An Introduction to Privateering History

Privateer History: A General Overview

What is a Privateer?

Privateers were ships that were privately owned and  commisioned by a government to make reprisals, gain reparation to the crown for specific offenses in time of peace, or to prey upon the enemy in time time of war. In short, a privateer was a private warship. The officers and crew of such a privateer often could keep a large part or all of the money from the captured vessels, depending upon their licence.

The first privateers acted only on a commissioned licence authorizing a particular ship or group to take action against the king's enemies. These early licences were granted to specific ships or groups of individuals to seize the king’s enemies at sea in return for splitting the proceeds. This licence or commision was later recognised under the Law of Nations and is generally known as a "Letter of Marque and Reprisal".

One of the principle clauses of a Letter of Marque is specifically naming the country whose vessels can be legally captured. The Letter of Marque by its terms required privateers to bring captured vessels and their cargoes before admiralty courts of their own or allied countries for condemnation. The rules and customs of prize law applied by the courts decided whether the Letter of Marque was valid and current, and whether the captured vessel or its cargo in fact belonged to the enemy (which was not always easy when flying false flags was common practice), and if so the prize and its cargo were "condemned" - to be sold at auction with the proceeds divided among the privateer's owner and crew. A prize court's formal condemnation was required to transfer title; otherwise the vessel's previous owners might well reclaim her on her next voyage, and seek damages for the confiscated cargo from the crown.

A Privateer was required by the terms of their Letters of Marque to obey the laws of war, honor treaty obligations (avoid attacking neutrals) and in particular treat captives as courteously, kindly and as safely as they could. If they failed to live up to their obligations the Admiralty Courts could and did revoke the Letter of Marque, refuse to award prize money, forfeit bonds, even award tort (personal injury) damages as against the privateer's officers and crew. In fact, a privateer always risked being tried and hung as a pirate.

A Letter of Marque and Reprisal in effect converted a private merchant vessel into a naval auxiliary. A commissioned privateer enjoyed the protection of the laws of war. If captured, the crew was entitled to honorable treatment as prisoners of war, while without the license they were deemed mere pirates "at war with all the world,"  and as such were criminals doomed to be hanged.

However, a Letter of Marque did not completely safeguard a privateer from prosecution even when ships of certain countries were excluded from attacks. When a privateer was captured by a hostile nation he/she was often charged with being a pirate and swiftly executed. Furthermore,  when countries made peace and a privateer failed to get the news in time he could be prosecuted if he continued to attack ships of the now "friendly" nation. Sometimes a privateer was such a long time away from home or the colonies that he only heard news of a peace treatKnight On The Golden Hindey when he returned home from his privateering enterprise. For example, in 1580 when Sir Francis Drake returned from his voyage around the world, he refused to go ashore, unsure if Queen Elizabeth was still in in power. He was afraid he might be tried and hung as a pirate for attacking Spanish shipping. Instead, he sent his men to send word to his wife Mary and the mayor of Portsmouth that he had arrived back in England. They later contacted the Queen, and she later came on board his ship the Golden Hinde and knighted him for his efforts.

In the case of civil war, the legitimacy of the Letter of Marque could be difficult to intrepret, and depending who was the head of state, the privateer risked being tried and hung as a pirate. 

An English court, for instance, refused to recognize the Letters of Marque issued by rebellious Ireland under James II, and hanged eight privateer captains as pirates. Seventy-nine years later during the American Civil War, the Union charged officers and crew of the Confederate privateer Savannah with piracy, calling their Letter of Marque invalid since the Union refused to acknowledge the breakaway Confederacy as a sovereign nation. The case resulted in a hung jury, and after Confederate President Jefferson Davis threatened to retaliate by hanging one Union officer for each executed Confederate privateer, the Union relented and thereafter treated Confederate privateersmen honorably as prisoners of war.


The 'Cinque Ports' - The rise of the merchant navy/privateer:
In the middle-ages, in most kingdoms of the time, ruling monarchs had no "standing fleet" for several reasons: primarily because the cost of maintaining a fleet was expensive, and ships did not last long. Initially, the King's navy was small in size, and the first ships in the fleet belonged to baron/merchant captains or were hired/leased by the King from various knight orders to support the realm. The merchant fleet was used primarily to ferry knights, supplies and pilgrims to the Holy Lands, conduct merchant trade, and protect the realm from attack from foreign invaders.

In the event of war, the king increased the size of the navy through licenses given to barons and merchant traders, and their ships were converted from trade vessels to privately commisioned war vessels (man-o-war) in the service of the King's navy.

In Europe, the roots of privateering licences are generally attributed to Henry III. Although, earlier in 1050, Edward the Confessor had regularised the arrangements by designating five ports, known as the "Cinque Ports", whose obligations were to provide provisions, ships and men when the king needed them; to patrol and control the fisheries in the North Sea and to convey king and court overseas when required. In return these towns received various privileges: freedom from dues and tallies on goods going in and out; the right to keep salvage; the right to search other ships and virtual carte blanche at sea - legalised piracy really.

