Canon Diggens Archive

Sea-borne Raiders
1656. From Norways "Highways & Byeways".

250 years ago all this Coast suffered to a degree which seems to us incredible from the ravages of what were then called Turkish pirates but which were in reality Algiers and Gallic rovers. The justices of Cornwall complained to the Lord Lieutenant that in one year the Turks had taken no less than a thousand Cornish Mariners, while Looe alone, in the ten days before the letter was written, had lost 80 men.

A letter dated July 10th 1656 and quoted in the State Papers says that seven boats and two and forty fishermen were taken by the Turks off the Manacles between Falmouth and the Lizard last Wednesday was three weeks.

These rumours prove the existence of underspread misery for each man so captured was a bread winner, and few of them saw home again.

Two or three years later Sir John Pennington was cruzing between Mount's Bay and the Lizard when he saw five sail of Turks men of war standing in for the Channel. They turned and fled when they saw Pennington's fleet and as unfortunately the wind was very light

From a very early period the whole coast of the British Isles was disturbed by the activities of pirates, and the pest was not effectively destroyed until the end of the Interregnum. The area under consideration in these notes is not unique in its piratical associations, therefore, but rather is it representative. Its story is not one of unrest while the rest of the coast had peace but rather a typical account of life in those parts of the Kingdom which were near the sea. It follows that a glance at the general history of piracy in England may usefully precede the more detailed local story.

The first pirates on the English coast were themselves English, and preyed as a rule on foreign shipping. Piracy of this nature had become sufficiently extensive because state action by 1224, when Geoffrey de Lucy was nominated keeper of the whole coast from Pevensey to Bristol. This district was divided only a month later, a keeper of Cornwall and Devon being appointed, whose principal duties were the suppression of piracy, the repulsion of raiders, and the maintenance of security for the coasting trade.

Victoria County History, Cornwall, P 477.

Among the centres of piracy in the West, Fowey stands pre-eminent, and in 1472 ships of Fowey appear to have been plundering as far away as the Portuguese coast. (Vic. County History, p.483). By 1634 the power of Fowey was long over (Vic. County History, p,485) but, while it lasted, it formed a most striking example of piracy by the English. Ships were not safe then even in the harbours; for instance a vessel entering Dartmouth in 1345 was at once plundered.

In the 16th Century complaints from foreigners that they had been plundered by the English in English waters were often before the Privy Council. The powerful Hanseatic League (Union of towns, chiefly in N.Europe, for trading purposes) for instance, complained of piracy against one of their vessels near Falmouth in 1546, and a similar charge by the French against the men of the "West Contrie" appears under the date of 1550.

An official enquiry into piracy in Devon and Cornwall appears to have been made late in 1563.

These examples are by no means all that could be given in regard to the Western Channel, and similar stories are presented by other parts of the coast - Scotland, Bristol, Ireland, Kent, East Anglia and so on. Although St. Keverne is not mentioned, there is no reason to believe that the people there were better than elsewhere.

We read of French pirates almost as early as of English, especially pirates of Dunkirk who preyed on the English coasts. Netherlanders also soon appeared in the field.

Last of all (about the beginning of the 17th Century, probably) came the terrible Turkish, Algerian, or Barbary pirates. These came from a greater distance than the others, and consequently in larger ships, which were fully armed, so that the official records often refer to them as "Turkish men-of-war".

Although these Barbary pirates (They are often also referred to as "Rovers of Gallee") penetrated far into the English Channel, raiding the coast, or preying on local shipping, their course brought them first to the Lands End and the Lizard, and as they could there prey on ocean- going vessels, they were always especially active there.

At various dates other pirates are named in the State Papers, but often they are more entitled to the name of "privateers" than "pirates". Thus the "Brest pirates" during the Cromwellian period were privateers on the Stuart side, sometimes sailing in a fleet under the command of Prince Rupert. During the quarrel of the Protector with Spain, we hear of "Spanish pirates". It is this privateering element which accounts for the fact that piracy always assumed a more alarming aspect during and immediately after a war. (Victoria County History Cornwall.)

