John Callis, pirate, and the Elizabethan ambivalence about his trade

Born in Monmouthshire, John Callis, generally worked out of the south Wales ports of Penarth and Cardiff, “where he and many other pirates (as it is commonly reported) are furnished, vittled, aided, received and succoured”, according to one local justice of the peace. But many local officials were effectively in the pirates’ pocket, receiving stolen goods at bargain prices and, like Cardiff magistrate Thomas Lewes, for instance, releasing on bail any pirates who were unlucky enough to get arrested.

Even Sir John Perrot, vice admiral for South Wales – thought by some contemporaries to be another illegitimate child of Henry VIII, whom he was said to resemble – was accused of complicity with them. Certainly, the Privy Council sent him a stinging rebuke with regard to Callis – “a notorious malefactor” – demanding action:

their Lordships are given to understand that one John Challice, a notable pirate, frequenting that country and arriving lately at Milford, was lodged and horsed in Hereford West, and being there known, was suffered to escape, their Lordships do not a little marvel at the negligence of such as are Justices in those parts, that, knowing the said Challice to be so notable and offender and spoiler of such her Majesty’s neighbours as are in good league and amity with her, a matter greatly touching on her Highness in honour, would suffer him to depart in that order and not apprehend him… howbeit for a show and colour of justice, [they] have apprehended some of the poorest and permitted the chiefest pirates to escape


In fact, while the members of the Privy Council had moral objections to piracy, and understood its impact on trade, their willingness to turn a blind eye to depradations against the Spanish, in particular – as well as to shipping associated with the catholic cause in France – blurred those objections to the point of incomprehensibility. Moreover, the government’s principal concern was more practical than ethical: piracy made for difficult diplomacy. Callis was indiscriminate and indiscreet. He attacked Spanish, French, Danish, Dutch, Scottish, Portuguese and no doubt any other ships that he could find, taking whatever he could see profit in, be it wine or sack; wool or linen; salt, raisins, almonds, capers, olives or pomegranates; whale oil, Scottish salmon, haddock or the catch from the Newfoundland fisheries; and of course cash and any other valuables on board.

One of Ralegh’s men, a gentleman called John Evesham, on a voyage of 1586, has left a detailed description of how such piracies were worked at sea.

At the first not greatly respecting whom we took, so that we might have enriched ourselves, which was the cause of this our travel, and for that we would not be known of what nation we were, we displayed a white silk ensign in our maine top [mast], which they seeing, made account that we had been some of the king of Spain’s Armadas, lying in wait for English men of war: but when we came within shot of her, we took down our white flag, and spread abroad the Cross of S. George, which when they saw, it made them to fly as fast as they might, but all their haste was in vain, for our ships were swifter of sail then they.

It is not edifying. But the combination of naked self-interest and technological superiority – English ships being typically, faster, more manouverable and more heavily and more efficiently armed – was clearly irresistible to many.

The Privy Council certainly had to deal with frequent complaints, and the courts with frequent cases, resulting from the such actions. A later letter from the Spanish ambassador, Mendoza, to Walsingham is indicative of the dynamic:

I am much annoyed at having to be always troubling you about the robberies of pirates, and at seeing that in the four years I have been here, and in all the similar complaints I have made, it is never settled; on the contrary, they have acquired more, and made no restitution of the plundered goods

But the legal system was hardly hospitable to the claims of foreign merchants. Mauvissiere, the French ambassador, wrote to Walsingham of a French merchant who had been trying for over a year to get action from a sergeant of the Admiralty named Swift on judgements already made in the merchant’s favour. When the merchant tried to get another sergeant to take up the case, Swift, “in presence of the Judge of the Admiralty… offered to draw a dagger on him and his wife, calling him ‘French dog’ and other insults not worthy to be recorded”.

Piracy was never regarded as a legitimate business; the hanging of pirates at Wapping and elsewhere was a regular occurrence through the reign. But complicity, connivance and corruption at both local and national level served to give the practice a social acceptability it rarely claimed elsewhere. It is certainly hard to exaggerate the extent of it. “All the boroughs and towns in Scotland are inhabited by Protestants,” complained another of Walsingham’s correspondents, “but so wounded with infinite piracies committed on them and their goods that they cry out that more than the third part of their goods is possessed by pirates of England.”

It is easy to romanticise men like Callis. One of his early ships was called the Cost Me Nought, for instance, which has a certain charm. But, colourful or not, there’s no avoiding the brutality of the man. Mauvissiere’s successor as ambassador complained to Walsingham that Callis “tortured the men and mariners with extraordinary cruelties” and we can, in fact, glimpse him briefly at his trade. The year before the Gilbert voyage, on 12 April 1577, Callis had taken a Danish ship, the Golden Lion of Elsinore, off Beachy Head. After the ship’s capture, its Captain, Pieterson, lay “maimed in his left leg with a musket shot”. He was “threatened to be tormented” – tortured – if he didn’t tell Callis where the cash on board – equivalent to £100 – was hidden.

Shortly thereafter, Callis was arrested and brought to London’s Marshalsea prison. Robert Hicks, a fellow pirate, wrote to him: “Brother Callys… If all I have of mine own, to my shirt, may stand you in stead, you shall as fair command it as my brother born… Fare you well and I pray God send us both our heart’s desire and a merry meeting.” Callis meanwhile was trying to cut a deal to save his neck, offering to sell his knowledge of the pirates “haunts, roads and creeks, yea and their maintainers”.

Hicks was captured, brought to the Marshalsea and hanged. Callis, thanks to the intercession of powerful friends, went free. He was released on 14 July 1578. Within days, he was commissioned to take part in Sir Humphrey Gilbert’s voyage to the Americas alongside the young Walter Ralegh.

NB. This is a greatly expanded version of material on Callis and piracy from my book, The Favourite.

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