English Piracy in the Fifteenth Century

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In 1374 Edward III ordered special measures to be taken for the defence of the strategically important port of Dartmouth against attack from the sea, but it wasn’t until 1388 in the reign of Richard II that John Hawley [John Hawley III of Dartmouth father], who was mayor again by this time, ordered the burgesses to begin the building of a fortalice, or coastal fort, at the entrance to the port.

It was completed by 1400, and a chain was laid across the river to Godmerock on the opposite side. This could be raised to prevent enemy ships from reaching Dartmouth. The fortalice pre-dates what we now know as Dartmouth Castle which wasn’t started until 1481 in the reign of Edward IV. On the other side of the harbour mouth sits Kingswear Castle which was begun in 1491. Little evidence of the fortalice is seen at first glance today apart from the high wall incorporating a tower seen above the car park, but Edwards points to several areas around the site where remnants and other clues remain.

Throughout Hawley’s life England and France were engaged in a long-running conflict, primarily over the claims of English kings to the French throne, that later became known as the Hundred Years’ War. In those days Kings didn’t have a standing navy; instead they issued licenses to the owners of specified merchant ships allowing them to “go to sea at their own expense to attack and destroy the king’s enemies”, the form of words used at this time for a privateer.

By 1386 Hawley was directing operations by a fleet of privateers who lay in wait off the coast of Brittany, attacking French and neutral shipping at will.

Charles VII had been gathering strength, and on 31 July 1449 he seized his opportunity and declared war. His reconquest of Normandy took only thirteen months. It was the story of Henry V’s conquest in reverse, and in mirror-image. Rouen, Caen, and Harfleur fell in quick succession and, last of all, Cherbourg capitulated on 12 August 1450. Once again, the Channel had become an international frontier.

The French then turned to Gascony, and on 17 July 1453 as the final coup they took Bordeaux, thus making it French for the first time in its history. The loss of that important, last, area of Aquitaine, which had been held in close economic and political association by England for the past three centuries, signalled the end of this chapter of history. It was also all too much for the sensitive Henry VI, who slipped into a coma that summer and remained unconscious for the following seventeen months.

During these twenty-four years in which the English were being forced to retreat, stage by stage, from Normandy, the English government was also becoming progressively weak at home. The national exchequer became increasingly impoverished, while at the same time the Church and some of the magnates were storing up massive fortunes for themselves. Defence of the coastline against raiders or invaders became a pressing issue, with mounting fear not only in the coastal communities themselves but also in government. But although the government was well aware of the need, no funds were available for defence. Law and order broke down, with corruption at all levels. This was the background, and the reason for, another intense period of uncontrolled piracy, which lasted until well after 1453.

This period was not only longer than others which have been discussed in this book, it was also more complex, as men found various devious ways to exploit situations and the law. The records are more complicated than ever before, and are therefore more difficult to interpret or to explain.

Enemy ships were legitimate prize so we are not concerned with them, but lengthy legal arguments were spun out concerning ships and cargoes of friendly countries. The statute of 1414 remained in force until 1435, although the merchants tried to get it repealed three times before that. They were chafing, complaining that it damaged English commerce. While their own hands were tied by it, foreign pirates were making off with English ships with impunity, without the possibility of retaliating with letters of marque.

In the meantime, while the English government resisted attempts to repeal the 1414 statute, they did take a rather different step in an attempt to regulate piracy. In 1426 a proclamation went out that when goods which had been captured at sea were brought into the ports, they were not to be disposed of until either the king’s council, or the chancellor, or the admiral or his deputy, had decided whether they belonged to friends or enemies. This was probably an attempt to simplify procedures. But in effect, it placed responsibility in the hands of a local official, the admiral’s deputy, giving excellent opportunities to the unscrupulous. The only recourse for wronged merchants was to complain to the chancellor, which is where we pick up their stories.

During the first seven years of the new reign, however, as long as John, Duke of Bedford, still had control of the important continental ports, life in the Channel remained relatively quiet. But even then, some members of the families who had been well known for piracy in the time of Henry IV were already back, engaged in their old trade. And their methods were already remarkably involved and devious.