Efforts were continually made by the government to suppress piracy, but for some time they were not effectual, owing to the imperfect state of the navy.

It must be remembered that the merchant service was drawn on for naval purposes and men-of-war pure and simple were only permanently introduced by Henry VIII, and then only to supplement the levies of merchant vessels.

Commissioners in various parts of the county, and small squadrons, did what they could until the Elizabethan period. Then under the Queen's keen grasp of affairs and the masterly and thorough administration of Lord Burghley, piracy like most other matters, received systematic treatment.

Burghley's strong attitudes towards piracy is sufficiently expressed in his description of the three branches of maritime enterprise. "The one is to cary or recary marchandizes, the other is to take fish; for the thyrd, which is the exercise of pyrecy, is detestable and cannot last. (Growth of English Industry & Commerce in Modern Times" p.69.Cunningham).

It is unnecessary here to enter into an account of the elaborate legislation for the fostering of shipping for which he was responsible. It is sufficient to say that he laid the foundations of naval power, that the fatal struggle of Charles I to maintain the navy failed, so that in the "thirties" of the seventeenth century piracy was at its worst (it was at this time that the worst piratical attack on St. Keverne took place) and that in his great work of perfecting the navy Cromwell provided the means for the final crushing of piracy. There was not much piracy after the Restoration.

The Cornish coast, owing to its distance from London and its comparative barrenness, has not held out much temptation to foreign invasion, but has offered many advantages to piratical incursions. It was far removed from state interference, it is near the mouth of the Channel, and it has many useful havens, often unfortified. Of these havens Helford was a favourite among pirates.

Falmouth harbour was guarded by the forts at St. Mawes and Pendennis, but the Helford River was never fortified. Even the forts of Falmouth were not always effective, however, for Pendennis was usually in charge of the Killigrew family (Moreover, the forts appear frequently to have been insufficiently manned) many of whom were personally interested in piracy.

A certain Peter Killigrew, was charged with piracy in Ireland in 1555 and was under examination in the Tower in 1556. The same gentleman was fined £55 for "dealing with pirates and pirates goods" in 1578. (Acts of the Privy Council, llth Feb. 1578).

The most extraordinary member of this family was, however, John Killigrew, Captain of Pendennis Castle. In 1577 he was found to have purchased stolen French wines from a pirate named Hix, but was allowed to settle the matter by paying the real owners for the goods.

In the winter of 1580-1 a Spanish vessel, bound from Calais to Biskay, the "Marie" of San Sebastian by name, was driven by stress of weather into Falmouth Harbour, having lost her masts. During the night she was plundered by "certain Englishmen where of three or fower are said to be his (Killygrew's) servants".

Lady Killigrew is said to have ordered the raid.

Sir John was ordered by the Privy Council (Acts of the Privy Council, 28th January 1581) to restore the vessel and goods to their owners, and to render an account of the episode to the Council. Such an account appears to have been rendered (Calender of State Papers (Domestic Series) Jan 15th and Mar 2nd 1582 (l58l) but Sir John neither appeared before the Council nor returned the goods, for the Acts of the Privy Council tor 15th March 1581, gives a long account of how Killigrew has disappeared and the ship also.

"Albeit said their Lordships (i.e. The Privy Council) they were enformed that he was repaired to London and secretlie lurked in some place, yet could not be found, and ship being returned (as it was said) into those partes, their Lordships have been further geven to understande that the said ship hath been carried into Ireland, and most of the men cast overbourde and the goodes etc. rifled between them Sir John Killigrew's servants".

A Commission of Enquiry is to be appointed to enquire into the matter, and if he can be found, to take surety of £1,000 from him for his appearance before the Council.

