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Jill Eddison is the author of Romney Marsh.
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Pirates, Raiders and Privateers 1204-1453
By Jill Eddison
The History PressCopyright © 2013 Jill Eddison
All rights reserved.
A Lawless Domain
The sea was a lawless domain beyond the borders of civilised society and the seaport a real frontier town.
Piracy was endemic in the Middle Ages. Men stole each other's ships; they looted each other's cargoes at sea or in port; they demanded ransoms from those captives likely to be able to pay and they threw useless crew members overboard into the sea. Life was cheap and often short. In an age when men easily and quickly resorted to violence, these were universal, accepted facts of life.
This book explores the role of piracy in its widest sense, unofficial or semiofficial activity in a fast-moving, volatile political world. It centres particularly on the English Channel, an exceptionally interesting stretch of water which served two different and frequently conflicting functions. On the one hand the Channel was a highly important seaway, a rich commercial artery, an essential link in the trade which formed the foundation for the rising economy of the western world. On the other hand, it was also a political frontier between two evolving, ambitious and belligerent monarchies, England and France. Throughout this period those two countries were hostile to each other. Short bouts of declared war in the thirteenth century led on to longer spells of warfare punctuated by periods of truce, lasting from 1337 to 1453, and described (much later) by historians as the 'Hundred Years' War'.
While the commercial world needed stability in order to function satisfactorily and to the benefit of nearly everyone, the political world, represented by the whims of a very small number of rulers, was far from stable. And political, dynastic and military considerations almost always prevailed. On the grounds of both expense and war-weariness of the troops, however, it was beyond the means of any monarch to continue declared, open warfare for more than a few years. It was much cheaper, and incidentally almost invariably more swift and effective, to operate unofficially. One means of doing so was to encourage piracy.
Piracy took many forms – which merged into each other, so there are no firm dividing lines. Trade, including fishing, was always competitive and, for commercial reasons or simply to satisfy personal greed, it easily and frequently escalated into violent appropriation of other people's goods. Ships risked being pilfered when they put into ports for supplies of water or victuals, or when they were seeking shelter from storms, and passing vessels risked being captured and ransacked.
Competition easily developed into feuds. Adjacent ports, often on the same estuary, like those on the Exe below Exeter or like Sandwich and Stonor on the Kentish Stour, fought each other over installation of weirs which obstructed shipping, over rights to bring in cargoes, to levy customs, to take the dues on ferries across their estuary. There, and on a wider scale, long-running vendettas raged between groups of ports, sometimes against their fellow countrymen but often against foreigners. The rivalry between the Cinque Ports and Yarmouth, based on shared facilities at the annual nine-week herring fair, amounted to a petty war whose history went back to the Saxon period, lasted for centuries and influenced international politics.
Raids on opponents' ports, sometimes based on feuds, sometimes politically motivated, were an extension of the same activity. The basic pattern of a raid was remarkably simple. Armed invaders sailed into a port on a high tide, plundered any goods they found, ransacked houses and warehouses, set fire to what they left behind, and departed on the high tide of the next day, before effective defence could be mounted. The success of these hit-and-run episodes depended on surprise attack spreading instant alarm among the local inhabitants: there was seldom any resistance. Those individuals who were fit enough made themselves scarce; the weaker members – the old, the women and children – remained behind and were killed or maltreated. A succession of raids could be extremely effective as a tool to achieve political ends, as the French showed in the fourteenth century: by disabling the south-coast ports they wiped out much of the commercial capability of England.
The latter half of the fourteenth century saw the evolution of a new form of organisation. The scale of maritime trade had increased but, because of excessive wartime expenditure, the resources available to the monarchs were seriously reduced. They therefore resorted to commissioning certain leading merchants to assemble their own fleets and go to sea to harry 'the king's enemies'. Given this official authority to attack their rivals, and with the promise of keeping most, sometimes all, of the prizes they captured, the merchants were happy to oblige. On these conditions they became known to the English as privateers, while to the French and Spanish they were corsairs.
It is evident that piracy was used as much as a political tool as a means of achieving personal profit or settling personal scores. Rivalry was easily and frequently exploited and stoked up by political leaders for their own ends – but always carried the risk of the violence backfiring and becoming beyond control. It was also a very short step for the mariners to set off independently, entirely in their own interests.
A political map of western Europe in 1204, had there been one, would have been very different from that of today. England, the major part of this offshore island, was already a single kingdom although her Celtic boundaries were by no means fixed: both the principality of Wales and the kingdom of Scotland were still independent and one or the other was almost continuously troublesome. Edward I (1272–1307) officially subdued Wales, although later on rebel armies were still able to issue forth from their sanctuary in the mountains of Snowdonia to trouble him and his successors. At much the same time as Wales was officially subjugated, relations with Scotland deteriorated abruptly after the last strong king, Alexander III, died as a result of falling off his horse in the dark in 1286.
