It is not surprising that with such a legendary figure as Sir Francis Drake there are many folk stories told about him. Although he did not live on Dartmoor there are quite a few traditions associated with him and the moor. As he was such an heroic figure it is puzzling why some of the legends portray him as an evil person. It must be remembered that there has always been a deep belief in witchcraft on the moor and anybody who performed such feats as Drake could be regarded as possessing magical powers, in some cases these could have been believed to have come from the Devil.
Mrs Bray mentions several of the early Drake legends, the first being how Drake took the much needed water supply to Plymouth, se says:
“…the people of Plymouth were so destitute of water in the reign of Queen Elizabeth that they were obliged to send their clothes to, Plympton to be washed in fresh water. Sir Francis Drake resolved to rid them of this inconvenience. So he called for his horse, mounted, rode to Dartmoor, and hunted about till he found, a very fine spring. Having fixed on one that would suit his purpose, he gave a smart lash to his horse’s side, pronouncing as he did so some magical words, when off went the animal as fast as he could gallop, and the stream followed his heels all the way into the town.“
This story could have been inspired by the legend whereby on the day in 1585 when ‘Drake’s Leat‘ was completed he rode down its length just ahead of the new water supply as it tumbled towards the eagerly awaiting town of Plymouth.
Buckland Abbey was Drake’s Devonshire home and today it stands about a mile outside the Dartmoor National Park boundary, he purchased the old abbey from his rival Sir Richard Grenville. Having decided on some alterations he started building work, it was not long before the Devil decided to interfere and so every night he would come along and steal the building materials. Drake could not fathom out who was responsible and so one night he changed himself into a seagull and flew over his new home. Here he saw the evil one taking the building materials and so in a series of dive bombing attacks flew down and chased ‘old nick’ off. Anybody who has tried eating food on Torquay harbour will know how effective a seagull can be at dive bombing!
It is not known whether the great tithe barn was altered during the same building programme as the abbey but when it was he suffered the same problem. Every night the building stone would be carted away into oblivion so Drake decided to find out for himself who was pinching his stone. One clear night he dressed himself up in a white sheet and climbed to the top of a nearby tree, here he waited until he saw exactly who the culprits were. It did not take long for a troop of piskies to appear and start heaving away the stones. Upon seeing this Drake waved his arms and started crowing like a dung-hill cock, the piskies thinking dawn was coming hurriedly scampered off in the direction of home.
There is a slightly different version to this story and that relates how Drake sent a servant out to see what was happening to his building. Without questioning, the poor man crept out in the dark of night and climbed a nearby tree where he could observe undetected. Unfortunately it must have been a hard day because the servant fell asleep only to be awoken by the clatter of hooves and the rattle of a carts. Peering through the branches the man could make out several teams of oxen all pulling huge carts loaded with his master’s building materials. The wagon train was led by a hideous spectre who as it passed the tree urged his teams of oxen on, they did not respond so the demon plucked the tree from the earth and violently whipped the beasts with it. Unfortunately for the servant he was tossed from the branches and was sent sprawling across the yard. Eventually when the man regained his senses he was able to explain to his master what had become of the building materials. Legend has it that a combination of the fall and the fright left the servant ‘half witted’ for the rest of his life – Thanks to Su, for kindly passing on this version.
Buckland Abbey – Richard Browne 1823
‘Drake’s Drum’ is said to be the very drum that was used on his ships to beat the men to action quarters prior to engagements. Somehow it found its way back to Plymouth where it is said to mysteriously beat itself during times of peril. There have been several occasions when the drum was said to have sounded, both of the world wars included. Today the famous drum can be seen at Drake’s former home of Buckland Abbey.
It is also said on Dartmoor that the ghost of Sir Francis Drake rides the moors on dark nights at the head of a pack of ‘Wisht Hounds’ seeking out the souls of the unwary or un-baptised. Some people have sworn they have seen him and the Devil riding out with the dogs of hell around Wistman’s Wood. Why he should be associated with these stories is a mystery and a very, very old mystery at that?