Hull’s expedition against Pirates

In Queen Elizabeth’s time there was a pirate problem. How do we know this? The Queen’s Council (in our terms – the government) wrote a lot of letters on the subject, with very little effect. It is the single most frequent subject of the outgoing correspondence of the Council in the year 1577, which is the year of the Hull expedition against the pirates.

Now we think of a pirate as a man with a cutlass, sash, and eyepatch wearing a mixture of ragged but rich fabrics. As soon as he walks into the tavern in Tortuga, you know he is a pirate. Elizabethan pirates were less easy to spot. Firstly they were not always pirates; if there was a legitimate job available, they would take it. And then in time of war they mostly turned into heroes and became respectable. Martin Frobisher, a Yorkshireman, is a good example, before the war with Spain the government wanted to hang him, afterwards he was one of our brave boys.

In a times of peace, like the 1570s, the pirates of the East coast of England were a real menace. They lay in wait in the Humber mouth and merchant ships had to fight their way in and out. Some of the pirates were foreigners; there were a number of Hull ships taken by Scottish pirates, and the Dunkirkers caused a lot of problems in the next century. Some pirates were from Yorkshire. Phipson and White were a pair of pirates from Scarborough, who appear in a lot of the Council correspondence. In the year in question 1577 they had stolen from a dozen Dutch ships. But the Lincolnshire coast was a favourite place for pirates to to lurk, mainly because the coastline was very lightly populated. In the year before (in1576) Hull claimed to the Queen and the Council that in recent years Hull merchants had lost £23,000 in shipwrecks and by piracy. This is from a document pleading the poverty of the town and therefore was certainly not an underestimate, but say seven million pounds in todays values.

Pirates were difficult to put down. Elizabethan law and order was based on the county, the town, and the village, and did not extend beyond the shoreline. The Navy Royal was not patrolling the seas. Unless it was required for a money making venture or for war, it was mostly laid up. That way the ships could not deteriorate and needed only the expense of a night-watchman. Queen Elizabeth did not like sending her ships to sea, unless they took very rich prizes, it was expensive.

So the pirates roamed the coastline with a degree of safety, but Elizabethan ships needed the land. Firstly their navigation out of sight of land was, with very few exceptions, truly terrible. Secondly they had to trade for provisions for themselves and the ship. It is unlikely that a coastal pirate ship could last more than a month at sea without needing substantial repairs. And once on land they were vulnerable to arrest.

Every anchorage in the country was a member of a customs port and thus under the supervision of the customs comptroller and his searchers for that port, but there were far too few searchers to cover the coast. The customs comptroller therefore, like the other local magistrates, depended on paying for information, usually as with a share of the fine levied on the malefactor. For the alehouse keeper in a coastal village there was a balance to be weighed between the profits from receiving or from informing and, in small communities, local loyalties, animosities, and power structures were more immediately relevant than the distant power of the Queen’s Council or the concept of the rule of law.

We have a good example of a small-time pirate venture. A Ship, the Anne of London, was arrested with its crew for piracy in Boston in Lincolnshire in December 1578, and the crew were questioned by the mayor and their statements sent up to the Council. The crew was said to have numbered only six and was probably in fact was no more than ten. Those who were caught all swore that they never knew the names of those who had escaped, and that they didn’t exist anyway. Four of them gave evidence and they were from Hull, London, Kent and Kings Lynn, so it was a fairly diverse crew. They had been signed on in London to deliver the ship to Newcastle, but half way down the Thames new owners had come on board and tried to persuaded them to Seek Adventure. This is code for piracy. They had virtuously refused. These new owners were a strange bunch. There was a lawyer and a man from Enfield, and a gentleman called Ellerker, you can guess where he came from, and a Russian called Clemens. When they joined the ship and when they left it, it is impossible to be sure. The crew swore that the owners had left before any piracies were committed, but some of their clothing was still on board when the ship was arrested in Boston. In the mouth of the Thames they had met another very well-armed pirate ship, with a crew of thirty, who apparently compelled them to join in attacking two Dutch ships who were following them down the Thames.

In the piracies of the two Dutch ships our ship got away with 20 rolls of cloth and four barrels of beer. After this they seemed to have wandered about rather unhappily. They came into the Humber and exchanged some cloth for supplies with the Innkeeper at Winterton and made other trades at Clee and Stallingborough and then they sailed South again. The plan of delivering the ship to Newcastle seems to have been forgotten. They claimed to have put two of the crew ashore on the Lincolnshire coast and taken on two others at Yarmouth, ‘since whose entry no offence was committed’ but this may not be true. They could not of course remember the names of those they had put ashore. They then came into Boston, because they had lost their anchor and cable and needed provisions, and as soon as they arrived they hid what remained of the stolen cloth in another ship, before the customs searchers came on board. They sound like a pretty useless bunch, but they were obviously only telling the authorities what they absolutely had to. I don’t know what happened to them, but there may be something in the Boston records if anybody cares to look.

