In early October 1581 the Cornish pirate John Piers and fifteen of his crew were arrested on a beach in Dorset. According to legend although Piers was very much a wanted man his capture was pure fluke. There had been no betrayal, no gem of intelligence that had led the arresting officer, Thomas Walshe, to Studland Bay that day. It was just fate and of course, the fact that that particular bay was one of the most notorious pirate hangouts in the whole of the south of England.
For Captain John Piers the four mile curve of Studland Bay on Dorset’s south coast had more going for it than just its miles of sandy beaches. According to Richard Peirce in his book on the pirates of Devon and Cornwall because of some strange quirk of ancient law this narrow stretch of coastline lay beyond the reach of the Admiralty. It therefore became a refuge where the pirates could freely sell their ill-gotten gains.
The promise of cheap goods attracted plenty of buyers, or receivers as they were known, to trade with them. Certain landowners in the south-west, such as the Killigrews in Cornwall, were apparently happy to profit from, and even encourage, the plundering of passing shipping. It was well known that the customs officials and magistrates could be easily corrupted, at one time even the Vice Admiral of Bristol was accused of releasing pirates for money. Piracy was in many ways a kind of well-organised maritime enterprise with all kinds of unlikely investors. All along the Cornish coast there were businesses who directly and indirectly depended on the pirates for their livelihoods.
“Competitive rates of exchange attracted large numbers of dealers to well-known pirate haunts such as Studland Bay in Dorset and Mede Hole on the Isle of White. . . . they purchased plunder from pirates, providing lodging, entertainment or provisions in exchange.”John C. Appleby, Women & English Piracy 1540-1720, 2013
And one of the most notorious figures of the Studland Bay pirate era was the Cornish pirate Captain John Piers.
Between 1522 and 1649 the Militia Muster Rolls recorded the name of every able-bodied man who would be liable for military service and the equipment or arms that they possessed should England be invaded. In 1569 when John Piers was nine years old his father William was recorded in the Muster Rolls, he apparently owned a bow and six arrows. John was born in Padstow in 1560, son of William and Ann Piers, who also had one daughter named Honour.
At the time Padstow was a busy fishing and trading centre with a healthy ship-building industry. During the Elizabethan era there were at least half a dozen shipyards flourishing in the town and Padstow-made schooners were famous throughout Europe. More ships were once registered at Padstow than at Cardiff.
What William Piers did for a living or what led John to his choice of career isn’t clear. However it is said that Mr Nicholas Prideaux, the wealthiest man in Padstow and the builder of Prideaux Place, actively encouraged piracy in the town and even had his own secret hiding place in the cliffs. And it seems that the Killigrews and Prideaux family were by no means the exception, the Edgcumbes, the Rogers and other well-to-do Cornish families were all rumoured to have ‘dealings’ with pirates.
“While the pirates were tolerably loyal to one another and rather treacherous to their supporters, the organisers of piracy behaved with great generosity. Their relations with one another were excellent. Though a very large proportion of Cornish landowners were concerned with the pirates there was no encroachment, but much mutual assistance.”
Whenever it was that he first set foot on board on a ship Captain John Pier’s reign as a pirate was destined to be a short but infamous one. After all, he was only twenty-one at the time of his arrest.
A Dangerous Man
At first John is known to have operated out of the harbours along the north Cornish coast and around Lundy Island, robbing passing ships and then selling their goods. At that time vessels from France, Spain and Portugal regularly passed on their way to Ireland and Bristol carrying cargos of wheat, salt, spices, wine and cloth. They made easy targets.
But as time went on John’s territory expanded and was said to have ranged from the Bristol Channel to the Isle of Wight, another well-known pirate haunt. But his reputation was certainly not the ‘Robin Hood’ character that some early commentators have suggested. John was a dangerous man, not adverse to killing those who threatened him or got in his way. In one shocking incident it is said that he even attacked and sexually assaulted a young woman on the Isle of Wight.
“In June 1581 Captain Piers, allegedly a murderer who had been previously pardoned of such offences, came ashore at the Isle of Wight, and ‘by the hyeway met a very honest manne’s dawghter and forsably ravished her’.John C. Appleby, Women & English Piracy 1540 – 1720, 2013
Given that such crimes often went unreported, or at least unrepeated, because of the problematic stigmas attached to sexual assault the fact that it was recorded seems to suggest that Piers’ behaviour must have struck people at the time as unusually appalling.
John formed relationships with other pirates, including Robert Hicks of Saltash and Henry Hornes with whom he is said to have had a meeting off Lundy Island in 1581, allegedly gifting him a parrot, a barrel of soap and two muskets. He was also a known associate of the notorious Killigrew family of Falmouth whose dirty dealings eventually brought them to the attention of Queen Elizabeth herself.
“John Killigrew had relations with all the pirates from ‘the Terrible John Piers’ . . . to Lord Conchobar O’Driscoll, ‘Sir Finian of the Ships’.”David Mathew, The Cornish and Welsh Pirates in the Reign of Elizabeth, 1924
But it seems one of his main accomplices, on land at least, was his mother, Ann. His later arrest and conviction seems to have centred around his final visit to Padstow when Ann had assisted him in the removal of stolen goods from the ship.
