Falmouth harbour was guarded by the forts at St. Mawes and Pendennis, but the Helford River was never fortified. Even the forts of Falmouth were not always effective, usually because the forts appear frequently to have been insufficiently manned. However, Pendennis was usually under the charge of the Killigrew family many of whom were personally interested in piracy.
A certain Peter Killigrew, was charged with piracy in Ireland in 1555 and was under examination in the Tower in 1556. The same gentleman was fined £55 for "dealing with pirates and pirates goods" in 1578. The most extraordinary member of this family was, however, John Killigrew, Captain of Pendennis Castle. In 1577 he was found to have purchased stolen French wines from a pirate named Hix, but was allowed to settle the matter by paying the real owners for the goods.
In the winter of 1580-1 a Spanish vessel, bound from Calais to Biskay, the "Marie of San Sebastian" by name, was driven by stress of weather into Falmouth Harbour, having lost her masts. During the night she was plundered by "certain” Englishmen, three or four are said to be Killigrew's servants. Lady Killigrew is said to have ordered the raid.
Sir John was ordered by the Privy Council to restore the vessel and goods to their owners, and to render an account of the episode to the Council. Such an account appears to have been rendered but Sir John neither appeared before the Council nor returned the goods, he had disappeared and the ship also.
"A Commission of Enquiry is to be appointed to enquire into the matter, and if he can be found, to take surety of £1,000 from him for his appearance before the Council."
Sir John still avoided his pursuers and warrants for his arrest were issued in October 1588, in connection with another piratical affair, in which a Danish vessel was plundered. Next a general proclamation was issued for his arrest, and county officers were ordered, if necessary to use force. Being still missing in April 1589, he was deprived of his office of Vice Admiral of the County of Cornwall.
Strange to say, on 31st July, 1589, he was granted freedom from arrest for thirty days, and in October for three months. In 1596 we find him again referred to as Captain of Pendennis. He was then once more dabbling in piracy.
A piratical incident is recorded in connection with Helford in 1597, the story is told by a sailor driven into Dartmouth by stress of weather, and there arrested and examined as a pirate. He related how, when in the service of one "Captain Elliott", they took a fly-boat, armed it, and went to Helford with it, bringing in a Dieppe prize, laden with knives, victuals, etc. for Brazil, which they had taken.
Sir John Killigrew, instead of arresting them, warned them of the approach of H.M.S. Crane, and, according to one account, bribed the Captain of the man-of-war with £100. As for his reward he had from Elliott nine bolts of Holland cloth and a chest. Elliott and his crew sailed away and continued their piracy until taken by the Spaniards, when Elliott saved his skin by taking command of one of the vessels of the Spanish fleet, a position in which his knowledge of England was, of course, regarded as valuable.
Among the centres of piracy in the West, Fowey stands pre-eminent, and since 1472 ships of Fowey appear to have been plundering as far away as the Portuguese coast. By 1634 the power of Fowey was long over but, while it lasted, it formed a most striking example of piracy by the English. Ships were not safe then even in the harbours; for instance a vessel entering Dartmouth in 1345 was at once plundered.
We read of French pirates almost as early as the English, especially pirates of Dunkirk who preyed on the English coasts. Netherlanders also soon appeared on the scene. Sir Francis Godolphin, a high official of the county, 1628, relates how the "Lewis" a ship of war out of Brest, came ashore at Penryn, on the previous Friday. The crew abandoned her. "The country came thick with their axes and other tools" cut down the mast and rifled the ship of all her tackling and ordnance. There were 100 people aboard rifling. Penryn seems to be incorrect as the name of the place where the ship went ashore, both for geographical reasons, and because St. Keverne men plundered her!