Thursday, June 23, 2011

History: Tudor Pirates

In the popular imagination, the word pirate brings up the image of a flamboyantly dressed if scruffy brigand from the first half of the 18th century. He is generally garbed in the familiar heavy, long coat with a tremendous array of buttons and piping, breeches, stockings, boots and bandoliers stuffed with loaded pistols. Of course, he’s the requisite sword with its glimmering hilt and the tricorn hat sporting blood red ostrich feathers that shiver in the wind.

There can be no doubt that certain rovers dressed similarly while ashore – usually in purloined wardrobes – but these flashy fashions were meant to send a message: the wearer was a powerful man. And that message coming from motley sailors made rich by illegal exploits did not originate with men like Blackbeard and Bellamy. In fact it seems to have originated with a very different kind of pirate: the gentleman rovers of Elizabethan England.

There has always been piracy on the high seas but certain conditions at various times in history make freebooting more attractive than it might be otherwise. In Britain in the 1560s, the weather and the economy changed to such a degree that many people – men and women – who would not have considered piracy turned to it as a way to keep food on the table. Most of the problems were driven by climate change. Longer, colder winters meant crop failures and by the mid-1560s many of the relied upon salt water fish runs stopped all together. Devastated, people in coastal communities looked to the lumbering hulks and carracks that sailed past them full of saleable goods. They packed their little boats with what arms they had available, and went out sea raiding.

By the 1570s, a class of men had established themselves as successful pirate captains. They walked the streets in velvet doublets and satin breeches with gold inlay and jewels on their sword hilts and hats sporting ostrich feathers. They loaned money (at notoriously ruinous rates) and sold their spoils openly in town, laying them out on the docks for all to see.

Many of these captains were backed and funded by local nobility, who of course wanted a piece of the action. Nobles like John Piers, a sea captain whose mother was not only Lady Padstow but also a witch much feared in her shire, Lord John and Lady Mary Killigrew and even the Vice-Admiral of Devon who had dabbled in piracy himself and was the father of Sir Walter Raleigh. Given the donorship available, is it any wonder that the pirates were notorious for swaggering around Poole, the most popular piratical port, like gentlemen themselves?

Possibly the two most notorious of this rogues’ gallery were Captains Clynton and Purser. The former was probably originally a merchant captain named Atkins or Atkinson who had grown his business through cunning and cruelty to the point where he had literally no fear of the law. William Neville, in Sea Dogs: Privateers, Plunder and Piracy in the Elizabethan Age, notes that Clynton had no qualms about challenging the courts. Despite the fact that he was a wanted man, Clynton sued a ship owner who he claimed owed him over 100 pounds. He took his complaint all the way to the Admiralty Court in London. Though he was arrested there, a few well placed bribes saw him free and back at Poole within a week.

His partner in crime Captain Purser, who may have been one William Walton, was just as infamous as Clynton. A story circulated at the time that the two had been approached by an emissary of the Queen to discontinue their predations in exchange for a full pardon. The men pondered the offer, and then sent the emissary back with a firm no thank you. They appreciated “… so great a grace and mercy” but would rather “… hazard their fortunes…” at sea.

There is no documentation of further action against them. None, that is, until they crossed paths with a particularly determined merchant named Agnes Cowtie, wife of George Blak. The horrific circumstances that led to Goodwife Cowtie’s just revenge are best left for Horror on the High Seas Week. Until then, we will imagine Clynton and Purser in port, arrayed in their finest and blissfully unaware of their inevitable fate.

Header: The carrack Mary Rose from a contemporary manuscript


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! I was going to say that Clynton and Purser almost sounds like a couple of TV detectives, but then I got to the end of the post... nice teaser, Pirate Queen.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! I was thinking in a similar vein only I imagine them as pundits with very busy schedules come 2012. More to come on these two dastardly devils in October.