Thursday, September 20, 2012

Lady Pirates: The Vengeful Privateer

It was probably fine weather on the Bay of Bicay when, some time around 1400, a merchant ship from Coventry was making her way toward Bordeaux laden with goods for trade. Her cargo may have been largely wool, but just like the weather that, at this late date day, is pure speculation. At some point close to her destination, the little cog was overrun by a band of Spanish pirates. The freebooters, who sailed from the port of Santander, were the bane of the Cinque Ports league in England. They took the merchant vessel's entire cargo, which was later valued at 800 "lambs of gold", disabled the cog and left the crew to fend for themselves.

The merchant managed to limp back to Coventry, although the seamen aboard were the worse for wear upon return. It doubtless fell to the master to explain what had happened to the owner of the ship. Once the story was out there was no question in the mind of that owner as to was she had to do.

Margery Russell was the recently widowed wife of a prominent member of the Cinque Ports league. Upon John Russell's death, Margery became the owner of a small flotilla of merchant cogs and, together with her sons, she ran the family business just as efficiently as her departed husband had. The pirates of Santander were a known risk in Margery's line of business but, judging from the small amount of information we have about her trade, it was not one that the Russells had run into before. Margery, much like her later counterpart and fellow merchant Agnes Cowtie, was not about to stand by and put up with the ransacking of her ships. So she decided to turn the tables on her enemy, and go out freebooting herself.

Margery marched into court and asked for a letter of marque and reprisal from the King. Letters of marque appear to have been first introduced in England over a century earlier by Henry III, so it is not surprising to find an English ship owner requesting one, even in 1400. The surprise, of course, lies in the gender of that owner. It probably shouldn't, however. Modern views of history, at least in the West, are unfortunately filtered through a Victorian lens. Women often worked along side their husbands, and inherited the businesses when those husbands died, to one degree or another right up until the early 19th century. Margery Russell does not appear to have been the only one among her female contemporaries to hold legitimate letters of marque.

Sending her ships out in search of plunder rather than trade, Margery made a tidy profit taking and plundering Spanish ships from all known ports. Rumor has it that her men may have raided a French ship or two along the way, but who was counting after all? The Spanish government complained vehemently when more Cinque Ports merchants followed Margery into the privateering trade. One can only imagine that the English government, in this era before established navies, only shrugged its collective shoulders and then continued to hand out letters of marque.

It is doubtful that Margery Russell ever sailed out to capture her enemy's ships. What is not in doubt, however, is that she ruled over a small fleet of privateers just as surely as that Frenchman in America, Jean Laffite, would later do.

Header: The Moneylender and His Wife by Quentin Matsys c 15th c via Wikimedia


Timmy! said...

Another example of the evils of capitalism and property ownership, Pauline... just kidding.

Well, at least Jean Laffite did spend some time at sea before he ruled over his fleet of privateers.

I like the painting too. There is a lot going on there.

Pauline said...

Absolutely, that is a stand-out difference. Margery was in a position of retaliation. Jean Laffite was a sailor-turned-racketeer who followed the money.

Either way though, pretty impressive course of action by Mistress Russell.