Henry VI: Resurgence of Piracy I

The unusually peaceful conditions in the Channel left by Henry V were the result of English control of both shores, combined with the essential support of the Count of Flanders (otherwise known as the Duke of Burgundy) and a series of truces made with the other countries whose merchants used the waterway. Englishmen continued to be restrained from piracy and privateering by the 1414 Statute of Truces. In addition, any potential offenders were busily occupied ferrying soldiers, officers of the government, the new settlers and all their respective supporters and equipment across to Normandy, and were paid for doing so.

In the background, however, the premature and unexpected death of Henry V brought to light other circumstances which were both complex and threatening. The so-called ‘dual kingdom’ was ruled by one king, but nonetheless consisted of two distinct countries. Behind the veil of Henry’s ‘permanent’ settlement of Englishmen in Normandy, each of the two countries, England and Normandy, still had its own government, its own laws, its own customs, and its own language. Henry’s failure to include the Armagnacs in the Treaty of Troyes meant that he bequeathed an ongoing war being fought against them on several different fronts, but mostly in the general area round Paris. In England, there was mounting opposition to this continuing war. Overall, the political portents for longer-term stability were not good.

Henry’s heir was the nine-month-old Henry VI (1422–61), born to Catherine at Windsor the previous December. A long regency was inevitable and the responsibility for continuity of government lay with the remaining members of the royal family, who were now reduced to four, Henry V’s two youngest brothers and two Beaufort step-uncles (see below). Almost immediately it became clear that it had been Henry V’s personal leadership and charisma which had provided the cement to give the family its former, remarkable, cohesion. Once that leadership had gone, cracks quickly appeared. The two remaining brothers were very different characters. John, Duke of Bedford was cast in the same mould as Henry himself, to whom he had already served as a trusted lieutenant. He was to prove wise, diplomatic, capable, energetic, and dedicated to the cause of England. Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester was, in contrast, much less reliable. His one military success had been conducting the conquest of the Cherbourg peninsula in 1418. Otherwise he lacked discretion and diplomacy, and was emphatically not a team player. He evidently had not been, and would not in future be, entrusted with important responsibility by other members of the family and nobility, which was a constant source of grievance to him. Apparently feeling cheated of opportunities to achieve military honour and glory, he was to prove himself irresponsible and self-seeking, an irritant and, increasingly, a danger to national and international stability.

Henry V’s wills, codicils and the other verbal directions he gave when he knew he was dying did not cover all eventualities, and were open to different interpretations. They opened the door to controversy. Henry had stipulated that Duke Humphrey should have the wardship of the infant king, but when the duke chose to assume that included running the country he found, to his intense frustration, that he was opposed by the council led by Henry Beaufort and his brother Thomas, and that all his activities were to be scrutinised by parliament. This initiated a series of fierce disputes between him and the restraining arm of his step-uncle, a bitter feud which continued to dominate English politics until they both died in 1447.

In France, Charles VI died fifty-one days after Henry V and, ignoring the Treaty of Troyes, his 19-year-old son, the Dauphin Charles, immediately claimed the throne. But that claim was supported by little substance: Charles had no financial resources, no body of loyal nobility and no centralised army. Much more important at that time, by mid-November John, Duke of Bedford, had emerged as the English regent of France.

Bedford was well aware that to maintain peaceful conditions in the Channel, which implied preventing a resurgence of piracy, it was essential to remain on good terms with Burgundy and, if possible, with Brittany. After some six months’ negotiation he achieved a triple alliance which bore fruit on 17 April 1423 in the defensive and offensive Treaty of Amiens, signed by himself, by Duke Philip of Burgundy and by Arthur of Richemont, brother of the Duke of Brittany. It was cemented by the marriages of Bedford to Anne, a sister of Philip of Burgundy (on 14 June), and of Arthur de Richemont to another sister, Margaret. The treaty recognised the French, the Dauphin’s party, as the common enemy.

He continued fighting to mop up remaining pockets of opposition on the Channel coast. For instance, he captured Le Crotoy, now a sleepy silt-bound fishing village but then one of the more important of the Channel ports, with an impressive fortress guarding the mouth of the Somme. Until then, lying too far from Flanders for Burgundy to reach it from the north, and too far north for the English to reach it from the Seine, it had remained in Armagnac hands, and had proved a useful base for Breton pirates. On 17 August 1424, Bedford also inflicted a massive defeat on the Dauphin’s much larger, but badly organised, force of French and Scots at Verneuil, some 60 miles west of Paris. As a result the Dauphin went into retreat, leaving the French temporarily leaderless, and the slaughtered Scots were never replaced, showing that Scottish support for France was dwindling.

