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The city’s position at the mouth of the Plym and Tamar estuaries and its proximity to the deepwater harbour of Plymouth Sound made it an ideal location for a naval base. During the 15th and 16th centuries, most of the British naval fleet was stationed here; the royal dockyard was established at Devonport beside the River Tamar in 1690 and remains an important naval base.

The globetrotting hero Sir Francis Drake sailed from Plymouth in 1577 aboard the Golden Hind, returning three years later having become the first man to circumnavigate the globe. Eleven years later, Drake played a major part in the defeat of the Spanish Armada, chasing the Spanish fleet all the way to Calais and then attacking them with fire ships. Many of the Spanish vessels escaped but were wrecked off the Scottish coast. Total losses: England nil, Spain 51.