York's first historian: Francis Drake

Francis Drake by Philip Mercier (1743) - York Art Gallery

1696AD - 1771AD

'History and antiquity were always from a child, my chiefest taste.' - preface to Eboracum.

On the 26th November 1736, the well respected surgeon, Francis Drake, presented to the York guildhall a copy of his ‘Eboracum’, or ‘The History and Antiquities of the City of York.’ This unprecedented book was 800 pages long and is still know today as the first and most influential history of the city.

The son of a vicar, Drake was born in Pontefract towards the very end of the seventeenth century. At a young age he was apprenticed to the York surgeon Christopher Birbeck and it was in this profession that Drake flourished. Upon his master’s death he took over the practice in York and, having earned the reputation of a skilled and expert practitioner, was soon honoured with the prestigious title of City Surgeon.

Drake became one of York’s most distinguished citizens. He was a freemason and, having delivered a powerful speech that was later reprinted in London, was made Grandmaster of the York lodge. He was also a key figure at the scholarly Gentleman’s Spalding Club, a learned society which included members such as Sir Isaac Newton and the celebrated poet Alexander Pope.

In 1720 Drake married York born Mary Woodyeare; a marriage that resulted in five sons. Tragically, over the next eight years, three of their children passed away and Mary followed shortly after. Drake never remarried; he instead chose to dedicate his life to his work.

To keep his grieving mind active he continued practicing as a skilled medic, having earned another title, this time as honorary surgeon to the York County Hospital. However, when not tending York’s sick, he followed his passion of writing history. Using various sources, including those that he had been bequeathed and those he bought from local booksellers, Drake began compiling ‘Eboracum.’

Having previously presented his findings to the guildhall in 1735, Drake had been granted a sum of £50 towards his book. So it was in 1736, having met with the guildhall again, that Drake’s later life’s work was finished.

Francis Drake’s work was unique; a concise history of York had not existed prior to it. His book became an important source of information for the ‘travel companions’, which were popular with visitors to the city. Drake’s work was rewarded when he became a member of the scholarly Royal Society, a body who represented the peak of the learned eighteenth century, masculine society.

Drake fell ill in March 1771, and died shortly afterwards. Whilst his greatest work is perhaps now outdated, without it we would have lost much of this city’s treasured historic past.

The Dedication

Mysteriously the dedication of ‘Eboracum’ was not made to the York Guildhall but instead to the Earl of Burlington, designer of the York Assembly Rooms and Mansion House. It was later revealed Drake had found himself in debtor’s prison in London, and it was the Earl who had paid off his debts. The Earl also contributed £50 towards Drake’s ‘Eboracum’ and was rewarded with this dedication, as well as Drake’s unflinching loyalty.

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