Monday, April 8, 2013

The Execution of Thomas Doughty by Francis Drake

 by David Wesley Hill

I learned of the trial and execution of Thomas Doughty from The World Encompassed by Sir Francis Drake, a history of the second circumnavigation of the globe.  Despite its title this book was not written by Drake himself but by a nephew thirty years after Drake's death.

According to The World Encompassed, Doughty and Drake were good friends and companions, but even so, Doughty apparently had been plotting against Drake since “before the voyage began, in England” and sought not only to murder “our general, and such others as were most firm and faithful to him, but also [sought] the final overthrow of the whole action.

Eventually Doughty's transgressions became so egregious that Drake was forced to take action.  He ordered Doughty into custody and convened a formal trial.  Forty men were chosen as jurors.  “Proofs were required and alleged, so many and so evident, that the gentlemen himself [Doughty], stricken with remorse of his inconsiderate and unkind dealing, acknowledged himself to have deserved death …

Thomas Doughty was convicted of treason by unanimous vote.  After the verdict was returned, Drake offered the guilty man three options.  "Whether you would take," he asked Doughty, "to be executed in this island? Or to be set a land on the main? Or to return into England, there to answer for your deeds before the lords of her majesty's council?"

Doughty, however, refused this leniency, replying:

"Albeit I have yielded in my heart to entertain so great a sin as whereof now I am condemned, I have a care to die a Christian man . . . If I should be set a land among infidels, how should I be able to maintain this assurance? . . . And if I should return into England, I must first have a ship, and men to conduct it . . . and who would accompany me, in so bad a message? . . . I profess with all my heart that I do embrace the first branch of your offer, desiring only this favor, that you and I might receive the holy communion again together before my death, and that I might not die, other than a gentleman's death."

Drake granted Doughty's request.  The next day they celebrated communion with Francis Fletcher, pastor of the fleet, and afterward Drake and Doughty dined together, “each cheering up the other, and taking their leave, by drinking each to other, as if some journey only had been in hand.” Then “without any dallying or delaying” Doughty knelt down, preparing his neck for the blade. His final words were instructions to the executioner to “do his office, not to fear nor spare.”

My immediate reaction to this story was that it simply was not credible.  I could not believe any man would choose death when given the alternative choice of a sea voyage home.

The queen's displeasure was a distant threat, after all, while the executioner's sword was a very near danger.  I also doubted that Doughty would value his immortal soul over his mortal life and turn down Drake's offer of exile in Peru.  Whoever this man was, it was unlikely that he was a saint.

I suspected that The World Encompassed was a fabrication either in whole or in part.  In fact the book has known to be unreliable since the mid-19th Century.

Although claiming to be "carefully collected out of the notes of Master Francis Fletcher, Preacher in this employment, and divers others his followers in the same", the parson's notes were expurgated.  This only became clear in 1854, however, when the Hakluyt Society released The World Encompassed in an edition that included Fletcher's original notes as well as an account of the voyage by John Cooke, who sailed with the adventure.

To Cooke, Francis Drake was not a charismatic leader but a villain who "in tyranny excelled all men." His appraisal of Drake was so damning that the editor apologized for printing it.

Some historians, such as Sir Julian S. Corbett in Drake and the Tudor Navy—the biography of Drake against which others are measured—admitted that Cooke's narrative, although "the one most unfavorable to Drake", was "probably the most correct, if allowance be made for the adverse construction the author puts on all Drake's actions."

Henry B. Wagner, in Sir Francis Drake's Voyage Around the World, the authoritative study of the circumnavigation, printed the complete Cooke manuscript—except for the parts about Drake and Doughty.

Zelia Nuttall, whose New Light on Drake is a masterpiece of historical detection, claimed without proof that Cooke's narrative "plainly shows that it consists of a report of the Doughty affair which was subsequently tampered with for the malicious purpose of injuring Drake's reputation."

Despite this Victorian hand-wringing, contemporary scholars have reconciled themselves to the general accuracy of Cooke's account.  The story he tells is too internally consistent for it to be made up and many of its details are verified by other sources.

The World Encompassed glosses over Doughty's exact position in the adventure but Cooke states explicitly that he and Drake were “equal companions and friendly gentlemen.” It is likely that Drake was in charge of the ships and the sailors while Doughty had charge of the soldiers accompanying the fleet, particularly considering that in the Cape Verde Islands Doughty led the expeditionary force dispatched to explore inland and engage the Portuguese.

