Under the bloody flag, p.1

Under the Bloody Flag, page 1


Under the Bloody Flag

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Under the Bloody Flag


  Many thanks to Jonathan Reeve of The History Press for commissioning the book, to Simon Hamlet and Robin Harries for seeing it through to publication, and to Sandra Mather of the University of Liverpool for preparing the maps with such skill. Although this work draws on my own research among the records of the High Court of the Admiralty in The National Archives at Kew, which was originally undertaken under the supervision of Professsor Kenneth Andrews, it makes extensive use of the contributions of other scholars. In particular, I would like to acknowledge my debt to the works of K.R. Andrews, D. Loades, D.B. Quinn and N.A.M. Rodger on maritime and naval history, and the works of Peter Earle and Marcus Rediker on the history of piracy. In addition, I thank the staff of The National Archives and The British Library for their assistance, and the archivists of local record offices who responded promptly to my enquiries.






  1 War and Maritime Plunder from the 1480s to the 1540s

  2 Pirates and Rebellious Rovers during the 1540s and 1550s

  3 Pirates, Privateers and Slave Traders from the later 1550s to the later 1560s

  4 Piracy, Plunder and Undeclared War during the 1570s

  5 The Profession of Piracy from the mid-1570s to 1585

  6 War, Reprisals and Piracy from 1585 to 1603





  Map 1: Southern England, Wales and Ireland.

  Map 2: The Spanish Caribbean.

  Map 3: Eastern England and the North Sea.

  Map 4: Spain, Portugal and the Mediterranean.


  By the later Middle Ages maritime depredation was a long-standing and widespread problem. The voyages of traders and fishermen were threatened by sea robbers of varying description, though the intensity of activity ebbed and flowed like the seas on which they sailed. At times, the prevalence of such predators contributed to a deep-seated aversion of the sea, particularly as an unsettling and unknowable place of danger and chaos.1

  Yet maritime robbery and spoil assumed varied forms. Although legal definitions were blurred by practice, which at times eroded the boundary between trade and plunder, a distinction can be drawn between piracy, reprisal venturing and privateering, and corsair enterprise. Piracy had a protean and prosaic quality, enabling it to develop and flourish almost unchecked. In theory, pirates were criminals, the enemies of all mankind who faced execution if caught; in practice, they were often maintained by seafaring communities and protected by local officials or rulers. Within some regions piracy flourished as a community crime. Organized as a small-scale business, it provided employment and profit, while serving as an outlet for adventurous or violent men and boys. Ports and havens along the south coast of England, including Rye, Fowey or Dartmouth, acquired notorious reputations as nests of pirates who plundered unwary shipping in the Channel. According to the law and custom of the sea, reprisal venturing and what was later to be known as privateering were distinguished from piracy by their legal character and status. Although a clear distinction was to emerge between these lawful forms of seaborne plunder, acknowledged in the separate use of letters of reprisal and letters of marque, both were hopelessly confused during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Authorizing reprisals was a widely accepted means of allowing merchants and shipowners to recover losses from the subjects of a foreign state, and it was subject to strict control and regulation. During times of war, however, when reprisal venturing was encouraged for strategic and economic purposes, through the indiscriminate issue of commissions, it assumed the characteristics of privateering. As a form of war it might be compared with the tradition of corsair activity within the Mediterranean, though this encompassed plunder, brigandage and slave raiding.2

  There was, of course, a degree of overlap between these different forms of plunder and spoil. Recruits from various backgrounds, including a large number of seafarers, served aboard pirate and reprisal vessels. The companies of some ships might resort to piratical spoil and lawful plunder during the course of the same voyage. While the law did not recognize the nuances of such fractured voyages or life cycles, they were overtly acknowledged in the language of seamen, notably in the widespread use of the term ‘sea roving’ to describe an enterprise which seemed to fall between piracy and privateering. Whether justified as a means of unauthorized retaliation or reprisals, sea roving represented blurred boundaries at sea, reflecting the way in which piracy was also a contested crime, thriving on ambiguity and uncertainty.

  The difficulty in maintaining the distinction between lawful and unlawful depredation was a direct consequence of the nature of the early modern state and of sea power in general. In the absence of professional navies, and with small royal fleets made up of ships which could still be challenged by well-armed private vessels, maritime power was essentially fragmented. In addition it was marked by an inescapable intermingling of public and private interests. Under these conditions it has been argued that ‘private, commercial warfare was the normal form of warfare in the open sea’.3 In England during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries it became common practice for monarchs to sanction what were effectively private wars of reprisal, unintentionally encouraging the spread of disorder and lawlessness at sea. While this expedient mobilized and exploited private resources, it also drew on a shadowy tradition of piracy and piratical enterprise which persisted throughout the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. It allowed arch-pirates, such as Henry Strangeways or John Callice, to redeem their misdeeds through royal service at sea, and enabled more renowned pirate leaders, like Francis Drake or Martin Frobisher, to serve as officers in the Queen’s Navy. It is no coincidence that the development of an effective state navy during the second half of the seventeenth century was followed by a sustained, and largely successful, effort to eradicate organized piracy.4

