Drake is said to have taken the drum, emblazoned with his coat of arms, with him on his voyages around the world between 1577 and 1580. It was still with him for his final voyage and as he lay on his death bed off the coast of Panama in 1596 he ordered the drum returned to England where in times of trouble it should be beaten to recall him from heaven to rescue the country.
Following his death the drum was returned to Drake’s family home of Buckland Abbey in Buckland Monachorum, Devon. The drum remains on public display at Buckland Abbey under the care of the National Trust.
The drum has become an icon of English folklore with its variation of the classic king in the mountain story. Several times throughout history, people have claimed to have heard the drum beating, including: when the Mayflower left Plymouth for America in 1620,[ when Admiral Lord Nelson was made a freeman of Plymouth, when Napoleon was brought into Plymouth Harbour as a prisoner, and when World War I first began in 1914.
Reportedly, on HMS Royal Oak, a victory drum roll from a drum was heard when the Imperial German Navy surrendered in 1918. The ship was then searched twice by the officers and then again by the captain and neither a drum nor a drummer was found on board and eventually the phenomenon was put down to the legendary drum.
In 1938, when Buckland Abbey was partly destroyed by fire, the drum was rescued and taken to safety at Buckfast Abbey. Plymouth was devastated in the air raids that followed, reminding some of the ancient legend that “If Drake’s Drum should be moved from its rightful home, the city will fall”. The drum was returned and the city remained safe for the rest of the war.
The drum was most recently reported to be heard in 1940 at the Dunkirk evacuation during World War II. In 1940 the 45th Infantry Division, which included 4th and 5th Battalions of The Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry, and the 9th battalion The Devonshire Regiment took Drake's Drum as their emblem which was painted on their transport
Take my drum to England, hang et by the shore, Strike et when your powder’s runnin’ low; If the Dons sight Devon, I’ll quit the port o’ Heaven, An’ drum them up the Channel as we drummed them long ago. ”
—From “Drake’s Drum” by Sir Henry Newbolt
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