In contrast to the more or less consolidated English kingdom, in 1200 the French king ruled only a small area, consisting of the Ile de France, which surrounded his stronghold in Paris. Beyond that, the rest of present-day France was a patchwork of large quasi-independent states, each of which was led by its own duke or count. These included Brittany, which commanded a long and important coastline, and retained its independence beyond the end of this period. Most importantly, the King of England was feudal overlord of about half of the area of modern France, including the entire coastline from the River Somme south to the Spanish border. But in 1200 the pendulum of power was already swinging: Henry II's Anglo-Norman-Angevin empire was about to break up. By 1224 a large part of that English-dominated land, including that bordering the Channel, had been regained by France, although England continued to hold Aquitaine, her land in the south.
To the north of France lay the County of Flanders whose name, Vlaanderen, derived from Middle Dutch, meaning 'flooded land'. It consisted of the very low-lying ground, on the border between land and sea, which now includes the area of France from Calais northwards, with much of Belgium and the south of Holland. In 1200 this area was already established as a centre of the woollen industry, and was the economic powerhouse of northern Europe.
Each of these three states, England, France and Flanders, was manoeuvring to increase its territory and to maintain or expand its commerce at the expense of the others. Friction was frequent. Relations between France and Flanders, for instance, were never good. France was intensely jealous of the industrial strength of her northern neighbour. She also coveted the Zwin, a sheltered inlet of the North Sea which provided an extensive anchorage near Bruges and Sluys, which has long since silted up and disappeared but was then an exceptional asset. It was essential as a harbour, used not only for commercial shipping but also for assembling fleets for various French attempts to invade England. Conversely, it was a threat to France, because it was one of few places where England was able to land troops in large numbers before they made their way south. Franco-Flemish animosity was therefore continuous and France made several attempts to invade and conquer Flanders, all of them unsuccessful and counterproductive. The most she achieved were minor advances and the destruction of the industrial centres which she had sought to control.
In contrast, at the beginning of our period Flanders had a very strong, long-established commercial connection with England and, presumably on account of that, their political relations were much better than those between Flanders and France. But from 1265 onwards difficulties with Countess Margaret of Flanders gave rise to nearly continuous embargoes and confiscations, and led on to intense Anglo-Flemish piracy and reprisals in the North Sea. By the end of that century Flanders was supporting Scotland in her wars against England.
Because France was perpetually opposed to England, she too naturally took the opportunity of supporting Scotland. She also supported Wales on various occasions when that principality was rebelling against heavy-handed English rule. By the fifteenth century the Dukes of Burgundy, who controlled a large part of present-day eastern France, were also the Counts of Flanders, and their claim to the French throne resulted in a lengthy war.
The states which lay to the south also had an interest in the English Channel. Aquitaine had a strong political and commercial relationship with England, an arrangement which went back to 1152, when the future Henry II of England had married Eleanor of Aquitaine. But in due course, building up from the mid-thirteenth century, it was the status of English ownership of Gascony which was to become one of the main bones of contention between England and France.
During the first half of the thirteenth century, independent merchants from Castile were beginning to establish trading connections with the north. The area of present-day Spain, like that of France, consisted of a number of smaller states. Then, in the 1230s and 1240s, Alfonso VIII of Castile extended his boundaries to include a broad north-south swathe of the Iberian peninsula, between Portugal on the west side and Aragon on the east. These boundaries, which remained constant until the marriage of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon in 1469, after the end of our period, gave Castilian merchants access to the sea in three directions, to the Bay of Biscay in the north, to the Atlantic at Seville and Huelva in the south-west, and to the Mediterranean in the south-east, including Cartagena.
Relations with England were generally friendly, but only after his internal reorganisation was the King of Castile ready to consider formal arrangements for external trade. Then, on 1 March 1254, a treaty was signed with England, and the future Edward I of England married Eleanor of Castile, sister of the king. This heralded thirty years of prosperous Anglo-Castilian trade.
The trading giants in the Mediterranean were the Genoese and the Venetians, but 1204 was too early for direct maritime contact with them, because it was considered that the inward (eastward) current which flows continuously through the Straits of Gibraltar, combined with prevailing winds blowing in the same direction, made it impracticable for the craft of the day to make the outward passage. Goods travelling to and from the Mediterranean had to be transferred to flat-bottomed boats and taken along inland waterways, and carried some of the way overland by mules, via Bordeaux and Carcassonne. But, in time, commercial developments within the Mediterranean stimulated pioneering attempts to travel westward, and the earliest record of a cargo shipped from the Mediterranean to England by that route was one of alum from Asia Minor, brought by a group of Genoese merchants in 1278. This was followed, spasmodically at first, by a growing number of ships from Genoa, Venice, the Balearic Islands and Valencia. As well as physical hazards on the long voyage up the Atlantic coast of Europe and up the English Channel, those ships had to contend with French pirates based at La Rochelle and on the islands in the Bay of Biscay and with multi-national pirates off Brittany.