  Past experience demonstrated that piracy and other forms of irregular depredation flourished at times of weak rule or in remote regions. In south-west England it may have served as a safety valve for aristocratic and gentry disorder or violence, which successive monarchs found difficult to contain. Within a distant, maritime borderland, however, resorting to piracy was almost a way of life, especially for itinerant seafarers subject to occasional and disjointed patterns of employment. Favoured by geography and well-established commercial links, pirates and sea rovers from the south-west ranged across the Channel and into the Irish Sea, disposing of their booty in favoured haunts which served as unofficial markets and provisioning centres. The importance of Ireland to the maintenance of this pattern of venturing was recognized in 1521 by Henry VIII’s lieutenant in Dublin. In the face of a growing problem, he requested a commission ‘to put to death all rovers of the sea taken in this land’, warning that Ireland was ‘the very land of refuge that English pirates most resort unto’.5

  Piracy and other forms of depredation flourished throughout the sixteenth century. As a result, the Tudor regime was faced with an intractable problem which grew progressively worse. To some extent this was self-inflicted, particularly given the apparent decline in lawlessness at sea during the 1480s and 1490s. Thereafter war bred piracy and maritime disorder. Conditions at sea were reinforced by the unsettling consequences of social and economic change, including population growth, which were increasingly influenced by religious rivalries and hostility. But the growth of disorderly plunder merged with aggressive commercial ambitions and ventures, especially in new, long-distance enterprises to west Africa and America. The competition with Spain and Portugal w
hich accompanied such schemes helped to re-direct and re-structure piracy and privateering, opening up profitable opportunities which were eagerly seized by Drake and his successors.

  The adventurous and aggressive foreign policy of Henry VIII from the 1520s to the 1540s thus witnessed a resurgence of seaborne spoil which initiated a long-term upward trend in depredation, punctuated by short-term fluctuations. The official encouragement of privateering during the wars with France led to the spread of disorderly venturing within, and occasionally beyond, the Channel. Flemish and Iberian shipping became a target for adventurers such as Robert Reneger of Southampton, whose activities along the coast of Spain during the early 1540s paved the way for others to follow. Much of this enterprise was based in ports and harbours along the coast of south and south-west England, though it spread rapidly to southern Ireland. The difficult mid-Tudor period provided an opportunity for the consolidation of the disorder at sea. It also favoured the anti-Spanish direction of English plunder. The persistence of piracy and piratical activity during the 1560s and 1570s contributed to the growth of Anglo-Spanish tension; mutual resentment and antagonism drew a growing number of predators into the eastern Atlantic. At the same time, the later 1560s and 1570s experienced a dramatic increase in the scale and intensity of local piracy around the British Isles.6

  These conditions encouraged the emergence of deep-sea depredation, exacerbating a crisis in Anglo-Spanish relations. Such was the nature of the problem, that the revival of diplomacy during the mid-1570s saw little decline in the lawlessness at sea. Alongside the activities of local pirate groups, led by Callice and others, in 1577 Drake embarked on a voyage that dramatically revealed the oceanic range of English rovers. His return, three years later, after circumnavigating the globe, also demonstrated the rich rewards from preying on vulnerable trade and shipping in weakly defended regions of Spain’s empire. Furthermore, the support of the monarchy for this venture underlined the ambiguous response of successive rulers to the problem of piracy.

  In these circumstances the outbreak of hostilities with Spain during 1585, followed by the promotion of reprisal venturing as a means of waging war at sea, served to channel much of the maritime disorder into a legitimate form of enterprise. But the Elizabethan regime failed to control the rapid growth of a disorderly business. The loosely regulated expansion of privateering was followed by piratical attacks on the shipping of friends and allies which grew in scale and range as the war progressed. The experience of the 1580s and 1590s affirmed the striking power and profitability of private maritime enterprise. But it was based on such lax control that it confused the boundary between lawful reprisal voyages and piracy. From the perspective of friends as well as enemies, indeed, the later stages of the war seemed to confirm a widespread suspicion that piracy was a peculiar English addiction.

  If the experience of the sixteenth century served to confuse the relationship between piracy and privateering, at the same time it demonstrated the growing variety and vitality of seaborne robbery. In terms of its operation and organization, it ranged from highly opportunistic, almost accidental spoil, by small numbers of poorly armed men and boys, to more effectively structured and planned entrepreneurial plunder, undertaken by large groups of well-armed rovers who were usually promoted and protected by shore-based supporters. Between these two extremes there was a great variety of practice, which included river piracy along the Thames. This varied pattern was manifest in the differences between coastal, offshore and deep-sea piracy and roving. Coastal and offshore spoil was a well-established activity which flourished with renewed vigour during the sixteenth century. Although it was particularly concentrated within the Channel and its approaches, it easily grew into a widespread and endemic problem. By contrast, deep-sea piracy was a new form of depredation which appeared after 1550. Its emergence had far-reaching consequences for the development of piracy, especially in the use of overseas bases and markets. This was the result of a centrifugal tendency within English depredation, reinforced by hostility towards Spain, which encouraged pirates and rovers into the eastern Atlantic, the Caribbean and the Mediterranean seas. Though it was still undeveloped in 1603, the resort to ports and harbours in north Africa by disorderly men-of-war and pirates during the later years of the war with Spain foreshadowed a weakening in the link between sea rovers and their home communities.7

