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Queen Elizabeth’s Pirates: Heroes or Villains?

Elizabeth's pirates

Elizabeth's pirates

Were Pirates Heroes or Villains?

To English schoolchildren, the names Sir Francis Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir John Hawkins, and others are associated with heroic deeds. With the benefit of the long view and judged by modern standards, these men might be better described as thieves, murderers, and scoundrels.

Queen Elizabeth Vulnerable and Broke

Channel 4 in the U.K. notes (Elizabeth’s Pirates) that “England was a relatively poor state and open to invasion. Elizabeth’s solution was to support privateers―licensed pirates―. . . who picked off Spanish treasure ships and contributed part of their booty to the public purse.”

Of course, the Spanish were thieves themselves having stolen gold, silver, and precious stones from the Inca and Aztec empires in South America.

Which, to the modern moralist, raises an interesting question: Is it a crime to rob a thief of his stolen goods? It is for wiser heads than the writers to grapple with that conundrum.

Francis Drake and John Hawkins Privateers

The first two men to sail out of English harbours as privateers were cousins Francis Drake and John Hawkins. These men were granted permission by Elizabeth to attack and capture Spanish ships. They were not part of any navy and were commanded only by the conditions set out in their licence.

The queen took it upon herself to extend her legal reach to the entire globe. The Spanish, of course, did not feel obliged to submit to her majesty’s edicts.

In 1567, Drake and Hawkins elbowed their way into the African slave trade, only to lose their human cargo and four of their six ships to the Spanish in a fight off Veracruz, Mexico., having described the Spanish attack on Hawkins and Drake as “treacherous,” says the latter determined on revenge. “In 1570, 1571, and ‘72, Drake made three successive voyages to the West Indies and, on the third of these, took and sacked the town of Nombre de Dios, then the Atlantic depot of the gold and silver from the mines of the Pacific coast.”

After more plundering of Spanish stolen treasure, the Spanish ambassador demanded Drake be hanged as a pirate. Queen Elizabeth responded by knighting him.

The Spanish treasure ship Carafuego is captured by Sir Francis Drake.

The Spanish treasure ship Carafuego is captured by Sir Francis Drake.

Elizabethan Piracy a Family Affair

Sir Walter Raleigh was a distant relative of Francis Drake, half-brother to Humphrey Gilbert, and cousin to Richard Grenville, all privateers/pirates.

In 1578, Raleigh sailed with his brother to North America on an exploration voyage, with some pirating on the side when the opportunity presented itself.

In 1580, the brothers were sent to put down a Catholic rebellion in Ireland, which they did with seeming relish and brutality.

According to Tudor Place “Sir Humphrey Gilbert burnt villages and massacred the population. Even Raleigh, with his troops, systematically slaughtered three hundred Italian and Spanish mercenaries . . .”

Pirates and their treasure

Pirates and their treasure

Sir Walter Raleigh, Sometime Hero

Raleigh spent the next few years in and out of favour with Queen Elizabeth and, from time to time, attacking Spanish ships and plundering their ports.

However, when James I came to the throne following Elizabeth’s death in 1603, the tide turned against Raleigh. The aging buccaneer was found guilty in a rigged trial of being part of a plot to depose the king; he was sentenced to death. James, in what Tudor Place describes as a “grotesque exhibition of royal clemency . . . issued a pardon for Raleigh but he was to be kept a prisoner in the Tower of London.”

Sir Walter Raleigh

Sir Walter Raleigh

After Prison

He spent a dozen years behind bars before being released to search for the fabled El Dorado, the lost city of gold. Of course, he didn't find it because it never existed.

A BBC biography of the man completes the final chapter: As “The expedition was a failure, and Raleigh also defied the king’s instructions by attacking the Spanish. On his return to England, the death sentence was reinstated . . .”

Channel 4 points out that “Only one of these licensed pirates died in bed.” The others expired as a result of wounds and disease, while Sir Walter Raleigh “most colourful of all was beheaded for treason” on October 29, 1618.

Sir Walter Raleigh comes to his ignominious end.

Sir Walter Raleigh comes to his ignominious end.

Privateers or Pirates

The exploits of these men against the Spanish are celebrated by the English as audacious and courageous; after all, they received honours from their monarch. However, the likes of John Nutt, Daniel Elfrith, and Nathaniel Butler were engaged in precisely the same kind of work but were simply called pirates and subject to the most extreme punishments of the law if caught.

The only difference was that the privateers carried letters of marque (licenses) by which the king or queen bestowed on them the right to attack treasure ships. Just a piece of paper makes the difference between being a hero and a villain.

Bonus Factoids

  • Elizabeth (Bess) Throckmorton, of a noble family, became a lady-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth in 1584. Later, she rose to the elevated status of Gentlewoman of the Privy Chamber, in which position she dressed the queen. In the summer of 1591, young Bess found herself to be with child. Secretly, she married the father, none other than the queen’s favourite, Sir Walter Raleigh. The queen’s courtiers were supposed to be chaste and virtuous. When Elizabeth discovered the truth she plunged into a jealous rage and had the pair thrown into the Tower of London. (It has been speculated that Queen Elizabeth had deep romantic feelings for Raleigh). After a while, the queen relented and the couple was released. However, Bess Raleigh was permanently banished from court and Raleigh was told not to show his face in the royal presence for a year.
  • There is a Sir Francis Drake primary school in London, England and a Sir Francis Drake High School in San Anselmo, California. Sir Walter Raleigh has no places of learning named after him, but, of course, Raleigh, North Carolina, does carry his name.
  • Only two pirates are known to have had wooden legs. One was Frenchman François Le Clerc, known as “Jambe de Bois” (“Peg Leg”) who lost his limb in a fight with the English in 1549. The other was the Dutchman Cornelis Corneliszoon Jol (1597–1641) known by the nickname “Houtebeen,” which also means “Peg Leg.” He also lost his limb in battle.
  • There is no historical record of any pirate having a pet parrot sitting on his shoulder.


  • “Sir Walter RALEIGH, Knight.”, undated.
  • “Walter Raleigh (c.1552 - 1618).” BBC History, undated.
  • “Francis Drake (1540-1596).”, undated.
  • “Elizabeth’s Pirates.” Channel 4, undated.
  • “Pirates.” BBC Quite Interesting, undated.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 Rupert Taylor


nobody on May 08, 2018:

its a good choice to read but just a little long

Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on December 29, 2017:

That was a really interesting article, thankyou. I always enjoy your factoids. =)