During the life of Francis Drake, Philip the Second of Spain was the most powerful king in Europe. Spain and the Netherlands belonged to him, parts of Italy, France, and Germany, and a great part of America. From Mexico, Peru, and the West Indian Islands Spanish ships sailed home with treasure of silver and gold, as they do in fairy tales, while Portuguese ships traded in Africa for slaves and gold and ivory, and had even ventured as far as the then little-known East Indies. Lastly, Philip added Portugal and its possessions to his vast inheritance, and would have liked to hold all the world "for God and for Spain." Being himself a good Catholic, he wished to see all men of that faith, and to those who did not believe in it he was a merciless foe, and he shed the blood of many martyrs.
Now Drake hated Philip and the Pope more than anything in the world, as much as he loved England and honoured his own Queen Elizabeth. He spent most of his life in making war against the King of Spain in one way or another, calling it all, as he told Queen Elizabeth, "service done to your Majesty by your poor vassal (or servant) against your great enemy."
During Drake's life wars about religion were raging in almost every European country. In France the struggle ended by most people remaining Catholics, just as England, after Elizabeth's reign, was always a Protestant country. But such changes really take long to come about, especially in days when news travelled slowly, when there were no trains or steamships, and no penny newspapers.
Francis Drake was born when Edward the Sixth was king, in a farmhouse near Tavistock in Devonshire; but while he was quite a young child his father, who was a Protestant, had to fly from his country home, owing to an outbreak of anger among his Catholic neighbours. So the first stories the little Francis would hear must have been tales of this time of persecution, when many of his father's friends had to hide in woods and caves, and lost all they possessed. From his very cradle he must have been taught to hate the "Papists."
The new home was rather a strange one, for the old books say Drake's father went to Kent, "to inhabit in the hull of a ship, wherein many of his younger sons were born. He had twelve in all, and as it pleased God that most of them should be born upon the water, so the greater part of them died at sea. "The father seems to have been a sailor at one time, and he now got a place among the seamen of the King's Navy, to read prayers to them. The Navy ships were anchored off Chatham when not in use, and here, in an old unused warship, the elder Drake and his family made their floating home. Here most of the twelve boys were born, a troop of merry children, and many a fine game they must have had on the decks.
The sound of wind and waves must have been familiar to them as they went to sheep at nights, and they grew up strong and fearless, and, living as they did among sailors, must have early set their hearts on going to sea and having adventures.
At the death of King Edward the Sixth the Catholic Queen Mary began to reign, and Philip, then Prince of Spain, came over to marry her. He looked "very gallant," they said, in his suit of white kid, covered with gold embroidery, and was followed by a train of splendid-looking Spanish nobles, and he brought quantities of gold and silver, borne on the backs of horses. But the English people hated the foreign marriage, and so strong was this feeling that in the winter before the wedding even the children in the streets shouted against the Spaniards and snowballed them as they went to Court. Perhaps Francis Drake and his brothers left their usual games to play at being Philip and the English, like some other lads, of whom we read that their play became so real and exciting that they were only just prevented from hanging the boy who acted the part of Philip. The King of Spain might have seen his son upon the English throne, but this hope, like so many of his, was doomed to be defeated, for Mary died childless, and Elizabeth came to the throne.
As Drake's father was at this time a poor man, he put his son Francis to learn seamanship of the master of a bark or small ship that used to coast along the shore and sometimes carried merchandise to France and the Netherlands. At this time he must have had to suffer many hardships and to live a rough life, but he learned his business well, and "was so diligent and painstaking, and so pleased the old man his master by his industry," that at his death he left his bark to Francis Drake.
Later Drake grew weary of this little ship, that "only crept along the shore," and longed for something more than such safe and simple voyaging, so he seems to have sold the bark and taken service with his kinsmen, the Hawkins brothers, who were rich merchants and owned and sailed their ships. And so began Drake's roving life.