Although they were apparently friends at the start of the voyage, their relationship deteriorated during the Atlantic crossing.  Whenever there was foul weather, Drake would say "Thomas Doughty was the occasion there of," and call him "a conjurer and witch” and a“seditious fellow and a very bad and lewd fellow."

Doughty himself told anyone who would listen that "the worst word that came out of his [Drake's] mouth was to be believed as soon as his oath."  At one point Drake attempted to gather testimony against Doughty from other crew members, an effort which backfired in the case of Thomas Cuttle, master of the Pelican.  After talking with Drake, Cuttle departed in fury, jumped overboard and threatened to maroon himself rather than bear false witness against Doughty.

Cooke's version of the trial also differs significantly from that in The World Encompassed.  Doughty neither admitted to any crime nor showed any remorse.  He vigorously rebutted the charges against him and was assisted with his defense by Lenard Vicary, a lawyer, whom Drake dismissed as “crafty”.

At the start of the trial, in order to secure a conviction, Drake gave the jury his word that the death penalty was off the table but after the verdict he reneged on this promise.  Nor did Drake offer Doughty leniency only to have Doughty choose death instead.  In fact it was Doughty himself who requested exile, saying, “Seeing that you would have me made away, I pray you carry me with you to Peru and there set me ashore."

Drake refused. “No, truly," he replied, "I can not answer it to her Majesty if I should so do.  But how say you, Thomas Doughty, if any man will warrant me to be safe from your hands, and will undertake to keep you sure, you shall see what I will say unto you."

John Winter, captain of the Elizabeth, volunteered to keep Doughty in custody.  After a pause, however, Drake said, "Lo, then, my masters, we must thus do: We must nail him close under the hatches and return home again without making any voyage."

This, as Drake very well understood, would mean financial ruin for both the adventure's investors, who stood to lose their capital if the ships returned to England with empty holds, and for the ordinary men, whose wages would be reduced or not paid at all. It was unsurprising that the assembly—or, as Cooke termed them, “a company of desperate bankrupts”—cried, “God forbid, good General.”  Thomas Doughty's fate was sealed.

Here the Cooke account agrees with The World Encompassed.  Doughty met his end bravely.

"Now, truly, I may say," he joked with the headsman, "as did Sir Thomas More, that he that cuts off my head shall have little honesty, my neck is so short."

From Cooke it is clear that Francis Drake and Thomas Doughty were at loggerheads for most of the voyage but it less obvious what caused the antagonism between them.  Was it Doughty's ambition, as claimed in The World Encompassed, that caused Drake to execute the man who had once been his friend—or did Drake have a more personal motive?

Both Cooke and Fletcher wrote that their enmity began when Doughty accused Drake's brother, Tom, of pilfering from the Santa Maria, the Portuguese merchant vessel captured in the Cape Verde islands.

In England, however, rumor suggested that "Thomas Doughty lived intimately with the wife of Francis Drake, and being drunk he blabbed out the matter to the husband himself. When later he realized his error and feared vengeance, he contrived in every way the ruin of the other, but he himself fell into the pit."

A more likely supposition than this adulterous speculation is that the relationship between the two commanders fractured over an issue so important that it could only be resolved by the death of one of them. Unfortunately, there is no way of knowing what was at stake because to this day no one is sure of the true goals of the adventure.

Some historians believe that the voyage was a peaceful merchant expedition while others contend that its intentions were piratical from the start.  Were their investors' instructions to sail east around the Cape of Good Hope or west through  Magellan's passage?  To seek out the mythical northwest passage, the Straits of Anian?  To establish factories in the New World and found the colony of New Albion?  No one can say.

The only surviving plan of the expedition was damaged by fire.  The words that remain tease the reader by almost, but not quite, making sense.

Few questions were asked either when the Pelican—renamed the Golden Hind—returned to Plymouth harbor because she had aboard one of the greatest pirate treasures of all history.  In her hold was more money than the English government received in taxes during an entire year.

The queen alone was given £100,000 plus a diamond cross and a crown in which were five emeralds, three of them as long as a finger and two round ones worth 20,000 crowns.  The backers of the expedition realized a return of 4,700 percent on their investments, while Drake himself became a millionaire.

