Islands & Piracy
Islands played a big part during the golden age of piracy. Piracy flourished on the Isles of Scilly since the middle Ages. In 1209, 112 captured pirates were beheaded on Tresco in a single day. In Charles I reign in the 1640s many pirates based themselves there. One of the earliest pirates recorded was Eustace the Monk who held Sark, in the Channel Islands, in 1214. Originally locked away in a monastery he turned to piracy and with the French King Louis VII in 1217 attempted to invade England with 900 ships. Unfortunately for him, The Bayonne, his flagship, was captured and he was hung from the yard arm at sea, although offering a 10,000 mark bribe for his life...a fortune for a simple monk. His daughter was brought up in Salisbury as an English lady, educated at the fashionable Wilton Abbey. Thomas Salkeld set up his pirate colony on the Isle of Lundy around 1610. ‘Such a place the like of witch I never saw Lundy Island’ (Lundy means 'puffin' in Norwegian) is a great isolated rock in the middle of the Bristol Channel, an ideal base for piracy. Not only had the English used it.
Lundy Island was invaded by various groups of pirates to be used as a stronghold and base for operations against the heavily laden merchant ships passing by; en route to and from Bristol, Barnstaple, South Wales, Chepstow, and Bridgwater; and also against the Irish fleets bringing pilgrims to the North Devon coastline. In 1067 Danish pirates invaded Barnstaple from Lundy. Moorish pirates were also active along the north Cornish coast and ransacked Padstow on a regular basis, the aim being to take white-skinned women, much sought after by the Arabs, away to their base at Lundy ....Ooh Aarh
Lundy was the haunt of pirates. The island abounds with strange names such as Puffin Gully, Rat Island, Hell's Gate, Devil's Slide and Mouse Island. There are many unexplored caves where pirate's treasure could be lying mouldering in the dark. Many skeletons have been dug up on the island, including one measuring eight feet two inches in length .
Sir William de Marisco married into the Archbishop of Dublin’s family and inherited Irish estates. He held an important position at the Court of King Henry III and for his services to the Crown was awarded estates along the North Devon and Somerset coastline. From his Manor at Portishead in 1235 he was outlawed from the Court at Westminster for slitting the throat of the King’s messenger and so fled to the remote island of Lundy where he felt safe, using the steep village of Clovelly on the mainland as his port of supplies. He built an almost inaccessible castle on top of the high cliffs and from there sallied out to intercept passing ships; not only to plunder them of gold and silver but to take victuals, since the island was barren and could not sustain life.
He soon found it profitable to capture the many passing Bristol merchant ships bringing back valuable goods from overseas. Because of the dangerous shingle banks in the fast flowing River Severn and Bristol Channel, with its 32 ft tide, they had to navigate close to his big rock 12 miles out. He was soon into piracy and ransomed the more wealthy passengers, including the brother of the Mayor of Bristol. His menace infuriated the King even more and when de Marisco sent some of his brigands to Woodstock to murder the King, for seizing his Irish estates he provoked retaliation by an angry Henry who sent in the dragoons one misty night. They scaled the steep cliffs and captured him alive in his castle (which is now a pub) and at Clovelly, dragged him up the steep cobbled high street by tying his legs to two separate horses to be taken back to the King. Most of his corpse became detached at Glastonbury and only his ankles and feet were left by the time the dragoons reached Woodstock.
In 1345 the French used Lundy island and planned a raid on Bristol to burn it down
In the 1440s Colyn Dolphyn, a Frenchman was based there. Edward Stradling of Coity Castle married a daughter of Henry VI's great uncle, Cardinal Beaufort, and became Chamberlain of South Wales in 1423. His son Harry was captured by the pirate Colyn Dolphyn a native of Brittany.
Operating out of Lundy Island, Dolphyn captured Sir Harry Stradling in 1449 while sailing back to Wales from Minehead in Somerset, where he had stayed for a month. Sir Harry Stradling, his faithful man Dewryn, and the crew of the St. Barbe, were kept close prisoners by Colyn Dolphyn, on board his barque the Sea Swallow for about 2 years. Stradling was ransomed for a price of 2200 marks and forced to sell his manors of Bassaleg and Rogerstone and other estates to regain his freedom.
According to the old chroniclers, Colyn Dolphyn was a tall, athletic, and mighty man, "like Saul in Israel." He "towered head and shoulders" over the Welsh and English alike. Colyn Dolphyn's name was a terror in South Wales.
Some time later Dolphyn was caught in a storm and ran aground on Colhugh Beach and the Nash rocks in Glamorgan. Sir Harry Stradling and his men met them and captured Dolphyn and his men. They were hung the next day.
The Arabs and Lundy Island.
