top of page

The Contradiction that is Cornwall.

The hand of England grasping out into the Atlantic ocean is better known as Cornwall, a county synonymous with long golden coastlines, remote coves and crimes of the high seas. Cornwall’s name, possibly, means horned foreigners. Quite why they should be foreign is anyone’s guess, given most were Celts and as such the original inhabitants of England’s soggy, but kelly lands.

Driven to the extremities by subsequent invading armies, the abundance of sea in this region makes it rare for any native to be depicted as an occupational landlubber - a word I find unsightly, possibly even unnecessarily derogatory. I think the word might better be supplanted by…

Cornwall sits on the cusp of the European continent, strategically placed to lever its avaricious arm towards the sea-faring Spanish ships returning from exploits in the West Indies which they had begun to colonise in the sixteenth century. From these times, legends emerged of sea-dogs, buccaneers and privateers, heroes or villains who pilfered and pillaged homeward-bound Spaniards steeped with spoliation from their travails in the South Americas.

Popular allegories set within the aeon of piracy would assert that women sea-bitches would be the ruination of male morality, instigators of mutiny and harbingers of oceanic catastrophe. Instead, sea-dogs would have to make do by melding the ship’s masthead into a buxom and half-naked woman to augur good luck and fair sailing.

It is from such mythos that the Cornish piratical stereotype sank deep into the English psyche, lingering long after the epoch has dissolved. Naturally, women from such times were almost always Greenbottoms for the high seas were considered no place for those denoted as the ‘fairer sex’. Just like everywhere else then. Our blandness in history means women’s stories simply…

Unless, of course, one considers sea-faring a family business, which the esteemed leader of the country, and royal commander of the realm, certainly would have in the 1500s. It was this century that saw England herald its first female regnant queen. Alas, it is somewhat unfortunate that neither the historians of today, nor the noble folk of times long gone, readily agree upon who lays claim to the title “First Queen of England”.

Naturally, primogeniture preferred a child son over an adult daughter as much as it required conjugal offspring over misbegotten conception. Thus, the Protestant King, Edward VI, Jane Seyour’s first and only born child, and Henry’s first legitimate son from three marriages, acceded the throne in 1547.

Edward VI was just aged nine, seventeen years younger than his half-sister Mary, the Catholic half-Spanish daughter of the divorced Catherine of Aragon, and four years younger than his half-sister from yet another mother, Elizabeth.

Elizabeth was the Protestant daughter of the beheaded second wife, the accused-adulteress Anne Boleyn. Conflictingly, even back then the thirteen year old’s constitutional legitimacy was deemed tendentious in religious and constitutional circles not only for the sins of the alleged adulteress mother but also for the bigamous remarriage of her father.

Thus, the death of the fifteen-year-old Edward VI created a complicated lineage headache for all and sundry, worsened by a dearth of potential male heirs from whom the teenaged Edward could nominate to accede to his throne. It does leave one to ponder upon what he saw in the similarly-aged Lady Jane Grey, Protestant niece of Henry VIII?

Lady Jane Grey lasted a mere nine days, which proved inadequate time for the courtiers to organise a coronation, leaving the door sufficiently ajar for Mary I to sweep in in 1547 and grab the diadem.

Those especially opposed to second-coming Queen's ascension were compelled to acquiesce by the striking off of their heads. Off too was lopped the noggin of Lady Jane Grey.

With that the hastily-crowned Mary managed to belt and brace herself onto the throne. Now asset-riven with her recently-acquired appealing qualities, Mary set about obtaining a husband, ostensibly for the purposes of procreation and lineage protection. On the downside, she was at the advanced maternal age of thirty-seven, and had already had quite a history of paramour behind her. She had been first rejected for marriage aged two by the Dauphin of France and again aged six by Charles V of Spain. Even by lowering her standards from heads of state to the kith and kin of heads of state, her forays into the dating world came to no avail, and eventually the well ran dry.

However, now the overseer of vast lands, who knows how she felt when twenty-six year old Felipe II of Spain, and son of her former fiancé Charles V, was press ganged into saying “I do.” The prenuptial negotiations were a conflation of French, Spanish, English and Latin, until ultimately, despite the complexities, it was adjudged that Felippe would become the sole ruling monarch on the birth of a live child. In the interim Felipe II was able to act on his wife’s behalf jure uxoris, or to put it more simply - be England’s co-ruler. And so the religious direction of England changed winds. Partly because, as a female, Mary was banned from Parliament, but also because she avowed that a wife is best when obedient to her husband, but mostly because she was born and raised Catholic in defiance of Henry VIII, this period saw England restored to Catholicism.

Without further ado, England’s barons of the scaffolding world rubbed their hands in glee as our Monarchs’ decreed their subjects reassess their own religious ideologies.

School history taught me that five years of bloodshed was unleashed across the greenbelt, but with more women being permitted into academia, scholars appraise that her reign resulted in the death of just two hundred and eighty Protestants and the birth of a cocktail.