John Hawley III of Dartmouth was the only son of the famous John Hawley. Although he had started out assisting his father in the last few years of his life and carried on with piracy until 1413, no major complaints were made about his activities during the reign of Henry V. He kept relatively quiet. But in 1427 he showed up again, at sea in the Bay of Biscay. Near the harbour of Oleron, he captured a ship and her cargo valued at £220 which belonged to John Lovell, a merchant of Dundee. When a commission was issued for his own arrest, he went to Lovell and bargained with him, exonerating himself but suggesting that Lovell should obtain three more commissions in which he would accuse forty other pirates who had been, in fact, Hawley’s accomplices. Hawley also agreed, using his position as a man of influence, to approach these men, to collect the money, with which he would make good all Lovell’s losses. Equipped with the new commissions, Hawley collected the money from his one-time associates but then departed with it, ensuring that none of it reached Lovell. To make matters worse for the hapless Lovell, he was left in a position from which he could make no further claims for damages in this case. Hawley, on the other hand, was in an advantageous position: he had established his innocence in that particular case. He carried on in public service. In 1430, he was appointed a commissioner to arrest more pirates, and in 1436 he was a commissioner for array in Devonshire, intended to round up men and armaments for the defence of the realm, although as he died that May, he is unlikely to have taken that up.

John Mixtow of Fowey, similarly from an old-established pirate family, appears in September 1430, in a very peculiar case involving an admiral’s deputy. John Caryewe, master of the Mary of Le Conquet, who was sailing with a couple of other Breton vessels, had safely delivered a load of salt to Penzance. Soon after he had left for home with a quantity of cloth, he was captured ‘in warlike manner’ by a swarm of pirates from Marazion and other small local ports, contrary to the truce in force between England and Brittany. At that point John Mixtow and Harry Nanskaseke of Truro appeared on the scene, and persuaded the admiral’s deputy, John Moure, to arrest the ship, invoking letters of marque which had been granted by the Duke of Brittany to Nanskaseke’s father nineteen years previously. Using that as their excuse, they took possession of both the Breton ships and the cargo of cloth. We hear of that case because John Caryewe, complaining of great inconvenience, requested the chancellor to direct the Sheriff of Cornwall to ensure safe trading conditions for the Bretons. He also demanded that the chancellor should issue a writ of subpoena to John Moure, as well as Mixtow and Nanskaseke, to be examined in respect of the letters of marque they quoted. Unfortunately, there is no record of the outcome of this case but, more importantly, it is evidence that this official was very prepared to enter into collusion with the pirates.

Mixtow was to be heard of again, slightly later. In July 1433 he was leader of a gang said to number 200, sailing in the great ship the Edward and a supporting balinger off Cape St Vincent, southern Portugal. ‘Armed and arrayed for war’, they captured a Genoese caravel (also described as a carrack), laden with woad, olive oil and lye destined for the port of Sandwich and eventually, no doubt, for London. The crew had offered no resistance.None the less, Mixtow abandoned them, destitute, on the coast of Portugal, wrongly accusing them of being ‘Saracens’. Taken back to Fowey, her cargo was divided among the captors and was then distributed around Cornwall, Devon, Somerset and Wiltshire. Mixtow refused to accept the merchants’ evidence of identification, the ‘marks, charters and cockets’ on their goods, no doubt playing for time, during which the goods could be further dispersed.

Hawley and Mixtow were the forerunners of a new class of pirates, new men, who surfaced in the records from 1430 onwards (and it is remarkable that their appearance coincided exactly with the initial downturn of events in France). These were men who had never been employed by the Crown, as Eustace and John Crabbe had been. Nor were they, with one very short-term exception, sanctioned by the Crown as privateers, like the great John Hawley. They were not even, like the Alards or, again, John Hawley, leaders in society who would have ploughed some of their profits back into their communities. In contrast, they showed little or no allegiance to their roots. They were, to put it simply, full-time professional plunderers, whose sole objective was personal profit. The majority came from Devon and Cornwall, where they were well supported by men in high positions who in their turn stood to gain from their investment in the ships and the necessary victuals. But there were also others, from further east, who were playing the same game. Overall, these men were numerous, and particularly since their cases were very complex, it is only possible here to offer an insight into what was happening through the activities of a small representative sample.

They were as mobile as any of their forerunners, appearing wherever the prizes appealed. In the years up to 1436 their principal targets were the Breton ships sailing up the southern side of the Channel to Rouen and Dieppe, bringing the basic necessities to the English occupants of Normandy, and also to the Channel Islands. These amounted principally to food and wine from La Rochelle, salt from the Bay, and linen cloth and cords from Brittany, together with some commodities which had evidently come from further south, such as iron, and resin for caulking their vessels. The individual claims for compensation for goods lost to them were noticeably small in comparison to those of the previous century, which reflected the size of the ships they were using. They were relatively small barges and balingers, which had the advantage over the great long-distance ocean-going Italian ships, in that they were able to work out from, and carry their prizes into, the smaller harbours like Penzance and Teignmouth. But at the same time they were apparently able to work long distances. They appeared in the Bay of Biscay, and they also sold their goods at places all along the coast between Cornwall and Portsmouth, including the Isle of Wight, which seems to have been an important emporium, centred on Newport.