  While the growing dependence of pirates on overseas bases after 1604 facilitated their social and cultural labelling as outcasts, throughout the period covered by this study they remained attached to local communities, retaining links with family, friends or neighbours. An impressive body of evidence testifies to the importance of these connections for the maintenance of piracy as a business venture. Without widespread assistance from land-based dealers, including the connivance of officials, robbery at sea would not have developed as a vigorous commercial enterprise or become such a serious problem. The case of John Piers, a notorious pirate from Padstow, who haunted the coasts of south-west England during the 1570s and early 1580s, with the aid of his mother, Ann, a reputed witch, was an unusual example of the commonplace relations between sea and shore.

  By various means pirate booty was re-distributed and widely dispersed in commercial and gift exchanges. During periods of intense activity pirate companies effectively organized their own shipboard markets, attracting large groups of potential purchasers eager to acquire cheap commodities, free of customs duties. In terms of the damage inflicted by pirates on trade and shipping, the circulation of plundered cargoes may have helped to limit the cost to the wider economy. Although this was no comfort to the victims of piracy or privateering, some of whom were faced with bankruptcy or worse, the traffic in stolen goods undoubtedly promoted community tolerance of organized crime, especially if it was focused on overseas targets. Nonetheless, maritime depredation inflicted widespread disruption and damage to trade, fishing and shipping, provoking allegations of commercial decay from ports such as Southampton during the 1570s, as well as a growing volume of international complaint.

  The characteristics of piracy during the sixteenth century influenced or informed the tactics, life cycles and emerging culture of pirate groups. At the same time, they shaped the response of the Tudor regime to a crime which was also a social problem and a means of employment for a growing number of recruits.

  Pirates operated at various locations at sea, along the coast and rivers, adopting tactics which drew on a tradition of past practice and knowledge. For those who wore masks, it was intended as an anonymous crime, comparable to the activities of poachers and robbers on land.8 For others, it was a very public execution of robbery by men who were often widely known ashore, and whose leaders earned notoriety or renown as arch-pirates. Driven by the grinding pressures of poverty and lack of work, and attracted by the prospect of booty at sea, pirates exploited and employed a repertoire of tactics to achieve their aims. Depending on the size and armament of vessels, success often depended on surprise and surreptitious enterprise. Although few pirate groups publicly proclaimed their identity, during the later sixteenth century a growing number of captains and companies were prepared to adopt bolder, aggressive and occasionally defiant methods. At sea the use of red and black flags appeared among men-of-war or privateering vessels during the war with Spain. Both were meant to intimidate victims and opponents. While Drake employed black flags and streamers in the Caribbean during 1585, three years later one of the Queen’s ships, the Elizabeth Bonaventure, had ‘a bluddey flagge’ and two flags of St George, for use during the Armada campaign.9

  Intimidation, violence and even torture were part of the tactics employed by pirates and other rovers. It is difficult to determine the extent of the violence at sea. It may have been used more against overseas, rather than domestic, victims, especially during times of war and international crisis. While religious rivalries inflamed violent behaviour, anti-Catholicism should not be confused with long-standing enmity towards France, though it certainly affected the
behaviour of some groups of maritime robbers, while influencing the emergence of hostility towards Spain. Depending on conditions and context, the use of violence ranged from the symbolic to the pathological. Although a functional purpose is indicated by reports that some pirate groups only used violent methods if they met resistance, this does not account for the horrific, and apparently arbitrary, catalogue of injuries which were inflicted on seafarers and others during the period covered by this book. In the North Sea some Flemish fishermen were badly beaten and treated like dogs, while others were unharmed and even granted a share of the booty. Across the Atlantic, within the competitive and contested arena of the Caribbean, pirates handled some of their victims with courtesy, while inflicting cruel and barbaric punishments on others. The undercurrent of violence which was an inescapable characteristic of piracy and sea roving appeared to grow stronger during the second half of the sixteenth century.

  Living with danger was an unavoidable fact of life for seafarers, though its exaggerated significance aboard pirate ships may have powerfully contributed to the development of pirate culture, especially during the 1560s and 1570s. If piracy for many of its practitioners was a part-time employment, from the 1540s onwards conditions favoured prolonged participation in the business for a growing number of recruits. In an unusual, though far from unprecedented development, what might be termed ‘career pirates’ emerged. They survived partly by exploiting the uncertain boundary between piracy and privateering; many of those who were caught, and put on trial before the High Court of Admiralty, defended their actions as legitimate, but unauthorized, reprisals. Some of these recruits enjoyed lengthy careers, serving as links between different generations of pirates, in a way that encouraged the inheritance of past custom. Under these conditions patterns of behaviour and conduct coalesced in the formation of a loose pirate brotherhood during the 1570s, whose leading figures were Callice and his associate, Robert Hicks.

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