In the early 16th Century Moslems from the north coast of Africa, known as Moors, having been expelled from Spain and still smarting from their defeats by the Crusaders decided upon revenge. In fleets of light-weight, fast, lateen-rigged ships they raided ports in the south-west of England. Because of the threat posed by these raiders, villages were built away from the coast. The tower of the village church was used as a look-out.
The raiding ships were armed with a cannon mounted in the bow with which, using chain shot, they could bring down the rigging of the slower, English ships and then board them and capture them intact with all their crew. These men and women were then taken back to the Barbary Coast as slaves. Between the 16th and 17th Centuries corsairs from the Barbary Coast of Africa descended from Lundy to intercept ships going to and from Ireland and the Americas. In all, they seized some four hundred and sixty-six vessels. Some of their women captives were taken back to Algiers or Tunis or Morocco: DNA testing today would reveal some unusual ancestors. At one time more than twenty thousand were being held as slaves and hostages in the dungeons of the fort. They included prominent men that were passengers bound for Bristol, including the brother of the lord mayor and held for ransom.
In 1520 King James I decided that enough was enough and sent a Royal Navy battle squadron to blockade the Sultans ports and demand the release of the captives. Thomas Salkeld set up his pirate colony on the Isle of Lundy around 1610. ‘Such a place the like of witch I never saw Lundy Island’ (Lundy means 'puffin' in Norwegian) is a great isolated rock in the middle of the Bristol Channel, an ideal base for piracy. Thomas Salkeld crowned himself as the ‘King of Lundy,’ much to the displeasure of King James1, who dispatched Captain William Munson a famous pirate hunter. Another famous pirate hunter was Admiral John Benbow (1651-1702) served under Admiral Whetstone (father in law to Woodes Rogers, Caribbean pirate hunter and governor) and they both saw service in the West Indies. His eldest son, John, 1681-1708 was captured by pirates in Madagascar and held to ransom for 7 years, by the West Country pirates who lived there, who realized his importance. He was held in bad conditions and died on his return to England from the experience. Another son Colonel Benbow was executed as a traitor by Cromwell’s Roundheads when he helped King Charles Stuart to escape their ambush. It was to take Oliver Cromwell in the 1640s to sort them out. He found the sailors along the south west coast ports were frightened to venture out. When they caught an Arab they were brought back to the gibtaylor in Bristol to be drowned.
Murat Reis, the Arab pirate captain, was on Lundy in about 1645. He had taken 310 prisoners off the southwest coastline to Salee Castle, Algiers, to be fattened up for sale. Cromwell got fed up with the Arab menace and insurance prices rising on Bristol merchant ships. William and his brother Giles Penn came to Redcliffe, Bristol but were not allowed to trade by the Bristol cartel. So they traded with the Arabs instead, and had to become ruthless pirates themselves to survive. As a result, when the Mayor of Bristol, who had his own brother held to ransom, was told by Cromwell to commission someone and put up a reward to clear the Arab menace, lying in wait on Lundy Island, he choose Robert Blake from farming stock in the North Devon hills and William Penn from Redcliffe, They took the fight to the enemy and bombarded their stronghold till they surrendered. They released 20,000 people. Penn had been paid privately by Bristol merchants to clear the Severn. He could speak Arabic as his father Giles senior had been ambassador in Africa on behalf of the King Charles.
Insurance rates were escalating. So it was worth some reward to be paid to be a mercenary. So this is how Captain William Penn, son of Giles, the English ambassador to Tunis, became famous and eventually an admiral.
As a result both men were made up to Admirals and Penn was sent to capture Jamaica and the sugar islands in the Caribbean from the Spanish in 1655. Henry Morgan who later became governor of Jamaica was with him. The Penns eventually colonised Pennsylvania USA and lived on Portland Bill, Dorset complete with its pirate graveyard.
Of course when you weren’t worrying about pirates you had famine and plague, both of very frequent recurrence. By 1860 over 692 shipwrecks were recorded off the south west's dangerous coastline.
"From lightning and tempest, from plague, pestilence and famines, from battle and murder, and from sudden death, Good Lord, deliver us".
Thomas Salkeld crowned himself as the ‘King of Lundy,’ much to the displeasure of King James1, who dispatched Captain William Munson a famous pirate hunter. Another famous pirate hunter was Admiral John Benbow (1651-1702) served under Admiral Whetstone (father in law to Woodes Rogers, Caribbean pirate hunter and governor) and they both saw service in the West Indies. His eldest son, John, 1681-1708 was captured by pirates in Madagascar and held to ransom for 7 years, by the West Country pirates who lived there, who realized his importance. He was held in bad conditions and died on his return to England from the experience. Another son Colonel Benbow was executed as a traitor by Cromwell’s Roundheads when he helped King Charles Stuart to escape their ambush.