The Legend of a Lady

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“She knew that this was happiness, this was living as she had always wished to live.”
 Daphne du Maurier, Frenchman’s Creek

 Safe Harbour

The setting: Cornwall, England in the 16th century.

The players: Sir John and Lady Elizabeth Killigrew

The plot:  Lady Elizabeth vs. Queen Elizabeth I

The Killigrews were rich members of the English aristocracy.  In their spare time, they were pirates who used their distinctive coastal location to operate as outlaws.  From their prestigious home, Arwenack House, which overlooked Falmouth Harbour, Sir John directed fleets of pirates. Even Queen Elizabeth I kept her distance, turning a blind eye to their family business on the condition that they never bothered anyone who had her ear.

The Spanish ship, Marie of San Sebastian, was caught in a tempestuous gale one fateful day in 1581.  The crew barely managed to navigate the ship to safety in Falmouth harbour.  The Killigrews, observing the storm battered ship, rushed to their assistance.  They magnanimously offered the captain and his first mate all the comforts of their home.  Indulged by Lady Elizabeth’s hospitality, the captain decided to prolong their stay for a few days.

Meanwhile, Lady Elizabeth was assessing the ship and its contents to determine whether it was worth looting. Yes indeed, it was!  She set her plan into action.  One evening, while Sir John entertained their guests, Lady Elizabeth rounded up her staff, which doubled as her pirate crew, and led them down a secret tunnel that connected the house to the shore.  The noise of the gale force winds allowed them to take the ship and unload the cargo.  Lady Elizabeth returned home while her pirates sailed the ship out of sight.   The operation took less than two hours. The Spaniards suspected the Killigrews, but no one could prove anything.  The Queen overlooked this episode.

The Queen did not overlook the 1582 incident, however, involving the German merchant ship loaded with gold, silver, and jewels.  Lady Elizabeth could not resist the temptation.  How was she to know that the Germans had close ties to Queen Elizabeth I?  The fury of a Queen came down on Lady Elizabeth.  Alas, she was to be hanged.

There is a happy ending.  The Queen changed her mind.  The sentence was changed to imprisonment.  And before long, Lady Elizabeth was set free.  She rejoined her husband at Arwenack House. Whether they continued their pirate ways, is unknown.  One thing is certain; her legend still lives on… 

“This is our day, our moment, the sun belongs to us, and the wind, and the sea, and the men for’ard there singing on the deck. This day is forever a day to be held and cherished, because in it we shall have lived, and loved, and nothing else matters but that in this world of our own making to which we have escaped.”
Daphne du Maurier, Frenchman’s Creek

All The Queen’s Men

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“If England had not used the services of privateers and pirates during its long struggle with Spain, there is some likelihood that people today in North America would be speaking Spanish rather than English.” 
Robert Earl Lee, Blackbeard the Pirate

A Ship

They were called the “Sea Dogs.”

Queen Elizabeth I was surrounded by dynamic, brilliant, intrepid and creative men.  They were her privateers, independent, but used as an auxiliary navy to plunder Spanish ships. If the Spanish took exception, the Queen could deny that she had any hand in the mischief.

Sir John Hawkins, the leader of the Sea Dogs, engaged with the Spanish ships in the Caribbean. His résumé included slave-trading pioneer, treasure-hunting pirate, high-ranking naval commander, spy and war hero.  He reformed the navy and improved the pay and conditions for sailors.

Sir Francis Drake, sea captain, slaver, and politician, is usually remembered as a hero, the favourite of Queen Elizabeth, who awarded him with a knighthood.  He was second-in-command of the English fleet against the Spanish Armada in 1588.  On the other side of the channel, the Spanish knew him as the ferocious pirate, El Draque – the Dragon.  Perhaps his greatest feat was to be the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe.

Sir Walter Raleigh was destined to be one of the most celebrated figures in British history. A privateer, explorer, poet and favourite of the Queen, he was the first to attempt colonization in  North America.  He was unsuccessful, but his efforts opened the way for others to follow.

With the passing of Queen Elizabeth I, peace was made with Spain.  The Sea Dogs continued their piratical activities on the Barbary Coast, to the embarrassment of the English Crown.  The time of the Privateers was coming to an end.  Once the force behind British imperialism and expansion, they became, in the end, a threat to national security.  As Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote, “All human beings, as we meet them, are commingled out of good and evil.”

“And what is the sea?” asked Will. 
“The sea!” cried the miller. “Lord help us all, it is the greatest thing God made!”
Robert Louis Stevenson