Last week I visited Buckland Abbey, north of Plymouth. It is closely associated with Sir Francis Drake, who – depending on your stance – is either a national hero with clear links to Devon, or a pirate. My home city of Plymouth has managed to simply merge the identities of hero and pirate to find a simple accommodation with him, with Drake being named for various businesses in the city (including the children’s play-area, Drake’s Den). I’m not an anti-Drake revisionist; I believe that his involvement in circumnavigating the world, in helping defeat the Spanish Armada in 1588, and in playing a role in local politics is enough to warrant him a special place in local history.
The visit to Buckland Abbey reminded me of his first wife, Mary Newman. Mary appears to have been Drake’s first wife and the pair married at St. Budeaux Church; although the marriage does not appear to have been particularly settled, what with Drake off exploring the globe year after year. I wrote an article about Mary Newman for the Saltash based magazine Cramleigh several years ago, ‘Mary Newman: A Woman of Saltash?’, where I questioned the idea as to whether or not Newman should be entirely claimed by Saltash (where Mary Newman’s Cottage resides). Having recently posted about the St. Budeaux character of Thomas Alcock, I thought I would follow it up with this Mary Newman focussed article below; it contains a couple of edits since its initial publication in 2009.
Mary Newman: A Woman of Saltash?
The marriage of Sir Francis Drake to Mary Newman at St. Budeaux Church is an often celebrated local historical fact; however, question marks hang over her actual place of residence.
Mary appears to have been a member of an important St. Budeaux sea-faring family. Her father – Harry Newman – served on various expeditions with Drake. The wedding occurred on 4th July 1569, but far from the enjoyment of young love the marriage appears to have been a lonely one for Mary. Drake was away from the area and England the majority of the time; in the words of R.A.J. Walling he was:
‘despoiling the Spaniards in American waters, circumnavigating the globe, serving in Ireland [and] singeing King Philip’s beard.’
Although Mary enjoyed the honour of becoming the wife of Drake as mayor on return from voyaging, she died childless in 1582. Her body was buried at the same church in which she married, however, the location of her tomb remains a mystery. It is suggested by some that the site of her burial was concreted over during building works in 1876.
Local historian Walling comments that Mary was the subject of legend, in which after waiting seven years and hearing no word from Drake she believed him dead and was ready to marry another. Drake obtained word of the marriage and the legend states that he fired his gun into the earth, creating a loud explosion on the other side of the world between his wife and her newly intended husband. ‘It is a signal from Drake,’ she exclaimed. ‘He is alive and I am still his wife. There must neither truth nor King between thee and me.’ However, other sources place the woman in this drama not as Mary Newman, but rather Drake’s second wife, Elizabeth Sydenham, whom he married in 1585.
Despite Mary’s association with St. Budeaux it is the nearby town of Saltash in which she is mostly celebrated, due to the preservation of her cottage by the Tamar Protection Society. In recent decades a few question marks have been raised over the accepted history of Mary residing in Saltash; in the 1980s the local historian Marshall Ware discussed the idea, and more recently Derek Tait argues that there is ‘no proof’ and that:
‘the story seems to be a concoction to promote tourism and the in 1970s there were even plans to demolish the building.’
Tait discusses the possibility of a 16th century farmhouse on the Devon side of the River Tamar as Mary’s real home. Obviously there is a clear link to St. Budeaux itself: it was the village of her birth, of her marriage, and the parish of her death. All of this places a strong stress on her having residing on the eastern side of the River Tamar. It is unlikely that confirming evidence can be found, and such question marks clearly attack the good work of the society committed to preserving Mary Newman’s Cottage in Saltash.