The Arms of Sir Francis Drake


Charles E. F. Drake
© Charles E. F. Drake 2008

Presented at the XXVIIIth International Congress of Genealogical and Heraldic Sciences

24 June 2008, Quebec City


Arms:  Sable, a fess wavy between two stars Argent.

Crest:  Upon the terrestrial globe a ship under sail drawn round the same with golden hawsers by a hand appearing from clouds Proper, on the mainmast a star Argent, and in the ship a wyvern Gules, its wings spread, looking towards the hand, motto: Auxilio Divino.

Motto:  Sic Parvis Magna.



In 1581, in gratitude for his heroic accomplishment of circumnavigating the globe, Queen Elizabeth knighted Sir Francis Drake, and through her heralds, granted him arms. (Fig. 1)

Fig. 1 Arms of Sir Francis Drake, as granted

Fig. 2  Arms of the Drakes of Ashe

This grant might be seen as the beginning of a controversy which has now lasted for over 400 years. The purpose of this paper is to summarize the arguments and the existing evidence about the controversy, and also to present some of the author’s research which sheds new light on the subject.


Part of the controversy about the arms of Sir Francis Drake involves their exact design, which, as will be discussed, exists in several versions and with contradictions between the various blazons and emblazonments. This is a point on which a legalist resolution may well be impossible, but about which a sort of consensus can be reached. The author’s conflation of the various possibilities is reflected in the blazon at the head of this paper. The arms, intended to represent the circumnavigation of the world, are frequently cited as an example of symbolic heraldry, and the crest is cited to illustrate decadence since it could not be modeled on a helmet.

But the difficulty does not stop there. In point of fact, the problem of Drake’s arms actually antedates the 1581 grant, for prior to this he claimed and displayed arms, whose design can only be inferred, but to which his right has been questioned.(1) Sir Francis, descended from the Drake family centered near Tavistock in west Devon, claimed the arms of an ancient armigerous family of Drakes centered at the manor of Ashe, in the parish of Musbury, in east Devon.

Their arms were Argent, a wyvern Gules, and the crest A dexter arm Proper grasping a battle axe Sable, headed Argent. (Fig. 2)   The arms may be seen on the fine wall tomb (Fig. 3) and stained glass (Fig. 4) at St. Michael’s Church, Musbury.

Fig. 3  Drake tomb at Musbury

Fig. 4 Drake stained glass at Musbury


Because Sir Francis’s right to the arms of the Drakes of Ashe has been challenged, his actions in claiming those arms have been seen by many historians and heraldists as armorial usurpation. Prince, in his Worthies of Devon, relates that after Sir Francis Drake received his knighthood, he appropriated the arms of the Drakes of Ashe and was reprimanded at court by Sir Bernard Drake. In retribution, he reports, the Queen then gave Sir Francis a new coat-of-arms and ordered that the wyvern gules be hanged by the heels in the rigging of the ship appearing in the new crest.(2) One biographer put it this way:

Sir Francis Drake had the happiness to live under the reign of a princess who never failed to distinguish merit, and what was more, to reward it. He was always her favourite, and she gave an uncommon proof of it in respect to a quarrel he had with his countryman, Sir Bernard Drake, whose arms Sir Francis assuming, the other was so provoked, that he gave him a box on the ear; upon this the queen took up the quarrel, and gave Sir Francis a new coat. (3)

The historian R. N. Worth summed up the thoughts of many when he said, "…Sir Francis Drake, like many a parvenu of modern times, was not content to be the founder of his own fortunes, but was weakly anxious to assert hereditary claims to a position in polite society."(4)

The matter was presented quite humorously by C. W. Scott-Giles in a poem published in his Motley Heraldry:(5)

Sir Bernard said to Sir Francis,
'You're making a grave mistake
If, now you're a knight,
You think you've a right
To the wyvern gules of Drake.'

Sir Francis said to Sir Bernard,
'Your wyvern gules you can keep.
At the Queen's behest
I'll have such a crest
As will make your arms look cheap.'

