The Pirate War, 1402–1404 Part I

Piracy had been endemic in the Channel and the Bay of Biscay for centuries, but the Earl of Crawford’s destructive cruise of 1402 was different. It was more organised, larger in scale and plainly enjoyed the support of influential men in the French government if not of the King’s council itself. The raids left a trail of unsatisfied claims by merchants and shipowners who had lost their property and a legacy of ill-feeling between the two governments. Each responded in the time-honoured fashion by authorising reprisals against the property of the other in an escalating cycle of violence. These operations were mainly the work of English, French and Flemish privateers. They inaugurated the first great age of Atlantic privateering, and the birth of a tradition that would continue until the eighteenth century. In a later age the Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius would classify such operations as legitimate private war, but some of those involved could fairly be called pirates. The boundary between war and crime, between public and private violence, was as uncertain and permeable at sea as it was on land.

Privateering, a practice which was sanctioned by international law until the middle of the nineteenth century, was a method of making war which had been developed largely by the English since the thirteenth century and had already achieved a high degree of organisation. Governments issued letters of marque to merchants claiming to have suffered losses at the hands of nationals of a foreign prince, which authorised them to recoup their losses by ‘reprisal’, in other words by seizing ships and cargoes of the foreign prince’s subjects at sea. In time of war, letters of marque were commonly issued in more general terms, which were not limited to seizures by way of reprisal. They authorised the persons named to capture the merchant ships and cargoes of declared enemies for their own profit provided that they left neutral property alone. The Anglo-French treaty of 1396 had banned the issue of letters of marque and with a few exceptions the ban had been observed. But from 1402 onward they began to be issued again, and most privateers had at least the tacit authority of their sovereigns even if they did not have formal commissions. ‘Know ye,’ declared a typical English document,

that we have given leave to our well-beloved Henry Pay to sail and pass across the seas with as many ships, barges and balingers of war, men-at-arms and bowmen, all fully equipped, as he may be able to recruit in order to do all the damage he can to our declared enemies as well as for their destruction and for the safeguarding and defence of our faithful lieges.

The King directed his admirals and all his officers in coastal areas to give whatever advice or assistance Pay might require. This was manifestly an officially sanctioned venture.

By the beginning of the fifteenth century the English had begun to enlarge the scope of their privateering operations by targeting not just enemy ships but neutral ships carrying enemy cargoes. The rewards were high and the privateers no doubt needed little encouragement. But it seems clear that the initiative came from the government. Blockading an enemy’s seaborne trade was a highly effective weapon of war. But it was also extremely abrasive and provoked bitter complaints in the fifteenth century, just as it would in the time of Blake or Nelson, for it required neutral ships to submit to being stopped and searched at sea and taken into English ports if they were found to be carrying suspicious goods. This could be a terrifying experience. Early in 1403 the Christopher from the Hanse port of Danzig was captured in the Channel by four ships of London and Dartmouth operating from Calais. Henry IV personally interviewed their masters to discover the facts before defending his subjects in a letter to the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order. This reveals very clearly what the King expected of privateers holding his commission. The German ship, he said, had been sailing without national markings. When the English challenged the crew to state their nationality they gave no answer, filled the top-castles with armed men, let out all their sail and tried to make off. The English opened fire with bombards mounted on their forecastles. They caught up with the fleeing ship and boarded her, overcoming and capturing the crew after a long and bloody hand-to-hand fight. She was found to be carrying wine from La Rochelle and was taken into Southampton where she was eventually forfeited to her captors. The Hanseatic towns had lost eight ships in this way during 1402 in addition to another four which were plundered and then allowed to go. Castile, another important neutral, lost seventeen.

