Piracy and Privateering with Elizabethan Maritime Expansion

About the 31. [August] he [Sir Richard Grenville] tooke a Spanish ship of 300. Tunne richly loaden, boording her with a boate made with goards of chests, which fell a sunder, and sunke at the shippes side, assoone as ever hee and his men were out of it.

"The Tiger Journal of the 1585 Voyage," in David B. Quinn, ed., The Roanoke Voyages (London, 1955), 192-193

...the squadron left Bideford....[and] soon began to encounter merchant ships coming from Spain. One, an English ship, the Angel of Topsham, was stopped and Grenville took some wine and oil....a few days later...a number of other vessels were sighted, two of which Grenville boarded and took.

David B. Quinn, ed., The Roanoke Voyages (London, 1955), 466-467

...the 22. Of Aprill 1588. we put over the barre at Biddiford....the next day...the 23. Of Aprill stil bearing along the coast we gaue chase to 4 ships, & borded them & forced them all to come to anker by vs in a smal bay at the lands end, out of these ships we tooke nothing but 3. men ....The 24 day we gaue chase to 2. ships, the one of them being a Scot the other a Breton. These we borded also & tooke from them whasoeuer we could find worth the taking...

"John White's Account of the Abortive Voyage of the Brave and the Roe," in David B. Quinn, ed., The Roanoke Voyages (London,1955), 564-465

The 7 [May] we landed on the Northwest end of S. Iohn [Puerto Rico]...and the...night following we tooke a Frigate of tenne Tunne...laden with hides and ginger.

"John White's Narrative of the 1590 Voyage to Virginia," in David B. Quinn, ed., The Roanoke Voyages (London,1955), 601.

As the above excepts of contemporary narrative suggest, most of the backers of and participants in the Roanoke colonies were preoccupied with seizing wealth from the Spanish, the French, even from their own countrymen. If the Roanoke colony had not already been planned as a base for attacks on Spanish shipping in the western Atlantic, the colonists, the mariners who carried them, and the investors who underwrote the enterprise would have had few misgivings about using it as such anyway.

Piracy, the act of seizing a ship or its cargo from its lawful owners or their agents, has been endemic to maritime nations ever since man first set sail upon the high seas. By the time Elizabeth Tudor had ascended the throne in 1558, English piracy had entered into a Golden Age, as freebooters roamed its coastal waters virtually unchallenged. With fat prizes, particularly Spanish treasure ships to be found further out to sea, the plundering spread into the waters of the Atlantic and finally to the Caribbean, the well-spring of Spain's ever increasing wealth. But as the violent, frequently profitable enterprise of piracy escalated into a state of near anarchy, English commerce began to suffer heavy losses in the waters closer to home.


The Crown made sporadic attempts to bring piracy under control but the results were frequently less than desirable. In an effort to deal with the disruption of English shipping by pirates without causing undo expense to itself, the Crown offered commissions to merchants and port towns having the most urgent need to make sea-lanes safe for their own commercial enterprises. The merchants concerned received no payment from the Crown and were required to outfit their own ships at their own expense. However, the terms of the commission allowed the recipients to attack and seize pirate ships and cargo in order to recoup their personal losses. Far from alleviating the piracy problem this system simply added to the chaos when commissioned merchants were not too scrupulous as to how or from whom they recouped their losses.

The Calendar of State Papers from the reign of Elizabeth I contain many hundreds of complaints of piracy, petitions for compensation and requests for the convening of courts of inquiry directed to the Crown and local authorities. But unless a specific act of piracy outraged an influential English merchant or caused diplomatic embarrassment, punishment was neither consistent nor severe. In 1573, for example, a ship bearing the Earl of Worcester, the Queen's emissary to the court of France, was seized by pirates in the Straits of Dover. The Queen's christening gift to the infant daughter of Charles the IX, a gold salver, was somehow saved but a dozen of the Earl's retainers were killed and property valued at L500, an enormous sum in those days, was taken. In this case, the Queen herself was the outraged party and hundreds of known pirates subsequently were rounded-up and jailed. But after the dust had settled most of them were set free and only three suffered the penalty for piracy and were hanged.

Despite this notable episode, the Crown's stance remained typically "Elizabethan", which is to say, contradictory. In an age which vacillated between enlightenment and gross inhumanity, the Crown, while deploring piracy in principle was perfectly willing to turn a blind eye to the pillaging when it was in its own best interests to do so. Thus, considered to be rogues and criminals when they interrupted their own country's shipping, English pirates were magically transformed into patriot-heros when their plundering was directed against the enemies of the Crown. The Queen herself was known to have loaned ships and taken her share of the loot from marauding expeditions aimed at Spanish or French shipping. Inevitably, the situation deteriorated into a quagmire of conflicts of interest and lawlessness. Pirates were frequently under the patronage and protection of influential men, government officials who were themselves involved in the illegal but profitable ventures as underwriters. A veritable catalog of piratical crimes may be found documented in the Calendar of State Papers, Acts of the Privy Council and High Court of Admiralty records for the reign of Elizabeth I — captured pirates being released by town mayors, brokers negotiating deals between ship owners and pirates for the return of goods seized by the latter, respectable merchants involved in the discreet "fencing" of pirate loot. In the year 1576 alone, persons fined for "trafficking with pyrats" included the mayor of Dartmouth, the Lieutenant and Deputy Customs Searcher of Portsmouth, the Deputy Vice Admiral of Bristol, the High Sheriff of Glamorganshire, William Winter, a relative of the Surveyor of the Navy and William Hawkins, brother of the Treasurer of the Navy.

