The Notorious Women of the Killigrew Family

The Killigrew family are said to have been the original builders and benefactors of Falmouth. They were the first to realise and exploit it’s potential as a harbour and a centre for trade. With their deep connections to the monarchy from the time of the reign of Henry III in the 13th century they were able to wield considerable power in Cornwall and beyond. The men of this distinguished Cornish lineage were knights, politicians, military commanders, magistrates and business men but they were also schemers, rogues and pirates.

“The Killigrews took their rise from trade at Penryn, swam upwards with the growth of Falmouth, until they came into haven – and a very merry time they made of it – at the court of Charles I and Charles II”

A.L. Rowse, Tudor Cornwall, 1941

The Killigrews developed a rather dubious reputation especially in the 16th and 17th centuries. They became renowned for buccaneering and a fondness for wrecking any valuable ships that visited the shores close to their Arwenack estate. But behind every bad, mad or proud man in the Killigrew family, well, there was a far more interesting woman.

Killigrew
The Killigrew Monument

Meeting the Lady Killigrews

“In the Killigrew family the wives of all three Sir John Killigrews were involved in their husband’s business activities”

Richard Peirce, Pirates of Devon & Cornwall, 2010

Uncovering the true story of these women is much trickier than you would expect for such a well-known family. Of course women’s roles in history are often neglected or even completely forgotten, especially when they are in the shadow of an infamous husband. But the confusion here, which has led to all of the ladies we are going to discuss to being regularly confused with each other by numerous historians, is probably down to two factors.

Firstly, they were all commonly referred to as just ‘Lady Killigrew’ in documents, with no first name to help us distinguish one from the other. And secondly, they all married men called John. For at least four generations the eldest son or heir was John Killigrew.

(To help distinguish between them all we will call them John I, John II and so on . . .)

View of Falmouth from Pendennis Headland, Thomas Allom, Cornwall Illustrated, 1831

The Killigrew family were originally from St Erme, near Truro but arrived in Falmouth appropriately because of a woman. The Arwenack estate, which covered a large swath of the ground on which Falmouth town, Pendennis Castle and the docks now stand, came into their possession when Jane Arwenack, the last in her line, married Simon Killigrew in the 14th century. From that time the Killigrew family saw a number of twists and turns to reach the characters we are interested in.

Please note: I have done my very best to untangle this muddled web of names, rumours, anecdotes and errors but I do not promise to be entirely correct on all counts!

killigrew
The Arwenack Estate from Lord Burghley’s map of c1580

Elizabeth Trewinnard – ‘Old Lady Killigrew’

Elizabeth Trewinnard (or Trewynnard) married Sir John Killigrew I of Arwenack in c1534. The couple had ten children, John, Peter, Thomas, Henry, William, Jane, Grace, Amy, Alice and Margaret. Originally from St Erth Elizabeth became mistress of the newly built Arwenack House late in their marriage. This grand building, which was described as ‘stately and gracious’, had been built by her husband to replace the much older home he had inherited. Completed around 1567 the spacious manor house was surrounded by gardens and a high battlemented wall. It was considered to be the most expensive property in Cornwall at the time.

No expense was spared. Fragments of the manor, now thought to be the oldest building in Falmouth, still stand today, including part of the banqueting hall but it has been added to and separated into private dwellings and is now a shadow of it’s former self. (Much of the original house was destroyed by fire in about c1646 during the Civil War by Sir Peter Killigrew to prevent it falling into enemy hands.)

Part of the ruin of Arwenack House

Lady Elizabeth’s husband was also instrumental in the building of Pendennis Castle, completed in 1546. King Henry VIII actually paid John a rent for the land that the castle stood on and made him it’s first Governor. It was a position he took full advantage of. You see, John was not exactly a perfect pillar of Cornish society. He openly indulged in piracy in the English Channel and beyond. The family were said to have terrorised the neighbourhood and made a whole host of enemies. The Killigrews, particularly their son Peter, were seen by many as nothing short of criminals, who “roamed the Channel looking out for Spanish ships to plunder . . .”. but fortunately for them being an ancient, wealthy family had its perks.

“The Killigrews pounced like vultures on every ship that stranded on their estates, claiming the justification of ancient privilege for their actions. This example was readily followed by the common people, who could at least plead the excuse of poverty for their misdeeds.”