Some details illustrate how they received back-up support, and the nature of the problems this caused. In the spring of 1432 two Breton merchants complained specifically ‘to show the chancellor how well protected the wrong-doers on the sea-coasts of Devonshire were’. They said that those captors were bribing the admiral’s deputy to empanel juries made up for the most part of their own relatives and friends, together with the victuallers and owners of the ship concerned. Those juries could be relied upon to give false verdicts, for example stating that goods which had actually been stolen from the king’s friends had belonged instead to the king’s enemies. And, in return for a bribe of half the goods, the deputy could be relied on to enrol that verdict, which rendered the king’s commission ineffective. The Bretons emphasised that as long as the deputy was in league with the pirates, he was their guarantee that matters would be settled in their favour. Importantly, a second commission dealing with the same event exposed a complaint of extortion against John Baron, a merchant of Exeter, who was one of the members of that commission. The results of an inquiry into this case, which were enrolled four years later, revealed the extent of Baron’s extortion. In this case he had helped himself to a pipe of bastard wine which belonged to the Bretons. As well as that, on the pretext of the commission, he had taken one or two packs of cloth from every man in the neighbourhood to whom he bore ill will. He had the stamp of an exceptionally disagreeable and grasping individual. The upshot was that nobody dared trade without first paying him a cut. The king thus lost his customs and many people were wronged. In addition, it has emerged from more recent research that Baron had a history of warrants out for his arrest. These included one for stealing a ship which was under safe conduct direct from a Breton harbour, possibly the St Nunne, which is described below.

William Kydd was one of this new class of pirate. He rose from documentary obscurity in 1430 and subsequently flourished, travelling far and wide without much reference to his port of origin, Exmouth, at least before 1453. In October 1430 he was master of a balinger, La Trinité of Exmouth, which he had packed with other malefactors. They seized a ship as it was nearing Guernsey from Brittany with a cargo of food. The terms of the subsequent commission to the sheriff of Devon and others make it clear that the authorities were aware that the owners and victuallers of the ship were supporting the pirates because in the last resort, their goods and chattels were to be arrested. But, unfortunately for those merchants of Guernsey and for numerous others, this was a period when innumerable commissions were issued and very few indeed were acted upon. In other words, there was already unlimited immunity for the pirates.

The following year, Kydd was among a group who, sailing with a flotilla of four barges ‘armed and arraigned in the manner of war’, captured four food ships on their way towards Rouen, took them back to Dartmouth, Fowey and Kingsbridge (on the Salcombe estuary) and sold the goods locally. Similar piracy continued intensively, and built up until, on 31 March 1436, Kydd led the large group of pirates who descended in a flotilla of eight barges and balingers on the harbour of St Paul de Lyon, south-east of Roscoff, and carried off the Saint Nunne, a ship sheltering in that harbour while waiting for a favourable wind to cross to England. They escorted that ship back to Plymouth, where she still lay in October six months later, together with goods worth 100l which included white wine of La Rochelle, two types of cloth, and 24 flychys of bacon which belonged to Thomas Horewood of Wells.

In 1435, in order to respond to the crisis which was rapidly unfolding on the opposite shore of the Channel, the government had an acute need for ships. Some men concerned must have looked back regretfully to the time of Henry V, when royal or loyal hired vessels would have been used to cruise the Channel through the long summer season for the combined purposes of guarding against French ships leaving port, protecting English commerce and, if necessary, defending the south coast of England. But that was no longer an option. Even before Henry V died, those ships had become redundant and had started to decay. Back in 1423–24, the authorities, finding they were further decayed and maintenance would have been unjustifiable, and especially since there was then no pressing need for them, had sold off the ships which remained.

Therefore, when crisis was looming in February 1436 the government took the only course open to it, and issued short-term (four-month) licences to certain individual shipowners to equip certain named ships at their own expense ‘with a master, mariners, men at arms, archers, and other hibiliments of war, and victuals, to resist the king’s enemies on the sea’. They were not to be paid, but all captured goods were to belong to the captors, except for the certain ‘share’ reserved for the admiral. Of the greatest significance, a proviso was included to exonerate those who made most of this piracy possible. It was stated that if any offence should be committed against the king’s friends, the offender alone should answer for it: no responsibility was to fall on the owner or the victualler of the ship.

These commissions were mostly issued to men of east coast ports, but included one in the south-west, Thomas Gylle of Dartmouth. He was another of those who first appears in the records after 1430, although he was notable as a shipowner and merchant of some substance. He was six times MP for the town between 1433 and 1455, and one of the collectors of customs in Exeter and Dartmouth in 1439 and in 1453. Between 1431 and 1435 he had frequently served on commissions to arrest men, ships and goods brought into West Country ports. Now, in 1436, he was licensed to equip and arm two of his ships, l’Antony and Le Katerine, both of Dartmouth, together with two supporting balingers or barges. For this short time, at least, he was a fully accredited privateer.