Sir John still avoided his pursuers and warrants for his arrest were issued in October 1588, in connection with another piratical affair, in which a Danish vessel was plundered (Act of the Privy Council, 20th Nov. 1588), So far from answering to the Council in the matter, we are told that he "goeth up and downe the country accompanied with divers lewde and disordered persons for his guard, armed with unlawfull weapons to withstand those which should go about to apprehend him, contrary to all lawe and authority"e

Next a general proclamation was issued for his arrest, and county officers were ordered, if necessary to use force "either by raisinge the power of the county or otherwise for his apprehension. (Act of Privy Council, 23rd Mar. 1589).

Being still missing in April 1589, he was deprived of his office of Vice Admiral of the County of Cornwall (ibid. 25rd April, 1589). On 6th July 1589 he is again reported as fleeing from place to place and cannot be taken, in contempt of all lawe and government (ibid. 6th July, 1589).

Strange to say, on 31st July, 1589, he was granted freedom from arrest for thirty days, and in October for three months. In 1596 we find him again referred to as Captain of Pendennis He was then once more dabbling in piracy.

It is quite conceivable that much piracy may have taken place at St. Keverne or any other place under the jurisdiction of a governor who was capable of defying the Privy Council by marching about with an armed force, and that we should have no record of them. We know at least that St. Keverne men were building up a reputation for getting what they could and keeping it.

A piratical incident is recorded in connection with Helford in 1597 (Calender of State Papers (Domestic Series). Letter dated from Dartmouth, 18th November 1597).

The story is told by a sailor driven into Dartmouth by stress of weather, and there arrested and examined as a pirate. He related how, when in the service of one. Captain Elliott, they took a fly-boat, armed it, and went to Helford with it, bringing in a Dieppe prize, laden with knives, victuals, etc. for Brazil, which they had taken.

Sir John Killigrew, instead of arresting them, warned them of the approach of H.M.S. Crane, and, according to one account, bribed the Captain of the man-of-war with £100. As for his reward he had from Elliott nine bolts of Holland cloth and a chest. Elliott and his crew sailed away and continued their piracy until taken by the Spaniards, when Elliott saved his skin by taking command of one of the vessels of the Spanish fleet, a position in which his knowledge of England was, of course, regarded as valuable.

About this time (i.e. after the Armada), raids by Spaniards were common, and in July, 1595, Hanibal Vyvyan reported the burning of Penzance, Newlyn, Mousehole, Poole Church and Church Town, and other villages adjoining, without resistance (Calender of State Papers (Domestic Series) under dates). Spaniards were pillaging and taking boats between the Lizard and St. Michael's Mount in l600.

At this time some fishermen of St. Keverne were taken by the Spaniards and pressed for information as to the English navy. The precis of the original record which appears in the calender of State Papers runs as follows;

"June 19th, 1595. Confession of Sampson Forth, of St. Keverne, sailor, before Hannibal Vyvyan.

While fishing with three others in Falmouth,Bay, 7th May last, they were taken by a shallop of Blueth commanded by one Ferris, a Fleming, and manned with 16 sailors and 20 soldiers; were carried to Blueth, and brought before Don Diego, general of the army there, why by an Englishman that was in one of the galleys there, examined them.

On oath as to what preparation of shipping was being made in England and under whose government. Told him there was about 100 or 120 sail and that Sir Francis Drake was general. He asked them to say whither they were bound, but they could not tell. After re-examination he had a pass to leave in a bark belonging to Mr. Sayer of Dartmouth".

Apparently, however, St. Keverne men did their best to "give as good as they got" for a letter (Cal, of State Papers (Dom.) under date) from one, W. Leonard, to Sir Francis Godolphin, a high official of the county, dated 29th September, 1628, relates how the "Lewis" a ship of war out of Brest, came ashore at Penryn, on the previous Friday. The crew abandoned her. "The country came thick with their axes and other tools" cut down the mast and rifled the ship of all her tackling and ordnance. In spite of the interference of Leonard, they carried away two cables, one worth £40. There were 100 people aboard rifling. Leonard in his letter requested instructions and a commission to examine those that have the goods, or they will never be had again for “St. Keverne men do not use to deliver back but by law or upon oath.”