By way of comparison, her immediate ancestors are said to have condemned to death in excess of five thousand (Edward VI) and fifty-seventeen thousand (Henry VIII) in the pursuit of religious supremacy. Yet, she goes down in the annals of history for being “Bloody Mary”.

Within a half-decade of her taking the throne, Mary perished from ovarian cancer or cysts or other belly-swelling phenomena that wasn’t a pregnancy. Phillip II, who was mostly absent anyway, returned to Spain permanently to be the master of a rapidly expanding empire in the West Indies and beyond.

And so it came to pass, in 1558, the feisty Queen Elizabeth swanned in to claim the hot seat for herself. Without much further ado, she rapidly arranged for the hanging and burning of another thousand men of the cloth, upending England once again as she sought to re-convert the lands to Protestantism. That underway, she set to stoking the fires of piracy.

As Queen, Elizabeth Regina is said to have little patience for her all-male parliament seeing them as simply as controllers of her purse strings. In her mind’s eye, the politicians’ only purpose was to furnish her with financial sway. Instead, they deigned to withhold their treasuries by way of attaining more power.

Sixteenth century England held that a woman had no independent legal existence once she entered upon marriage, but until she submitted herself to the religious ceremony, a woman could inherit, command and determine matters for herself. England at this time also held that women were weak and feeble, and required a man to do her thinking.

With a woman in charge, the upstanding Members of Parliament and her Privy Councillors fought for more powers over foreign and national policy, thwarting and shunning her whims and mandates. To temper their enthusiasm, she frequently prorogued her parliament. Seemingly, this was the Elizabethan equivalent edict of “Go and sit on the naughty step, and think about what you have done.”

Her hand-picked noblemen of the Privy Council were her preferred machinations for state matters, rather than the landowning-elite politicians of her times. Those in favour of her demands obtained power through promotions and royal privileges. Besides, the men of parliament were thought to be mostly obsessing over whom she should wed to best secure her Tudor line. She shut up the non-stop “you don’t want to be left on the shelf” chatter by decreeing herself…

Her attention soon turned to her former brother-in-law’s shenanigans. The Spaniards had detected lands in the west, then annexed and pillaged them, and the seas were rich with merchandise and profits, slavery and stolen goods. All the while, Cornwall lie with its grasping hand outstretched, waiting.

As ultimate ruler, Queen Elizabeth I sought to sunder the privateers from the pirates. The former were legal purloiners of loot from stranded or wayward ships, tasked by royal commission to generate taxes for Her Majesty, enabling her to bypass the parliamentarians’ tight hands. The latter were mere tax-dodgers determined to deprive the state of fiscal funds. Needless to say, both groups were in the business of ransacking ships and introduced themselves with an intent to cause grievous bodily harm.

Elsewhere, or rather in Cornwall, the west side of another story was starting to evolve. The five wives of John Killigrew, albeit there may only have been four, but possibly six, are the device that contemporary historians used to tell the convoluted tale of Cornish buccaneering. All five-ish women married a man called John, and with the exception of the last John, at least four of the parents deigned to call their sons and heirs, John. John, all five or so of them, were ennobled folk, and thus all the subsequent wives were entitled “Lady Killigrew”.

And from then all, it all gets terribly confusing. So grab a coffee and…

…whilst I endeavour to explain the sorry saga of two Janes, a Mary and an Elizabeth.

John Killigrew married Lady Jane Petit and died just a few years before Queen Mary I was born. Some claim he died without heirs but others say he had a daughter called Elizabeth, who also married a John, this one of Godolphin. From here, somehow the Killigrew estate, incidentally called “Arwennock” or “Arwenack”, was passed on to John of Godolphin’s brother, thankfully called Thomas, who, much to my relief, called his son Alexander. Alas, Alexander died childless, so the estate then passed on to his second cousin, called John Killigrew. He married Elizabeth Mary Trewinnard, some would say in 1520, when she was two, but more likely in 1532 when she was eighteen. They named her firstborn male “John”.

When not being active members of nobility, the male Killigrews were occupied as commanders of ships, politicians, justices of the peace, magistrates and equerries to royalty, often holding several esteemed positions concurrently. All of them were to be addressed as “Lord”, so by the laws of feme covert all the wives became Lady Kelligrew, and henceforth the property of their husbands, freed of legal entity and responsibility.

Let the confusion of coverture commence…

Elizabeth’s John Killigrew, already part of the Cornish gentry, owned the land on which Henry VIII thought it best to build the fortification ‘Pendennis Castle’. Bringing with it a lucrative rental income, Pendennis Castle was, by royal charter, also tasked with collecting any shipping tariffs. From then on, Lord John Killigrew, possibly the Third, became Capt John Killigrew of Pendennis, the First.

Strategically situated on the west side of Carrick Roads, roads which are, in fact, a many tentacled-estuary, the area surrounding Pendennis Castle, provides safe anchorage for passing ships beaten back by heavy weather.

