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Drake's Drum

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Take my drum to England, hang et by the shore,
Strike et when your powder's runnin' low;
If the Dons sight Devon, I'll quit the port o' Heaven,
An' drum them up the Channel as we drummed them long ago.

– from 'Drake's Drum' by Sir Henry Newbolt

The great Sir Francis Drake, maritime hero, conqueror of the Spanish Armada and jack-of-all-trades1 was the saviour of England in 1588. His legendary calm at the sighting of the Spanish fleet off Plymouth while he was apparently playing bowls put proof to the claim that he was a man who had no fear. As a consequence of this strength of character, it is little wonder that the drum that accompanied him on his voyages is said to sound whenever England is in peril – or has succeeded in honouring another great hero or defeating a great enemy.

When the Drum has Sounded

Many tales and fables surround the man himself, and Drake's drum is just as mysterious. Stories tell of the drum beating when the Mayflower left Plymouth for America in 1620, when Nelson was made a Freeman of Plymouth in January, 1801, and when Napoleon Bonaparte was brought into Plymouth Harbour as a prisoner aboard the Bellerophon in August, 1815.

At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, the drum was said to rumble lowly. Then, in November 1918 when the German fleet surrendered, men onboard the British admiral's flagship Royal Oak heard the long roll of a drum. In 1939, at the outbreak of the Second World War, the drum was apparently heard at Combe Sydenham House (the home of Drake's second wife Elizabeth Sydenham) and then in May, 1940 the drum was said to have beaten during the evacuation of Dunkirk by the British Expeditionary Forces.

Two British army officers on the Hampshire coast also claimed they heard the drum beating defiantly in September, 1940 during the Battle of Britain, while many Plymouthians reported they heard the drum 'rolling' during air raids on the city throughout the war. The drum then remained quiet for many years, although in 1982 during the Falklands War it was said to beat quietly and it was also reported that soft rumblings were heard from the drum on 7 July, 2005 when London was hit by a terrorist attack.

Until It Beats Again

Drake's property at Buckland Abbey, which he purchased in 1581, long had the drum hung on a wall in regards to the legend that if it hangs near Plymouth, in times of need it will beat and the spirit of Drake will return to aid his country. War poet Sir Henry Newbolt aided in perpetuating the myth, with his 1897 poem 'Drake's Drum'2, which has been put to both classical and folk tunes.

In 1938 there was a fire at the Abbey, which was discovered quickly enough to rescue the drum and other artefacts – some say the beating of a drum awoke one of the wardens in time for them to evacuate the pieces from the house. Now encased behind glass and given pride of place, Drake's Drum can still be seen at the Buckland Abbey Maritime Museum near Yelverton, Devon, UK.

1Including explorer, pirate, lover and champion of lawn bowls.2An mp3 file of the poem can be found here.

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