Penryn seems to be incorrect as the name of the place where the ship went ashore, both for geographical reasons, and because St. Keverne men plundered it. Moreover another account states that the vessel went ashore on 27th September last, in the parish of St. Keverne, near Falmouth. (Gal. of State Papers (Dom). Feb 19th, 1629).

In 1651, search was being made for a pirate in the Helford River, and about the same time losses in Falmouth "by the malicious practice of the Dutch" are reported.

The "Turkish" peril by that time became severe. A small fleet, under Sir John Pennington, and comprising a number of ships called the Lion's Whelps, cruised the Channel for several years to suppress these Barbary pirates, who are described as "the scourges of all Christian navigations". St. Keverne suffered severely at their hands in June 1636,

Several accounts of this raid appear in the Calender of State Papers (Domestic Series) and they all agree closely. It appears that a number of boats fishing off the Manacles, were taken by the "Turks" and their crews carried away as captives. The number of boats is given as seven in every account, but the number, of men is given variously as 50, 42 and 50. The same Turkish vessels had just previously taken 5 boats of Looe, which were engaged in deep sea fishing between England and Ireland. Graphic details are given of boats seen drifting unmanned and without sails, of weeping women, of constant fear of the raiding and destruction of the village, and of the men that put to sea and were never seen again.

One witness (Calender of State Papers (Domestic) 20th June, 1656) the captain of a barqe of Plymouth, reported that he sailed from Plymouth for St. Keverne and "arrived there on Thursday morning last, where he heard it credibly reported, with sorrowful complaint and lamentable* tears of women and children, that on the 15th instant three fisherboats belonging to St. Keverne, three others of Helford, and one more of Mollan (Mullion) and about 50 men in them, being on the coast fishing near Black Head, between Falnouth and the Lizard, not three leagues off the shore, were taken by the Turks who carried both men and boats away. During the time of his abode at St. Keverne, which was from Thursday till Sabbath-day then following, there was no news heard of either men or boats, so that it goes for an absolute truth thereabouts that they were all surprised by the Turks and carried away".

Another account given by the Justices of the Peace sitting in quarter sessions at Bodmin, in connection with the loss of the Looe boats, as well as the St. Keverne boats (Cal. of State Papers (Dora) July 14th 1636) tells how the men of Looe "through terror of that misery whereunto these persons are carried by these cruel infidels" would rather "give over their trade than put their estates and persons into so great peril, there being now 60 vessels and about 200 seamen without employment". The narrators then add "These Turks daily show themselves at St. Keverne, Mount's Bay, and other places, that the poor fishermen are fearful not only to go to the seas, but likewise lest these Turks should come on shore and take them out of their houses".

The Earl of Northumberland, in command of the fleet at Plymouth, sent two vessels in chase of these pirates, who were suspected to have gone into the Severn estuary, a place they frequented, but they were not caught.

Of what happened to the unfortunate captives of these pirates, the following petition of English captives in Algiers to the King in 1640 (Cal of State Papers (Dom) under date) gives a picture,

"Here are about 5,000 of your subjects, in miserable captivity, undergoing most unsufferable labours, as rowing in galleys, drawing in carp, grinding in mills; with divers such unchristian like works, most lamentable to express and most burdensome to undergo, withal suffering much hunger and many blows on their bare bodies, by which cruelty many not being able to undergo it, have been forced to turn Mohamedans, so that these burdensome labours will cause many good seamen and others your subjects to perish unless some course be by you taken for our release, which we of ourselves cannot procure by reason of our great losses, and the extraordinary ransoms imposed on us".

To this petition dated 3rd October 1640, was appended a list of 957 prisoners taken since May 18th, 1639. Later, war was pushed into the Mediterranean against these pirates.

