Piracy and the Cinque Ports


By Rya

“From the remote past down to the middle of the fourteenth century.” writes Neville Wil­liams. “the line dividing legitimate trade from piracy was blurred, for one and the same individual followed what would later become four different professions—fisherman, trader. pirate and naval officer.” As there were no regular navies, all ships went armed for defence and, inevitably, the stronger attacked the weaker. In fact, to be attacked by pirates was regarded as one of the normal hazards of any voyage. Despite constant complaints from the merchants little was done. It would, perhaps. have been surprising to find that the inhabitants of the Cinque Ports did not engage in a little piratical activity but to discover that by the time of Edward I, they had “acquired the reputation of being the most infamous of all European pirates” seems hardly credible. Several factors contributed to the enormous political importance the Ports were to enjoy in the thirteenth century.

The first lay in their vital geographical position, when King John lost Normandy: for a century and a half the Channel had linked the Duchy with the Kingdom, but now it was a barrier, with the Cinque Ports placed in the front line. This new situation considerably increased their value to the King who, possessing no Royal Navy, had to rely on the Ports for ships when required. Apart from their strategic and mili­tary value, their importance was enhanced by civil war between the barons and the King. in which both sides offered substantial bribes for their support. Circumstances, therefore, played into the hands of the portsmen and they were quick to take advantage of it.

The men of Winchelsea, according to one historian, had acquired the reputation of being the most hardened criminals in Europe. thinking nothing of killing merchants, throwing their bodies into the sea and robbing them of goods and ships. Such a reputation, however, was shared with the other ports if not to the same degree. A chronicler, safe in his cloister. remarked with pride that the portsmen, trained in the tough school of piracy, could be relied upon to fight to the death and could massacre French crews “quicker than it takes to eat a biscuit”. Slow to observe truces, they treated letters of safe-conduct with contempt. In all their pursuit of plunder nothing was, perhaps, more brutal than the attack of the Winchelsea pirates on the Jews, when they were expelled from England in 1290. Many of them were attacked and robbed in mid-Channel, and in­humanly slain and thrown into the sea. One party, which included many of the richest Jews from London, was left on a sandbank, which was afterwards submerged by the tide. In this case the malefactors paid the supreme penalty on the gallows, but this must be regarded as the exception rather than the rule.

Chivalrous behaviour, although rare, did manifest itself on at least one occasion. In 1327 a Hanse vessel was attacked by Benedict Sely and his Winchelsea rovers and taken to the Downs for looting purposes. So delighted were the pirates at their haul—the ship contained. inter alia, an enormous quantity of silver plate and jewels—that they decided to treat the crew leniently. Having forced them to promise not to take any steps to seek reprisals for their losses, the rovers provided them with a boat and left them to make their way unmolested to Flanders.

The portsmen’s maraudings were by no means confined to the Channel. In 1305 certain men of Winchelsea became involved in a quarrel with some Irishmen in Ross. No one was injured but the mayor of that town urged the men concerned to go and seek the goodwill of the portsmen “so that ill come not to any of the town”; they refused to do so but paid dearly for so doing. Soon thereafter four ships from Ross were attacked in Brittany by sailors from Winchelsea and robbed of goods worth £400, while a further sum was paid by the petrified crews to save their lives and ships. It just did not pay to slight the portsmen.

To bring the portsmen to book for their crimes was virtually impossible. When the Lord Warden attempted to hold an investigation into a particularly nasty affair, involving the looting of goads of various Gascon merchants to the enormous value of £11,200, the men of Rye, Winchelsea and Romney restrained him by force. That the mayors and bailiffs of the ports did not administer justice impartially is not surprising. On one occasion the mayor and bailiff of Rye were ordered to discover the names of the seamen who had plundered a certain Flemish vessel. This they did but maintained that it was no part of their business to prosecute them, whereupon they were directed to bring the offenders to Westminster. Nothing was done and the Constable of Dover was instructed to arrest the officials for con­tempt. Not long thereafter flemish merchants were banished from England and, consequently, the case petered out. In 1348, however, a Bridlington merchant succeeded in obtaining justice from the mayor of Winchelsea: he not only recovered his cargo but was actually present when the pirates were sentenced to death. Such a thing would never have happened in the previous century: it was a clear indication that the days of piracy—at least for the men of the Cinque Ports—were numbered.

