Sir Francis Drake, whose home this was, is the hero of many legends recorded by two Victorian folklorists active in the area, Mrs Anna Eliza Bray in the 1830s and Robert Hunt in the 1860s. Already in his lifetime the Spaniards had feared him as a magician who could command the winds by the Devil’s aid and had a magic mirror enabling him to spy on their fleets. Devonshire people gleefully adopted this notion; they told how Drake created fire-ships by magic, to defeat the Armada; how he led a stream of fresh water from Dartmoor down into Plymouth by simply riding ahead of it, uttering a spell of summoning; how he turned Buckland Abbey from a ruin into a mansion in just three nights, with the Devil’s help; and how his magic mirror (or a spirit) warned him, while he was in the Antipodes, of his wife’s impending remarriage.
After Drake died off Panama in 1595, various mementos were brought home to Buckland Abbey, including a drum painted with his coat of arms, traditionally believed to have come from the ship on which he sailed round the world in 1577–80; this became, much later, the focus for what is now the most famous Drake legend. The first hint of this comes from the folklorist Robert Hunt who, writing before 1865, says that ‘old Betty Donithorne, formerly the housekeeper at Buckland Abbey’, told him that ‘if the old warrior hears the drum which hangs in the hall of the abbey, and which accompanied him round the world, he rises and holds a revel.’
This homely and cheerful belief was transformed into something of national significance by Sir Henry Newbolt’s vivid patriotic poem ‘Drake’s Drum’, written in 1895 for the tercentenary of the hero’s death. It was immediately popular, and was set as a rousing song. It was Newbolt who launched the idea that Drake on his deathbed sent the drum home, saying it should be beaten to call his spirit back to defend England in any hour of danger:
If the Dons sight Devon, I’ll quit the port of Heaven,
And drum them up the Channel, as we drummed them long ago.
The patriotic message of the drum for a nation at war was further developed by another poet, Alfred Noyes, who wrote in an article on submarine warfare in The Times on 28 August 1916:
There is a tale in Devonshire that Sir Francis Drake has not merely listened for his drum, during the last 300 years, but has also heard and answered it on more than one naval occasion. It was heard, as men of the Brixham trawlers can testify, about a hundred years ago, when a little man, under the pseudonym of Nelson (for all Devonshire knows that Nelson was a reincarnation of Sir Francis) went sailing by to Trafalgar …
It was only a little before the great naval action in the North Sea [the battle of Jutland, 1916] – perhaps the greatest British victory since Trafalgar – that word came from the Brixham trawlers again. They had ‘heard Drake’s drum beat’ and were assured that the ghost of Sir Francis Drake was inhabiting the body of Sir John Jellicoe.
Whether this is authentic tradition is doubtful; nothing like it had been previously reported by local historians or folklorists. But it certainly developed into a powerful new legend, both locally and nationally, and was exploited again in the Second World War. It has been reinforced by reports of people actually hearing the drum at moments of crisis in both wars.