The distinction between enemy and neutral property was not always easy to apply. Ownership was often uncertain. Enemy ships could sail under neutral colours. Enemy cargoes could be carried in neutral hulls and vice versa. Ships’ manifests were not always honest. It was not always clear whether a truce was in force at the time of the capture. Of course privateers were not particularly fastidious about the limits of their authority. But their trade was not the free-for-all that it is sometimes assumed to have been. An elaborate body of practice and law had grown up for adjudicating on the right to prize, which was administered partly by the chancellor and the king’s council, partly by the admirals and their local deputies, marshals, sergeants and clerks. Their work has generated a mass of documents in the remarkably full surviving records of the English government. They show that complaints of breaches of the truce, unauthorised acts of war or attacks on neutral property were taken seriously and routinely investigated. Privateers, however favoured, were liable to be summoned before the council or the admirals’ officers to prove their right to prize ‘as the law of the sea requires’. There was a regular flow of orders to restore neutral goods or hulls or to pay compensation to ruined German or Castilian shipowners and merchants. In one notable case a squadron of ships was specially fitted out by the Admiral of England to capture the notorious Rye pirate William Long, who was taken off his ship at sea and consigned to the Tower of London. If some men disobeyed the king and got away with it, that was to be expected of the uncertain processes and limited police powers of the medieval state. But there were others who paid for their transgressions with their property and a few with their liberty or their necks.

The growth of officially sponsored privateering at the beginning of the fifteenth century reflected the progressive withdrawal of governments from the costly business of building and operating warships themselves. In France the great state arsenal at Rouen, which had turned out oared warships since the thirteenth century, had stopped building and refitting ships by the end of the 1380s and, apart from brief spurts of activity in 1405 and 1416, never restarted. In England the last of Edward III’s great ships, the 300-ton carrack Dieulagarde, had been given away to a courtier in 1380. In the early years of his reign Henry IV owned just one sailing ship in addition to four barges which appear to have been used mainly to move the baggage of the royal household along the Thames. Requisitioning ships was not much less expensive than owning them, for hire had to be paid by the ton and crew’s wages by the day. Chiefly for reasons of cost, the English government had since 1379 entrusted much of the routine work of keeping the sea to contract fleets raised by commercial syndicates in London and the West Country. Privateers and contract fleets had their limitations. They were undisciplined. They brought the King into collision with neutral countries. They had little interest in his larger strategic objectives. They were particularly bad at defensive work, such as convoy duty and patrolling the Channel against coastal raiders, which offered limited prospects of spoil. An ambitious attempt to hand over the whole work of ‘keeping the seas’ to commercial operators in 1406 in return for the proceeds of the tunnage and poundage dues proved to be disastrous for all of these reasons, and the arrangements had to be terminated early. But for offensive operations against enemy commerce and coastal settlements, privateers largely displaced royal fleets throughout the reign of Henry IV. They operated at their own risk and expense and cost nothing in wages, hire or maintenance. They were therefore the natural resort of penurious governments.

In the early fifteenth century there were active privateering syndicates in London, Hull, the Cinque Ports and Guernsey. But the West Country was already the major centre for this kind of buccaneering, as it would remain for centuries. Dartmouth, Plymouth and Fowey were important privateering bases. According to a charter of Richard II Dartmouth had ‘above all places in the realm long been and still is strong in shipping and therewith has wrought great havoc on the King’s enemies in time of war’. The most celebrated English privateers, the Hawley family of Dartmouth, father and son, were living testimony to the wealth that could be made from prizes. Hawley the elder may have been a pirate in French eyes and occasionally in English ones, but he was a man of some social standing at home, the owner of Hawley’s Hall, the grandest house in Dartmouth, fourteen times mayor of the town and twice returned to Parliament. He founded St Saviour’s Church in Dartmouth, where his grand memorial brass, showing an idealised knight in full armour, can still be seen. His son, who carried on the family business, acquired extensive estates in the West Country, married the daughter of a chief justice of King’s Bench and sat twelve times in Parliament for Dartmouth. The Hawleys were close to the governments of Richard II and Henry IV and commonly acted under royal commissions.

