By Manushag N. Powell, Purdue University
The administration of Elizabeth I had a complex problem to navigate when it came to maritime crime. Regional pirates in Cornwall and Devon, many based in Plymouth, attacked vessels indiscriminately, seizing anything they could grasp from Spain, France, Scotland, the Dutch Republic, Denmark, and most anyone else. They were supported by an extensive smuggling network and patronized by powerful residents.
Monarchy’s Failed Attempts to Repress Piracy
It has been said that attempts to repress piracy failed because royal agents feared they would be killed for trying, not by the pirates but by their coastal benefactors like the powerful Killigrew family. These local coastal powers were also not particularly keen on seating their influence to a distant admiralty or to a distant monarch either.
At the same time, Elizabeth’s claims to be a scourge of pirates were a wee bit difficult to support. English monarchs had long used privateers’ commissions, called letters of marque, to profitably harass enemy forces during times of war, which were frequent, and so the economy and admiralty of England were by no means set up to be hostile to goods filched from other people’s vessels.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Real History of Pirates. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Authorizing of Sea Dogs
Henry VIII had established that both friends’ goods in enemy ships and enemies’ goods in friends’ ships were lawful prizes. The wrangling that English piracy caused was largely over who got to determine whether a privateer in commission was valid, which prizes were legal, and who got to keep which cut of them.
The sea dogs were authorized in 1560, during Elizabeth’s reign, to carry anti-Spanish commissions. In fact, this privateering use appears to be the origin of the term sea dog, which did not come to be generally synonymous with an old, experienced sailor until much later. At the time, it began to be applied to the roguish Elizabethan privateers; sea dog was just a colloquial term for seals or for dogfish. The sea dogs were varied, colorful men who could be hard to control at times.
Sir Martin Frobisher
The sea dog Martin Frobisher, who also probably worked as a spy for the English government in between sea rating gigs, garnered such a reputation for piracy that he was repeatedly seized on suspicion of illegal activities. The moment he was released, he inevitably returned to attacking vessels that his paperwork did not cover.
When he was briefly hired as a pirate hunter in 1571, he was shortly reassigned for suspiciously failing to find any pirates, which admittedly, in those days, was something of a feat. Frobisher was tough and hardy, but one biographer characterized him as fearless rather than brave, duplicitous, and almost incapable of financial integrity.
Later in his life, when he accompanied Drake or let a ship against the Spanish Armada or the Flotas de Indias, he seems to have served ably and diligently, but credible rumors that he was also misappropriating funds and belongings of neutral ships persisted.
Frobisher’s example reminds us that the sea dogs, unlike some of the smaller operators, were frustrating to the rule of law and order. They also tended to be ambitious, upwardly mobile men. Frobisher himself was semi-literate, and he never trusted the nobility.
Sir John Hawkins
Sir John Hawkins was a shipbuilder and eventually the treasurer of the Royal Navy. He came from an important, but not noble, seafaring family. His father, Sir William Hawkins, was for a time the Mayor of Plymouth, a pirate-friendly place.
While his deep sea tracks as a merchant put him on the map, Hawkins was also an active privateer against the French and Spanish. He even did a little jail time for his Spanish rating. His sons, William and John, followed him in the pirating habit; however, William Jr spent most of his life as a merchant.
Sir John Hawkins also started out as an enslaving merchant. Because he often ran afoul of various Spanish and Portuguese monopolies, he was constantly at risk of having his cargo seized and condemned, which it sometimes was. This required him to force his trading partners to the table by shooting at them, which he sometimes did, and they not infrequently shot back. Even so, Hawkins generated enormous profits. Elizabeth I granted the commission for his first enslaving voyage and became a shareholder for his second and third ones.
Sir Francis Drake
Hawkins was a genteel man, a fine dresser and liked to sail with musicians. He later became treasurer of the British Navy proving to be an able administrator and a gifted planner.
This skill set served him well until 1595, when he was partnered by Queen Elizabeth with the sea dog, Sir Francis Drake, his erstwhile cousin, foster brother, and mentee who had abandoned him decades earlier when they faced dire odds on the Mexican coastline.
Drake was impulsive, improvisational, and occasionally paranoid. It was a bad combination of personalities. Together, Drake and Hawkins set out to attack Panama failing where Captain Morgan would later succeed. Both men died in the course of their mission. Hawkins was buried at sea, as Drake would be later after he and many of his men succumbed to a bloody flux having been driven from their target by heavy rainfall and a lucky counterattack.
Common Questions about Some Famous Elizabethan Sea Dogs
English monarchs had long used privateers’ commissions, called letters of marque, to profitably harass enemy forces during times of war,
The sea dogs were authorized in 1560, during Elizabeth’s reign, to carry anti-Spanish commissions. The term was used for roguish Elizabethan privateers.
Sir John Hawkins was a shipbuilder and eventually the treasurer of the Royal Navy. He was also an active privateer against the French and Spanish.