The Significant Role That Privateering Played in the Formation of the

This is a research paper on privateering.

The Significant Role That Privateering Played in the Formation of the
English Empire during the Reign of Elizabeth I

By Thomas White

When twenty five year old Elizabeth I ascended the throne in 1558, England was in a weakened state, both financially and militarily. At this time, Elizabeth faced three very important tasks. The first of which was as the Queen of a tiny country, she was faced with providing for the security of her nation against what must have seem like overwhelming odds against the greatest empire in the world. What made this first task all the more daunting was the fact that when she ascended the throne she only inherited a fleet of approximately 21 ships. To meet the growing threat England faced at the hands of King Phillip II and Spain, Elizabeth relied upon the use of privateers. Privateers such as Sir Francis Drake, and John Hawkins were able to transform her navy through innovation, and command it with the aid of privately owned ships to repel the Spanish Armada, not once, but on three different occasions thereby securing the nation.

The second task faced by Elizabeth was what to do about a depleted treasury that was needed to in order to finance the improvement of her navy, and to further the expansion of the English realm. Again the answer lay in the able hands of the Queen’s privateers. Through the process of letters of marque in which privateers would plunder those enemies of the English realm, England was able to share in the profits of those privateers by receiving one fifth of the plunder. Famous privateers such Sir Francis Drake provided incredible large cash revenues to the coffers of England, which enabled the Queen to ramp up her naval forces, and finance further explorations.

The third of the Queen’s tasks included the expansion of the English global influence through trade, and colonization. This task again fell upon the laps of those privateers willing to take the risks, in exchange for a piece of the financial spoils. Individuals such as Sir Walter Raleigh who tried unsuccessfully to be the first to colonize the New World, William Frobisher who sought unsuccessfully to find the short cut to the orient, to the establishment of the East India Company who would go on to eventually become a private company that would rule a country. All of these explorations and accomplishments were undertaken by privateers. Privateering provided England the mechanism necessary for restoring a depleted treasury, the development of strong naval defenses, and the means by which to embark upon a program of global expansion. 

Elizabeth I, the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn ruled the English Empire from 1558 to the time of her death in 1603. Elizabeth I was the third in line at the time she ascended to the throne following her stepsister Mary and her stepbrother Edward VI. Upon assumption of the crown Elizabeth was faced with the daunting task of ruling and preserving an England that was suffering from a depleted treasury, a navy that consisted of a mere “21 ships”[1], and an ever growing Catholic Spanish Empire ruled by Phillip II of Spain, former husband of Elizabeth’s half-sister Queen Mary. When Queen Elizabeth I ascended the throne she had to walk a very fine line between the extreme religious beliefs of her former half siblings and King Phillip of Spain who sought to restore England back to that of a Catholic sovereignty.

Elizabeth ascended the throne in 1558 with a naval fleet of only 21 ships and she needed desperately to build up her naval defenses. Unable to afford to build up the English fleet, Elizabeth encouraged private enterprise, in effect piracy, in response to Spain’s threatening Atlantic empire. “The English had long known that they could use the sea ‘…as a Moate defensive to a house/Against the envy of less happier lands…’ But it was when Elizabeth ascended the throne that they first set to work to make the moat impassable to an enemy, and began to see clearly how it could be used as a medium for offense against him”[2], this quote from then Lord Treasurer of England Sir Thomas Wilson (1524-1581) provides some insight into the planning that lay ahead for England’s security.  England had lagged far behind Spain and Portugal in her quest for riches and imperial expansion, so Elizabeth I sought out that which would provide England not only the protection she so desperately needed, but also a means by which England could strengthen her already strapped financial treasury. To accomplish this end Elizabeth I both actively as well as covertly enlisted the employment of privateers.

