Lincolnshire’s First Pirates by Jim Snee

In November 2019, I was asked to be a guest on the Jeremy Vine show to discuss the recently returned Tealby Cannon. I was particularly interested in the Cannon as it is an unusual item to find inland. As an 18th Century Armstrong pattern naval cannon it was something that you would more commonly expect at a coastal place like Skegness or Grimsby. Cannons of such small size were often referred to as “pirate cannons” as they were often used to equip private vessels such as merchants, privateers and pirates.

Now, we are all familiar with pirates in the Caribbean, numerous Hollywood movies have left us well acquainted with them and their attire, but we are less well acquainted with the pirates of Lincolnshire. Returning to the Tealby Cannon, these would have been in the hands of privateers (licenced pirates) or Sea Fencibles. These were fishermen who were recruited to defend the coast and the coastal traffic from French raiders (Chasse Maree). These were hardy men dressed in blue, armed with pikes and muskets and sailing small local craft such as sloops and fishing boats. There are accounts of Sea Fencibles taking French ships as prizes, as well as losses during the fighting. It seems hard to believe but at the time Jane Austen was writing her novels of balls and regiments in training and leisure, the people of coastal Lincolnshire were actively engaged with fighting the enemy. This battle for the narrow seas seems to have been almost forgotten, although series like Poldark do allude to it and provide a sense of what these less fashionable pirates were wearing.

The golden age of Piracy in the Caribbean was the mid 18th Century. This seems to have been a quiet period for Lincolnshire’s coast and its people. Perhaps the experience of Lord Willoughby of Parham a century earlier had served as a cautionary tale. Lord Willoughby had been a Parliamentarian General during the English Civil War but was a bitter opponent of Cromwell. As Cromwell rose to power, Lord Willoughby (like several other notable Lincolnshire Parliamentarians) began to drift from the cause, before finally changing sides. Fleeing to join the Royalists he was appointed first Vice Admiral in the (now essentially piratical) Royalist fleet and later Governor of Barbados. It might be felt that with half the world between him and his enemies, that was the end of the story. However, Cromwell, needing money from trade, sent a fleet to retake Barbados and after blockade and battle, Lord Willoughby decided it was better to make peace than to resist further. Sadly, Lord Willoughby doesn’t get a Hollywood movie, his story somewhat eclipsed by the exploits of Captain Henry Morgan. That said, The Black Swan and Morgan the pirate provide a romanticised glimpse into the time. However, I can’t imagine Lord Willoughby wearing a leather jerkin (waistcoat) accessorized by a brace of pistols.

During the Civil War itself there are no clear examples of piracy, but the Royalists did use forts on either side of the Trent to control the river trade. Lincolnshire can also claim to have seen naval landings by Parliaments forces, one at Crowland and the other at Burton Stather. But that, as they say, is another story.

The 16th Century and the reign of Elizabeth I was, according to Hollywood at least, a pretty good time for piracy. For further evidence I suggest watching Seven Seas to Callais, and the Sea Hawk (a film so good that my father once spent the entire day in Gainsborough cinema watching it over and over again). For Lincolnshire, however, piracy appears to be something of a problem with Boston reporting that “The deeps” (in the wash) were infested. There are also reports of pirated goods being received in Boston and Grimsby. At this time we also have our own, named, pirate captain. Captain Johnson of Boston is accused of loading his ship with weapons and raiding fishing boats and merchants whilst he and his crew wore masks to conceal their identity (although not very well). This last snippet of information puts me in mind of the epic film, The Princess Bride.

Leaving the “Dread Pirate Johnson” behind, we next come to the Hanseatic war (1469 – 74) and the end of the House of Hansa in Lincolnshire. This was essentially a trade war and violence tended to be between rival trading ships. The most grievious crime committed in Lincolnshire is in Boston where a Hanseatic trader was stabbed and killed. Films and dramas about that era seem to focus more on the Wars of the Roses, perhaps believing that the struggle for the throne of England was more important than a trade dispute across the North Sea. If you want to imagine what these warring merchants looked like, Lawrence Olivier’s Richard III is as good a film reference as any.

During the medieval period, piracy waxed and waned with changes to the Lincolnshire coast. In fact, between about 1230 and 1350 Lincolnshire had its own pirate island. Ravenserodd, as it was called, was a sandy island cast up by the waves in the early 13th Century on the northeast coast of Lincolnshire. Shortly afterwards it was settled by fishermen, traders and (according to the merchants of Grimsby) pirates. For a period of approximately 100 years it competed with Grimsby for fish and trade and despite the complains of the mainland port was recognised and granted charters by the kings of England. However, what the sea gives, it often take away and in the mid 14th Century the island was washed away, some saying that it was a judgement on the wickedness of its people. These medieval pirates, if they were pirates, would have had no cannon on their open trading ships (Cogs) but would have had to fight with swashing swords and small round shields known as bucklers. Yes, these (and others of the time) were the original swash bucklers. It was probably more exciting than fishing

On the subject of Viking piracy, Hollywood has a lot to say and some would say a lot to answer for. For the purposes of this article it is enough to say that Lincolnshire was subject to settlement by several generations of Scandinavian and Germanic peoples who were well known for, and often quite proud of, their raiding exploits. Whilst horned helmets are now something of a historical anathema, The Vikings does give a reasonable view of Viking settlement and sailing. The clothing isn’t bad, but the customs should be taken with a pinch of salt.

Rome had problems with pirates, but the Roman writers tend to focus on the Mediterranean rather than the channel or the north sea. Germanic raiders were probably in operation long before the Romans officially withdrew from the British Isles in 410 AD. Imagine tall blond warrior types in large rowing boats and you are not far wrong, they were certainly a far cry from the unfortunate pirates of the Astrix the Gaul books.

For the many millennia of prehistory, it becomes difficult to find pirates and piracy. But we do know that there were warriors and boats aplenty in Lincolnshire, with many weapons and both plank built and dugout canoes found in the county. In fact raiding may be the reason why so many functional boats were deliberately sunk – as this is a way of protecting them from both winter frosts and passing marauders. Just across the Humber in Roos Carr, a miniature boat and warrior figures were found which gives a clear indication that the boatloads of warriors shown in Scandinavian rock art were pretty wide spread. Ultimately, it is here in prehistory with Lincolnshire’s first boats that we will find our first pirates. We can’t be sure what he looked like, but using the evidence of clothing found throughout Europe, the weapons and shields found in Lincolnshire and the Roos Carr figures we can speculate. I imagine him as clothed in hide leggings and tunic, with a reed cape to protect him from the elements. He stands at the fore of his dugout canoe, wind blowing in his hair, a round shield of wood or leather gleaming in the sun and an axe of stone or bronze by his side.

I wonder if, someday, someone will make a film about him.