More typical perhaps was the much rougher Harry Pay, the recipient of the commission quoted above. He was a professional pirate based at Poole in Dorset who had been attacking the ships and harbours of neutral Castile for years before he received a commission. His operations in the Channel against the French were to make him a popular hero in the first decade of the fifteenth century. Mark Mixtow of Fowey and the Spicer brothers of Plymouth and Portsmouth were men of the same stamp although on a lesser scale and for shorter periods. The Spicers had been actively engaged in piracy in the Atlantic for at least two years before the breach with France brought legitimacy to their operations and respectability to their lives. Richard Spicer represented Portsmouth in Parliament, served on commissions of array and ended up as a Hampshire gentleman. The Channel pirates contributed a good deal to the economy of the depressed coastal towns of southern England and, as the careers of men like Hawley and Spicer show, they enjoyed strong popular support. When William Long was eventually released from the Tower the town of Hythe held a banquet in his honour and Rye elected him to Parliament.

The French made use of very similar adventurers. The Bretons were regarded in England as ‘the greatest rovers and the greatest thieves that have been in the sea many a year’. Saint-Malo, an enclave of French royal territory within the duchy of Brittany, was the major centre of piracy and privateering on the French Atlantic coast. Its seamen were responsible for a large number of the captures of 1402. Privateers operating from Harfleur, another important base, were said in March 1404 to have taken £100,000 worth of cargoes in addition to exacting exorbitant ransoms from their prisoners. A contemporary described the port as the capital of Atlantic piracy, rich in the spoil of English shipping. Gravelines, although technically part of Flanders, was in fact under the control of the French captains-general commanding on the march of Calais, who built it up as another major privateering centre.

In France as in England most privateering ventures were commercial enterprises, financed by shrewd businessmen for profit. Guillebert de Fretin, a native of the Calais pale who had fled after refusing to swear allegiance to the English King, made his base at Le Crotoy in Ponthieu and achieved a short-lived fame as the leading French corsair of his time. His career of destruction would culminate in the sack of Alderney in June 1403 in which a large number of the inhabitants lost their lives. Guillebert’s cruises were funded by a syndicate of merchants of Abbeville and almost certainly authorised by French officials. When the French temporarily withdrew their support from French privateers and banished him, he and one of his lieutenants continued their depredations under the flag of Scotland. Equally commercial in their inspiration were the campaigns of Wouter Jansz, probably the most successful Flemish privateer of the time, who operated several ships out of Bervliet and Sluys in north-west Flanders. His most famous exploit was to sail up the Thames and capture an English freighter filled with the booty of a recent raid on the coast of Flanders, including the painted altar-piece of Sint Anna ter Muiden. Jansz appears to have been financed at least in part by an Italian corsair called Giovanni Portofino who had terrorised the western Mediterranean during the 1390s before moving his operations to northern Europe. The English regarded Jansz as a ‘notorious pirate’ and he is unlikely to have held any formal commission. But he made himself useful to the towns of the Zwin estuary by guarding the entrances against enemy incursions and he certainly had well-placed protectors.

In July and August 1402 the English and French ambassadors met at Leulinghem to deal with the escalating violence at sea. Faithful to the increasingly hollow pretence that the truce of 1396 remained in force, they reached agreement on 14 August on a procedure for verifying and meeting claims and on measures to prevent a recurrence. The seamen involved on both sides were formally disowned and declared to be criminals actuated entirely by malice and greed. All prisoners and cargoes in their hands were ordered to be released without payment and outstanding letters of marque and reprisal were cancelled. Pirates who persisted in attacking merchant ships were not to be received in either country.

These arrangements were a dead letter from the start. In the last quarter of 1402 another twenty English merchantmen were captured. Crawford had by now returned to Scotland with the rump of the French expeditionary force. But many of the ships and crews responsible for the new seizures had previously served under him. In the following January twelve English vessels were captured in a single incident and taken into Harfleur where their cargoes and crews were taken off under the noses of royal officials and their hulls set on fire. Another twenty or thirty English merchantmen were reported to be held in Norman ports. The English retaliated with vigour. They seized French and Flemish property in English ports. They commissioned new privateering fleets of their own. Over the winter of 1402–3 most of the more notorious English privateers were once more at sea with the King’s commissions. There are no reliable figures for French losses in these months, but they were almost certainly higher than English ones. With a much larger seafaring community and many more ships, the English were always likely to have the better of these exchanges. During the following months English privateers sacked the Île de Ré off the coast of Poitou, burning down its famous abbey. They seized French fishing boats in the Channel, carrying off large numbers of fishermen for ransom. They landed at several points along the French coast to seize booty and prisoners. According to French estimates some 3,000 English and Gascon seamen were engaged in these operations, which continued until the following summer.


