When is a pirate not a pirate? In 16th century London the distinction could mean the difference between being hailed as a hero, or swinging from the gallows at Wapping. In August 1587, Thomas Conodale found himself on the wrong end of this distinction:
30 Awgust Ano 1587: burial
Thomas Conodale beinge A Batchelor He was Borne in Glossester beinge A Sea Faringe man and executed at wappinge For pyracye the xxxth daye of Awgust in ano 1587 betwixt the ower of too and three of the clocke was Buried the Sayde xxxth Daye of awgust in ano 1587
beinge xxviij yeares owlde no parishioner For the minester ijs For the grownd in the common churche yeard xijd For the Second clothe xd For the pitt & knell ijs viijd For the clarkes atendance viijd For the Sextenes attendance iiijd he was exicuted at Waping
P69/BOT2/A/019/MS09234/001 fol 128r
How I wish the High Court of Admiralty records were digitised and available online! These contain all records of prosecutions for piracy and would be very helpful for learning more about Conodale’s circumstances. That his body was buried rather than being publicly displayed on Execution Dock indicates that he was considered a small fish. Notorious pirates were left on the gibbet until three tides had washed over them, and then their remains were often covered in tar (to slow the process of decay) and displayed hanging in chains as a warning to other seafaring men.
If you had a talent for ocean-based looting and violence but did not much fancy being hanged as a criminal, you could always join up with a captain who had been granted a Letter of Marque from the monarch. This document essentially provided a license for “privateering”, or legal piracy, and was in use in England from the 16th to the 19th centuries. As ever, when goods are being appropriated, the distinction between whether it is considered a criminal or legitimate act depends on who is doing the pilfering – and who gets the spoils. In 1587, Sir Francis Drake was England’s most successful privateer, seizing Spanish ships and goods from as far afield as the Caribbean and presenting the booty to Elizabeth I. The following excerpt from the Calendar of State Papers Relating to English Affairs in the Archives of Venice, Volume 8: 1581-1591 accessed from British History Online demonstrates just how lucrative such activities could be:
July 17. Original Despatch, Venetian Archives.
Letters from England, dated the 9th inst., announce the arrival of Drake at Plymouth. After having worked great havoc on the coast of Spain he had seized one large galleon, called the S. Lorenzo, on its way from Calicut with a cargo of spices to the value of a million of gold, and ten other ships with sugar, cotton, and various merchandise on their way from Brazil. In London there were great signs of rejoicing, and the Queen sent two gentlemen to meet Drake and to do him honour. Sugar is so cheap there that what costs five reals here is sold for half a real the pound there.
This is only one example of the riches Drake brought to Elizabeth: amazingly, he eventually seized enough goods to pay off the national debt in its entirety, for which service he was duly knighted and paid handsomely enough to be able to buy Buckland Abbey in Devon. The circumstances of his crew members were considerably less exalted, and the Parish Clerks’ Memoranda books contain many references to sailors returning from Drake’s expeditions in ill health and with little money, ending their lives in lodgings:
5 Iulye Ano 1587
Roger Gillisonn beinge a Sayler & a Stranger whose Dwellinge was in westcaple in Sealand he was Browght from Spayne in Sr Frauncis Dracke his Ships and Beinge Sicke was Lodged at the Howse of EdwardWynard a victulor Dwellinge at the Signe of the Flower de luce beinge in the libertie of east Smithfield wheare he endid his Lyfe and was Buried the vth Daye of Julye in ano 1587
Thomas Conodale and Roger Gillisonn: both minor players in the colourful 16th century saga of piracy. One ended his life “dancing the hempen jig”, the other dying among strangers far from home. Whether deemed criminal or legitimate, a pirate's life was a far cry from our romanticised notions. This would never happen to Johnny Depp…
Many thanks to St Botolph without Aldgate and London Metropolitan Archives for permission to reprint extracts from the Parish Clerks' Memoranda.
The Parish Clerks' Memoranda transcripts were prepared by the Centre for Metropolitan History team as part of their Economic and Social Research Council-funded Life in the Suburbs project (Grant Reference: RES-062-23-1260).