Given the amount of money involved it is unsurprising no one wanted to look too deeply into the execution of Thomas Doughty.  Only Doughty's brother, John, pursued the matter, filing suit against Drake for murder. However, since the execution had taken place outside of the country, the suit could only be filed in a special court—which Elizabeth refused to appoint.

Eventually John Doughty became such a nuisance that he was jailed in Marshalsea prison.  A year later he petitioned that he be either "charged and called to answer" or be set at liberty.  This manuscript has survived. On it someone wrote: "Not to be released."  We know nothing more of John Doughty.

Perhaps the best assessment of the situation came from Don Bernardino de Mendoza, Spanish ambassador to Elizabeth's court, spymaster, and propagandist, who surreptitiously printed an account of Drake's doings in the Pacific.

"M. Drake and his company returned from this very hot and hardy service ... and brought all his treasure into England. Where he has so well welcome, and so liberal in the division of shares to some courtiers, that notwithstanding the gallows claimed his interest, it near got so great a bravado, for in very sight of Wapping [the Admiralty dock where pirates were hanged], he was at Deptford rewarded with the honor of knighthood, and in the same ship, wherewith he had been abroad aroving. And although some poor pirate or other has been cast away upon Wapping shore, yet was there seldom or never restitution. Only the ones who stole too little suffer ... "



The World Encompassed and Analogous Contemporary Documents concerning Sir Francis Drake's Circumnavigation of the World, ed. N. M. Penzer (New York: Cooper Square Publishers, Inc., 1969).
Sir Julian S. Corbett, Drake and the Tudor Navy (London: 1898).
New Light on Drake, ed. and tran. Zelia Nuttall (Kraus Reprint Limited:  1967).
The World Encompassed by Sir Francis Drake, being his next Voyage to that to Nombre de Dios collated with an unpublished manuscript of Francis Fletcher, chaplain to the expedition, ed. W. S. W. Vaux (Hakluyt Society: 1854).
Henry R. Wagner, Sir Francis Drake's Voyage Around the World, Its Aims and Achievements (San Francisco:  1926).
"John Winter's Report, June 2nd 1579", in E. G. R. Taylor, "More Light on Drake", Mariner's Mirror, XVI (1930).


David Wesley Hill is the author of At Drake's Command

At Drake's Command is now available on Kindle, and will be free on April 16th and 17th.


  1. I am,as you know, currently reading your novel, so interesting to read your thoughts on this, David. We are to used to thinking of Drake as heroic, not sneaky; when I was a child, there was a TV series about him, with Terence Morgan in the role. And there were all those swashbuckling Drake movies, too, including one with a very young Keith Michell in the juvenile lead. Whatever the reason, Drake made good and sure Doughty didn't get home to England. One wonders what might have happened if the voyage had been a flop...?

    1. Hi, Sue: Francis Drake was indeed a complex man. There is no question he was brave but he was also ruthlessly pragmatic and did whatever was required to achieve his goals. For an example of this, see the extract from At Drake's Command on Historical Fiction Excerpts (, based on Drake's own account of the affair, where he secretly sank his own brother's ship! As for what would have happened if the voyage had been a flop, why, I agree with Don Bernardino de Mendoza -- there would have been another poor pirate drinking the tide at Wapping shore ...

  2. Hi. I find this article very useful for my research I'm doing on Sir Francis Drake for my World History course. I am thinking of using this website as one of my references but since it's a "blogspot" and the title says "fiction authors," my teacher doesn't allow us to include it in an academic paper. So, I'm just wondering if this text also being published in some other websites that would appear to be more credible?

    Thanks. :D

    1. Hi, Iryn,
      Yes, "The Execution of Thomas Doughty" is posted on another website, "Under the Black Flag", which is a non-fiction site focusing on pirate history and lore. The direct URL is:
      I hope this is useful.
      David Hill

    2. Hi, Iryn,
      Yes, "The Execution of Thomas Doughty" is posted on another website, "Under the Black Flag", which is a non-fiction site focusing on pirate history and lore. The direct URL is:
      I hope this is useful.
      David Hill

  3. Hi Iryn, I will contact the author and ask him for you. Best regards.


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