Sooner or later these southern states were drawn into the Anglo-French conflict in a variety of ways – when their commerce was caught up in the piracy in the Channel, when their men and ships were employed as mercenaries chartered by one of the main contenders, or as the result of political alliances. Altogether, international relations were always volatile and frequently changing.
Internally, too, the governments of both England and France were often unstable, and weak government afforded enhanced opportunities for piracy. Powerful and power-hungry great lords, known respectively as barons and vassals, were always waiting in the wings. Both countries suffered spasmodically from weak leaders, domestic disturbances, civil wars and the occasional coup d'état. The English deposed two of their kings in the fourteenth century. It was always tempting, and possible, to exploit the internal weakness of opposing governments. Thus for numerous powerful and interacting reasons, the political background was unpredictable and continuously changing, and a general pattern emerges showing that greater instability on land was always accompanied by an increased level of piracy at sea.
The ports are central to this story, and it is impossible to overemphasise their importance, especially to England, an island nation which depended on the sea for all communications with the outside world, not least for its commerce and its wealth. The smooth and continuous operation of the ports was essential to economic prosperity. When the ports flourished, so did the commercial life of the country. And for that very reason they were frontier towns, who bore the brunt when foreigners attacked, as (Great) Yarmouth complained in anguish in the disastrous circumstances of 1386. Just as in 1940 the Luftwaffe went for the ports and railway junctions, the means of communication, so in the medieval period the French attacked the English ports, especially after the political tide had turned in their favour in the decades after 1360. When the ports succumbed, trade diminished and royal revenues fell with the consequence that the whole economy, the whole country, suffered.
To understand the special nature of these coastal communities, and how they operated, it is necessary to look back to their origins and evolution. Almost all of them started life as small settlements focussing on the twin activities of fishing, providing a vital source of protein, and boat-building. Of necessity, they all grew up in sheltered positions where they were protected from the rough water of the open sea. Hence each one was either situated on a river estuary, where they had the additional advantage of good communication further up river into the hinterland, or behind a substantial barrier of shingle and sand. (The barriers were ephemeral and liable to succumb to erosion, so that the geography of many of the medieval ports is now unrecognisable.) The communities in the ports were exceptionally close-knit, because of their commercial interdependence and because of the dangers which they faced together at sea. The seafarers depended on each other for their lives as well as their livelihoods. The vessels they built had to be safe enough for them, their families and neighbours to use as they went about their daily occupations. On both sides of the Channel, everyone involved, the owner of the ship, the master who took it to sea, everyone who provided supplies of any kind, down to the ordinary sailors, benefitted from a 'share' in the profits of the day's catch, or cargo, in proportion to their investment in the enterprise. This custom extended to include sharing out the proceeds of piracy.
Well before the dawn of the thirteenth century, every port must have become involved in trade to a greater or lesser extent. A few, in especially favoured locations, had evolved into impressive towns, complex trading centres which required sophisticated management. London stood out in a class of its own. Southampton, Winchelsea and Sandwich were the largest on the south coast, with Shoreham and Seaford in the second rank. Throughout the period covered by this book, the ports were led by small groups of entrepreneurs – people with courage and initiative, who had management and business skills as well as seafaring expertise. They were the merchants, who had the interests of their communities – and of themselves – at heart. Most importantly, they had never been part of the feudal system and so had never been subject to the kind of regulations which controlled the rest of society. They travelled, spreading trade, prosperity and culture across Europe. A class apart, they, exceptionally, were able to operate independently of authority except, up to a point, that of the king.
Excerpted from Medieval Pirates by Jill Eddison. Copyright © 2013 Jill Eddison. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
Foreword Professor Richard Smith 11
1 A Lawless Domain 17
2 The Passing Trade 30
3 Ships, Shipping and Trade Routes 43
4 The English Channel: A New Frontier 56
5 The Cinque Ports 69
6 Insolvency and Famine 86
7 Portrait of a Pirate: John Crabbe (c. 12.90-1352) 99
8 Raids, Devastation and Fear 1337-89 106
9 Privateers of the West Country 122
10 Henry V: Pirates Suppressed 138
11 Henry VI: Resurgence of Piracy 154
12 Then and Now 168