These privateers, or private shippers, were authorized through the issuance of letters of marque and reprisal, the authority to “interrupt and capture enemy shipping in time of declared war…and after 1585 the letters [of marque] made provisions for prizes to be condemned (declared as contraband from an enemy state) and confiscated by an Admiralty Court with a subsequent division of those goods made among the crown, the privateer who seized them, and other officials. Thus privateering was well established among seafaring nations, it had never been governed in England by a system of rules and regulations laid down by the Admiralty until the hostilities with Spain had developed into open warfare in the mid 1580’s”[3]. When hostilities had begun between Spain and England specific authority was provided by way of the Queen to privateers in service to England’s defense, with several very notable privateer names coming to the forefront. People like Francis Drake, John Hawkins, Walter Raleigh, and even some individuals with lesser scruples like Martin Frobisher were soon in the service of England under the auspices of privateering.

The need for naval defense against England’s enemies was quite pressing as the following excerpts from this original top secret correspondence intended for the Spanish Papal Court and written specifically for Phillip II would indicate. The report was written by one Tristan Winslade and titled De praesenti statu Cornubiae et Devoniae quae Provinciae sunt Hispaniae proximiores (The Present status of the provinces of Cornwall and Devon which are nearer Spain). Winslade, an English Catholic exile who was serving as a soldier for Spain, gathered information specifically on Cornwall and Devon where he describes “the present misery from high taxes and other exactions; of the former devotion of the people to the Catholic cause…”[4] He then goes on to name various Catholic notables of the two counties and the ways in which they could act or use their influence in an uprising to seize control of England… Winslade speaks with confidence of the death of Queen Elizabeth, which he seems to consider imminent (perhaps from an assassination plot), and discusses the re-establishment of Catholicism in England. In the second part of the work Winslade discusses the government of England in general…He informs Phillip that with the conquest of England the Spanish possessions in America would no longer be menaced and that he would be spared the expense of a defensive navy there, and that he could then proceed to the conquest of the Protestant lands…The manuscript must be dated after 1581, when Drake was knighted (he is referred to as ‘EQUES’= Knight); it is probably a preparatory intelligence report for Phillip II’s second Spanish Armada sent against England”[5].

With England’s open intervention in support of the Netherlands uprising against Spain, war with Spain was a forgone conclusion. Spain had decided at this juncture it was now time to mount war against England and it was Phillip’s plan to “invade England, depose Elizabeth and restore the Catholic faith”[6]. As Spain began making preparations for invading England, word began to reach London of Spain’s plans in 1585.

Prior to this time, in 1578, the privateer John Hawkins, son of William Hawkins a renowned privateer, had been appointed “Treasurer of the Navy, which enabled him to have a decisive voice in developing a naval construction programme”[7]. It was while under Hawkins that Queen Elizabeth’s navy would become a fighting force that would be able to meet the challenge poised to it from Spain, but it was still dependant upon privateers to make up for England’s lack of ships. Hawkins had “created an entirely new arm in evolving a small streamlined vessel that was much more seaworthy, easier to handle and able to stay at sea for longer periods…he also constructed a splendid force of larger vessels with long range guns…and modified many older ships…Hawkins as Treasurer of the Navy made the fleet a powerful instrument of war, able to defend its traditional role of defending the coast and yet fully capable of undertaking the expeditions to harry the Spaniards…”[8]. Hawkins accomplished all of this by 1587, at which time Queen Elizabeth’s navy was still small, numbering around twenty five, but they were in top rated condition, according to the English Historical Review of 1891 “they were so well built, that with substantial repairs, they lasted through and beyond her reign [Elizabeth’s] “[9]. Elizabeth was also able to count on a strong reserve of merchant men and privateers who were more than willing to engage in Spanish plunder, and defend England.