There were (and still are) also privileges at court during the Coronation and on other state occasions. The original confederation of Cinque Ports comprised of Hastings, Dover, Hythe, Romney and Sandwich. Later, two more ports , Rye and Winchelsea, were added by 1270 and by the end 13th century,  Sandwich reached the top of its importance as the main port in England.

As a result, King Henry III formally recognized the confederation of the Cinque Ports, and passed a proclamation or "letter of patent" which gave total control and freedom to the Governors of the Cinque Ports for maritime trade and defense of the ports. At the time, the wine trade from France to England was very lucrative, as the English wine was often considered inferior, and as a result, large amounts of wine was shipped between France and England.

The wine trade was a focal point for commerce in Winchelsea, and a primary source of income to the barons, the various Knight Orders, such as the Knight Templars, and the privateers. One prominant family in Whincelsea that particularly stands out are "The Alards", both numerically and in terms of their wealth and local importance. Sometimes described as an ancient Saxon family (on the dubious assumption the surname derives from Aethelwald) with branches, by the thirteenth century, in Sussex and Kent, it is hard to know if the many men with this surname – sometimes rendered as Athelard or Adelard – were necessarily kin or simply descended from different men with the Christian name of Alard (which was not uncommon in Flanders and parts of France).

However, the family appears to have been prominent in Winchelsea for some time. James, son of Alard, is evidenced holding property in the vicinity in 1196.

In 1225 Winchelsea's William son of Alard, twice received royal letters of protection in the context of planned sea voyages,  and one of them to accompany a force led to Gascony by the king's brother. In 1226, one of the first examples of the Letter Of Marque was given to Roger Alard, commander of the fleet from the Henry III, the king  of England, for the purpose of trading wine in Galscony. The letter patent allowed them free passage, protection and the rights to commandeer supplies and services  as they deemed necessary in France without fear of legal retribution:

"De protectione magne navis et galiantm cuntium cum ca in Wasconiam. Rex magistris galiarum de Baiona, salutem. Sciatis nos sus cepisse in protectionem et defensioneni nostram navem Rogeri Alard de Bristoll, que vocatur Galopine, in eundo versus Wasconiam pro vinis et rebus et sale et mercandisis emendis, et inde versus Angliam redeundo cum eisdem vinis et rebus et sale et mercandisis. Et ideo vobis mandamus quod illis qui predictam navem ducunt in eundo versus partes predictas pro vinis etc. etc versus Angliam per vos transitum faciendo, nullum faciatis etc. In cujus etc. duraturas usquein unum annum a die Sancti Johannis Baptiste anno etc. x. Test eme ipso, apud Wintoniam, xix die Junii, anno eodem, coram justiciario. Eodem modo scribitur magistris galiarum de Baiona pro eodem Rogero Alard de nave que vocatur Alarde, usque ad eundena terminum.Teste ut supra. Eodem modo scribitur eisdem magistris pro eodem Rogero de nave que vocatur la Patrike, usque ad eundera terminum. Teste ut supra, coram justiciario. Eodem modo scribitur magistris magne navis et navis que vocatur la Cardinale et omnibus ballivis et fidelibus etc. de predictis tribus navibus, videlicet, Galopine, Alarde, et Patcrike, in eundo etc. ut supra, et usque ad predicturn terminum. Teste ut supra, coram justiciario."

[Henry III, C.Rolls: vol 2, p.41]

A rough english translation of the document:

"Concerning the protection of the great ship in South East France [Bayonne] sailing by way of Wasconiam [Bordeaux/Glascony]

Greetings to the King's Pilots [Ship Masters] in the South-East of France [Bayonne].

Know that we order [comandeer/capture] your services in accordance with our legal rights for the protection and safety our ship named The Gallopine, commanded by Rogeri Alard of Bristoll sailing toward the direction of Wasconiam [Bordeaux/Glascony] in order to trade wine and goods and salt; and thenceforce from that place together sailing toward the direction of England [eastern England] returning on each occasion together under the command of the very same also bringing wine and goods and salt to both buy and sell.

And for that reason, by trespassing against you the aformentioned parties commanded by the previously named, sailing to regions previously mentioned for wine etc. to England [eastern England] no one commits a crime etc. in accordance with the law. In whereof etc. continuously for a period of up to one year from the tenth anniversary of the day of the festival of the blessed Saint John the Baptist etc.

Under witness I write this rule[letter] in person at the house of Withonian on the 19th Day of June in the same year witnessed before the Judge.

Presently writ this very same rule [letter] to the ship pilots [masters] of south-east France [Bayonne], concerning this matter in Baiona [Bayonne] on behalf of Rogero Alard of the ship named Alarde the same rights and privledges previously mentioned witnessed above.

Presently writ this very same rule [letter] to the ship pilots [masters] on behalf of Rogero of the ship named The Patrike the same rights and privledges previously mentioned witnessed above and by the judge.