The sudden upsurge of fighting at sea awakened ancient ghosts in Flanders. Flanders was a province of France, but as one of the principal trading and shipowning regions of Europe it had enjoyed close commercial and political relations with England for centuries. Flanders needed English wool, the indispensable raw material for the great cloth industries on which much of its population depended. England was also a significant market for the finished product. There was a large Flemish community in England, based mainly in London, and an even larger English mercantile community in Bruges and in the Dutch port of Middelburg on the other side of the estuary of the Scheldt. England and Flanders had a common interest in the security of the trade routes of the North Sea. It was not simply a question of preserving trade between them. As the Flemings had learned to their cost in the 1380s, the maintenance of peace across the North Sea was the key to the international banking and entrepôt business of Bruges and the county’s trade with the Italian maritime cities of Venice and Genoa and the Baltic towns of the Hanseatic League.7 There was an important political dimension to Flanders’s links with England. The English kings had always had allies in the towns of Flanders and unparalleled opportunities to make trouble there. They had been the patrons of all the great urban revolutions which had divided the Flemings and undermined the power of their counts since the end of the thirteenth century. Jacob van Artevelde, the leader of the Flemish revolution of 1339, had been a client of England and his son Philip, who had led the revolution of Ghent during the civil wars of the 1380s, was a pensioner of Richard II. English fleets and armies fought in Flanders in support of their cause. An English garrison had been stationed in Ghent as recently as 1385.

The informal alliance between England and Flanders was a perennial problem for the counts. They were under constant pressure from their subjects to avoid war with England or, if it could not be avoided, then at least to remove Flanders from the front line. Philip of Burgundy had inherited these problems with the territory. The Four Members of Flanders, a sort of grand committee representing the interests of Bruges and its district and the industrial towns of Ghent and Ypres, wielded considerable political influence. They openly pressed for a commercial treaty which would allow Flanders to remain neutral even at times when England and France were at war. Their demands posed an awkward dilemma for the Duke of Burgundy. As the King’s uncle and a considerable figure on his council, Philip could not easily remove a French principality from the international orbit of France. But neither could he ignore the interest of the powerful commercial and industrial oligarchies of Flanders on whom he depended for his political authority and a growing proportion of his revenues.

At the beginning of the fifteenth century, as France moved closer to war with England and the war at sea acquired a momentum of its own, these ancient dilemmas re-emerged. The English government had generally treated Flanders as an autonomous state and a neutral, in spite of its legal status as part of the French kingdom. But the expansion of English privateering to target French cargoes carried in neutral bottoms spelled disaster for the important Flemish carrying trade. In the course of 1402 no fewer than twenty-seven Flemish ships had been captured at sea on account of England’s quarrel with France. When the winter gales subsided in March 1403 and the English privateers resumed their cruises they took another twenty-six Flemish ships in the space of two months. The Duke of Burgundy’s first instinct had been to take reprisals against English merchants and goods in Flanders. But his subjects, terrified of falling out with their main trading partner, refused to cooperate. Meeting at Ypres in July 1402 the Four Members resolved to look for an accommodation with England instead. As one of its representatives told the English agents in Calais, whatever the Duke might say ‘the land of Flanders is no enemy of the King of England’.

