Thursday, October 27, 2011

Horror on the High Seas: The Revenge of Goodwife Cowtie

Mistress Agnes Cowtie was the kind of business owner that was more typical in her era than our Victorian ancestors would like us to believe. Though she was married to a respectable merchant named George Blak, she herself ran a shipping business that traded with England, Holland and France from the port of Dundee, Scotland. She had at least two grown sons who worked aboard her ships, possibly as officers but certainly as her representatives in trade in foreign ports. It was not at all unusual for Mistress Cowtie to be standing on the dock at Dundee, waving off her carrack Grace of God, as it headed out to the Netherlands.

Was Agnes anxious as she watched that ship sail off laden with both cargo and cannon? Most probably; the year was 1562 and the threat of English piracy surrounded the British Isles. More distressingly for merchants like Agnes and George (as noted here), this piracy went virtually unchecked. Even entreats from Queen Elizabeth herself could not pull freebooters away from their lucrative employments.

Grace of God was armed against such attacks and had, it seems, a relatively uneventful voyage to the port of Veere in the Netherlands. In her book She Captains, Joan Druett tells us that the sons of Agnes Cowtie were probably well known in that port city and may very well have been welcomed into some of the finest homes. They traded their merchandise for sundry items but Druett notes most particularly “6 cast pieces and 16 small pieces of ordinance”. Cannon were just as profitable in such times as finished cloth.

With their business done the Cowtie boys steered their ship away from Holland and may have been headed to the Bay of Biscay, perhaps for a stop around the Gironde to load up on wine. They would never make their destination. Their ship was attacked by a group of English ships. This little flotilla seems to have been led by those notorious pirates from Poole, Captain Clynton and Captain Purser. Grace of God put up a fight in which both of Agnes’ sons were killed. Probably shortly thereafter, she struck to her attackers and the horror really began.

The pirates boarded the carrack and, in a fashion that would become standard among freebooters, took their aggressions out on the crew that had the temerity to defend themselves. Under the guise of discovering where the Cowties had hidden the hard specie, the pirates set into the most brutal of tortures.

Men had splinters of wood shoved under their fingernails. The wood was coated with tar before being set ablaze to burn whatever flesh it touched. When this had no effect, the men’s hands were dipped in hot tar and set ablaze. Fingers and in one case a whole hand to the wrist were lost.

The misery continued with other men, or in at least two cases the same poor sailors, being subjected to the gruesome torture of woolding. In this process rope knotted in strategic places was placed around the head and slowly tightened by the use of a stick. Michael Kuntz gives an eye-witness account of this type of torture as inflicted on German peasants by mercenaries in his book The High Road to the Stake:

They put a rope around another one’s head and twisted it so tight with a wooden billet that the blood leaped from his mouth, nose and ears.

Eyes would be forced from their sockets, as Druett notes “…bulg[ing] out … like eggs.” This simple but terrible operation left seamen both blind and deaf.

Eventually the madness subsided and, almost miraculously, some of the pitifully abused crew of Grace of God managed to make their way back to Dundee despite the taking of their ship as prize.

Agnes Cowtie, doubtless both revolted and enraged when she saw the men she called her “especial mariners” and heard of the senseless deaths of her sons, went ballistic. She began a campaign of appeal to the highest officials and nobles in Scotland claiming the need for redress for not only herself but for the loss of her sons and the inexcusable state of her wounded men. In one particularly touching letter, she and George lamented being “… brought to such extreme wreck and misery by invasion of English pirates, their bairns and servants slain…” Bairns, of course, being the affectionate Scottish word for children.

It may have been that Mistress Cowtie’s timing was impeccable but more likely her shrewd choice of ears to chew and her particular indignation worked more thoroughly than any previous objections. Her petitions went as far as the throne; King James himself wrote to Queen Elizabeth entreating her as “You’re most loving affectionate brother and cousin” to put a stop to the unconscionable predations being perpetrated by her subjects. And she did.

The Poole pirates, most particularly Clynton and Purser, were rounded up via a clever ruse at sea and brought before the recently ensconced Admiralty Judge with the remarkable name of Sir Julius Caesar. This judge had no inclination to cast a blind eye and put the nefarious pirate captains to “questioning” similar to that they had employed against Mistress Cowtie’s men. Both captains were sentenced to hang. Brought down to the gallows at Wapping, Clynton and Purser wore their finest clothes which they distributed to friends from the scaffold. They also answered questions as if appearing in some reality show’s reunion episode. Eventually they were both “turned off the ladder” and in Admiralty Court tradition “… there they hanged till from that ebb two tides had overwhelmed their bodies…”

The English crown, in most unusual fashion, paid not only Agnes Cowtie redress for her lost ship and goods, but also allotted money to her maimed and crippled men for their loss of livelihoods. Whether this satisfied the Goodwife or not, history does not say, but one hopes that other freebooters learned this lesson: don’t mess with Mistress Cowtie.

Header: Tudor era carrack via Wikipedia


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Sounds like Clynton and Purser received their just rewards. Doubtless, the Crowtie's were not the first (or last) to suffer from their horrific methods.

Pauline said...

There can be no question of that, but every once in a while even the most fearsome of pirates meets a well deserved end (just ask Francois L'Olonnais).