering bears comparison with those on a portrait of Sir John Shurley of Isfield, also of 1588, in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. There are similarities between the two paintings, but Raleigh’s portrait was not in sufficiently good condition to properly compare the artists.

The crescent moon to the top left of the picture frame refers to Cynthia, the moon goddess. Raleigh was a true Renaissance man who wrote about thirty poems and devoted a cycle of them to Cynthia, the alias he employed for Elizabeth I. Conservation of the panel in 2013 has revealed a line of waves below the moon, referring to the Queen’s nickname for Raleigh, which was ‘Water’, a pun on his forename that was particularly apt considering his profession. The symbol of water also links Raleigh to the defeat of the Spanish Armada and highlights the importance of Elizabethan maritime trade.

Along with the crescent moon, the message is that the moon controls the seas in the same way that Raleigh is controlled by his queen. However, although Raleigh is presenting himself as the Queen’s devoted servant, he was in a precarious position. He was vulnerable because he was wholly reliant on her patronage and, probably due to his intrepid nature, he often fell out of favour. In 1592, he secretly married Bess Throckmorton, daughter of the diplomat Nicholas Throckmorton and cousin of Francis Throckmorton. Bess was one of Elizabeth’s ladies-in-waiting and their marriage without her permission (which would have been refused) resulted in them both being sent to the Tower of London.

While imprisoned, Raleigh wrote of his predicament in his eleventh and last book of Ocean to Scinthia, ‘What storms so great but Cinthias beame appeased? What rage so fierce that love could not allay?’ He was later released and permitted to return to court, principally because the Queen profited considerably from his privateering. The Royal Charter that Elizabeth had awarded him in 1584 authorised him to ‘explore, colonise and rule’ ‘any heathen and barbarous land’ on condition that one fifth of all gold and silver discovered was paid to the Crown.

From the 1580s, Raleigh’s ambition was to colonise land in the Americas and to release the Spanish hold. In 1585, Roanoke, land in modern North Carolina, was explored on Raleigh’s initiative and he named it ‘Virginia’ in Elizabeth’s honour. The attempt to colonise failed and a second expedition was sent in 1587 that included John Whyte, an artist and map maker, to produce records of the land and its layout.

Raleigh later led an expedition to Guiana and Venezuela in search of the legendary golden city of El Dorado, understood to be a place of great wealth ruled by a king who covered himself with gold from head to toe each morning, washing it off in a sacred lake after sunset. Raleigh believed it to be the town of Manoa, on the shores of the mythical Lake Parime in South America, but the city was never located.

He is credited with bringing the potato and tobacco to Europe, though it appears that the Spanish were already aware of both these commodities. Raleigh popularised tobacco smoking, ironically declaring it good as a cure for coughs. Although it is probably an apocryphal tale, the explorer is said to have been enjoying his tobacco pipe when a servant saw smoke rising from him and, dashing into the room, threw a bucket of water over Raleigh, believing him to have been on fire.

After Elizabeth’s death, Raleigh’s fortunes declined rapidly. The new king, James I, wanted good relations with Spain, for whom Raleigh had been a formidable foe. He was accused of complicity in the ‘Main Plot’, a conspiracy against James, and once again imprisoned in the Tower of London. It was during this sojourn, from 1603 to 1616, that he embarked on his most ambitious writing project, The History of the World. It was intended for the young Henry, Prince of Wales, who came to visit the imprisoned adventurer. Henry delighted in tales of Elizabethan exploration and said, ‘Only my father would cage such a bird.’

In 1618, Raleigh – the last of Elizabeth’s Sea Dogs – was finally executed outside the Palace of Westminster and his body was buried at nearby St Margaret’s Church, where it resides to this day. His head was embalmed and given to his wife. It was said she kept it in a velvet bag until she died, when it was reunited with his body in the same tomb. At his death, he was 64 and had lived well beyond his contemporaries. In the humorous history book 1066 and All That, the authors suggest he was ‘executed for being left over from a previous reign’.

Changes were made to the composition of this picture during the painting process. Raleigh’s right hand was initially placed on his hip, but it was altered to rest on the table. The hand was painted before the sleeve and a space was left on the tablecloth to allow for further alterations. After the hand had been painted, the fingers were lengthened. Under-drawing marks the hand’s position and the line of buttons on the doublet. The face, hair and beard, along with the magnificent pearl earrings, were the first elements to be defined by the artist and the moon and the sea the last to be added.

