When Drake left for Nombre de Dios in the spring of 1572, Spain and England were both ready to fly at each other's throats. When he came back in the summer of 1573, they were all for making friends — hypocritically so, but friends. Drake's plunder stank in the nostrils of the haughty Dons. It was a very inconvenient factor in the diplomatic problem for Elizabeth. Therefore Drake disappeared and his plunder too. He went to Ireland on service in the navy. His plunder was divided up in secrecy among all the high and low contracting parties.
In 1574 the Anglo-Spanish scene had changed again. The Spaniards had been so harassed by the English sea-dogs between the Netherlands and Spain that Philip listened to his great admiral, Menendez, who, despairing of direct attack on England, proposed to seize the Scilly Isles and from that naval base clear out a way through all the pirates of the English Channel. War seemed certain. But a terrible epidemic broke out in the Spanish fleet. Menendez died. And Philip changed his policy again.
This same,year John Oxenham, Drake's old second-in-command, sailed over to his death. The Spaniards caught him on the Isthmus of Darien and hanged him as a pirate at Lima in Peru.
In the autumn of 1575 Drake returned to England with a new friend, Thomas Doughty, a soldier-scholar of the Renaissance, clever and good company, but one of those 'Italianate' Englishmen who gave rise to the Italian proverb: Inglese italianato e diavolo incarnato — 'an Italianized Englishman is the very Devil.' Doughty was patronized by the Earl of Essex, who had great influence at court.
The next year, 1576, is noted for the 'Spanish Fury.' Philip's sea power was so hampered by the Dutch and English privateers, and he was so impotent against the English navy, that he could get no ready money, either by loan or from America, to pay his troops in Antwerp. These men, reinforced by others, therefore mutinied and sacked the whole of Antwerp, killing all who opposed them and practically ruining the city from which Charles V used to draw such splendid subsidies. The result was a strengthening of Dutch resistance everywhere.
Elizabeth had been unusually tortuous in her policy about this time. But in 1577 she was ready for another shot at Spain, provided always that it entailed no open war. Don John of Austria, natural son of Charles V, had all the shining qualities that his legitimate half-brother Philip lacked. He was the hero of Lepanto and had offered to conquer the Moors in Tunis if Philip would let him rule as king. Philip, crafty, cold, and jealous, of course refused and sent him to the Netherlands instead. Here Don John formed the still more aspiring plan of pacifying the Dutch, marrying Mary Queen of Scots, deposing Elizabeth, and reigning over all the British Isles. The Pope had blessed both schemes. But the Dutch insisted on the immediate withdrawal of the Spanish troops. This demolished Don John's plan. But it pleased Philip, who could now ruin his brilliant brother by letting him wear himself out by trying to govern the Netherlands without an army. Then the Duke of Anjou, brother to the King of France, came into the fast-thickening plot at the head of the French rescuers of the Netherlands from Spain. But a victorious French army in the Netherlands was worse for England than even Spanish rule there. So Elizabeth tried to support the Dutch enough to annoy Philip and at the same time keep them independent of the French.
In her desire to support them against Philip indirectly she found it convenient to call Drake into consultation. Drake then presented to Sir Francis Walsingham his letter of commendation from the Earl of Essex, under whom he had served in Ireland; whereupon 'Secretary Walsingham [the first civilian who ever grasped the principle of modern sea power] declared that Her Majesty had received divers injuries of the King of Spain, for which she desired revenge. He showed me a plot [map] willing me to note down where he might be most annoyed. But I refused to set my hand to anything, affirming that Her Majesty was mortal, and that if it should please God to take Her Majesty away that some prince might reign that might be in league with the King of Spain, and then would my own hand be a witness against myself.' Elizabeth was forty-four. Mary Queen of Scots was watching for the throne. Plots and counter-plots were everywhere.
Shortly after this interview Drake was told late at night that he should have audience of Her Majesty next day. On seeing him, Elizabeth went straight to the point. 'Drake, I would gladly be revenged on the King of Spain for divers injuries that I have received.' 'And withal,' says Drake, 'craved my advice therein; who told Her Majesty the only way was to annoy him by the Indies.' On that he disclosed his whole daring scheme for raiding the Pacific. Elizabeth, who, like her father, 'loved a man' who was a man, fell in with this at once. Secrecy was of course essential. 'Her Majesty did swear by her Crown that if any within her realm did give the King of Spain to understand hereof they should lose their heads therefor.' At a subsequent audience 'Her Majesty gave me special commandment that of all men my Lord Treasurer should not know of it.' The cautious Lord Treasurer Burleigh was against what he considered dangerous forms of privateering and was for keeping on good terms with Spanish arms and trade as long as possible. Mendoza, lynx-eyed ambassador of Spain, was hoodwinked. But Doughty, the viper in Drake's bosom, was medi-tating mischief: not exactly treason with Spain, but at least a breach of confidence by telling Burleigh.
De Guaras, chief Spanish spy in England, was sorely puzzled. Drake's ostensible destination was Egypt, and his men were openly enlisted for Alexandria. The Spaniards, however, saw far enough through this to suppose that he was really going back to Nombre de Dios. It did not seem likely, though quite possible, that he was going in search of the Northwest Passage, for Martin Frobisher had gone out on that quest the year before and had returned with a lump of black stone from the arctic desolation of Baffin Island. No one seems to have divined the truth. Cape Horn was unknown. The Strait of Magellan was supposed to be the only opening between South America and a huge antarctic continent, and its reputation for disasters had grown so terrible, and rightly terrible, that it had been given up as the way into the Pacific. The Spanish way, as we have seen, was overland from Nombre de Dios to Panama, more or less along the line of the modern Panama Canal.