As a result of all this pirate activity there was a proposal “from divers towns corporate” that they be deputized by the Lord High Admiral of England to sail out against pirates “at their own adventure, proper costs and charges.” This was discussed by the Queen’s Council and an agreement was reached that the towns should be able to recoup their expenses from the pirate ships captured. The Queen’s principal secretary Sir Francis Walsingham reported in a letter to the Lord Admiral dated 11 May that he had put the idea to the Queen and received her agreement, and on the 22 of May a royal warrant to that effect was issued to the Lord Admiral. On the 24 May were issued “Instruccions for the better direction of suche as shall have licence to passe to the seas for the takinge of piratts and sea rovers; to be annexed to their commissions.” Hull’s licence from the Lord Admiral under this warrant was dated 22 June, exactly a month after the initiative was launched. In Tudor terms, that was fast.

The record of the Hull expedition are partly in the government correspondence but mostly in the Hull records.

Hull claimed to have come up with the idea of the scheme, but it is more likely that it was the Lord Admiral’s new power to grant these licenses that had prompted Hull to apply for one. Walsingham’s letter to the Lord Admiral, mentioned above, refers to the pirates as being “especially” on the coasts of Norfolk and Suffolk, and makes no mention of the Humber or of the Lincolnshire coast.

It is well documented that Alderman Thorneton and John Lewes, the town clerk, were in London either regularly or for very long periods between November 1576 and late April or early May 1577. Their final interview with Walsingham was at about this time, when the plan of licensing the corporate port towns to act against pirates was being put in place. Even if the Hull men did not suggest the plan, they had plenty of opportunity to become aware of it There is also absolutely no suggestion that the corporation or an member of the town hoped to make a profit out of pillage or any captured ship, although such a motive can never be discounted. The wording of the Queen’s warrant and instructions show that the danger of such private enterprise was very much in the government’s mind and that it was determined to prevent it.

Hull had probably already identified its target. In May 1577 two mariners, John Young and John Johnson were arrested and imprisoned in Hull gaol on suspicion of piracy and examined by the mayor. The men were from the ship the Elizabeth of Chichester, owner George Veyner gentleman, “and by him set forth to the seas a-roving” (yet another way of describing piracy). In all probability the prisoners gave information against their former shipmates, and this was what secured them their liberty after the eventual trial.

The gocernment licenced Hull’s mayor and aldermen to mount an armed naval expedition against pirates, before the end of October 1577, as deputies for the Lord Admiral, “as lardgely and amplye as I my selfe might doe and execute if I were there personally present” on the understanding that they were solely responsible for all the costs, and for any actions of the expedition which might later be “misliked”. Any pirate captured was to be imprisoned. Captured ships and all their contents were to be valued and lodged with the nearest Customs officer. Despite the fact that the basis for this initiative was that the town could recover its costs from the spoils, it would receive nothing without the express order of either the Lord Treasurer or the Chancellor of the Exchequer with two other judges of the Exchequer. What they received, if anything, would be “towards their chairges” and not as profit or reward. The mayor and aldermen were also warned against boarding or assaulting merchantmen or fishing vessels. It is apparent that the government had some some doubts about what the licenced port might be inclined to do with its powers, and were determined that the anti-pirate initiative should not create a further uncontrolled armed force to add to their existing problems.

Two Hull ships were fitted out for the task, “in warlike manner,” the Salmon and the White Hind. Both these ships were commonly used for fishing off Wardhouse [Vardo], the Salmon, 120 tons, had a double crew of 36 and the White Hind, 70 tons, a double crew of 30. At that time, the Salmon was the largest Hull-owned ship. The only crew member known of either ship is John Kidd, a surgeon, who was a volunteer and received a reward later when he was made a burgess of the town without payment. The captain of the expedition was probably John Perrot, he got into an argument with the town later, which was probably about this expedition. The decision to sail was taken by the Mayor and Aldermen on 17 August, and the ships sailed on 23 August 1577. As the date of their licence was 22 June, this might be thought a considerable delay, but they would have had to wait for the return of suitable ships and crews, and they certainly had to accumulate supplies of all sorts. The rations of bread, beer, biscuit, beef and cheese and the firewood and candles and other stores, needed to be accumulated, just as arms and ammunition needed to be borrowed from other ships. Although the expedition was only absent from Hull for fifteen days, the speed of its success had by no means been guaranteed, and the likelihood is that it was provisioned for longer.

The Hull expedition arrived off “Inghulmeales” on the “Lincolnshire cooste” “& retourned with a pirateous shippe by them taken called the Elizabeth of Cheichester the sixt day of September of whiche was owner Mr George Veiner of Chichester and her captaine & master was Launcelot Grenewell.” “And the said Elizabeth with piraites to the nomber of seventeen in her taken was brought to this porte [of Hull].”

As an account of a naval action this is disappointingly brief. It becomes apparent later that they also took a number of shore-based aiders and abettors. They may have surprised the ship at anchor and without her without much resistance. No deaths or injuries are noted in the record.

There is letter that was received by the Queen from the King of Denmark. The King had complained that a ship belonging to Cornelis Cornelison with its cargo of rye had been brought by “one Launce a pyratt” into the haven of “Englemens” in Lincolnshire. There part of the rye had been sold before the ship was recovered. We don’t have the royal correspondence, only a note of it.

