Monday, August 24, 2015

Bess and the Pirates

One of my earliest posts was about how much the morals, clothes and customs of the era of Queen Victoria have influenced how we think about history – including pirates. This post talks about another queen, the lady who set England up as a nation of pirates, and who probably influenced today’s attitude toward pirates being quasi-good-guys.

I’m talking about none other than Good Queen Bess, Elizabeth I, who reigned from 1558 to 1604. She came to the throne of England during what has been called the Age of Exploration.

Bess did not have a promising start. Born to Henry VIII’s second wife, Ann Boleyn, her mother was beheaded when little Elizabeth was 4 years old, and after that Bess lived a precarious life, her legal state as either a princess or a heretic bastard offspring always in question.  After her father’s death, she survived the reigns of her brother Edward and her sister (Bloody) Mary, and inherited a kingdom with no army, no navy, and no money in the treasury.

Elizabeth, however, did not want to sit idly by while the rest of the Europe established colonies in the New World. She began backing explorers – giving them Royal Favor when Royal cash was in short supply, and encouraging her nobles to do the same.

Spain, once a country even poorer than England, has recently become the richest and most powerful nation on earth, due entirely to New World gold. Phillip of Spain had wanted to marry Elizabeth, but she had turned him down cold, due partially to the fact that he had been married to Elizabeth’s sister Mary, partially to the fact that Catholic Phillip wanted Elizabeth to turn away from her Protestant religion and supporters, partially because he would not have let her run her country as she saw fit.

Whether or not Phillip had also tried to rape Bess during one of his visits to her sister, his then-wife Mary, is still under debate.

So, relations between Spain and England were – strained at best.  Up until recently, the Pope as head of the Catholic Church had been an arbitrator between nations. But Protestant England did not recognize this authority, so the fact that the Pope had given most of North and South America to Spain didn’t matter.

The Elizabethan explorers sailed off into the unknown, often using untried technology (navigation charts/equipment, new ship designs) and on a shoestring budget. They were hoping to get rich quick. On the other side of the world, where Spain was pillaging the natives, these men saw no reason why they should not pillage the Spanish. They brought their riches back, and repaid the Queen with gold.

Elizabeth poured this money back into her country. For those who think that the “federal government” messing with “free enterprise” is new, you are dead wrong. Like her grandfather before her, Bess loaned money to cities and key industries, including ship-building and colonization. This investment brought about, not a collapse of initiative, but  England’s Golden Age. Bess wanted results and she usually got them. England sent more explorers into the unknown.

Spain protested the intrusion and the robberies. It would have been very easy for Elizabeth to back down. But she did not. She defended her pirates, giving them royal titles and estates. To the English, these men were daring heroes. To the Spanish, they were pirates. History seems to side with the Spanish, but that didn’t matter at the time.

When Francis Drake circumnavigated the world, Elizabeth used the money he had “found” to pay off the national debt. She knighted Drake, and also went on board his ship to see it and his crew. While on this “goodwill inspection tour” with members of her Royal Court, Bess’s garter popped open and fell onto the deck.

This item of royal clothing was quickly snatched up by the French Ambassador, who claimed it as a love token for his own royal family. Elizabeth, however, was having none of this. She stalked across the deck and snatched the garter back, declaring “You can have your token later, right now I need it to hold up my sock!” Then, in front of her court, the newly knighted Drake, and the ship’s sailors – some of whom had been convicts or paupers, Good Queen Bess hauled up her dress to above the knee, exposing her royal leg, tied the garter onto her sock, and them put everything back the way it belonged. 

Sailors told stories about the beauty of the exposed leg for generations. The pirates loved Bess.

By 1588, Phillip of Spain had had enough. He launched the Spanish Armada against England, a force of ships so strong that no one could imagine how they might possibly be defeated. Elizabeth was frightened enough to order the release of all prisoners, imagining street-by-street fighting in London against the might of the Spanish invasion.

Elizabeth’s pirates rose to the occasion. Outnumbered, outclassed, they did what pirates do best. They fought dirty. The most out-dates and least seaworthy vessels in the English fleet were set on fire and steered into the approaching Spanish force. The huge Spanish warships, packed together, took terrible losses. A freak storm did the rest.  England was saved.

Elizabeth gave most of the credit to the storm, probably because in those literally minded days, this “Act of God” seemed to show God’s approval for English activities. The pirates probably didn’t care. Spain’s might was utterly broken, and it never again reached such a height of power. Phillip, faced with the fact that God might NOT have wanted him to control the whole world, retreated into depression, and died believing that he probably just hadn’t burned enough heretics at the stake.

The Elizabethan pirates are often known today as the Buccaneering Pirates, or Buccaneers. Their line continued until Sir Henry Morgan died of liver failure in Port Royal Jamaica a hundred years later. These pirates brought back the money that allowed Elizabeth to become a patron of the arts and literature, and to usher in her country’s Golden Age. Not bad for a renegade woman and a passel of pirates.


  1. The defeat of the Spanish Armada is an iconic moment in British history. I have never heard of Queen Elizabeth described as a renegade or Drake and his sailors as pirates...and I have never heard of the "garter story" either. However it was both very interesting and educational ... and also refreshing to read an account from a different point of view from which I am used to. I have learnt something this evening reading this! A great article!!

    1. Drake tended to overstep his orders, which can be defined as piracy if you look at it like that. (The Spanish certainly did) To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin when he spoke about Rebellion: "Piracy is always legal in the first person: Our Piracy. It is only in the third person: Their Piracy that it is illegal.