By Manushag N. Powell, Purdue University
Crew members on any given pirate ship were almost always men, including captains and admirals. However, sometimes, they had to answer to women on the land. Their wives were the women who would not only work with them as merchants or fences, some of them actually commanded pirates. They were the pirate queens in the sense that men who held sway over fleets of pirates are called pirate kings.
Stepping back in time away, there are several legends about Viking noblewomen and seafaring shield-maidens. On the English side of things in the age of the Vikings, we have examples with strong archival sources backing it up.
Alfred the Great, king of Wessex and later the self-proclaimed king of the English, had a daughter Aethelflaed, who was later a shield-maiden. When her husband died in 911, she ruled as Lady of the Mercians, as a sole female legend.
She pursued the conquest of the Danelaw, the part of England that had been colonized by Danish armies in the late 9th century. She erected a system of forts to act as bases along riverways. Unusually for a queen, she may have led her armies into the field as many as three times. At the very least, she directed them independently.
Was Aethelflaed a Seafaring Viking?
Even though there aren’t many details about Aethelflaed, the 12th century writer Henry of Huntingdon called her “more illustrious than Caesar, Great in Marshall fame, a man in valor, woman, though in the name.”
Because her accomplishments involved protecting waterways like the River Severn from Viking incursions, and one of her victories was against a Viking fleet in the Bristol Channel, Aethelflaed’s name sometimes appears on the list of infamous seafaring women.
The thinking seems to be that she fought Vikings, so she must have been a rover herself, but she was not a pirate. She was not even particularly seafaring. Mercia is inland, and in any case, the Vikings she dealt with were fewer raiders and more committed colonialists. Aethelflaed’s story is proof that warrior women are real.
‘Pirate Queen’ Grainne Ni Mhaille
Another warrior woman, with at least three popular histories and one comic book, is Grainne Ni Mhaille, also called Grace O’Malley, that features the words ‘pirate queen’ in the very title. One might, therefore, be excused for thinking Grainne, the “pirate queen of Connacht” who was Queen Elizabeth I’s contemporary, and met her at least once, is the real deal. Maybe there were all pirate queens in the 16th century.
Like Aethelflaed, Grainne is an example of a so-called pirate queen who would perhaps be better understood as a powerful noblewoman whose position in society required military action. A chieftain of the Galway region of Ireland, Grainne resisted successfully, and legitimately, the incursions of English power into Ireland while also consolidating her own.
‘A Most Famous Feminine Sea Captain’
She commanded fast coastal rating ships and the men who managed them and could offer them in the service of others in order to build alliances. On the other hand, she was imprisoned in Limerick, and then Dublin Castle for a couple of years on suspicion of inciting Irish rebellion.
She was very unusual and must have been brave and charismatic, but her political power did not compare to Elizabeth’s. So, maybe not a queen in the same sense, but she was in charge of an untold number of piratical raids. Sir Henry Sidney described her as, “A most famous feminine sea captain”. He also said she was “a terror to all merchantmen who sailed in her direction”.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Real History of Pirates. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Archival Opinions on Grainne
This may be hyperbole from a hostile administration. John Appleby, who studies women in piracy, estimates her fleet was no more than 20 boats and probably fewer than that.
When she was widowed in 1583, she looked after her people “by sea and land”, which almost certainly means she did some sea rating to support them. Coastal rating as a supplement to sometimes scarce resources was common in 16th-century Irish culture.
So, while she was not an especially powerful Irish leader, she set her family on the path to becoming major landowners, and she made an impression on English officials. Most of what we know about her comes from English records, perhaps in part because of the resonance between the English queen and the novel Irish clan leader.
Grainne in Folklore
She later became enshrined in Irish folklore as Granuaile, and the stories told about her in songs, and poems are wonderful; that she cut off her hair to force her father to take her with him to sea, that she overran a castle and vengeance for the murder of her lover, a handsome sailor she found shipwrecked, that she refused to bow before Elizabeth when they met and boldly wore a dagger into the court, that when Elizabeth offered her a handkerchief to blow her nose, she used it and then tossed it into the fire, explaining that soiled handkerchiefs were a violation of Gaelic standards of cleanliness.
Her son was born at sea, and as she lay recovering from the birth, they were attacked by Algerian corsairs. The captain of her ship begged her to come on deck and rally the men, which she did, wrapped only in a sheet, firing a musket and highly peeved at everyone for dragging her out of bed postpartum.
Famous in a Man’s World
But the basis for such stories is tradition rather than archive, much of it appearing well after Gráinne had passed away. She seems to have had a revival of fame in the 19th century in particular. If anything though, her legend is only gaining steam. She was the subject of a 2007 Broadway musical called The Pirate Queen.
Both the women cannot be accurately described as pirate queens. Indeed, the phenomenon doesn’t really exist. But they were important individuals who amassed power and wielded it successfully to influence events, and profit handsomely. That they did so in what was overwhelmingly a man’s world makes them all the more extraordinary.
Common Questions about Viking Women as Pirate Queens
Aethelflaed was the daughter of Alfred the Great, king of Wessex. She was a Viking noblewoman and seafaring shield-maiden.
Grainne is an example of a so-called pirate queen who was a chieftain of the Galway region of Ireland.
The phenomenon ‘pirate queen‘ doesn’t really exist. But both Grainne and Aethelflaed were important individuals who amassed power and wielded it successfully to influence events, and profit handsomely.