The work has been painted using azurite and smalt pigments, which give the whole portrait a cool tone. Looking closely at the pearls, it can be noticed that the artist has applied a yellow pigment to each individual pearl to imitate a shine.

Raleigh’s collar would have been a quite highly coloured purple. It was first underpainted using smalt, a vivid blue pigment, before being overpainted with red lake. The red and the blue together would have resulted in a purple collar that would have enriched the appearance of the picture. Unfortunately, the smalt has discoloured and the red lake is now faded, but careful observation can pick out its still-pinkish tinge.

The background of the picture may have originally been intended to be yellow. It is underpainted in a greenish grey produced from yellow and black, but then painted over with earth pigments.

As was normal for this period, it was painted on wooden panel – in this case, three vertical boards of Eastern Baltic oak. From left to right, boards one and three came from trees that were felled after 1572, while board two, in the middle, was felled after 1540.


In May 1588, the Spanish Armada was assembled and ready to set sail from Lisbon with the specific aim of deposing Elizabeth I and returning England to the Catholic faith. The man who ordered the invasion was King Philip of Spain, once the husband of Mary I and now the powerful ruler of Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands and much of America. Philip’s ‘Invincible Armada’ was also a response to years of English attacks on Spanish treasure ships and the aid Elizabeth had sent to Dutch Protestants rebelling against Spain.

The Duke of Medina Sidonia was appointed commander, aboard the flagship of the fleet, the San Martin. As the tide turned, he ordered the firing of a great canon, followed by the sound of bugles that summoned Spanish ships to weigh anchor and leave for England.

Priests blessed 130 enormous galleons, carrying 30,000 men, as they made their way down the river towards the sea, where a change in the weather forced them to anchor in the mouth of the Tagus. It was to be two weeks before they could finally set sail, but once again the fleet was forced by bad weather to seek shelter, this time in Corunna. Fresh supplies were taken on board, repairs were carried out and, after a month, the Armada set sail once more for England.

On 29 July, the great ships were sighted off the Lizard, Cornwall. Elizabeth had appointed Lord Howard of Effingham as her Lord Admiral and Commander in Chief, with Francis Drake as second in command aboard the 500-ton ship, The Revenge. The explorers John Hawkins and Martin Frobisher also commanded English ships, but Raleigh did not play a major part in the sea battle. England’s navy consisted of forty-seven ships, whose number was bolstered by others, volunteered by gentry and noblemen at their own cost.

The Queen was reluctant to make war; peace talks continued even as the ships were sailing into confrontation. Fending off such a powerful enemy, the island nation had to save itself, against enormous odds. At an anxious meeting of the English Privy Council, Lord Burghley described the Armada as ‘the mightiest enemy England ever had’.

On 31 July, the Duke of Medina Sidonia hoisted the Spanish standard on the top mast of his flagship, the San Martin, signalling that war was declared and England’s battle with the Spanish Armada had begun. Alas, the story of Drake refusing to interrupt his game of bowls (saying there would be time enough to win the game and still beat the Spanish) is almost certainly apocryphal.

The English set sail in rain so heavy that the opponents could hardly see one another and – at the mercy of the weather yet again – few shots were fired. However, at dawn the next day, the damaged Spanish ship the Rosario was captured by Drake and towed into Torbay harbour. This was followed by an explosion aboard the San Salvadore, leading to it being towed into Weymouth and its artillery confiscated by the Golden Hind.

There was a battle off Portland Bill and on 4 August, as the Isle of Wight came into view, the Spanish were running out of ammunition. Howard ordered the Ark Royal and the Golden Lion to be in position to prevent the Spanish entering the Solent. After hours of battle, the Armada withdrew and made for the Straits of Dover, from where they sailed to anchor off Calais. With the Armada not moving, the English recognised their advantage and, on the night of 8 August, they acted. Eight old ships were filled with flammable material and, under cover of darkness, they were set alight and sent by the wind and tide flaming towards the Spanish. These ‘Hellburners’, as the fire boats were known, caused panic among the enemy fleet. In their rush to escape in the pitch blackness, the Armada galleons collided with one another. The San Lorenzo was damaged, but no Spanish ship was set on fire.