That autumn they sent ambassadors to England and Scotland to open negotiations for what amounted to a treaty of neutrality. These initiatives culminated in an agreement with Henry IV’s council at Westminster on 7 March 1403. The terms provided for a temporary truce pending a conference at Calais in July, when it was hoped to make a more permanent arrangement. Meanwhile Flemish goods were to be immune from seizure in England or at sea, on the Flemings’ undertaking that they would not pass French goods off as their own. A corresponding immunity was conferred on English cargoes in Flanders. The practical effect was to allow Flemish traders to exclude French goods from the Flemish carrying trade as if France was a foreign country. The Flemish emissaries understood this perfectly. When Philip received them in Paris after their return they pressed him to allow Flanders to ‘remain neutral in the war of the two realms’. They were followed a few days later by a delegation of the Four Members. There were ‘rumours and fears throughout Flanders’, they said, that war would shortly break out with England. The life of the territory depended on the trade in cloth and wool. They would all be ruined if the war was allowed to interrupt it.

Since one of the Flemish negotiators at Westminster was his councillor and the other a canon of St Donatien in Bruges, the Duke of Burgundy must have given at least his tacit assent to their dealings with the English. But he regarded them as a disagreeable necessity. As the date fixed for the Anglo-Flemish conference at Calais approached, Philip reluctantly submitted to the Flemish demands. At the beginning of May 1403, during an interval of lucidity, Charles VI was induced to let Philip negotiate a separate treaty with England in his capacity as Count of Flanders. The terms of his negotiating authority were hammered out between his officials and Charles’s councillors in Paris in the course of June. It was a remarkable document, which envisaged an immunity not just for the Anglo-Flemish trade but for the county itself. The Duke was authorised to agree that if war broke out the Flemings would not be required to take up arms in the cause of France. French royal troops would not be allowed to operate from Flanders unless the English actually invaded it, and French ships of war would not be allowed to use Flemish ports except for short visits to take on water and victuals. It is obvious that some features of this arrangement were completely unacceptable to the French royal council and had been included simply to satisfy the Four Members. In a secret protocol drawn up shortly afterwards Philip promised the King that in spite of the breadth of the authority conferred on him he would agree nothing that might prevent a French army from launching an expedition to Scotland or an invasion of England from Flemish ports.

For some years Flanders was destined to pursue two inconsistent policies towards England, the Duke’s policy and that of the Four Members. The Four Members did their best to enforce the agreement that they had made with Henry IV. They sent their agents to every port of western Flanders from Sluys to Gravelines with orders to stop the fitting out of ships of war against England. At least one corsair who defied their wishes was imprisoned. Meanwhile Philip of Burgundy declined to be bound by the agreement and in April 1403 authorised the seizure of £10,000 worth of English merchandise by the water bailiff of Sluys in retaliation for the latest piratical raids in the North Sea. Philip nominated his own representatives to participate in the Anglo-Flemish conference at Calais alongside those of the Four Members, but they were consistently obstructive, raising one procedural objection after another. As a result the conference was repeatedly adjourned without a permanent agreement. Nevertheless the provisional arrangements agreed at Westminster were extended from session to session and progressively expanded as the English pressed their demands and the Flemings yielded. In August 1403 the Four Members agreed to formalise the prohibition on the carriage of French cargoes in Flemish ships and extended it to cover Scottish merchandise as well. They also promised to release English prisoners and cargoes seized by the Duke’s officers. All of this was done on their own authority without any formal endorsement by either the Duke of Burgundy or the King of France. The French royal council expressed the strongest misgivings about the whole business and in the event the August agreement was never ratified. But it was generally observed in practice and negotiations were never entirely broken off. The English government maintained what amounted to a permanent diplomatic mission in Calais charged with the conduct of relations with Flanders under the supervision of Henry IV’s long-serving lieutenant-governor of the town, Richard Aston, and a meticulous Oxford lawyer called Nicholas Ryshton. It would take them four years of continuous and accident-prone negotiation before an Anglo-Flemish treaty was finally concluded in very different political conditions in 1407.

1 thought on “The Pirate War, 1402–1404 Part I

  1. Pingback: The Pirate War, 1402–1404 Part I – faujibratsden

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