One of the most prominent privateers to defend England and engage Spain was Francis Drake whom the Spanish viewed as their “implacable foe and the real commander of the English navy”[10].  Drake believed that England’s best defense against the Spanish was to strike the Spanish while they were still in port. In a letter to the English Privy Council in 1587, Drake gives his recommendation for his defensive strategy where he first describes the Spanish strategy followed by his own recommendation where he states “ Firste, for that they are like, to strike the first blowe, and secondlie, it will putt greate and good hartes, into her Majesties loving subiects, both aboarde and at home; For that they wilbe perswaded in conscyence, that the Lorde of all strengthes, will putt into her Majestie, and her people, coraige, and boldness, not to feare any invasion in her owne Countrie, but to seeke Gods enemyes and her Majesties, where they may be founde…”[11]. England required more time than Spain in fitting her ships, due to the fact that England’s navy still numbered around twenty five, and many more ships were needed to meet Spain’s Armada. The delays caused by the refitting process and the gathering of privately owned ships resulted in England not being able to attack Spain while the Armada was still in port. In July of 1588, England with twenty five of the Queen’s ships, and supplemented by roughly sixty or more private vessels began the engagement that beat back the Spanish Armada.

The English, to their credit, had several prominent privateers at the helms that included besides Drake, John Hawkins, and Martin Frobisher all of whom were instrumental in meeting the Spanish threat. Both Frobisher and Hawkins were knighted for their gallantry in defense of England against the Spanish Armada by Lord Admiral Charles Howard in 1588 “(he) was desirous to advance certaine personages to the degree of knighthood, for that, behaving themselves manfully, as well with their ships as their good advice, they were worthie that degree of honor, and so much the more worthie in that, being farre separated from all courtly favour, which manie times imparteth Francis Drake. The chiefest honours unto the lest deserving men, they declared their valour in the eyes of the fleet”[12]. Privateers were clearly the deciding factor that enabled the English to successfully defend against the Spanish Armada. Privateers held command authority in naval planning, fitting, and execution of the defense of England, and supplemented the navy by way of ships in order to match the strength of the Spanish allowing England to achieve world power naval status.

   As mentioned earlier, when Elizabeth I ascended to the throne she faced another daunting prospect, and that was of restoring a depleted treasury. In order to accomplish this undertaking the private sector again was the answer to Elizabeth I’s financial dilemma. Through the issuance of letters of marque, privateers like Francis Drake, John Hawkins, Martin Frobisher, and Walter Raleigh were able to rob Spain of its gold and shore up a depleted English treasury. “Harassment and disruption of Spanish shipping had become an activity officially sanctioned by the crown in 1585…Privateering offered the Crown a measure of control as well as a sizable piece of the profits…”[13]

Spain who was preeminent in their power and exploitation of native peoples in the New World were squarely in the crosshairs of English privateers as they made their way back home transporting their treasures. One such example of privateering enterprise that netted England a sizable sum was recorded by Francis Drake and documented in 1581 by the Elizabethan-Jacobean writer Nicholas Breton. Breton writes that “Our Countrey man [who] hath gone rounde about the whole world; of the Lande where Treasure lies, the way to come by it and ye honor by getting of it…”[14] In this original piece of work which details Drake’s circumnavigation of the globe, Breton speaks of the riches that Drake brought home with him as a result of the plundering of both Spanish ships and land bases along the Spanish coast which included Panama, Peru, and New Spain. When Drake returned to port in Plymouth England on September 26, 1580, he returned to the Queen “a return of 4700 percent on the sum she laid out…it would have been impossible for her to have subsidized the Dutch patriots to the tune of 1,420,000 from 1585 to the end of her reign or to have sunk more in reducing Tyrone’s rebellion in Ireland [without this cash influx]…”[15]

The economist John Maynard Keynes regarded the Queen’s share of the booty brought home in the Golden Hind as the origins of British foreign investment “From the proceeds Elizabeth made a notable investment in the Levant Company and from that company’s profits in its trade with Aleppo and Venice ‘there financed the East India Company’…”[16].