The following day, 9 August, Elizabeth travelled to Tilbury to address her troops, assembled to repel the Spanish. She was dressed in white, wearing a silver cuirass (armour consisting of breastplate and backplate fastened together) and riding a grey gelding. The Sword of State was carried before her, along with her silver helmet on a cushion. The following words have been attributed to her: ‘I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm.’ This moment, when morale was of the utmost importance, is crucial to Elizabeth’s reputation as a truly great monarch. She faced the biggest crisis of her reign with unflinching bravery and resolved to ‘live and die amongst you all; to lay down for my God, and for my kingdom, and my people, my honour and my blood’. Her accomplished oratory is particularly powerful because it presents Elizabeth both as a vulnerable woman, asking her troops to defend her, and as a military leader, defiant in the face of a dangerous enemy.

The Armada was now off the Flemish coast at Gravelines and in danger of running aground. The English took advantage and, led by Drake in the Revenge, they attacked. Three Spanish ships were sunk, with a dozen heavily damaged. Six hundred Spaniards were killed and at least 800 wounded. After nine hours of fighting, the battle came to an end when the weather once again turned against them.

At dawn the English moved in but, lacking ammunition, were unable to attack. The Armada was also low on ammunition and they ran north, closely followed by the English, determined to prevent the Spanish landing on English soil. Howard gave orders to relinquish the chase at the Firth of Forth. The English navy had won a spectacular victory over the Spanish, who had lost two-thirds of their 30,000 crew and half of their 130 ships. The English ships returned home with the loss of less than 100 men. Perhaps not fully realising the bravery of her sailors, Elizabeth is said to have grumbled that no treasure was captured.

In 1595, Drake set sail on his final voyage, to the West Indies. He contracted dysentery and died on 28 January 1596. His corpse is said to have been attired in full armour and sealed in a lead coffin when it was buried at sea off the coast of Portobello. Although many historians over the years have searched for his body, it has never been recovered.

Between 1585 and 1603, ‘little’ England waged an intense maritime war with the mighty Spain. Elizabeth and her Sea Dogs of legend made England a powerful force in sea trade and maritime conflict, while the defeat of the Armada ensured that anti-Catholicism became a significant part of what it meant to be English.

England’s survival in 1588 was due to Spanish errors, bad weather and the problems of a long-distance seaborne invasion. But her capabilities at sea also played a central role in fending off invasion and the victory led to a surge in national pride and recognition of the country as one of Europe’s most fearsome sea powers.

Hearing of the defeat, Philip II is said to have replied, ‘I sent them to fight against men, not storms.’ Sir Walter Raleigh thought Philip himself was to blame: ‘To invade by sea upon a perilous coast, being neither in possession of any port, nor succoured by any party, may better fit a prince presuming on his fortune than enriched with understanding.’

Memories of the Armada were revived by the threat of French invasion in the Napoleonic Wars and again, in 1940, by the attack from Hitler’s Germany, known as ‘The Battle of Britain’. It was a story of the plucky English underdog facing a formidable foe, and the nation’s darkest hour. Elizabeth’s defiant speech at Tilbury and the events of 1588 had been brought to the cinema in Fire over England; released in the United States in 1937, its popularity helped to drum up support for Britain.


Unknown artist, 1588/90, oil on panel, Greenwich Maritime Museum, London

This portrait, painted to commemorate the defeat of Philip II’s Spanish Armada in 1588, shows Elizabeth in triumph. She is richly dressed and painted in an attractive light, seated in majesty. Surrounding her are items intended to send out messages of glory, victory and intimidation. Here is Elizabeth at the glorious pinnacle of her later reign. The imperial covered crown sits beside her; she is now unchallenged, as Mary, Queen of Scots, was executed the year before, at Fotheringhay Castle. Another Catholic threat to Elizabeth’s throne had also been removed.

The Queen is seated upright, her arms are open and she is looking unwaveringly at the viewer. Although she was around 55 when this was painted, her complexion is as smooth and pale as in her youth. The finial of the throne behind her left shoulder is in the shape of an egg, which in her younger days would have referred to her fertility but is now possibly a reference to her eternal youth and everlasting life.

Elizabeth’s body is completely concealed, almost negating her gender and hinting perhaps at the price a female monarch paid for power. The huge number of pearls she is wearing around her neck, in her hair and on her gown associate her with Cynthia, goddess of the moon, whose power extended to the control of the seas. The largest of all the pearls is a magnificent baroque example hanging from a pink bow at around the level of her genitals. It is tempting to consider that had she been her father, Henry VIII, this would have been the site of a codpiece.