Presently writ this very same rule[letter] to the ship pilots [masters] of the great ship called Le Cardinale and to all fathiful and devoted bailiffs etc. in accordance with the aforementioned three ships namely The Galopine, Alarde and The Patrike in accordance with sailing etc. to the above area witnessed above and by the judge."

These ships were large, and documents indicated that they were used more for the transport, than for warfare. One of the ships, the Le Cardinale, was captured from the Portuguese apparently for the breech of a blockade. It is expressedly described in the above document as one of the King's great galleys or ships. Another ship often referred as a great galley, is the Queen. While these ships belonged to the King, they were often "rented" or lent rather than layed up in "ordinary".

In 1225, it is recorded that one templar, "Friar Thomas of the Temple, obtained letters of safe conduct, [a letter of patent] to take the King's ship the Cardinale wherever so he should be directed; and a similar authority was given to him to bring the King's great ship from Bordeaux with wine."

[Sir Nicholas H, Nicholas, CMG. A History of the Royal Navy from the Earliest Times to the Wars of The French Revolution, London: 1847 p.222]

Often, the cinque ports mercantile/privateer activites crossed the line into what some would consider piracy. However, the barons and privateers were generally honorable men, who rarely skirted outside the law, instead they used the legal system to their advantage. Originally armed with Letters Of Marque, these "merchant traders" engaged in a type of privateering, for the purpose of trading under licence from the King, altough it does appear that sometimes they crossed the line completely, as this petition describing the actions of Stephen Alard, the Admiral of the Cinque Ports in 1235 states:

"Mandate to the barons of the Cinque Ports, on complaint before the king by Richard son of Bandolf, Ralph de Mesnyl, man of William Wymund the provost of Barbene, Barnabas son of Richard son of Randolf and Philip Bulemer of Barbene, that their ships in passing with wines and other victual by the port of Mulet on the coast of Brittany, weretaken by Hamo de Crevequer, John his brother, William Beaufiz, Stephen Alard, Henry Alard, John Alard, Nicholas de la Carette, Richard Wymund, Henry Jacob', and all their men in them having been violently thrown out, the ships were kept by them, notwithstanding the king's letters of safe-conduct which some of them had and shewed, and which these men snatched out of their hands and kept; to restore to them the said ships, the wines, goods and merchandise seized, letters of Ralph de Mesnil, obtained from him by their violence, whereby he promised them 40 pounds Tournois for the delivery of a ship and goods of William Wymund, his lord, and the letters of safe-conduct whether of men of the king's power or others, and not to do or suffer any further damage or injury to be done to them.

[Henry III, 1235, C. Rolls, vol. 3, p. 99]

It should also be mentioned, that unlike in the later years of the 18th century, and perhaps similar as it is viewed by Hollywood today, a "pirate" or rover was viewed as more of a folk hero, a "robin-hood" of these seas.; a somewhat noble "swashbuckler" taking from the rich and giving to the poor. The sea rover, generally had the bulk of the people's sympathy, and "provided that he was satisfied with taking merchandise only -- was thought to be but little the worse of those that had no wealth to lose; it was a fundamental idea of democracy, old and as inherent as wealth and poverty: 'if you have nothing, take something from those who have plenty'"

[Sir Nicholas H, Nicholas, CMG. A History of the Royal Navy from the Earliest Times to the Wars of The French Revolution, London: 1847]

The Privateers were also notorious for  supporting the monarchy, but at times rebelled or resisted attempts by the various heads of states to control them, and could side with a particular interest group or a rebellion during a civil war against the state.

This was especially true when the actions of the kingdom interefered with their trade or interests and/or a King acted in what the barons and privateers judged to be an "unjustly" or corrupt manner. Yet despite actions which could be conveyed as piracy, because of the liberties given to the ports - the King often pardoned or dimissed these activities because of the services that the merchant navy provided. The King was often careful to preserve their autonomy, as long as they are protecting the kingdom from enemies, and the ships are turned over in good order when requested.

An interesting example of this is Reginald Alard Senior, who was one of the Winchelsea captains commissioned in 1267 to patrol the English Channel in on the lookout for the piratic squadron of Henry le Pessuner, one the king's enemies, and distinguished himself during Edward I's conquest of Wales.

Either Reginald Senior or Reginald Junior (no distinction being made in the record, nor can we be certain of the precise relationship between the two men) was given a royal safe-conduct in 1285 to go on a trading voyage in his ship called La Vache. Yet,  this same Reginald Alard, who, with fellow Winchelsea man William de Bourne, was arrested for some unspecified offence by the seneschal of Ponthieu;  but they managed to escape from prison, obliging the king to pay a large sum to compensate and smooth over the matter (although the king pardoned them in 1289).

Ironically, his relative, Gervase Alard  was apparently in better favour with King Edward, as he awarded a particularly distinguished title as the first naval admiral of England.