Under Elizabeth I privateering became an indispensable tool for supplying badly needed funds for her treasury, “From almost the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign, the evolving circumstances which dictated her foreign policy also allowed for indeed, demanded privateering activity on a scale which made its effective policing impossible…it rose admirably to meet the demands of a government that had neither the economic nor military means…[17]. Privateering provided Elizabeth’s treasury badly needed cash reserves in light of the growing threat England faced against Spain. As a result privateers enjoyed more freedom and leeway during Elizabeth I’s reign, “During these years English piracy enjoyed a remarkable resurgence, as Queen Elizabeth and her ministers turned the West Country pirates into privateers. Professional pirates and adventurous merchants could purchase letters of marque and reprisal from the lord admiral, thus turning an odious business into an act of patriotism…for piracy was not just an instrument of war in Elizabethan England, it was also an important source of revenue”[18].  The cash influx that privateering brought England allowed Elizabeth not only the opportunity to build upon her military and provide funding against England’s common enemies, but to also invest in England’s future by providing financing for global exploration.

The global expansion of England was the third area that privateering made possible. English global expansion was necessary for a number of specific reasons, one of which was the need for naval bases in which to operate against England’s enemies for the defense of English interests, and another was for commercial expansion of trade goods to support England’s economy. As a result of the financial success of privateers for England as well as private individuals, global expansion and colonization was financially possible. It was under Elizabeth’s reign that “Elizabethans did look beyond their island to new worlds being discovered overseas. The sixteenth century was England’s age of exploration and adventure, of speculation in overseas expeditions, of Sir Walter Raleigh, who founded the first English colony in Virginia, named after the Queen, and of Sir Francis Drake who circumnavigated the world”[19]. Privateers such as Sir Martin Frobisher saw their fortunes being made by discovery of the North-west passage, which was seen as the opportunity of a lifetime for amassing wealth by way of trade commerce. In the preface of Michael Lok’s book which chronicled Frobisher’s 1576 attempt at finding the passage, Lok writes about his rationale for funding Frobisher’s adventure by stating “…Whereby we might have passage by Sea to those rich Cuntries for Traffik of Merchandize, which was the thing I chiefly desired…Whereby yf yt should happen those new Lands to stretch to the North Pole, so that we could not have passage by Sea that way which we sought to the North-westward to pas into east India, yet in those same new Lands to the North-westward might be established the like Trade of Merchandize, as is now in the other sayd Cuntries of the [world]”[20].

The attitude towards looking east away from Atlantic trade was something that was gaining great interest by privateers due to the many hazards that privateers faced in the Atlantic region. One such company, the East India Company, began humbly with a goal of trade as its basis. The East India Company, which was started in December of 1600 by some private merchants, received the monopoly rights to trade in India, but would grow beyond any of the original charter member’s wildest vision. The East India Company would eventually go on to achieve the unusual distinction status of being a company to rule an entire country, all of which began as private enterprise in Elizabethan England. As the exploration and race was on to discover the passage to Asia, others sought to try and find gold in the New World of North America.

The first attempt at establishing a settlement in North America was carried out under the auspices of Sir Walter Raleigh. “Raleigh hired Philip Amadas and Aruthur Barlowe to sail to the New World and scout a prime location. They departed England in April 1584 and soon returned with stories of a fertile green island off the coast of present-day North Carolina”[21]. McGill further explains that Walter Raleigh who took charge of planning, and gathering men for the voyage, then appointed Sir Richard Grenville captain of the voyage. Grenville then set sail with the men Raleigh had mustered and began on what would become known as treacherous voyage. After enduring what seemed like an eternity aboard ship, the men who survived the treacherous voyage, in which many of the passengers died before setting foot on land, finally arrived at Roanoke Island in April 1585. According to McGill the survivors went about building shelters under the auspices of their appointed governor Ralph Lane, while Grenville returned to England for more supplies. Initially life on Roanoke Island settled into what appeared to be good order, accompanied by seemingly smooth relations with the local Indians, that is until food and supplies began to run out. “The lack of food started quarrels between the Indians and the colonists. The conflict became so heated that incidents of violence broke out. Many people on both sides died in the conflict, and the colonists feared the settlement would not survive. The Roanoke colonists were saved when Sir Francis Drake, an English privateer, arrived at Roanoke. He took all of the colonists back to England”[22]. This first event would not be the end of colonization in North America for Raleigh, who tried to establish another colony in Roanoke in 1587. Again this colony also failed until the successful establishment of Jamestown, Virginia in 1606 by the Virginia Company, a privately owned company. In all of these examples under the Elizabethan era, it was privateers who provided the planning, the vision, and execution of England’s expansion of global influence.