The seventeen prisoners, which included the unfortunate Cornelius Cornelison, owner of the ship with the cargo of rye, were committed by the mayor to the gaol in Hull to await their trial. There they joined their two shipmates, Young and Johnson, whose arrests had probably led to the capture of their ship. The Elizabeth and its contents were duly handed over to H M Customs for safekeeping and valuation. This was assessed to be £214. 10s. 4d. including everything on board at the time of capture.

The mayor examined the prisoners but the witness statements sent up to London have not survived. The mayor and aldermen wanted to hold the trial in Hull themselves, and so they applied for a commission to do so from the Privy Council.

When it came the commission named to the bench the Earl of Huntingdon, Lord President of the North, followed by Sir Thomas Gargrave and Sir Henry Gate. The mayor of Hull was next and was named before the legal members of the Council and the local gentry, the aldermen were named last. Not all of the outsiders attended but the bench that finally sat numbered sixteen. There was no jury.

The absence of a jury was significant. One of the problems that the government had in prosecuting pirates was the reluctance of local juries to convict. Some jurors ended up in the Court of Star Chamber charged with perjury (they were sworn to bring in a true verdict and had not done so, and breaking one’s oath is perjury).

Of the seventeen captured on the Elizabeth, two were now missing: Cornelius Cornelison, on whose behalf the King of Denmark had written, and Michael Simpson, a Dutchman. They may well have been freed almost immediately. As well as the remaining fifteen, there were two others accused of, and indicted for piracy, William Huxton alias Hoxton, late of Chichester yeoman “somtime captain” of the Elizabeth and Launcelot Grenewell, late of the city of London, mariner.

Also charged as accessories in both receiving stolen goods and supplying the pirates were Thomas Thory of Ingoldmels gentleman and Richard Holmes and Christopher Jackeson of Great Grimsby, yeomen. It is not apparent how these accessories were arrested or when they came to Hull. The two members of the crew who had been in Hull gaol since the previous May, were not brought into the dock. Of the fifteen crew member accused of piracy, two were found not guilty, and another three reprieved after conviction. The remaining ten were hanged. It does not appear that the Captains or the accessories were tried in Hull.

The usual place of execution in Hull is now thought to be somewhere near what is now Adelaide Street. But in 1593 a Hull man, convicted at York of murder and robbery on the high seas, was hanged “by the south blockhouse within Humber bankes” that is just inland of what is now The Deep. It is likely that this was also the place chosen for these executions. This is because it was in Yorkshire, not in Hull, and it was a part of the Royal Castle of Hull, and therefore a suitable place for hanging the Queen’s prisoners. (The Adelaide Street site, in the manor of Myton, was within the County of Hullshire.) It is also possible that the condemned were taken elsewhere for execution; the record says only that it was done.

A proclamation was made aquitting Cornelison and Simpson (the foreigners) and Johnson and Young (the first prisoner) and the two accused who were found not guilty, and at the end of the day the Lord President and the rest of the commissioners reported what they had done to the Privy Council. The Privy Council’s letter of thanks for their good service was dated 30 October. The Lords did “assure you that in any your reasonable sute unto her Majestie hereafter, we will not be unmindfull of this your service, but wilbe readie to furder you the best we maie. And for your chairges disbursed in this service their shalbe order given, that of the shippe and goods of the pirates taken their shalbe full satisfaccion maide fourthwith unto you.”

The latter promise was not of course made good without much more correspondence and personal lobbying. The mayor and aldermen applied to the Lord Treasurer who replied that he could do nothing without the Queen’s warrant. Hull then explained the position to Walsingham, “an especiall and singuler good frende to the body of this towne” who spoke to the Queen and a warrant was issued on 8 November under the Privy Seal. This was then delivered to the Exchequer and, after a further application by Hull, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Walter Mildmay, ordered a tally to be cut and wrote to the Customers in Hull instructing them that, as the charges incurred by Hull were greater than the assessed value of the captured ship and its contents (£214 10s 4d), Hull was to be awarded the whole value of the ship. The Lord Treasurer considered that the most convenient way of passing this recompense to Hull was to give the ship and its contents to the town, which he instructed the customers to do. Thus ends Hull’s expedition against the pirates.

The letter of thanks from the Privy Council is most unusual. It is the only Council letter that I have ever come across that does not contain an instruction, a reprimand, a threat, or all three. The Council did not, as a general rule, send letters of thanks and praise, but Hull’s action was the only good news that the Council had received about pirates in a very long time, and they were properly grateful for it. The letter from Sir Francis Walsingham is also remarkable. Firstly it is addressed not to the mayor but personally, to Alderman Thorneton and John Lewes the town clerk, secondly it is again a letter of unconditional praise and approval, very unlike Walsingham’s usual letters to Hull of complaint and barely-veiled threat, and thirdly it reports that the Queen herself had been made aware of, and was pleased with Hull’s service. Which was nice, but it didn’t last.


The “Anne” arrested in Boston BL MSS La. 26, 46

The Hull expedition KHRO Bench Book 4 ff.169-187 and Acts of the Privy Council 1577


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