However, two developments already threatened to destabilise Bedford’s triple entente. In or about January 1423 Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, had married Jacqueline of Hainault, and together they set out to recover Hainault from her estranged first husband, John of Brabant, and Holland and Zeeland from her uncle, John of Bavaria. Having landed with an army at Calais, their campaign was short and ended in fiasco. Nonetheless, both their objectives were bound to stir up antagonism on the part of the Duke of Burgundy. Secondly, the Bretons, as ever, were shifty allies, and despite the encouraging result at Verneuil, Arthur of Richemont reneged on the Treaty of Amiens and changed sides. He and his brother then proceeded to take control of the Dauphin’s side of the war, which aimed to expel the English! In spite of these checks, and continuing piracy by the Bretons, for six years Bedford was able to maintain the areas conquered by Henry V, and even to extend his land down to the Loire.

Then, on 3 November 1428 the military tide turned. The English forces suffered their first serious defeat. The Earl of Salisbury, their leader, was killed by a gunshot during the siege of Orleans and, following that, they failed to take the town. Soon afterwards, Jeanne d’Arc intervened. Her story is well known, but in short, she led the French troops to rapid victory over the English in a series of battles, and ensured that the Dauphin was crowned King of France at Reims on 17 July 1429. Although she herself was captured by the Burgundians in May 1430 and tried and burnt at the stake by the English in Rouen on 30 May 1431, she had restored French morale, and became a martyr. The loss of Salisbury, failure of their siege of Orleans, and the contributions of Jeanne d’Arc combined to seriously weaken the English position in France, and in December 1431 the Duke of Burgundy signed a six-year truce with Charles VII, further weakening his link with England.

For the English, further adversity followed quickly. On 13 November 1432 Anne, wife of the Duke of Bedford, died in an epidemic in Paris, aged only 28. Not only a grievous personal loss to Bedford, she had also provided a positive political link with Philip of Burgundy, her brother. Bedford remarried five months later, into a family deeply distrusted by Philip, who was thus further alienated. In addition, the soldiers in the garrison at Calais mutinied for lack of pay. Still, the English leaders, Bedford, Gloucester and Henry Beaufort, failed to agree on a strategy for prosecuting the war in France.

The years 1435–36 saw multiple crises for the English, with serious implications for their control of the Channel. In the spring of 1435 most of the counties along the south coast were on the alert. The Isle of Wight was living in fear of a French invasion. In the summer that year Philip of Burgundy convened the equivalent of a peace conference at Arras, but the English failed to come to an agreement with the French. One week after that diplomatic failure, Bedford died in Rouen, in September 1435, and only a week later, Burgundy officially concluded peace with France, which left the English without allies.

In September 1435, Dieppe was lost to the French. Harfleur and the surrounding area followed in November. In January 1436 the English were faced with a popular uprising in Normandy. At Calais, the woollen exports piled up, having been subjected to a Flemish embargo. In July, a Burgundian siege of Calais failed only because of dissent within their own ranks.

Against that background the young king Henry grew up, and it must have been increasingly obvious that he was the antithesis of his father. His interests and talents lay in directions very different from military matters or governmental control. He was a gentle, intelligent, peace-loving individual, who is now celebrated for founding and successfully influencing the early development of Eton College at Windsor and King’s College, Cambridge. But, compassionate and caring, he was indiscriminately generous with his favours and lacked the ability to select good officers, advisors and confidants. He lacked political acumen. In short, he did not possess the credentials necessary for strong leadership in the fifteenth century.

In addition, during his adolescence Henry was caught between two bitterly opposed, argumentative uncles, each of whom sought to impose his own opinions on him. Not only that, he must also have witnessed, as a powerless spectator, the failures, military and diplomatic, of his representatives in France. How these experiences affected him is impossible to estimate, but it did not bode well for the peace which he so strongly favoured. In the next few years Henry supported moves towards a peaceful settlement with France, but that was a long time in coming. A commercial agreement was reached with Burgundy in 1439, but disagreements among the English participants postponed a peace agreement until 1444. In 1445 the king married Margaret of Anjou, a strong and, as it turned out, fiery character who vehemently refused to negotiate with anybody who opposed her husband, so did nothing to promote peace or conciliation. The couple became increasingly unpopular, and the government in England became increasingly divided and corrupt.

In France, meanwhile, 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.