When the twenty five year old Elizabeth I ascended the throne in 1558, she faced three very important tasks. The first of these concerns faced by Elizabeth was how to provide England the security she so desperately needed against the growing threat posed against England by the powerful empire of Spain. The England that greeted Elizabeth in 1558 was in a weakened state, both financially and was comprised of a naval fleet of only approximately 21 ships. To supplement England’s meager naval forces in order to meet the growing threat England faced at the hands of King Phillip II and Spain, Elizabeth relied upon the use of privateers. Privateers such as Sir Francis Drake, and John Hawkins were able to transform her navy through innovation, and command it with the aid of privately owned ships in order to beat back the powerful Spanish Armada, and thereby secure the nation for the duration of Elizabeth I’s reign. Her second key concern upon assumption of the throne was how to provide, and restore England’s financial footing after having inherited a depleted treasury. Again Elizabeth turned to private enterprise for her answers, and it was individuals such as Francis Drake, Martin Frobisher, and John Hawkins that provided those answers. These men through the issuance of letters of marque were given the authority to plunder the ships of the enemies of England and recover incredible amounts of riches that England’s treasury was able to share in these profits. England’s treasury received one fifth of the proceeds from the issuance of letters of marque and was able to use these funds for the buildup and improvement of England’s naval forces thereby providing England with the security it so desperately needed against the threatening empire of Spain. Finally the profits from privateering provided the means to England for furthering imperial interests by funding future colonization and trading enterprises. It was privateers such as Walter Raleigh, Francis Drake, and Martin Frobisher who through profit sharing arrangements with England were able to provide the way and means to expand England’s global influence through trade and colonization laying the groundwork for future generations. 

Throughout Elizabeth I’s reign the task of security of England against her enemies, which included the revamping and supplementing of the English navy with privately owned ships was accomplished by privateers who were responsible for ensuring not only the nation’s security and expansion, but they provided the financial resources for accomplishing these endeavors. It was also privateers who were responsible for providing the groundwork for colonization abroad and   allow England to grow imperially.  Had it not been for England’s use of private enterprise throughout Elizabeth I’s reign, England’s navy would have never have achieved world power status nor would England have begun the process of becoming a world power.    It was ultimately privateers who were responsible for ensuring not only the security of England against her enemies, but they provided the financial resources for both the nation’s security and expansion, without which England’s navy would have never have achieved world power status.   

 

 

Bibliography

Primary Sources

Breton, Nicholas, A Discourse in commendation of the valiant as virtuous minded Gentleman, Maister Fraucis Drake, with a reioysing of his happy adventures, 1581 (http://www.loc.gov/rr/rarebook/catalog/drake/drake-catalogue.html)

Cotton, B.L. MSS Otho  E VIII, ff. 47v-48r, quoted in James McDermott, Martin Frobisher Elizabethan Privateer”, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001

Drake, Sir Francis. Drakes letter to Privy Council. Pro SP 12/209/40, fol.58-v. quoted in Harry Kelsey, Sir Francis Drake. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.

Stow, John. Annales, p1255 quoted in James McDermott, Martin Frobisher Elizabethan Privateer, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001

Wilson, Sir Thomas. The state of England, Anno Dom. 1600 [contemporary MS.] quoted in  F.J. Fisher (ed.), “Camden Miscellany , XVI” Camden Society Third Series no. 52, London, 1936

Winslade Tristran. De praesenti statu Cornubiae et Devoniae quae Provinciae sunt proximiores, 1595 (http://www.loc.gov/rr/rarebook/catalog/drake/drake-catalogue.html)

Secondary Sources

Isil, Olivia. “Piracy, Privateering and Elizabethan Maritime Expansion.” Roanoke Revisited Heritage Education Program. Available from http://www.nps.gov/archive/fora/piracy.htm. Internet; accessed 23 November 2008.

