Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Lady Pirates: And A Right Real Lady, Too

I made my way down to the orlop for a consultation with the surgeon yesterday. Ours is an old, crusty sort, highly religious and probably close to retirement. I got pushed and prodded and swabbed and when all was said and done he looked at me and said: "Well, you've got what we used to call 'walking pneumonia' which is just an inflammation of the mucous membrane and the bronchi." Of all the words in that sentence, my favorite is the word "just". So that's why there was no post yesterday, Brethren and why I apologize for any errors in this one. "Just" having your breathing apparatus inflamed means that you score good drugs, at least, and I'm on 'em!

The woman pictured above is not today's topic in the flesh. She is Lady Elizabeth Vernon who lived at the same time. I hope she doesn't mind me appropriating her portrait to give you an idea of what out own Lady Mary Wolverston Killigrew would have worn en deshabille. So stylish! Her wardrobe aside, whether or not Mary Killigrew was actively involved in piratical goings on is open for debate. There can be no doubt that today's heroine was from a family with a piratical tradition and that her second marriage took her to a place that shared the same.

Mary Wolverston was born in Suffolk in 1540. Her father, Sir Philip Wolverston, was what was known in that time as a "gentleman pirate". Henry VIII, in his hot and heavy lust for Anne Boleyn, had essentially turned his back on Europe and European trade when he broke with the Catholic Church. Only the budding Protestant countries such as Germany would consider above-board trade with England and this opened the door for smuggling operations that made more than one indebted nobleman rich. Along with the privateer navy, the "gentleman pirate" was born.

The gentry who had the good fortune to own estates with ports or harbors would basically rent out space in their waters to pirates. The Lord would bribe local officials, help the pirates sell their goods at market and take another cut on the back end. There are ledgers and books still in existence today that document these operations all along the British coast and they continued well into the reign of Henry's daughter, the great Elizabeth.

Born at Wolverston Hall, young Mary would have seen this kind of racketeering from an early age. In her youth she was married to Thomas Knyvett who died in short order. Her second marriage was to Sir John Killigrew. He was the hereditary governor of Pendennis in Cornwall, a vice-admiral and the lord of Arwennack Manor. The Killigrew lands included the harbor of Falmouth and the Lord was as deep into the smuggling business as his father-in-law had ever been.

It seems that Mary dug right in to the family business and the business of growing a family once she was mistress of Arwennack. By 1562 she and John had five children and Mary was keeping the books and entertaining the more gentile freebooters that frequented Falmouth Harbor. She was known in the area as an excellent hostess and, given the fact that her husband died ten thousand British pounds in debt, it seems that no expense was spared.

Perhaps because of their precarious financial position, Mary is reputed to have gotten her hands bloody in 1582. A large merchant full of goods took refuge from a storm in the harbor on New Years Day. The story is very muddled. Some historians say the ship was Spanish, some Dutch, but they generally agree that the Captain felt safe where he was and allowed shore leave for all but a very few crewman. The story goes that Mary was introduced to the Captain, heard of the skeleton crew, and hatched her plan then and there.

Under cover of night Mary took two servants, rowed out to the merchant, killed the crew - some say herself - and put her own men aboard. The merchant disappeared from Falmouth harbor that night, allegedly on her way to Ireland where the Killigrew's men would turn a profit from her as prize. Whatever actually occurred, the ship did disappear and the Captain made protest to the local naval commissioner.

Wouldn't you know that said commissioner was none other than John, Mary's son. Of course the plea was dismissed on the grounds that there were no witnesses to the theft of the ship and the merchant Captain was sent packing. The merchant's owners were not so easily put off, however, and they put their protest before the Earl of Bedford of the Queen's privy council. An inquiry was launched and Lady Killigrew, along with two men named Hawkins and Kendal, were jailed. All three were sentenced to be hanged for piracy.

Mary's son set to work trying to save his mother and, though the two men were hanged, Mary remained in prison while John appealed, finally to the Queen herself. Mary's sentence was reduced to time served and she was released in 1585. She returned to Arwennack to find her husband dead and her estate in debt.

There is no further mention of Mary Killigrew in connection with piracy. She died in 1617 and her son, John, became Lord Killigrew. If he continued the family's piratical dealings, he did so without attracting the attention of authorities.

To me, the story of Lady Killigrew is interesting for what it lacks. Did she really have a hands on involvement in the smuggling trade? Was she guilty of murder? And how many other "gentlewoman pirates" were out there? Its something to think about, but not too hard. Thinking makes my head hurt right now.


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Nice post (especially considering your current state of health)... and yet another interesting lady pirate. This is not the same "Cutlass Mary" you were telling me about last night though, is it?

Pauline said...

Ahoy Timmy! And no indeed. You're thinking of Elizabeth "Cutlass Liz" Shirland. I need to do a little more research before Liz becomes a star here at Triple P.