Pirates of the Pembrokeshire Coast

Monday 18 July 2011, 15:30

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice

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You only have to turn on the television or open a newspaper to see that piracy is still alive and - I hesitate to say "well" - kicking in our modern world. These days it seems to be restricted, in the main, to the near and far East. But it was not so long ago that pirates and piracy flourished around the Welsh coast - around Pembrokeshire in particular.

Angle Bay

Angle Bay in Pembrokeshire was the scene of pirate activity (image from coletracey)

In the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries the problem of piracy was a major issue in all of the western counties of Wales. This was, in many respects, due to the fact that the area was so far away from central government but a large part of the problem also stemmed from the fact that all elements of society, from squires and landed gentry to humble shop owners and fishermen, were involved in the business.

For a long while, in the days of Elizabeth I, one of the prime movers in both piracy and smuggling was George Clerk. He was at the centre of a web of illegal operations that brought him hundreds of pounds every year. And he was also a senior customs officer stationed at the town and port of Pembroke! Small wonder he could operate with impunity.

Clerk was the man who also owned the Point House Inn in Angle. This ancient beer house was renowned as the haunt of pirates and smugglers, often giving sanctuary to men on the run from the law. John Callice, the famous Cardiff pirate, was just one man who made use of Clerk's hospitality - for a price, of course.

From the mid 1570s onwards Clerk was regularly paid to "turn a blind eye" to the dealings of the more unscrupulous merchants of Pembroke town. Although war between Britain and Spain did not break out until 1587, the two countries had been implacable enemies for many years as men like Francis Drake and John Hawkins constantly harassed and captured Spanish ships. It did not stop the Pembroke merchants transporting cargoes of leather and grain to and from Spain. Clerk simply ignored the trade and happily took his share.

One of the best "piracy" stories from west Wales concerns Sir John Perrott and a pirate gang led by a certain Edward Herberde in the early 17th century.

Off the Heads outside Milford Haven, Herberde boarded and took a vessel carrying a cargo of salt. He then sailed the captured ship into the Haven and up the river to Pembroke, then the largest port in west Wales. The ship's owner, Dutchman Peter Muncke, was frogmarched into the town and at the point of a hidden dagger was forced to stand in the town market and attempt to sell the salt.

Unfortunately for Herberde and his gang, the town mayor took one look at Muncke and realised he was acting under duress. When the pirates were looking the other way he managed to exchange a quick word with the unfortunate Dutchman and confirm his suspicions.

From there events moved rapidly. Sir John Perrott, the mayor said, was the man most likely to buy such a huge cargo and so Muncke and two pirates set off for his home in nearby Carew. Once there the pirates were overpowered and a plan was hatched.

As dusk fell slowly and easily over Pembroke River, two longboats pushed off from the quay. They held Sir John Perrott, the town mayor, Peter Muncke and several dozen armed men. Under cover of darkness they climbed the side of Muncke's ship and fell on the pirates who were more concerned with drinking away the profits they soon expected to come their way. Surprise was absolute and after a brief fight the ship was taken.

The piracy did not end there, however, and surprisingly the cargo did not revert to Peter Muncke. Sir John Perrott decided that he would retain half of the cargo as a "reward" for his part in the affair. Pembroke's town mayor also grabbed himself a further five tons of salt, again as a reward for himself. After all, civic duty demanded some recompense!

The ship, the rest of her cargo, even her ropes and tackle, were then divided up between John Vaughan - the original customer for the salt - and Sir Richard Vaughan who qualified for a large portion of the cargo simply because he was deputy vice admiral for south Wales. The men who had done the actual fighting received a few bags of salt each - a valuable and much sought after commodity in those days as it was the only means of preserving fish and meat.

And Peter Muncke? Much to his chagrin he was graciously allowed share of the profits, decided to cut his losses and promptly disappeared from the scene - probably vowing never to go near Pembrokeshire again.

Muncke's disappearance did cause a few problems, however. When the pirates came to trial at Haverfordwest Assizes later in the year, he was called to give evidence. Of course, he did not appear and the case simply fell apart. Judge Fetyplace was obliged to set the defendants free and they returned to their piratical ways, no doubt supplying Sir John Perrott and other local dignitaries with whatever goods they could capture on the seas around the Pembrokeshire coast.

Piracy in the 16th and 17th centuries was clearly not restricted simply to low born ruffians and scoundrels. It was a business open to everyone.

Phil will be talking to Roy Noble about the pirates of the Pembrokeshire coast on Tuesday 19 July from 2pm on BBC Radio Wales.

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