Francis Drake was born in Devon, the son of Protestant farmers. During the Catholic uprising of 1549, the family was forced to flee to Kent, and around age 13 Francis became a privateer; that is, a treasure-hunter and in effect a licensed pirate. He spent his early career honing his sailing skills on the difficult waters of the North Sea.
Around 1563 Drake first sailed west to the Spanish Main, drawn by the immense wealth accruing from Spain's monopoly on New World silver. Drake took an immediate dislike to the Spanish, at least in part due to their mistrust of non-Spaniards and their fierce Catholicity. On his second such voyage he fought a costly battle against Spanish forces, which claimed many English lives but earned Drake the favor of Queen Elizabeth.
The most celebrated of Drake's Caribbean adventures was his capture of the Spanish Silver Train at Nombre de Dios in March of 1573. With a crew including many French privateers and Cimaroons (African slaves who had escaped the Spanish), Drake raided the waters around Darien (in modern Panama) and tracked the Silver Train to the nearby port of Nombre de Dios. He made off with a fortune in gold, but had to leave behind another fortune in silver because it was too heavy to carry back to England. When Drake returned to Plymouth, England on August 9, 1573, a mere thirty Englishmen returned with him, but each survivor was rich for life. However, Queen Elizabeth, who had up to this point sponsored and encouraged Drake's raids, signed a temporary truce with King Philip II of Spain, and so was unable to officially acknowledge Drake's accomplishment. Such intrigues were typical during Drake's era.
In 1577, Drake took his ship, the Pelican, and four others, to explore the Magellan Strait. The ship's name was changed to the better-known Golden Hind in mid-voyage. War with Spain was on again, and Drake raided Spanish ports on the Pacific as he went. Drake travelled north to seek the Northwest Passage, but failed and sailed west across the Pacific as far as Java, where he carried out repairs on his remaining vessels.
Drake was vice admiral in command of the English fleet (under Lord Howard of Effingham) when they overcame the Spanish Armada that was attempting to invade England in 1588. Garett Mattingly would later give a fascinating account of this battle in his book "The defeat of the Spanish Armada", first published in 1959, winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1960.
The most famous (possibly apocryphal) anecdote about Drake's life tells that, prior to the battle, he was playing a game of bowls on Plymouth Hoe. On being warned of the approach of the Spanish fleet, Drake is said to have remarked that there was plenty of time to finish the game and still beat the Spaniards.