At about the same time as the loss of the St. Keverne fisher-boats, there occurred an exciting skirmish in the Helford River. On llth May 1636, two Dunkirk frigates brought four French ships, taken by them as prizes, into Falmouth. On the 14th they set sail with their prizes, but were met outside the harbour by a Dutch pirate, the "Black Bull" of Amsterdam, which attacked them. The Dutchman chased one of the frigates under Pendennis fort, which opened fire on him. He therefore abandoned the pursuit, and chased the other frigate into the Helford, following her a mile up the river, till both vessels grounded. The Dutchman fired on her with his ordnance, landing thirty musketeers on the south side of the river, who shot into the frigate from the land, killing one of her men. The frigate surrendered, the Dutchman remaining in charge of her in defiance of His Majesty's Officers, who commanded him to deliver her to them. Eventually the Dutch captain was taken and sent to Portsmouth in custody, his prize being sent with him. The enquiry into the matter led to an amusing complication, for the Dunkirk frigate herself was found to contain stolen English goods, so that the Dunkirker's captain was also arrested. The complicated legal position was not argued out, however, since most of the officers of the Admiralty had fled from Portsmouth to avoid the plague, and the last record of the matter in the Calender of State Papers, which is dated August l3th, 1656, states that the "Black Bull" and the Dunkirk frigate were then still in Portsmouth harbour.

In 1640 there were many references to Barbary pirates on the Cornish coast. In one case they took three barks "in the open view of Penzance", took three other ships the same night at Mousehole and the Land's End, while three other vessels were pursued and escaped, one after eight hours' fighting. Many other vessels were seen deserted on the seas. In another account there are reported to be sixty "Turkish men-of-war" on the coast. In a third, sixty men, women and children were taken from about Penzance.

After this the official records contain little on piracy for some time. This is probably due more to the disorganisation caused by the Civil War than to a great decrease in piracy.

By 1649 piracy again loomed very large indeed in the Domestic State Papers - Dunkirkers, Ostenders, and Barbary pirates, are all infesting the coasts of England. Cases are considered by the Council of State at almost every meeting. The Council drew the attention of the Generals at sea to the "growing strength of pirates at sea" and "The great danger the fishermen are in to be deprived of the fruit of their labour", and dictated a general policy of suppression.

The Brest pirates, or Stuart privateers then came into prominence. The terror with which the inhabitants of Western Cornwall regarded the Barbary pirates did not, however, extend to those of Brest. A naval captain reported (Cal. of State Papers (Dom) July 25, 1655) in 1655 that he discovered a Brest man-of-war at the Lizard and "at anchor amongst the fishermen, with whom he seemed to hold correspondence". The Englishman gave chase, and the Frenchman, seeing he could not escape, left his vessel and landed in a fisherboat, the vessel herself being run ashore and all the men except five or six escaping up the country. The Englishman landed men who took thirteen of the fugitives prisoners "one being an Englishman, and their gunner" but he could not take the Captain as the "country was treacherous",

In 1659 the Ostenders got to Falmouth and took a vessel, but before many more years had passed, the evil of piracy was suppressed.

Meagre as are the facts which appear to be available in connection with pirate raids near St. Keverne, enough can be found to shew that the whole coast was in continual apprehension of piracy, that Helford was a constant haunt of pirates, and that St. Keverne itself is the subject of one of the most distressing of these outrages. In all this, moreover, this part of the country is a fair type of general conditions, and of one phase of that general insecurity of life which existed in the past in England, and which we can hardly realise now.

Other phases of that insecurity were famine and plague, both of very frequent recurrence. Apart from its local interest, therefore, these notes on St. Keverne help to bring home a sense of the reality of that insecurity, of !which the most familiar reflection is seen in the public prayers handed down from those days:

"From lightning and tempest, from plague, pestilence and famines, from battle and murder, and from sudden death,

Good Lord, deliver us".

F.A. Howe. 19.7.10.