In October 1581 the Privy Council were informed of the capture of:
” a very notorious pirate born in Cornwall, who hath an old mother dwelling at Padstow, noted to be a witch, to whom by report the said Piers hath conveyed all such goods and spoils as he hath wickedly gotten at the seas.”A L Rowse, Sir Richard Grenville of the Revenge, 1937
After Captain John Piers and his men were arrested in the autumn in 1581 justice was fairly swift for the crew. The fifteen men were found guilty and hanged within days, their bodies displayed on gibbets around the coast of Studland Bay as a warning to other seafaring criminals. John Piers on the other hand was taken to Corfe Castle five miles inland to await his trial.
In the meantime his mother Ann had been arrested at Bodmin trying to sell some small silver items John had given her. Both John’s his father William and sister, Honour, were questioned too, along with other members of the Padstow community. Queen Elizabeth’s Calendar of State Papers, Volume 150, recorded at Highgate on 30th October 1581 noted the following:
“Examinations and confessions taken at Padstow concerning John Piers, the pirate, before Sir. Rich Greynevile, Thomas Roscarrock and George Greynevyle.”
The witnesses reported that the last time John Piers was in Padstow Ann and two other women, Margery Morgan and Edith Davye, had been seen waiting on the waterside at around midnight. Two of the pirate company then unloaded a large rug from Pier’s vessel which the women carried into Padstow and stored in a barn. The plan had been to sell the rug on to a local wealthy woman. When Davye and Morgan were questioned as to why they were on the quayside so late they said that Piers had promised them some cloth for their help and that they should come at night so that the customs officers didn’t see them.
According to the testimony of John Thomas, a water bailiff and the local vicar, Robert Archer, Ann had also received other valuable items from her son that night including the plate, a silver salt cellar and some silver buttons which she had been caught with in Bodmin. She was not, however, the only beneficiary of the pirate’s visit, Rev. Archer claimed that while in Padstow Piers “gave cloth called Callycoe to sundry and amonge others to the Vicar of Meryn.”
Bizarrely Ann was also charged with the much more serious crime of witchcraft, which at the time still carried the death penalty. It seemed that many in Padstow believed she had dark powers which she used to help her son in his enterprises.
In September 1581, a month before his arrest at Studland Bay, Piers had what he considered his greatest triumph. With two ships, his own small ship of 35 tons and another of 18 tons, he blockaded the harbour of Rye so that, “according to the lamenting Mayor and jurats of the town, ‘none can go forth or come in.’ ” It was said that his mother Ann had used her ‘dark arts’ to assist him. It can be assumed that John was then paid a large sum to leave the port in peace.
Although both William Piers and Honour Piers admitted boarding John’s ship while it was in Padstow they both were quick to deny any involvement in his illegal activities. In fact, his father denounced him completely and has been quoted as saying that it was “well known that he renounced his son for his lewdness.” No charges were brought against them and it may be worth noting here that Thomas Roscarrock, one of the examiners, may have had certain sympathies towards the family. He had been charged with piracy himself after an attack on an Italian galleon by the crew of his own ships.
Ann Piers was eventually cleared of the charges of witchcraft after no evidence could be found and several influential men from Padstow spoke up in her favour. She was also somehow acquitted of the charges of handing stolen goods and allowed to return home. But John was not so fortunate. From Corfe he was taken to Dorchester goal to face trial for piracy and murder. In a final audacious act Piers decided he wasn’t quite beaten and somehow managed to escape, probably by bribing a guard. His freedom was brief however and he was quickly recaptured.
Captain John Piers found guilty of all charges and in March 1582 he was executed.
The reign of Elizabeth I was not exactly a ‘golden age’ for many British pirates, it seems that men like John Piers didn’t necessarily get rich from their plundering. David Mathew who wrote about the pirates of Wales and Cornwall in the 1920s estimated that the receivers took most of the profits, leaving the pirates with perhaps 20% of the actual value of the stolen goods. Consequently despite his murderous, ruthless reputation John Piers was not considered to be a wealthy man when he died. In fact, it is said that on that last occasion when he visited his parents in Padstow to unload his most recent cache of stolen goods he stayed on board his ship to avoid seeing someone that he owed a debt of £7, presumably because he was unable or unwilling to pay.
Yet there were, and still are, rumours. You see, one of John’s receivers was his mother Ann, so is it possible that they were making more money than they gave people to think? And what about the ransom he was supposedly paid just a few weeks before by the people of Rye? And the money he was able to find to bride the guard at Dorchester. In addition, a man called John Pentire of Padstow gave evidence against John Piers and claimed that he had seen him with a large amount of cash when he last visited the harbour. The written record of his testimony says that he saw:
‘a purse where he thinks there was fifty pounds or thereabout in gold, and that the said Piers had also a bag about him of silver containing by estimation £20: Also he saw in a chest that Piers opened before him by chance, a bag containing by estimation £60. And he saith he saw no plate there saving one silver bowl wherein they drank.’
Ann herself is also said to have claimed that ‘her sonne had a great store of money’. All this evidence was given to the examiners, George Grenville, Sir Richard Grenville and Thomas Roscarrock, at Padstow so in a way it is hardly surprising that rumours started to fly about the town. Local legend has it that after John’s execution Ann buried what was left of her son’s loot on the cliffs at Harlyn Bay. And as far as anyone knows the treasure has never been found.