Queen Elizabeth said to the heralds,
'Draw Frankie a coat of worth,
And thereon between
Pole Stars be seen
His wavy course round the earth;

And upon a globe on his helmet
The good ship Golden Hind show,
With a dragon to fame
El Draco's name.'
And the heralds made it so.

Sir Francis said, 'Look, Sir Bernard!'
And Sir Bernard proudly spake,
'Grand arms you've got,
I allow, but they're not
The ancient wyvern of Drake.'

Prior Work

In studying the arms of Sir Francis Drake and the attendant controversy, we do not work in a vacuum, for a lot has already been written about this. This is unsurprising inasmuch as this dispute has been shown to have existed from the 16th Century until now. Much of the discussion in print dates from the last quarter of the 19th Century, undoubtedly prompted by the 300th anniversary of the Spanish Armada and by the erection of the monument to Sir Francis on Plymouth Hoe.

There was quite an argument between proponents of Sir Francis’ right to the wyvern coat-of-arms, principal among them Henry H. Drake, author of Hasted’s Kent, Hundred of Blackheath (6) and the detractors, chiefly Sir William Drake, of the Ashe family.(7)

In terms of scholarly studies, H. H. Drake’s paper in the Archeological Journal is invaluable, though presenting his bias.(8) A more balanced view is that of Julian S. Corbett in his Drake and the Tudor Navy.(9) He favors Drake’s right to the wyvern arms, and from his discussion was clearly influenced by H. H. Drake. Sir Anthony Wagner revisited the matter in 1963 in Drake in England,(10) but reaches the opposite conclusion, that Sir Francis’ right to the ancient arms remained unproven. Sir Anthony had the obvious advantage of having not only full access to material at the College of Arms, but also the most expert understanding of their meaning.

The Grants

From surviving documents relating to the grant of arms to Sir Francis Drake, it appears that initially a blazon was proposed which was not used. Two copies of a proposed text for letters patent exist in the hand of Robert Glover. One is undated and the other is dated [ ] June 1581. The first contains a lengthy preamble, and in the second the preamble is abridged.(11) However, there is a note by Glover which reads "This draughte tooke none effect, it was never used."(12) The blazon in the Glover version is Sable a fess wavy between two stars Or, and in the crest, "the upper half of a red dragon" is placed in the ship.

In addition to these documents by Glover, additional material exists by Robert Cooke, Clarenceux, and his certificate also occurs in two versions.(13) Once again, in the second draft the preamble is shorter. In the first draft the stars are Or, but in the second the tincture is changed to Argent. In the first draft the crest contains a demi-dragon, and in the second a complete dragon.

The following words are also found, "The draft was abridged and made shorter according as it is set down on the next leaf following"(14) and "This instrument above written was abridged and made shorter in form hereafter expressed and delivered unto Sir Francis Drake under the hand of Robert Cooke, Clarenceux, and after being the second time newly made and fair written for the said Sir Francis Drake, the clause following was added next before the witness of Clarenceux and the latter end of all in place where the mark * is placed, viz:

Notwithstanding that the said Sir Francis Drake, being well-born and descended of worthy ancestors such as have long time borne arms, as tokens and demonstrations of their race and progeny, which likewise to him by just descent and prerogative of birth are duly derived, may for the arms of his surname and family bear argent a waver dragon Volant gules with the difference of a third brother, as I am credibly informed by the testimony of Bernard Drake, of [ blank ] in the county of Devon, Esquire, chief of that coat armour, and sundry others of that family of worship and good credit."(15)

In this last document, a red wyvern volant is drawn in trick in the ship gazing at the hand holding the golden cords. There is also a star on the mainmast, though neither the star nor the position of the wyvern is blazoned. (Fig. 5)

Fig. 5 Trick of grant by Robert Cooke

Fig. 6  Sketch of seal used by Sir Francis Drake

From studying this series of documents, what was going on between Sir Francis and the heralds seems obvious. The process started out as a new grant to a "new man," and ended up as something more nearly akin to an augmentation on existing arms. Sir Francis was evidently dissatisfied with the initial document, which failed to admit his right to the arms of the armigerous Drakes of Devon. He seems to have pressed for what he wanted, for the second certificate by Cooke contains the phrase giving permission for him to bear the ancient Drake arms as a cadet. Furthermore, the dragon or wyvern became added to the crest as the process evolved, which is another reference to the Ashe arms. In the process the tincture of the stars was also altered to argent, which seems an improvement.