John Vivan, 1989

For her part Elizabeth apparently took charge of the stolen goods when they reached Arwenack house. Much of it seems to have been ‘fenced’ locally or buried in the gardens of the house until it was safe to sell. Conveniently if any criminal charges were brought against them they were quickly dropped as the Killigrews had so many powerful relatives in court.

killigrew
Arwenack House in the 1960s

However, in 1556 John I and his eldest son John II were brought before the Council of Queen Mary and asked to make reparation for their privateering. It seems that the family had been overplaying their hand somewhat. It certainly didn’t help that John and Elizabeth’s son, Peter, had found himself in the Tower after an altercation with the Queen’s fleet. Peter confessed to raiding Spanish and Flemish ships and stealing their wool and iron. But it appears the family escaped with little more than a slap on the wrist and a small fine.

View of part of Arwenack House today

The writer and historian, A.L. Rowse, suggests that the Killigrew family were constantly over-reaching themselves, living far beyond their means in a huge manor house that they couldn’t really afford. Dodgy dealings and piracy beyond the reach of the law was their way of keeping their heads above water.

After John’s death in 1567, Lady Elizabeth continued to run the family ‘business’ alongside her sons. She was considered shrewd and astute, earning her the nickname ‘Old Lady Killigrew’. It has also been intimated that Elizabeth was the inspiration for Daphne du Maurier‘s character Lady Dona St Columb in her famous book ‘Frenchmans Creek‘.

Lady Elizabeth died in 1582 and was buried in Budock Church with her husband where the only known image of her is depicted on a brass plaque. John and Elizabeth had taught their sons well and the family tradition of piracy passed easily to the next generation.

Mary Wolverston – Cornwall’s Lady Pirate

Mary’s story is often confused with that of Elizabeth Trewinnard and Jane Fermor, her grandson’s wife (see below) but let’s try to set that straight. When Sir John Killigrew II married Mary Wolverston he may well have met his match or indeed his perfect partner in crime. Mary’s father, Sir Philip Wolverston, was a celebrated pirate off the coast of Suffolk.

Born in c1525 she had first been married to Henry Kynvett but widowed at a young age. When she married Sir John Killigrew II, he, like his father, was already the Governor of Pendennis Castle and a Member of Parliament. It was now the reign of Elizabeth I, a Queen known to have turned a blind-eye to privateering. The Killigrews had been firm supporters of her ascension to the throne, a fact that was to come in very handy later.

John II, at first with the help of his mother, Elizabeth and then with his wife Mary continued the family traditions. He was well known for paying officials and customs officers to look the other way while he happily plundered passing shipping. He dabbled in a little cattle stealing on the side and as a Justice of the Peace was said to have frequently wielded his power unfairly, to the family’s advantage. Mary took to her new role like a duck to water and soon, like her mother-in-law, became known as a smart and ruthless businesswoman. She was said to take even greater pleasure in their illegal trading than her husband.

Killigrew
Arwenack Avenue, or the Rope Walk as it was known, was once part of the Killigrew’s gardens.

On one occasion however Mary’s ambition almost brought about the downfall of the Killigrews. In early January 1583 a large Spanish ship, the Marie of San Sebastian, was in harbour close to Arwenack House. It was rumoured to be carrying treasure and the temptation was just to much for Lady Killigrew. The two merchants who owned the Marie, Chavis and De Oryo, were invited to dine at Arwenack house. While distracting them with sumptuous food and lashings of wine Mary gathered her men and stole down their secret passage from the house to the sea. They then raided the merchant’s ship and anyone who challenged them was killed and thrown overboard.

Some reports say that Lady Killigrew’s crew stole the entire ship and sailed it to Ireland to sell, others that they just plundered cargo and buried it in the garden at Arwenack. Whatever the case after the dark deed was done Mary is said to have changed her clothes and returned to the party.

killigrew
This portrait & the one above are said to be Lady Mary Killigrew but I can’t be sure they are. Credit: Anthony Van Dyck, National Trust

When the Spanish merchants discovered the treachery they knew immediately who to blame and reported the attack. Unfortunately for them the local magistrate just so happened to be a Killigrew, so of course nothing was done. Conveniently Sir John Killigrew II had also recently been appointed the head of the Cornish Commission for Piracy! Oh, the irony!

