This time last week I donated an armillary sphere to the Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery collection, which you can go and get a close look at in the Port and Place gallery where it’s gonna be until September.
Look, it’s a beauty..
But most people don’t know just how special it is…
When I was 18, I inherited it from my Grandma Betsy along with her last wishes that I find the pearl which belongs inside it. From the picture you can just make out wooden rings and a globe in the centre, but they’re placeholders for what was originally there when it was found by Sir Francis Drake (my great, great, great, and many more times great (!), uncle) on his voyage of circumnavigation (1577-80).
This is the story of finding the Pearl that has passed down through generations of my family…
It was 1578 and the height of winter in the south Atlantic ocean. Drake’s men were exhausted and sick from scurvy, the waves were tall and icy and relentlessly pounding the deck of the Golden Hind. The ship had been blown far off course on the west side of South America towards Antarctica. The crew was losing hope when the new direction revealed a possible open passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans that had never been found before. Drake steered the ship towards the tip of the continent, landing on the southernmost island of the Tierra del Fuego archipelago.
Elizabeth Island, which earthquakes have since destroyed, was nearly square, running 30 miles per side and with a lake at its centre that was probably the crater of an extinct volcano. Drake dropped anchor for four nights and three days and explored as his crew hunted birds, seals and penguins for food stocks. It was on a beach on the westside of the island he found an old teak sea chest, part-buried by shingle and adorned by detailed hand carvings featuring the ring-shaped islands of Atlantis and Poseidon in a sea chariot fighting off a many-tentacled monster with his trident. He dug with his hands for more than an hour to free it and then dragged it aboard the Golden Hind to open and inspect.
That wasn’t as easy as it sounds. It took Drake almost the remainder of his trip to crack the code of the ship’s wheel lock. Many late nights he could be found in the Captain’s Cabin spinning the wheel by candlelight, trying different combinations of turns and noting down mathematical codes. When he eventually cracked the code and opened the lid the light illuminated his entire cabin. Inside the chest was a pearl the size of a crystal ball slowly spinning on an invisible axis in the inner chamber of the same armillary sphere I’ve just donated to the museum. They didn’t have lightbulbs back then and Drake was taken aback by the translucent and iridescent glow. He watched for hours, hypnotised by the motion.
Illustration from Drake’s private diary of him finding the Pearl – click to enlarge
It wasn’t until the final leg of his journey that he discovered the true power of the pearl. Having rounded the globe, the Golden Hind was back in the rough and tempestuous Atlantic Ocean, not far from the Canary Islands, when it was caught in a brutal storm, one Drake claimed was the work of more than just weather. Drake, like many seafarers, believed there was an immense, tentacled monster in the depths of the sea, capable of conjuring colossal storms and sinking not just ships but whole tracts of land too. During this particular storm, he claimed its tentacles reached up through the waves and grasped the ship, wrapping itself around the rigging and deck preparing to pull the galleon under.
In a last ditch effort to save his crew, he went on instinct and rushed below deck to bring the pearl to the bridge. When he fixed the armillary sphere beside the wheel and compass the pearl instantly began spinning, so fast it was a blur, before emitting a sudden blast of silver light that blanched the sky and sea and let out a crack like a thunder clap. Drake and the crew stood in awe as the wind and waves instantaneously settled, the clouds parted, and the tentacles froze and receded as if electrocuted, leaving the Golden Hind to drop back down into the waves and resume its safe passage towards Plymouth. From this moment on the pearl was revered for its ability to harness the energy of the ocean and bring luck and protection to all who sailed with her.
Throughout his life, Drake considered the pearl the greatest treasure he’d ever found on his voyages of discovery. He was a proud man and especially proud of serving his Queen. He was her favoured privateer and everything he did demonstrated his loyalty to her. She collected pearls so it was only natural that when he returned to dry land he would gift the new found pearl to her. He travelled to London to present it but its glow dimmed the further it was from the sea and the Queen, sensing it didn’t belong in the capital, asked Drake to guard it in Plymouth, the maritime hub of her kingdom. It was then he founded the Order of the Pearl, a secret society charged with the task of protecting it. For generations the pearl, which came to be known as The Pearl of Plymouth, was safeguarded by the Order and members used it as a talisman on voyages of discovery and adventure believing it brought them luck and protection at sea.
By the time of the Second World War, when Plymouth was being ravaged by the Blitz, the pearl had come to be considered so precious that Nancy Astor, fearing it would be destroyed by German bombs or stolen by the Nazis as one of Hitler’s holy relics, hid it in a secret location. As an extra precaution she separated the pearl from its armillary sphere knowing that they only worked together. The armillary sphere was given to our family, as descendants of Drake, and we were asked to hide it. The pearl was hidden somewhere else. For safety, we were never told where. The Order covered its tracks so diligently that those who sought to steal it were thwarted. After the war, the people of Plymouth were so focused on rebuilding the city that the pearl was forgotten. For more than half a century, the pearl has lain lost and dormant somewhere in the city, many still believing it was destroyed in The Blitz.
My research has left me in no doubt that the pearl is still hidden in Plymouth and must be found, not only because it is a magnificent treasure with great historical significance but because of its other more secret power. I promise to tell you more about that power and its consequences in my next blog…