The King’s Lynn Borough Archive has a wonderful series of large, leather bound books, called the Hall Books, recording the proceedings of the Town Council. This record, for 10th January, 1625, reports the “granting of twelve great pieces of ordinance for the defence of the town” following attacks by “pirates of Tangiers and Algiers” in 1612, 1619 and 1633 (KL/C 7/9, folio 249). Who were the Barbary Pirates and why did Lynn need protection from them?
Norfolk Record Office, King’s Lynn Borough Archives, KL/C 7/9
In the 17th Century, as Dr Sam Willis said in a recent TV series, the Barbary pirates based themselves on Lundy Island in the Bristol Channel.
For several centuries, from the 14th to the 19th, privateers from the Barbary Coast of North Africa were active, sailing to the British Isles and beyond. Privateers were authorised by their countries to attack the shipping of enemy countries- in other words, they were pirates with a licence. Their ships were lighter and faster than those of the North Sea nations, their purpose capturing crew and cargo.
At one stage, Dutch pirates were working in co-operation with the Barbaries, introducing them to North Sea rigging for their ships to give them greater capabilities in northern waters; several of these Dutch pirates converted to Islam and settled on what was known as the Barbary Coast. Some examples are Süleyman Reis, born Ivan Dirkie De Veenboer, who became admiral of the Algerian corsair fleet in 1617, and his quartermaster Murat Reis, born Jan Janszoon. It was Janszoon who captured Lundy in 1627; he held the island for 5 years and used it as a base for his raids. Both worked for the notorious Dutch corsair Zymen Danseker. Janszoon was known as Murat Reis the Younger, and lived from about 1570 to 1641. He was a Dutch pirate who, as the saying went, “turned Turk” when taken captive in 1618.
By the mid-1600’s the situation was so serious that it threatened England’s fishing industry- fishermen were unwilling to put to sea, leaving their unprotected families at home.
With the rigging introduced to them by their Dutch allies, they were able to raid villages around coasts of England and Ireland as well as other European countries, even as far as Iceland, taking their captives back to Africa as slaves. Men would be put to manual work on the land or at the oars of their galleys; women would be sent to the harems.
Estimates of the numbers taken into slavery amount to 850,000 between 1580 and 1680, and 1,250,000 between 1530 and 1780, though these figures are disputed in some quarters.
Devon and Cornwall were raided in 1625. Perhaps it was this expedition which gave rise to the requests for ordinance at St Anne’s Fort? Ireland was attacked in 1631 and King’s Lynn in 1633.
An early record of 1578, complied retrospectively in the early 18th century in a Mayoral Chronicle (BL/AQ 2/13), reports an Admiralty Court held at St George’s Hall in King’s Lynn, where 16 pirates were condemned to execution. Four were executed at the Guanock, just outside the South Gate, the rest being taken to Norwich.
In King’s Lynn, St Anne’s fort was built in 1570 where the Fisher Fleet meets the Ouse. It was a major part of King’s Lynn’s fortifications until it was replaced in 1839. A section of the original wall can still be seen opposite True’s Yard Fisherfolk Museum. The fort was originally an earth work gun platform with some buildings and a gate access to Fisher Fleet. A plea led to the installation of a 12 gun battery in 1625 to defend King’s Lynn against pirate raids.
The above extract is from the volume which covers 1611 to 1637. Browsing reveals a number of references which give the impression that the town was very much on a military footing. In chronological order, we can read, with folio references in brackets:
- 1612, barrels of gunpowder bought (18), with a reference to “pirates of Tangier” off the coast;
- 1619, reference to “pirates of Algiers and Tunis”, along with costs and charges;(151)
- 1623, 12 muskets to be bought (206);
- 1624, payment for 20 soldiers (230);
- 1624 (224) and 1625 (240) saw the appearance of the Marshal of the Admiralty, presumably to preside over a Marine Court;
- 1625, the “setting forth” of the 12 soldiers (235), and the extract shown above, also by proclamation of the king, the town to buy a barrel of gunpowder (234);
- 1626, 3 barrels of gunpowder to be bought (261), the provision of 2 “shippes of warr” (255) and a 3rd one (263); a grant of 40 marks per annum was provided for arming and training soldiers (260); also mentioned this year was the purchase of 4 barrels of gunpowder and 48 muskets for the town’s defence (253) and the provision of muskets (254);
- 1627, reference to Captains of the Foot Companies of the Town, and costs of a ship of war (266); 1627 also saw money provided for 10 soldiers, their “improvement and apparel” and the purchase of pikes (271);
- 1630, purchase of 2 barrels of gunpowder (327);
- 1633, fitting out a ship of war (402), and again in 1635 (418); there was also this year the reimbursement of expenses for “conducting pirates to Marshalsea” (384);
Marshalsea prison, near London Bridge, dated from medieval times and was closed in 1842, being demolished soon afterwards.
Going back to the Hall Book, we can read of the purchase in 1635 of barrels of gunpowder, and shot (412) and a warrant for 36 barrels of gunpowder (413); in 1636 reference was made to the provision for 3 officers at arms. As far as I can find out, at least by reference to the legal system in Scotland, officers at arms were legal enforcers with royal powers, and were not restricted to one area as were locally appointed sheriffs. I suppose a reasonable analogy might be in comparing the FBI with the local police department.
It is easy to see why the town, variously known as Lin, Lenne, Bishop’s Lynn and King’s Lynn through its history, would have been a tempting target. It was a member of the Hanseatic League- the Hanseatic Warehouse still stands- and trade brought wealth and status. It ranked as the 11th richest town in the country in 1334, and as a port of importance during the 14th century, was only surpassed by Southampton and London. It was a major staging post for pilgrims from Europe and the North of England who wished to avoid the uncertain routes across the Fens or the Wash on the way to Walsingham. Lynn Museum holds a collection of pilgrims’ badges second only in importance to that held in London. Wealth built fine churches and merchants’ houses- after visiting Stories of Lynn in the Town Hall, an interesting walk takes in St Margaret’s, the Custom House, Queen Street and King Street, for the merchants’ houses, Tuesday Market, with the Witch’s Heart, and St Nicholas’.
Compiled by Pete Widdows, Research Blogger