If it could be proved that this patent was issued, then that might settle the matter, but once again complications exist. One difficulty is that although it seems from the notations on the Cooke certificates that Sir Francis should have received two different versions of the final patent, only one grant was extant at Nutwell Court, the later seat of the Drakes of Buckland, the heirs of Sir Francis, and this document did not contain the interpolation regarding the wyvern quartering. Neither did it contain the wyvern in the ship. This has caused several commentators to infer that perhaps the signature of Sir Bernard was never obtained.(16) The story told by Prince lends credence to this theory. At the very least, the Prince story suggests there was some dispute about this at the time.

Furthermore, the statement about the instrument being "delivered unto Sir Francis Drake" occurs in the midst of several versions, and there is some ambiguity as to the version or versions to which it referred as being delivered. Also, a number of the copies of the grant in the College of Arms and the British Museum do not contain the Cooke interpolation.(17) One document that does contain the ancestral clause does employ the term "confirmation," which implies recognition of an existing right.(18) On the other hand, nowhere is the term "augmentation" used.

Part 2

Part 3



1 Western Antiquary, Vol. 6, 1886-7, p. 249; Julian S. Corbett, Drake and the Tudor Navy, Temple Smith 1988 (1898), p. 264.

2 John Prince, Worthies of Devon, 1st Edition, 1701, pp.45-47.

3 Alexander Chalmers, Ed., The General Biographical Dictionary, Vol. XII, London, 1813, p. 311.

4 Transactions of the Devonshire Association, Vol. 16, 1884, p. 508.

5 C. W. Scott-Giles, “The Two Drakes,” Motley Heraldry, Tabard Publications, n.d., pp. 26-27.

6 Henry H. Drake, Ed., Hasted’s History of Kent, The Hundred of Blackheath, London, 1886.

7 “Drake and His Detractors,” Genealogist, Vol. 2 (NS), Oct. 1885, pp. 275-279; R. N. Worth, “The Drakes in Tavistock,” Notes and Gleanings, Vol. 1, No. 6, 15 June 1888, pp. 86-7; The Western Antiquary, Vol. 1, March 1881, pp. 2-3; April 1881, pp. 6, 9-10, 12, 19; June 1881, p. 34; The Genealogist, Vol. 1, 1877, pp. 207-211, 287-288, 328-331; Transactions of the Devonshire Association, Vol. 15, 1883, pp. 487-493; “The Arms of Sir Francis Drake,” Herald and Genealogist, Vol. VIII, pp. 307-313,  476-477, 478-482.

8 Archeological Journal of the Royal Archeological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. XXX, 1873, pp. 358-388.

9 Julian S. Corbett, Drake and the Tudor Navy, Temple Smith, 1988 (1898), appendix G, pp. 410-415.

10 Anthony R. Wagner, Drake in England, Rev. Ed., Concord, New Hampshire Historical Society, 1970 (1963), pp. 17-21.

11 Bodleian Library, Ashmole MS 834, ff. 44v, 220v.

12 Bodleian Library, Ashmole MS 834, ff 44v.
13 Bodleian Library, Ashmole MS 834, ff 37v, 38v, 221v.

14 Bodleian Library, Ashmole MS 834, f. 37v.

15 Bodleian Library, Ashmole MS 834, f. 38v.

16 This was the view of Sir Anthony Wagner.

17 For example, Wagner, op. cit., fn. 26, p. 37; one exception being Coll. Arms MS F.12, ff. 163-4.
18 Vincent, Coll. Arms MS 184, p. 54.