Edward I, the most powerful of medieval English kings, was powerless to reform the portsmen. In fact, their special privileges were extended at the very time when their depredations were at their height. Any proposal to punish them or to abrogate their privileges was met with a threat to withdraw their allegiance. “Let the King’s Council be well assured,” they peremptorily announced as late as 1299, “that if any wrong or grievance be done to them in any way against justice, they will forthwith forsake their wives and children and all they possess and go to make their profit upon the sea wheresoever they think they will be able to acquire it.” Their value to the King enabled them to blackmail him time and again.

Feuds were a commonplace in medieval life, but none was so deep-seated as that between Yarmouth and the Cinque Ports, which had its origins in the rights granted by the Crown to the portsmen when they visited the Norfolk coast for the yearly herring fair. Fighting was not, however. confined to the time of the fair but took place whenever and wherever they met. All kinds of atrocities were committed on both sides. On one occasion men of Yarmouth kidnapped two men of Winchelsea and drowned them by throwing them into the sea, while some portsmen dragged a Yarmouth sailor out of a church in Brittany where he bad taken refuge and, after keeping him as a prisoner for a few days. murdered him. All other incidents, however, pale before the Sluys affair in 1297. Having collected every ship he could muster for his expedition to Flanders, Edward I had only just landed when the portsmen turned on the Yarmouth ships with unprecedented ferocity. Twenty-nine Yarmouth boats were looted and burnt at a loss of between £2,558 and £3,150 worth of goods and 150 to 200 lives. Two undamaged Yarmouth vessels promptly set sail for Winchelsea, determined to kill every seaman in that port, but there was scarcely an able bodied man who was not at sea. Back at Yarmouth the survivors of the Sluys action swore a solemn oath to rob and kill any portsman that dared come to their town. In spite of persistent efforts by the Crown to end the feud. the situation was no better half a century later.

In a memorandum prepared by the Cinque Ports in 1303, it was stated that 184 portsmen had been murdered and ships and cargoes worth nearly £13,000 bad been looted by the men of Yarmouth down the years. This is far from a pretty picture, even allowing for the biased nature of the account. One of the worst attacks involved the sinking of a Dover ship at Hartle­pool after the crew of 18 men and two boys had been murdered. The feud lasted, as Miss K. M. E. Murray has pointed out, “until the decay of the ports in the seventeenth century”.

Lawlessness was not, however, the prerogative of the Cinque Ports. In fact, the portsmen were often associated with men from other parts of England. Moreover, piracy was a recognised weapon in naval warfare and might even be regarded as an honourable profession. The portsmen were frequently referred to as “the King’s pirates” and His Majesty regularly claimed a fifth of the booty they captured for himself. That no stigma attached to piratical activities is well illustrated by the famous Winchelsea family of Alard. When he was appointed admiral of the King’s ships from Dover to Cornwall at the end of Edward l’s reign. Gervase Alard continued to rob vessels with impunity, while in 1323 Reginald Alard and the admirals Stephen Alard and Robert Battayle took part in similar escapades. It was infirmity, not misconduct, that caused Robert Battayle to be put ashore to end his days as Mayor of Winchelsea.

By the end of the fourteenth century the days of piracy—at least for the portsmen—had passed. “With the cessation of the easy money obtained by such means,” writes K. M. Clark in the new Rye Museum publication “Many a Bloody Affray”, “it is not wholly surprising to find them casting around for a substitute source, which they found in smuggling”.

“Rye’s Own” November 1968

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