Summary and book reviews of In Search of a Kingdom by Laurence Bergreen

In Search of a Kingdom

Francis Drake, Elizabeth I, and the Perilous Birth of the British Empire

by Laurence Bergreen

In Search of a Kingdom by Laurence Bergreen X
In Search of a Kingdom by Laurence Bergreen
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  • Published:
    Mar 2021, 464 pages


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About this Book

Book Summary

In this grand and thrilling narrative, the acclaimed biographer of Magellan, Columbus, and Marco Polo brings alive the singular life and adventures of Sir Francis Drake, the pirate/explorer/admiral whose mastery of the seas during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I changed the course of history.

Before he was secretly dispatched by Queen Elizabeth to circumnavigate the globe, or was called upon to save England from the Spanish Armada, Francis Drake was perhaps the most wanted-–and successful-–pirate ever to sail. Nicknamed "El Draque" by the Spaniards who placed a bounty on his head, the notorious red-haired, hot-tempered Drake pillaged galleons laden with New World gold and silver, stealing a vast fortune for his queen-–and himself. For Elizabeth, Drake made the impossible real, serving as a crucial and brilliantly adaptable instrument of her ambitions to transform England from a third-rate island kingdom into a global imperial power.

In 1580, sailing on Elizabeth's covert orders, Drake became the first captain to circumnavigate the earth successfully. (Ferdinand Magellan had died in his attempt.) Part exploring expedition, part raiding mission, Drake's audacious around-the-world journey in the Golden Hind reached Patagonia, the Pacific Coast of present-day California and Oregon, the Spice Islands, Java, and Africa. Almost a decade later, Elizabeth called upon Drake again. As the devil-may-care vice admiral of the English fleet, Drake dramatically defeated the once-invincible Spanish Armada, spurring the British Empire's ascent and permanently wounding its greatest rival.

The relationship between Drake and Elizabeth is the missing link in our understanding of the rise of the British Empire, and its importance has not been fully described or appreciated. Framed around Drake's key voyages as a window into this crucial moment in British history, In Search of a Kingdom is a rousing adventure narrative entwining epic historical themes with intimate passions.

Book I
The Pirate

Chapter I
The Island and the Empire

On the morning of December 13, 1577, Francis Drake, a pirate and former slaver, ordered his small fleet in Plymouth, England, to weigh anchor. The ships stood out against a bleak background. They were colorfully painted, with billowing sails, and boisterous sailors calling to one another.

Plymouth lies 190 miles southwest of London, surrounded by two ancient rivers, the Plym and the Tamar, both running into Plymouth Sound to form a boundary with the neighboring county, Cornwall. It was a tranquil town, mostly farmland gathering into a peninsula jutting into a bay. Drake, from nearby Devon, made Plymouth his base of operations. The port was recognized for its shipping, and it also served as a hub of the English slave trade. It was not an innocent place. In folklore, Devon harbored witches and the Devil himself.

The fleet's destination was unknown, but they would not be home by Christmas or even the next, not if Drake's ambitious plan was...

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Bergreen rightly credits Drake and his relationship with the brilliant Elizabeth for the role he played in this drama. Sometimes the author is a little too effusive in his praise — for example, he dismisses every sailor who criticized Drake as a jealous malcontent rather than considering if a money-hungry pirate was perhaps difficult to work with. A more nuanced view of his sources would have improved his analysis overall. But these are minor blemishes in an adventure for the ages that had repercussions well into modern times.

Media Reviews

New York Times Book Review
The Elizabeth-Drake combination is fascinating, but perhaps unavoidably it results in a patchy telling. Events at sea and court unfold separately, with few actual interactions between queen and captain. Both make sporadic appearances in the second half, an account of the defeat of the Spanish Armada, to which Drake’s key contribution was a wildly successful pre-emptive strike on the enemy’s preparations at Cádiz. There are oddities, too. The Golden Hind was named after the whole of a female red deer, not its rear legs. Galicia is not due south of London. Flurries of repetitions and recapitulations trip up the narrative...

San Francisco Chronicle
A dramatic tale of discovery. ... A comprehensive look at Drake, in all his contradictions. ... A lively and compelling history of a man whose blend of audacity, piety and cruelty changed the world.

Library Journal
[T]he book as a whole is marred by inconsistencies in chronology and repetitions that detract from an otherwise compelling story. An intriguing-but-flawed exploration of an often-overlooked aspect of Elizabethan history.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
The narrative is long but never boring, as Bergreen masterly portrays the principal characters in this drama...A smooth, dramatic, and well-fleshed world history perfect for library collections.

Booklist (starred review)
With a keen sense of adventure and a sharp grasp of personalities on sea and land, Bergreen details Drake's round-the-world adventures as well as political intrigues and mutinous sailors.

Reader Reviews

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