Kelsey, Harry. Sir Francis Drake. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.

Kelsey, Harry. Sir John Hawkins Queen Elizabeth’s Slave Trader. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.

McDermott, James. Martin Frobisher Elizabethan Privateer. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.

McGill, Sara Ann. Roanoke (September 2005): 1. Primary Search, EBSCOhost (accessed December 6, 2008).

Oppenheim, M. The Royal and Merchant Navy under Elizabeth, The English Historical Review 23, no. 6 (1891): [inclusive] 465-494 . JSTOR. [Database online.] Oxford University Press .

Weir, Alison. The Life of Elizabeth I. New York: Ballantine Books, 2003.

Williams, Neville. The Sea Dogs. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1975.

 

 

 

 

 


[1] M.Oppenheim. “The Royal and Merchant Navy under Elizabeth “, (JSTOR vol 23, no. 6, 1891): 465-494. The English Historical Review. [Database online.] Oxford University Press. ,466

 

[2] Sir Thomas Wilson “The state of England, Anno Dom. 1600” [contemporary MS.] quoted in  F.J. Fisher (ed.), “Camden Miscellany , XVI” (Camden Society Third Series no. 52, London, 1936)

 

[3] Olivia Isil. “PIRACY, PRIVATEERING AND ELIZABETHAN MARITIME EXPANSION.” (Roanoke Revisited Heritage Education Program  Available from http://www.nps.gov/archive/fora/piracy.htm. Internet; accessed 23 November 2008)

 

[4] Tristran Winslade. De praesenti statu Cornubiae et Devoniae quae Provinciae sunt proximiores

[5] Ibid

[6] Neville Williams. “The Sea Dogs” (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1975), 166

[7] Ibid, 30

[8] Ibid, 166

[9] M.Oppenheim. “The Royal and Merchant Navy under Elizabeth “, (JSTOR vol 23, no. 6, 1891): 465-494. The English Historical Review. [Database online.] Oxford University Press. , 470

[10] Harry Kelsey. “Sir Francis Drake” (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 319

[11] Sir Drakes letter to Privy Council”. Pro SP 12/209/40, fol.58-v. quoted in Harry Kelsey, “Sir Francis Drake” (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 313

[12] John Stow “Annales”, 1255 quoted in James McDermott, “Martin Frobisher Elizabethan Privateer” (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001),362

[13] Olivia Isil. “PIRACY, PRIVATEERING AND ELIZABETHAN MARITIME EXPANSION.” (Roanoke Revisited Heritage Education Program  Available from http://www.nps.gov/archive/fora/piracy.htm. Internet; accessed 23 November 2008)

[14] Nicholas Breton. “A Discourse in commendation of the valiant as virtuous minded Gentleman, Maister Fraucis Drake, with a reioysing of his happy adventures” (http:// http://www.loc.gov/rr/rarebook/catalog/drake/drake-catalogue.html)

[15] Neville Williams. “The Sea Dogs” (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1975), 261

[16] Ibid, 262-263

[17] James McDermott. “Martin Frobisher Elizabethan Privateer” (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 51

[18] Kenneth R.Andrews, “Elizabethan Privateering” Exeter Studies in History, no.10 (Exeter: University of Exeter 1985), 13-16. quoted in Harry Kelsy, “ Sir John Hawkins Queen Elizabeth’s Slave Trader” (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 244

[19] Alison Weir, “The Life of Elizabeth I” (New York: Ballantine Books, 2003),9

[20] B.L. Cotton “MSS Otho” E VIII, ff. 47v-48r, quoted in James McDermott, “Martin Frobisher Elizabethan Privateer” (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001),  111

[21] Sara Ann McGill. “Roanoke” (September 2005): 1. Primary Search, EBSCOhost (accessed December 6, 2008)

 

[22]Sara Ann McGill. “Roanoke” (September 2005): 1. Primary Search, EBSCOhost (accessed December 6, 2008)

 

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