Gylle was heard of again in January 1440, in less dignified circumstances. His ship the Christopher of Dartmouth, 320 tons, was sailing home north to Dartmouth when, already in the lee of Start Point, she turned and, with full sail, a favourable wind and three well-harnessed men in the topcastle, rammed a much smaller ship which had been following some 3 miles behind her. She ‘sliced in two’ the George of Welles, 120 tons, and sank her. In his complaint to the chancellor, the owner, an Englishman born at Lancaster but then living in Drogheda, Ireland, prayed consideration for his great poverty, loss and delays and he took the opportunity to point out that while he was ignorant of Dartmouth, Gylle had ‘great authority and power in that district’.

Snapshots of the life of Hankyn Seelander illustrate the mobility, in more than one respect, of one of this new class of pirates. Both his address and even his name seem to have been readily adjustable. He is described variously as being of either Falmouth or Fowey, and it is also evident that he had valuable connections on the Isle of Wight.

In December 1433, as Hanquin Seland, he was accused of taking certain goods at sea from a ship of Bayonne. In 1439, a group of pirates in a balinger belonging to John Selander captured a Breton ship, the Saint Fiacre, sailing towards La Rochelle laden with goods belonging to John Loven. After Loven’s letters of safe conduct had been thrown overboard, he was robbed of both the ship and the cargo. In the early summer of 1441 one Hankyn Hood, presumably the same man, was sailing as master of the Marie with John Fresshow of Falmouth, a frequent companion, somewhere south of Brittany. In company with several other Cornish vessels they captured a ship of Vannes, southern Brittany, which they took to sell her cargo in one of the ports in the Gironde.

And so he went on, being especially active and confident in 1443–44. Around midsummer 1443 Alphonso Mendes, a merchant of Portugal, sailing in a ship of Tavira (on the south coast of Portugal) lost certain goods, principally fruit and bastard wine, to pirates who were named as John Selander and Hankyn Loo, both of Fowey. Unfortunately the location of this piracy was not disclosed, but one wonders whether these two names stood for one and the same man. That September, he had stolen wine and other merchandise from another Breton ship, of which John Rous was master.

On the Sunday before Christmas 1443, a group of pirates in a barge named Le Palmer of Fowey owned by Hankyn Selander captured another English ship, Le Mighell of Dartmouth, as she was preparing to enter Plymouth harbour at the end of her voyage from Brittany. She was carrying 21 tuns of wine and 17 pieces of linen cloth for a joint group of English merchants from the Plymouth area operating in partnership, it seems, with two named men from Le Conquet, Brittany. The pirates diverted the ship with its cargo to Newport, Isle of Wight, where they ‘did their will therof’. Although the goods may already have been sold, the commission which followed included the usual empty, unrealistic threat. He was to return the ship and the goods – or be committed to prison.

Clays Stephen of Portsmouth was another similar individual. In the autumn of 1445 he joined Robert Wenyngton of Dartmouth and others who came from Kingswear, and captured a ship which had been sent by the Queen of France to bring a consignment of wine, iron and other merchandise to England. In spite of the ship having letters of safe conduct from the king and there being a truce between England and France, they brought it into Fowey. They disposed of the goods easily, and the merchants were severely beaten up and some were killed.

In about March 1448 Clays Stephen had travelled further in the opposite direction and was in the Thames estuary, where he was joined by William Kydd, who had come from even further west. They combined with others to attack a ship bringing goods for some London merchants from Arnemuiden near Middleburg in Zeeland to Queenborough near Sheerness. They took that ship first to Portsmouth and then disposed of the goods on the Isle of Wight.

That summer Clays Stephen, one of two pirates said to be staying at Sandwich, was busy in a flotilla out at sea ‘between Dover and Calais’, which encountered a small convoy on its way from La Rochelle to Sluys. He was the master of a balinger which took a similar ship, the Saint Piere de Lavyon, and relieved it of 39 tuns of wine belonging to a merchant of La Rochelle. At the same time another merchant lost 27 tuns of white wine from a second ship, the Noel de Arninton.

In the autumn of 1450 another small flotilla of English pirates captured a hulk (an old-fashioned term for a vessel which was probably a successor of the cog) named the St George of Bruges, which belonged to a group of merchants of that city and was on voyage home from Portugal. Clays Stephen was master of one of the pirate ships, Le Carvell of Portsmouth: others came from Southampton and Winchelsea.

These are just a few examples of the culture of concentrated piracy which existed in the 1430s and 1440s. Numerous men were involved, and between Portugal and the North Sea no mariner can have felt safe from them.

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