A Shield for Espionage: Thomas de Leu’s Portrait of Sir Francis Drake

Sir Francis Drake. Line engraving by T. de Leu after J. Rabel, between 1587 and 1589. Wellcome Library reference no. 2581i

By Dr. William Schupbach / 07.25.2016

The iconography of Sir Francis Drake is rich and complex (Sugden and Turner). His many portraits arise from his fame as a circumnavigator, as admiral in Queen Elizabeth I’s navy, as English hero in the battle against the Spanish Armada, and as a Devonian. Most of the portraits are of course British. The Wellcome Library has a good selection of them among its resources on the history of seafaring and exploration.

One of them is a portrait print of Drake published in Paris in his lifetime, in the form of an engraving by Thomas de Leu after a painting by Jean Rabel. It can be dated with some precision, thanks to the lettering engraved on the print, which names as the dedicatee Sir Edward Stafford (1552-1605), British ambassador to the court of King Henri III in Paris from 1583 onwards. Though Stafford remained in Paris until his recall in 1590, it is surely unlikely that de Leu would have mentioned Henri III in the lettering after that king’s death at the hands of an assassin on 2 August 1589, which therefore is the terminus ante quem for the publication of the print.

Sir Francis Drake. Line engraving by T. de Leu after J. Rabel, between 1587 and 1589. Wellcome Library reference no. 2581i (detail)

As for the earliest date, the sea battle on Drake’s shield, showing two ships on their way to the sea bed, presumably represents Drake’s well-known battles against the Spanish fleet: either the raid on Cadiz (the Singeing of the King of Spain’s Beard) which concluded on 6 July 1587, or the Spanish Armada, July 1588. The print is therefore most likely to have been made between 1587 and 1589.

The lettering gives the starting and finishing dates of Drake’s circumnavigation of 1577-1580 in Latin and French, in words which also appear on another engraving, attributed to Jodocus Hondius, which Rabel and de Leu may have copied: it must have been produced a little earlier (ca. 1583?). Both prints have the same mis-transcribed word “circumducto” for “circumductˀ” (circumductus, with the last syllable contracted). However the earlier print includes no reference to the Anglo-Spanish sea-battles: these appear to have been added by Rabel specifically for this portrait.

The dedication of Thomas de Leu’s print is noteworthy because Sir Edward Stafford, while Queen Elizabeth I’s ambassador in Paris, was spying for Britain’s enemies. In January 1587, having run up huge debts on the card table, Stafford approached Don Bernardino de Mendoza, the Spanish ambassador in Paris, and offered to reveal British secrets in return for money. Stafford passed on to Mendoza an accurate advance warning of Drake’s raid on Cadiz: when Philip II received Mendoza’s report, the king drew a long line in the margin to draw attention to Stafford’s information. Stafford received from his brother-in-law, the Lord Admiral of England, Lord Howard of Effingham, details of Queen Elizabeth’s orders for defences against the Armada: these also were passed by Stafford to Mendoza, and by him on to Philip on 16 January 1588. If we look at traffic going the other way, we find that Stafford also passed on to London false information from Spain, such as that the Armada was bound for Algiers or the Indies, or that it had been disbanded, or that in Paris one could lay bets at 6/1 against it ever reaching the English Channel.

To conceal his source in the event of interception, Mendoza named him in his correspondence with Philip II as “Julio” or as “the new friend”, but Philip annotated his copy with the clarification that these referred to the same man. Mendoza’s description of this man’s circumstances fit only one person: Stafford. “Since Philip received all these benefits for payments to Stafford that totalled just 5,200 ducats, Sir Edward must surely be regarded as the intelligence bargain of the century” (Parker p. 223).

And Stafford was the dedicatee of this engraving glorifying Drake’s victories over Spain!

Looking at this stylish piece of English propaganda in the privacy of his ambassadorial study, Sir Edward must have enjoyed the same glee that a later Foreign Office official, the British Soviet spy Kim Philby, experienced (with the aid of a stiff drink) in 1955, after he gave his interview to the world’s press on being acquitted by Harold Macmillan of the charge of spying for the Soviet Union.


Mitchell Leimon and Geoffrey Parker, ‘Treason and plot in Elizabethan diplomacy: the “Fame of Sir Edward Stafford” reconsidered’, ‘English Historical Review’, 1996, CXI (444): 1134-1158

Geoffrey Parker, ‘The Grand Strategy of Philip II’, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998, pp. 193-194, 221-223

Originally published by Wellcome Library under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.