The last time Drake’s drum was actually seen beating was probably in 1596, when Sir Francis Drake, one of Elizabeth I’s greatest admirals was buried at sea off Portobello, Panama. But it is rumoured to have been heard several times since. Along with his sword and Bible, the drum was returned to Drake’s widow in England, where it still hangs in the great hall of his Devon home, Buckland Abbey.
The drum was apparently shown to visitors to Buckland Abbey in the eighteenth century, and it is thought the legend about it may have been invented for their entertainment. Late in the nineteenth century the folklorist Robert Hunt heard from the old housekeeper at Buckland Abbey that beating the drum would summon Drake: “Even now . . . if the warrior hears the drum which bangs in the hall of the Abbey . . . he rises and has a revel.” It was rumoured that the drum had been heard before the Battle of Trafalgar, and that Drake himself had been reincarnated as Lord Nelson.
The belief that the drum would summon the admiral was celebrated in a poem by Sir Henry Newbolt, Drake’s Drum, which was first published in the St. James’s Gazette, 1895. According to the poem, when Drake was dying he ordered that the drum be taken back to Devon, promising that if it was struck in an hour of danger for England, he would, like King Arthur, return to defend his country.
Newbolt’s poem was publicized for patriotic inspiration in 1916 during the First World War and again during the Second, in August 1940. On both occasions “hearings” of the drum followed. Mysterious drumbeats were rumoured to have rolled in England’s West Country when war broke out in 1914, and Drake’s drum is said to have been heard by officers on board the flagship Royal Oak at the surrender of the German fleet in 1918 at Scapa Flow. A thorough search of the ship failed to uncover a real drum that might have produced the noise. The drum was said to beat during the retreat from Dunkirk in June 1940 and was again heard by two army officers in September 1940 on the Hampshire coast.
But there is no record of anyone beating Drake’s drum to summon him. When the soldiers and sailors heard it, it was beating of its own accord at a time of national crisis.