To say simply that English piracy flourished during the last half of the 16th century is a gross understatement of the situation. It had, in fact, achieved the status of a recognized profession. Social mobility in Elizabethan England was such that many young men who forged careers and amassed modest fortunes as members of the marauding brotherhood of pirates, rose meteorically in the service of their Queen and Country. The career of that notable Elizabethan and intrepid Yorkshireman, Martin Frobisher, is illustrative. Arrested many times in the 1560s for piracy, Frobisher was subsequently hired by the Queen's most trusted councilor, William Cecil, as a ship's captain on Crown business. By the mid 1570s, Frobisher had become convinced of the existence of a Northwest Passage to the Orient and mounted expeditions to go in search of it. But his reputation as a pirate was so well known that potential merchant underwriters were reluctant to commit ships and money to the now "reformed" Frobisher! It was only after Frobisher the explorer returned to England with an Eskimo and ore, mistakenly identified as gold, that substantial and whole hearted support was secured for two more such voyages. Though Frobisher was not successful in finding the illusive passage to the Orient and the ore in question turned out to be worthless, he rose in fame, fortune and service to the Crown. The year 1588 saw the sometime pirate in command of one of the four English squadrons in the campaign against the Spanish Armada. When Sir Francis Drake couldn't resist taking a ship for spoil during the middle of the engagement, Frobisher flew into a rage and left the following utterances to history: ".....she (the Spanish Galleon) had spent her masts, then like a coward he (Drake) kept by her all night because he would have all the spoil. He thinketh to cozen us of our shares of 15 Thousand ducats: but we will have our shares or I will make him spend the best blood in his belly: for [I have] had enough of those cozening cheats already." Despite the almost unbearable distraction of Drake making off with more than his fair share of the spoils of war, the outraged Frobisher managed to concentrate on the business at hand, distinguished himself in the engagement and earned a knighthood. Sir Martin Frobisher, Elizabethan extraordinaire, pirate and patriot, died in Plymouth in 1594 of wounds suffered while fighting the old Spanish nemesis off the coast of France. The brilliant career of Sir Martin Frobisher, played out during that turbulent and reckless time when England was forging its destiny on the seas, was not unique. There are many similarities and parallels to be drawn between Sir Martin and his equally brilliant and famous contemporaries: Drake, Ralegh, Hawkins, Grenville, the Gilberts (among many others) who rose to rank and prominence despite frequent lapses into acts of outright piracy.

The illustrious Sir Henry Mainwaring, who rose from the status of a common pirate to knighthood and Admiral in the Navy under Elizabeth's successor, best summed up the situation when he said of his former brotherhood: "...the State may hereafter want such men who are commonly the most serviceable in war."

The "Sea-dogs" of War and the Rise of Privateering

When in 1585 hostilities with Spain heated to the boiling point and war became imminent, the Crown lacked sufficient funds to build an efficient wartime Navy. With an invincible armada poising to strike, England had no alternative but to depend on private shipping to help defend her shores and interrupt enemy commerce. In an effort to defend herself against the "gathering storm", Queen Elizabeth openly and officially instituted the system to become known as "privateering", one which was based on very shaky legal and moral foundation, but its evident necessity deemed justifiable enough at the time.

A privateer, the term which also encompasses men who served aboard her, was a privately owned armed vessel commissioned by a letter of marque from the Crown to interrupt and capture enemy shipping in time of a declared war. The first letter of marque issued in England dates from the late 13th century but only after 1585 did the letters make provisions for prizes to be condemned (declared as contraband from an enemy state) and confiscated by an Admiralty Court with a subsequent division of those goods made among the Crown, the privateer who seized them, and other officials. Thus, while the actual practice of privateering was well established among seafaring nations, it had never been governed in England by a system of rules and regulations laid down by the Admiralty until the hostilities with Spain had developed into open warfare in the mid 1580s. A period of reprisal or state of belligerency which developed between two nations for specific acts or grievances could have existed before an actual declaration of war. In that case, letters of reprisal were issued, which enabled the bearer to undertake operations to interrupt enemy shipping although a state of war had not officially been declared. The difference between a letter of reprisal and a letter of marque was a matter of hair splitting as the former invariably led to the latter and a full scale declared shooting war.