Under John Killigrew’s control, Falmouth became a commercial landing for those waiting to offload their wares, but its strategic location on the cusp of Europe ensured it was also a watery venus-fly trap for John Killigrew’s piracy. Wealth prevailed upon the Killigrews, so under the direction of the first captain of Pendennis, Lady Killigrew became Lady of the near-completed Arwenack Manor, on its way to becoming Cornwall’s most expensive and grand stately home. It was an untimely inconvenience for Edward VI to expire when he did as new relgiious winds roared in for the Killigrew’s had been fervently in favour of Protestantism.

The actual Queen of England, Mary I, was, unsurprisingly, extremely Elizabeth-adverse.

Preferring to imprison those ill-disposed to a Catholic Queen, Elizabeth Killigrew’s husband's protection of the Protestants’ passages to seek respite in France angered his monarch greatly.

Furthermore, John's tendency to acquire and retain treasures and troves not meant for him availed him to his new Queen not one jot either. For a while, John Killigrew, and his erstwhile son, John Killigrew, rested up at Her Majesty’s Pleasure in separate cells awaiting their fate.

Oddly he was released three weeks later having never even sniffed the noose. Incidentally, there was a plethora of justices of the peace amongst the Killigrew clansmen.

John Killigrew departed this life of causes naturalle just before the completion of Arwenack Manor. His son, John Killigrew was the named beneficiary. Thankfully, it held enough rooms that Lady Killigrew the widow could remain unencumbered by her widowhood, and continue to support the family's enterprises.

It is said that Elizabeth was a shrewd and astute businesswoman. Not unlike her namesake for, by now, England and its seas was too ruled by the other Elizabeth.

Her son John went on to marry Mary Wolveston, and subject to the laws of aristocracy, she too became Lady Killigrew. Given both were industrious and obedient wives, they are sometimes concluded to be one and the same woman by historians.

Mary’s John Killigrew, was a feckless fellow, earning and spending vast fortunes. At least once he took a sojourn in a debtor’s prison. When not being a spendthrift, Lord Killigrew was also a rarely-attending Member of Parliament, a diplomat, an active naval serviceman, a local magistrate, and of course, havener, or rather harbour master, at Falmouth. Clearly he was the epitome of respectable man when not plundering passing ships or administrating levies to avert the eyes of the officials and customs men chasing revenue for their Queen. In his spare time, he enjoyed partaking in a little bit of cattle rustling.

Most overlooked, of course, was the labour of the wives. Their roles seemed mostly to be confined to bearing new Johns without anaesthetic and secreting their husband’s ill-gotten gains.

Perhaps this way, the wives could ensure that the family, who were forever teetering on the brink of ruin, kept the wolves from the door from the lavish home they could ill-afford. Yet, history would have it that both wives relished their role as buriers of commandeered goods.

Old Lady Killigrew died in 1583, not but before the birth of her grandson, John. The Younger Lady Killigrew, Mary, mother of John, was quite the busy woman given her husband was largely absent on occupied by distant expeditions on behalf of Queen Elizabeth. With no mother-in-law to usurp, this daughter of a famous Suffolk Pirate, took command of the home and its watery hunting grounds.

One dark and stormy night, the Marie of San Sebastian sought refuge in the harbour from the Atlantic's fierce winds. Awaiting favourable weather in which to depart to Spain, the owners of the ship, were invited to benefit from the sumptuous hospitality of the Arwenack Manor.

Whilst they bloated their bellies, Mary ordered her men to raid their anchored ship. Threatening to throw overboard any who opposed them in the search for cargo of value. A sailor was murdered by whose hand we do not know. And by golly, the ship vanished. Naturally, this was reported to the local law-makers, most of whom were Justices of the Killigrew Peace.

It is unlikely, as host, that Mary would have gone aboard as some historians would attest in their quest to prove that ‘women can be pirates too’. Women and boats were already denounced as a perilous combination.

Nonetheless, Mary was a fence. And as a fence, and married woman with no legal rights of her own. Spain complained and subsequently she was brought to trial and sentenced to death, along with two men under her employ. Again, it seems odd that just two men were able to take hostage an entire crew but that’s history for you.

The two men were summarily executed although Mary’s son, John, secured her release from prison just eighteen months later complete with a pardon from Queen Elizabeth, a woman they had served most devoutly. Her freedom allowed her to play Grandma to her grandson, John.

This particular John continued the family legacy of wanton profligacy, and quiet piracy, plummeting the household finances to near obliteration on many occasions. The Debtors’ Prison was a seasonal second home. John married a girl called Jane: she was thought to be all of twelve years old. No doubt she came with a handsome dowry, now doubt it went astray too.

Jane was largely left to amuse herself, and amuse herself she was rumoured to do. When the Lord of the Manor discovered an affair, she was deemed a prostitute and divorce proceedings instigated. One day she upped and left Arwenack on horseback, taking nothing by way of value with her.

His legacy in history saw him described as "a good and sober man".

The women of Killigrew clan have since gone on to be known as Cornwall’s most notorious female pirates. In fact, in all likelihood none would have set foot aboard a ship, let alone played with a cutlass. But that's also history for you too.

8 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page