The ruff frames her face like the sun’s rays, with her at the centre, emanating warmth, beauty and wisdom. Her abundant silver sleeves are resplendent with gold suns which continue across the front panel of her dress.

From around 1570, ruffs made from plain linen or cotton tended to be replaced by those decorated with or made entirely of lace, of which Elizabeth here wears an exquisite example. Before the 1550s, lace in English portraits is rare. It was portraits of the Queen, like this one, that led to the growing popularity and increasing complexity of lacework. Once attached directly to the dress, by the time of this painting they were separate garments tied with tassels that could be individually laundered.

The Queen has her hand on a globe pointing towards America and, specifically, to the colony that was named after her most celebrated attribute: Virginia. This indicates that in her moment of triumph this queen has ambitions that stretch far beyond Europe, suggesting she looks to secure a global position for the English nation. Unusually, her white, long-fingered hands (of which she was so proud) are not adorned with jewellery, most likely so as not to detract from the references to the new territories lying before her.


Painted to commemorate the defeat of Philip II’s Spanish Armada in 1588, this portrait portrays Elizabeth in triumph, with ambitions that stretch far beyond Europe.

Her dress is black and white, her preferred colours, and an expression of power and luxury. To obtain the rich black fabric, an expensive dye was required and in greater quantities than other colours to achieve the desired depth of colour. White symbolised purity and was favoured by Elizabeth for its association with virtue, but it was also considered luxurious because of the expense it took to maintain it in pristine condition. The enormous, detachable sleeves are heavily padded and embroidered with gold stars and pearls.

To the Queen’s left are Spanish ships foundering in the stormy waters, on which she has turned her back. During the battle of the Armada, the fleet of Philip II of Spain was sailing to assemble around the Spanish Netherlands when the favourable wind changed to a southerly storm and they were blown north, away from their intended destination and towards the east coast of England. She looks instead to the calm seas on her right, which represent her composed leadership in taking her people away from the rough and unpredictable seas of Catholic Europe.

There is a statue-like figure to her right, reminiscent of a ship’s figurehead in the form of a mermaid. Mermaids were reputed to have tempted sailors to their ruin and could refer in this instance to Elizabeth’s power over the Spanish seamen. It was also a slang name for prostitutes in Elizabethan London, presumably alluding to the control they held over their clients.

This oil-on-oak-panel painting was perhaps commissioned by Sir Francis Drake; it was at one time certainly owned by him and remained in his family. Drake’s cousin was Richard Drake of Devon, who had been charged with looking after senior Spanish prisoners following the Armada defeat. The Spanish vice-admiral, Don Pedro de Valdez, was held at Richard Drake’s manor house in Esher. Valdez was repatriated in 1593 for a ransom of £1,500 and later became Governor of Cuba. Richard Drake named his son Francis after his famous cousin, who agreed to be the boy’s godfather. Sir Francis Drake died childless and the painting was passed to his godson. It remained in the Tyrwhitt-Drake family until 2016 when it was placed on the market to secure the estate.

Following an appeal for donations by the Art Fund, 8,000 individuals contributed to its purchase. A testament, perhaps, to the affection in which it is held by the nation. In July 2016, the painting was purchased for £10.3 million. It hangs today in the Queen’s House at Greenwich, which was built in the seventeenth century as part of Greenwich Palace, the birthplace of Elizabeth I. There are three known versions of this picture, all believed to have been painted around the same time. One resides in the National Portrait Gallery in London and another in the collection of the Duke of Bedford at Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire.

The painter of this portrait is unknown, with likely suggestions being George Gower, Serjeant Painter to Elizabeth from 1581, and her limner, Nicholas Hilliard – both English artists. The three portraits are associated with different workshops but Elizabeth’s face in all three versions conforms to the approved image created by Hilliard. There is a pen and ink drawing by Hilliard that was produced as part of his design for the Great Seal, in which the dress resembles the one Elizabeth is wearing in this portrait. However, as with so many Tudor portraits, we are left unable to reach a conclusion, principally because it was not customary for the sixteenth-century English artist to leave his mark and contemporary documentation is rare.

Following its purchase for the nation in 2016, heavy layers of old varnish that dulled the colours were removed from the panel, allowing the vibrant shades beneath to shine through and offering the viewer a glimpse of the dazzling Tudor painting that Elizabeth’s contemporaries would have seen.

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