For three years after Drake had been dubbed Sir Francis by the Queen he was the hero of every class of Englishmen but two: the extreme Roman Catholics, who wanted Mary Queen of Scots, and the merchants who were doing business with Portugal and Spain. The Marian opposition to the general policy of England persisted for a few years longer. But the merchants who were the inheritors of centuries of commercial intercourse with England's new enemies were soon to receive a shock that completely changed their minds. They were themselves one of the strongest factors that made for war in the knotty problem now to be solved at the cannon's mouth because English trade was seeking new outlets in every direction and was beating hard against every door that foreigners shut in its face. These merchants would not, however, support the war party till they were forced to, as they still "hoped to gain by other means what only war could win.
The year that Drake came home (1580) Philip at last got hold of a sea-going fleet, the eleven big Portuguese galleons taken when Lisbon fell. With the Portuguese ships, sailors, and oversea possessions, with more galleons under construction at Santander in Spain, and with the galleons of the Indian Guard built by the great Menendez to protect New Spain: with all this performed or promised, Philip began to feel as if the hour was at hand when he could do to England what she had done to him.
In 1583 Santa Cruz, the best Spanish admiral since the death of Menendez, proposed to form the nucleus of the Great Armada out of the fleet with which he had just broken down the last vestige of Portuguese resistance in the Azores. From that day on, the idea was never dropped. At the same time Elizabeth discovered the Paris Plot between Mary and Philip and the Catholics of France, all of whom were bent on her destruction. England stood to arms. But false ideas of naval defence were uppermost in the Queen's Council. No attempt was made to strike a concentrated blow at the heart of the enemy's fleet in his own waters. Instead of this the English ships were carefully divided among the three squadrons meant to defend the approaches to England, Ireland, and Scotland, because, as the Queen-in-Council sagely remarked, who could be expected to know what the enemy's point of attack would be? The fact is that when wielding the forces of the fleet and army the Queen and most of her non-combatant councillors never quite reached that supreme point of view from which the greatest statesmen see exactly where civil control ends and civilian interference begins. Luckily for England, their mistakes were once more covered up by a turn of the international kaleidoscope.
No sooner had the immediate danger of a great combined attack on England passed away than Elizabeth returned to Drake's plan for a regular raid against New Spain, though it had to be one that was not designed to bring on war in Europe. Drake, who was a member of the Navy Board charged with the reorganization of the fleet, was to have command. The ships and men were ready. But the time had not yet come.
Next year (1584) Amadas and Barlow, Sir Walter Raleigh's two prospectors for the 'plantation' of Virginia, were being delighted with the summer lands and waters of what is now North Carolina. We shall soon hear more of Raleigh and his vision of the West. But at this time a good many important events were happening in Europe; and it is these that we must follow first.
William of Orange, the Washington of Holland, was assassinated at Philip's instigation, while plots to kill Elizabeth and place Mary on the throne began to multiply. The agents were executed, while a 'Bond of Association' was signed by all Elizabeth's chief supporters, binding them to hunt down and kill all who tried to kill her—a plain hint for Mary Queen of Scots to stop plotting or stand the consequences.
But the merchants trading with Spain and Portugal were more than ever for keeping on good terms with Philip because the failure of the Spanish harvest had induced him to offer them special protection and encouragement if they would supply his country's needs at once. Every available ton of shipping was accordingly taken up for Spain. The English merchant fleet went out, and big profits seemed assured. But presently the Primrose, 'a tall ship of London,' came flying home to say that Philip had suddenly seized the merchandise, imprisoned the men, and taken the ships and guns for use with the Great Armada. That was the last straw. The peaceful traders now saw that they were wrong and that the fighting ones were right; and for the first time both could rejoice over the clever trick by which John Hawkins had got his own again from Philip. In 1571. three years after Don Martin's treachery at San Juan de Ulua, Hawkins, while commanding the Scilly Island squadron, led the Spanish ambassador to believe that he would go over to the Spanish cause in Ireland if his claims for damages were only paid in full and all his surviving men in Mexico were sent home. The cold and crafty Philip swallowed this tempting bait; sent the men home with Spanish dollars in their pockets, and paid Hawkins forty thousand pounds, the worth of about two million dollars now. Then Hawkins used the information he had picked up behind the Spanish scenes to unravel the Ridolfi Plot for putting Mary on the throne in 1572, the year of St. Bartholomew. No wonder Philip hated sea-dogs!
Things new and old having reached this pass, the whole of England, bar the Marians, were eager for the great 'Indies Voyage' of 1585. Londoners crowded down to Woolwich 'with great jolitie' to see off their own contingent on its way to join Drake's flag at Plymouth. Very probably Shakespeare went down too, for that famous London merchantman, the Tiger, to which he twice alludes—once in Macbeth and once in Twelfth Night—was off with this contingent. Such a private fleet had never yet been seen: twenty-one ships, eight smart pinnaces, and twenty-three hundred men of every rank and rating. The Queen was principal shareholder and managing director. But, as usual in colonial attacks intended for disavowal if necessity arose, no prospectus or other document was published, nor were the shareholders of this joint-stock company known in any quite official way. It was the size of the fleet and the reputation of the officers that made it a national affair. Drake, now forty, was 'Admiral'; Frobisher, of North-West-Passage fame, was 'Vice'; Knollys, the Queen's own cousin, 'Rear.' Carleill, a famous general, commanded the troops and sailed in Shakespeare's Tiger. Drake's old crew from the Golden Hind came forward to a man, among them Wright, 'that excellent mathematician and ingineer,' and big Tom Moone, the lion of all boarding-parties, each in command of a ship. But Elizabeth was just then weaving the threads of an unusually intricate diplomatic pattern; so doubts and delays, orders and counter-orders vexed Drake to the last. Sir Philip Sidney, too, came down as a volunteer; which was another sore vexation, since his European fame would have made him practically joint commander of the fleet, although he was not a naval officer at all. But he had the good sense to go back; whereupon Drake, fearing further interruptions from the court, ordered everything to be tumbled into the nearest ships and hurried off to sea under a press of sail.