Uncommon Sense

The following is a reprint of one of the most popular pieces from the Uncommon Sense archives. It first appeared in the Spring 2004 issue, no. 118.

The Drake Jewel

Detail, the Drake Jewel. Courtesy the present owner.

The emblem of the recent conference “Virginia and the Atlantic World” was the spectacular “Drake Jewel,” one of the most evocative remnants of the state art of Queen Elizabeth I of England. Since its reproduction on the cover of the conference program, Sally Mason, who secured its use for the conference, has been questioned repeatedly about its symbolism, the circumstances of its creation, and the meaning of its bestowal upon Sir Francis Drake.

One of the rites of the Elizabethan court was the giving of jewels to the Queen, usually to mark the New Year, and the occasional gift by the Queen of jewels and portrait miniatures to favored servants and defenders of the realm. After Drake circumnavigated the globe, he gave Queen Elizabeth a composite jewel token made with rare materials gathered from around the globe: a ship with an ebony hull, enameled gold taken from a prize off the Pacific coast of Mexico, a diamond from Africa. The ship was the instrument that extended the Queen’s potency around the world, so an apposite image for a gift meant to celebrate her.

Elizabeth’s gift to Sir Francis Drake is similarly evocative: one side is a locket with a portrait of the Queen by Nicholas Hilliard with a cover featuring on the interior her avian emblem, the phoenix. A miniature portrait was the single most frequent gift given by Elizabeth I to persons she would reward. It projected her image as monarch, equipped with state clothes and regalia and asserting a personal connection with the recipient as well as a political relationship. On another occasion Elizabeth I gave Drake a second miniature portrait, in which she stood at the focus of a sunburst, to use as a hat badge. That Drake, a commoner who rose to the position of state champion on the raid to Cadiz and Vice-Admiral of the Armada, was so honored marked his extraordinary place in the world.

© National Maritime Museum, London.

More fascinating to present admirers of the Drake Jewel is the other side with the intaglio cut cameo of sardonyx featuring an African male bust in profile superimposed over the profile of a European. There is some debate whether the European is a regal woman or a Roman Briton of the sort William Camden was idealizing in his Britannia. It is not the face of any contemporary man—and certainly not Drake—for it is clean shaven. The symbolism here operates in two registers: a general imperial iconics in which the global range of imperium is figured in the equivalent faces of the African Emperor and the English Empress. (Karen Dalton has discussed this symbolism in a recent piece in Early Modern Visual Culture, [Peter Erikson and Clark Hulse, eds., University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000].) There is also a much more pointed symbolism meant particularly for Drake. The conjoint effort of Africa and the English will liberate the world from the power of Spain. Drake’s alliance with the Cimmarroons, runaway African slaves who intermarried with Natives, in Panama in 1576 led to his successful capture of the Spanish plate train crossing Panama. This act thrust Drake onto the world stage, secured him and the crown immense treasure, and gave the English forces in the Caribbean the character of liberators. In the West Indian invasion of 1585–1586, he planned to resurrect his alliance, as part of his design to assert English power in the Spanish main. It survived as one of the most potent scenes in the English imperial imagination, serving as the central action of the Sir William Davenant’s opera, “The History of Sir Francis Drake,” one of only two stage works permitted during the English Commonwealth, and a piece condoned personally by Oliver Cromwell, who also sought to liberate Spanish America from “tyranny & popery.” In the Americas Drake had learned the truth that Elizabeth I understood on the eastern side of the Atlantic—the defeat of Spain required a combination, and the hatred of tyranny brought together Anglo and African. Elizabeth’s cultivation of Mulay Ahmad al-Mansur (ruler of Morrocco from 1578–1603) in an alliance against their mutual enemy, Spain, was a diplomatic correlative to the martial alliance that Drake had forged in the jungles of the isthmus.

The Jewel was probably manufactured and given between 1586 and 1588. It appears hanging conspicuously from Drake’s belt, the chief ornament of his person, in the 1591 portrait painted by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger now at the National Maritime Museum in London.

David S. Shields
University of South Carolina