Determined to see justice the owners of the ship took their complaint to London. And the whole thing began to turn into a bit of an international incident. Justice had to be seen to be done. Lady Mary Killigrew and two of her men, Kendal and Hawkins, were arrested and sentenced to death. The two servants were hung at Launceston but at the last moment Mary received a pardon from Queen Elizabeth I. The Queen remembered the support that the family had once given her and, although furious at Mary’s audaciousness, was unwilling to make an enemy of the powerful Cornish family. The Killigrews survived but it was a grave and embarrassing scandal.

When Sir John II died the following year he was apparently £10,000 in debt, which may explain the risks that Mary was taking. She is thought to have continued her illegal activities along with her son, John III, but in a much quieter fashion, until her death around 1587.

Dorothy Monk

Sir John Killigrew III (1557 – 1605) became the 3rd Governor of Pendennis Castle and Vice Admiral of Cornwall. He was also the MP for Penryn on three occasions in 1584, 1586 and 1597 but none of that stopped him indulging in a little sport on the high seas, albeit in a more subtle way than his parents!

John married Dorothy Monk (or Monck), the daughter of Sir Thomas Monk of Potheridge in Devon. The Monk’s were a wealthy family, Dorothy’s father was an MP and a Knight of the Red Garter, while the Killigrews were still massively in debt. The estate that John III had inherited from his father had been on it’s knees financially and things had only gone from bad to worse. He had resorted to squeezing his tenants for more and more rent and had apparently gone into business with the pirates of the Helford River. The family were known associates of Robert Hicks who was hung for piracy in 1578 and in addition, Christian Boulton in his book on the Helford River, Five Million Tides, writes that:

“In 1595 John Killigrew ‘the Third’ was brought in front of the Privy Council to answer a charge of assisting a pirate known as Captain Eliot who was hiding in the Helford. It was alleged that he not only warned of the approach of the twenty-four-gun HMS Crane, but bribed its senior officer, who he recommended ‘enjoy a little excursion inland’ at his expense. Eliot escaped . . .”

Helford River

Again because of their connections John escaped punishment too. What Dorothy’s role was in all of this isn’t clear but we do know that John came to rely on her for more than the usual ‘help’ with his business. Dorothy had given her husband 14 children (10 lived to adulthood) including their heir John IV but she had also brought considerable wealth to the marriage. Despite the huge debt left by his father, John III failed to kerb his extravagant lifestyle and was threatened with debtor’s prison on several occasions. Each time Dorothy used her inheritance to bail him out but eventually even that began to dry up. John III died on poverty.

Jane Fermor

The story of this Lady Killigrew is perhaps the most moving. The daughter of Sir George and Lady Mary Fermor of Easton Neston in Northamptonshire Jane was just 12 years old when she married Sir John Killigrew IV (1583 – 1633) on 8th October 1596.

It was almost certainly an arranged marriage, probably for financial reasons. But for Jane arriving in Cornwall at such a tender age without her family must have been a frightening and disorienting experience. It seems that the marriage did not get off to a good start and things only went downhill. As the years went by Jane became increasingly lonely and unsettled. Rumours began to spread that she had had a number of affairs, including with the then Governor of Pendennis, Sir Nicholas Parker.

View from Pendennis Point

Martin Killigrew, who wrote a history of the family in 1737, was scathing about his ancestor implying that she didn’t deserve the title of ‘lady’. He stated:

“Sir John Killigrew, a sober, good man, to his utter undoing married the daughter of an ancient and honourable family, new in the peerage, in respect to whom I forbear the name; making herself infamous and first debauched by the Governor of Pendennis Castle.”

John IV was incensed by Jane’s betrayal and accused her of prostituting herself. He then took the unusual and expensive step of beginning divorce proceedings. The legal wrangling apparently dragged on for years and Jane’s position within the Killigrew household became impossible. Martin Killigrew wrote that she had also been abandoned by her own family, so her options were limited. It is said that one day she just left Arwenack on horseback, never to return, taking practically nothing with her. Jane sort sanctuary from the Mayor of Penryn, perhaps because she was aware that the town and the Killigrews had a long standing rivalry. The people of Penryn took her in and she was given a house to live in on St Thomas Street.

