The Murky World of Elizabeth's Pirates

Under Elizabeth I's reign, sailors were encouraged to explore New Worlds. But did she encourage them to do more than innocent map-making? I take a look at the pirates that commanded the seas under Elizabeth.

Elizabeth I. British Library, Public Domain.
A pirate's life. Swarthy, salty sea dogs on a quest for notoriety, wealth and fame. But it wasn't all swashbuckling and swigging back bottles of rum. It's no secret that Elizabeth employed 'privateers' - pirates in all but name, who would share their treasure with her. Francis Drake and Walter Raleigh, for example, have long been considered part of her team of 'Sea Dogs', but there were others. 

Red-bearded, browned-eyed Henry Strangewishe is one who could have been one of the queen's not so well-known privateers. Despite a history of piracy that dates back to the early 1550s, his yo-yo-ing pattern of being imprisoned and then quietly released and then eventually pardoned by Elizabeth in 1560 indicates that he might have enjoyed some royal favour. In a letter from Dr Nick Wotton to Cecil in 1559, there's almost a regretful tone to the loss of goods from his ship: 'those who have captured the pirates (Strangewishe) have had the greater part of the prizes.' (1) In May the same year, the comptrollers of Southampton and Portsmouth were told that Strangewishe 'having been here, has made declaration that they only mean to go to the seas as merchants,' and they are told to let them pass, unless they appear to be preparing in 'warlike sort'. (2)  

The wording of Elizabeth's warrant to pardon this hardcore pirate in 1560, who had long terrorised the Spanish, Scottish and Portuguese coasts is almost benevolent: 'warrant to release Henry Strangewishe the pirate, in order to judge of his conduct before his pardon is finally given to him.' (3)

We also know that he was in the pay of the crown. In 1562, he and 'seventy mariners' were paid 76/ 10s 8d (around £17,0000 in today's money) just a few days' before he sailed to France to assist the military, where he was wounded in battle and died in October 1562. (4)

Similarly, there's some discrepancy with Elizabeth's treatment of the Kelligrews. John Kelligrew in 1595 was accused and investigated for robbery, murder, accepting bribes, selling access to Pendennis castle - where he was governor - squandering his wife's money and 'consorting with pirates.' Cecil reports back on Kelligrew's answer - and, despite a long history of suspected corruption, and his wife engaging in plundering a Spanish ship in the port of Falmouth in 1580 (5) - he was declared innocent to 'Cecil's satisfaction.' (6)

Pirate, British Library, Public Domain
Elizabeth's privateers differed from the common pirate by having letters from the crown as a licence to plunder. It's interesting then to find a known pirate George Phipson in the records of 1577, being one 'who cruises about as a pirate, falsely asserting that he has letters from Her Majesty authorising him to attack those of Ostend...'. (7) Phipson also has a history of being imprisoned and then released, having spoiled Dutch ships as well as those in Scottish waters. Could his paperwork have been authentic after all? 

There are other questions, too. Towards the end of Elizabeth's reign we see a burst of pirates who are suddenly pardoned, including Captain Edward Fenner in 1598; John Mason, and Rich Matthews in 1599 and Jasper and John Norris, John Jenkins and Rich Yarnet in 1600. (8) Could it be, that knowing Elizabeth was near the end of her life, she wished to give the men who had assisted her a clean start with the incoming monarch? 

The increase in wealth and excitement about new worlds lead to other unauthorised pirates wanting in on their share of treasure. The sixteenth-century papers are peppered with accounts of locals purchasing presumably stolen salt, hemp, soap, wine and spices from the pirates. These buccaneers were not handled so calmly by the authorities, and many of them faced the hangman for their crimes. In December 1566, a leak forced a boatload of pirates to anchor at Alderney, where some of them escaped. One Rich Hitchens though, 'whose past life showed him wholly given to piracy' was executed there in a grisly description confirming his execution: 'at low watermark, near St Martin's Point, where, for example, he remains in chains.' (9)

Of course the English were victims of piracy, too. There's a long list of offences that were carried out on English ships, one sounding like it came straight out of a pirate fiction book. In 1562, Nicolas de Lauda, a Biscay mariner, took refuge with his ship, Nuestra Senara, at Falmouth due to heavy storms. There, he was attacked by the pirate Timberleg (yes, he had a wooden leg!), otherwise known as Francis Le Clerque. de Lauda overheard the peg-legged pirate boasting with his men of 'other piracies' they had committed and watched on as he looted other ships in the port. (10) In a predictable twist of fate, Le Clerque had assisted Elizabeth's navy against the French in the same year and tried to barter a pension from her for the trouble, but she refused. 

Gallant voyagers and explorers, female plunderers, peg-legged pirates and those who offered to share their profits with the crown in return for favour. Who knew the life of a pirate in Elizabethan England was so exciting? However it was certainly a dangerous one and not without risk. 

What do you think? Do you know anything about the Elizabethan pirates? Fill me in in the comments below! 

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Notes and Primary Sources:
1. 'Queen Elizabeth - Volume 6: August 1559', in Calendar of State Papers Domestic: Edward VI, Mary and Elizabeth, 1547-80, ed. Robert Lemon (London, 1856), pp. 135-138British History Online  [accessed 14 April 2020].
2. 'Elizabeth: May 1559, 1-10', in Cal. State Papers Foreign: Elizabeth, Volume 1, 1558-1559, ed. Joseph Stevenson (London, 1863), pp. 232-247British History Online  [accessed 14 April 2020].
3. 'Queen Elizabeth - Volume 14: December 1560', in Cal. State Papers pp. 164-165British History Online  [accessed 14 April 2020].
4. 'Elizabeth: October 1562, 26-31', in Cal. State Papers Foreign: Elizabeth, Volume 5, 1562, ed. Joseph Stevenson (London, 1867), pp. 398-418British History Online  [accessed 14 April 2020].
5. Helen Hollick, Pirates: Truth and Tales, Amberley, 2017: Chapter 17: "Were Women There in the Golden Age of Piracy?"
6. 'Cecil Papers: December 1595, 26-31', in Cal. of the Cecil Papers in Hatfield House: Volume 5, 1594-1595, ed. R A Roberts (London, 1894), pp. 509-537British History Online  [accessed 14 April 2020].
7. 'Elizabeth: July 1577, 1-10', in Cal. of State Papers Foreign: Elizabeth, Volume 12, 1577-78, ed. Arthur John Butler (London, 1901), pp. 1-15British History Online  [accessed 14 April 2020].
9 'Addenda, Queen Elizabeth - Volume 13: December 1566', in Calendar of State Papers Domestic: Elizabeth, Addenda, 1566-79, ed. Mary Anne Everett Green (London, 1871), pp. 23-26British History Online [accessed 14 April 2020].
10. 'Simancas: December 1562', in Calendar of State Papers, Spain (Simancas), Volume 1, 1558-1567, ed. Martin A S Hume (London, 1892), pp. 273-276British History Online  [accessed 14 April 2020].

Historical Currency Converter used: National Archives

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