Harassment and disruption of Spanish shipping had become an activity officially sanctioned by the Crown in 1585. Letters of marque were issued by the High Court of the Admiralty to anyone who wished to take prizes and had the price of a commission. Privateering offered the Crown a measure of control as well as well as a sizable piece of the profits — only enemy shipping was to be taken, all prizes were to be brought back to the English ship's home port and the cargo was not to be rifled until inventories and appraisals were made by Admiralty Officers and the appropriate divisions made. Since the system known as privateering largely had absorbed the bulk of pre-war pirates into its ranks along with their attitudes and general lease on life, commissioned privateering frequently deteriorated into the taking of neutral ships or the embezzling of captured cargo before the Admiralty Officers could secure the Queen's custom duties. Frequently, ships would be taken without benefit of a letter of marque but Admiralty Officers might not object too strongly provided they received a share of the booty. Since privateering crews were not salaried but received a percentage of the spoils, they threw themselves into their work with great enthusiasm. The distinguishing line between outright piracy and licensed privateering was frequently perilously thin.

Ralegh the Privateer and Roanoke

While he received many offices and lucrative endowments from Queen Elizabeth I, one of Sir Walter Ralegh's main sources of income came from privateering enterprises. When in 1584 Ralegh acquired the patent authorizing him to search out and take possession of, for himself and for his heirs, "remote, heathen and barbarous lands" not held by any Christian prince, he sent the first reconnaissance voyage to Roanoke in the hopes that a colonial scheme would add to his purse.

Since immediate returns on colonization ventures could be extremely speculative, Ralegh encouraged investors by combining colonial plans with privateering enterprises. Roanoke, with its lush vegetation, virgin forests and bountiful harvests from the sea, was indeed "Ralegh's Eden. " But it was also ideally suited as a base from which the English could prey upon Spanish treasure ships as they lumbered their way North from the Caribbean to catch the homeward flowing currents of the Gulf Stream just off the coast of the Outer Banks. After leaving the 1585 military colony on Roanoke, Sir Richard Grenville captured a fortune in Spanish booty on the return trip to England, which no doubt pleased the investors. However, when this first attempt at colonization ended in disorder in June of 1586, it became more difficult for Raleigh to secure further financial backing. The tenacious and ambitious Raleigh did not waiver in his determination to gain a permanent foothold in North America and in 1587, another attempt at colonization on Roanoke was made. This time, families were to be settled on their own land in a self-governing community. But once again, privateering was to be a large part of the lucrative bait for investors.

In the final analysis, interest in privateering came into direct conflict with the business of "settling" and no doubt contributed to the eventual failure of the colony. In 1588, having returned to England for supplies, Governor John White secured two pinnaces and attempted to relieve the colonists he left on Roanoke the previous summer. The captain and crew, bent on privateering enroute, received a dose of their own salts — during an attempt to take a prize, the two pinnaces were badly damaged and were forced to turn back to England before making Roanoke. The following year yielded a bumper crop of prizes along the Spanish Main and Sir Walter continued to reap his share of the spoils. His interest in the Roanoke colony had apparently waned, but not his appetite for lucrative privateering ventures. When John White finally returned to Roanoke in 1590 with another privateering squadron, the colonists had vanished.

The Brave and Noble Brutes

The foundations for the "Hollywood Image" of a swashbuckling privateer risking all for Queen and Country — who can forget Errol Flynn in "The Sea-hawk" — was laid early in the reign of Elizabeth Tudor's Stuart successor, James I, as nostalgic, aging men recalled the "old days" of glory and triumph. The seamier sides of robbery on the high seas forgotten, privateers were sentimentalized in verse and "sanitized" to fit contemporary opinion. A popular broadside of the day described a privateering venture in the following words:

Brave noble brutes, ye Trojan youthful wights,
Whose laud doth reach the center of the sun:
Your brave attempts by land, on seas your fights
Your forward hearts immortal fame hath won.....
The harsh, sanguinary realities of privateering and its evolutionary consequence, overseas colonial expansion, were distorted beyond recognition and the myth of the virtuous Elizabethan privateer was born.

Society is frequently shocked and dismayed when the heros it has created from popular opinion and romantic notions turn out to be less than perfect and the image cannot stand up under scrutiny of succeeding generations. No longer socially or politically fashionable, the one time "heros" are then loudly denounced and vilified and their real and valuable contributions, imagination and courage played down.

The painful warrior famoused for fight
After a thousand victories once foiled
Is from the book of honor rased quite,
And all the rest forgot for which he tiled.
William Shakespeare, Sonnet 25

The flap over Christopher Columbus during the Quincentennial celebration of his voyage to the Americas bears witness to this sad state of affairs. While the Elizabethan privateer was not necessarily the embodiment of sterling virtue and patriotism, neither was he a rogue and scoundrel simply by reason of his calling. But of all the diverse types serving the cause of English overseas expansion, the privateer, driven by dreams of gain and social prominence, may have pulled hardest in the yoke — if not always in the right direction. Only by judging Queen Elizabeth's bold and imaginative "Sea-Dogs" in light of historical fact and the mores of the 16th century, will a rational and balanced perspective be reached.

Text by Olivia Isil; edited and expanded by lebame houston and Wynne Dough.

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Last updated: April 14, 2015

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