Looking down St Thomas Street, Penryn

Years later when John IV died Jane came into some money and she purchased a huge silver cup for the town as a thank you for their kindness to her. She had it engraved:

“From Mayor to Mayor to the town of Penryn where they received me that was in great misery. J K 1633”

The inscription is said to be a play on words referring to how she arrived in the town – from mare to mayor. In 2012 the cup, known as the Loving Cup, was valued at £150,000. Now nearly 400 years old it is still used each time a new mayor is appointed in Penryn.

Credit: Falmouth Packet, Antique’s Roadshow, 2012

John IV never had any children and was the last of the ‘Sir John Killigrews’ at Arwenack. Happily Jane married again to a man called Francis Blewett and died in 1648.

Final Thoughts

The Killigrews have certainly left the people of Falmouth a legacy, it could be argued that it was their dogged ambition that created the town. The family lives on in street names and in legend, but they were most definitely not all the benevolent philanthropists that most see them as. Some of the Killigrews were thieves, pirates, murderers, schemers and liars and that was just their wives.

Further Reading

Falmouth’s Mystery Pyramid – the Killigrew Monument

My Grandmother & Rope Walk, Falmouth

Tater Du Lighthouse

I provide all the content on this blog completely FREE, there's no subscription fee. If however you enjoy my work and would like to contribute something towards helping me keep researching Cornwall's amazing history and then sharing it with you then you can DONATE BELOW. Thank you!

8 thoughts on “The Notorious Women of the Killigrew Family

  1. A fascinating blog thank you.
    I have recently published A Cornish Almanack which describes one event or one birth or death of significant people in Cornwall for every day of the year.

    I made it freely available as a page-turning pdf (Windows only) and an ordinary pdf for mobiles and tablets for the duration of Covid19 shutdown. It has been downloaded over more than 2 million times
    It’s here: http://www.ellixia.com/

    If you like it then then I will send you a paperback version gratis.

    I am particularly fascinated by the work of Arthur Quiller-Couch as so many of his stories were actually based on fact and oral history.

    I have completed two 10-volume series in which I contain his stories but also put them into context and discuss what I have found out about the real events. They are all available from my site and, for each one, there is a link to a preview on Google Books which I think allows 20% to be read.

    1. Hi there, thank you so much! And your Almanack sounds brilliant! That’s a real undertaking!! I’d be delighted to see a copy, thank you🙂

      1. My pleasure.

        I would describe it as a labour of love but I really enjoyed researching and writing it and it certainly did not feel a labour. My only regret was when I came to the end.

        I had collated information for quite some time and wondered if it was a folly but sensed it was going to work when I got to February 29th thinking I would find nothing. When the name of Derek Tangye, a Lamorna-based writer my late grandmother loved, popped up I had a good feeling about it.

        It was, though, tricky at times as I had made it a rule that there could only be one subject/event for each day. It felt like I had 380 pieces for a 366 piece jigsaw so took some advice on which of the candidates for particular dates I should include.

        I hope you enjoy reading it a tiny fraction of the amount that I enjoyed writing it!

  2. What a wonderful history of these notorious Cornish women!!! Well written and researched. Just love those Anthony Van Dyck paintings and that brass plaque of Elizabeth too. Keep ’em coming!!!

    1. Thanks Aadil! I wanted to have a photograph of Elizabeth’s tomb but unfortunately many of our churches are locked up at the moment because of Covid so wasn’t able to get in. Will add as soon as I am able.🙂

  3. Hello again esdale77. I find your articles fascinating, illuminating…. I read them avidly. You feed my eternal love for Kernow – especially the curious, historical, myths, legends etc.!
    Did you ‘knock off’ any of your “every one of the Bodmin Moor tors” yet?
    Me? I am planning a trip late September – government restrictions allowing. At the very worst I will drive over the border (e.g. Launceston) take a quiet walk, take some photos…. that way I will have kept up my ‘once a year every year’ visit….
    If allowed I tentatively plan to do some, if not all, of the Carrick civil parishes. As I read and read… and read I question quantity over quality….. hmmmm….
    I was especially interested in your recent in depth article on iwalk cornwall, absorbing. I use the site a lot in my ‘planning’…
    Like me, you should write a book!!!!

    🙂 Mike

Leave a Reply