The Infamous Fowey Gallants & The Heroic Lady of Place
The tranquil port of Fowey is noted today for the export of china clay and the fleet of pleasure craft moored in its harbour and surrounding creeks during spring and summer. But seven hundred years ago it was a notorious and riotous port renowned throughout England and much of Europe for its piracy.
It was the Hundred Years War between England and France, and the sailors of Fowey were in the thick of it. During the Siege of Calais, Fowey sent 47 ships and 770 men, compared with 43 ships from Yarmouth, 32 from Dartmouth and only 25 from London.
A grateful Edward III rewarded the 'Fowey Gallants' with privateer licences to seize and plunder French ships in the English Channel. They far exceeded these rules of engagement, and Fowey became a byword for piracy, attracting other seafaring rogues including the infamous Dutch pirate Hankyn Seelander, who was granted a licence through his association with the Cornish port.
Notable among the Fowey Gallants was the Michaelstow or Mixstow family. Mark Mixstow was the most notorious, and his son John carried on the family trade. John Mixstow, ignoring the rules of his royal warrant, attacked a Genovese ship off the Portuguese coast and brought the vessel and its rich cargo back to Fowey after putting its crew ashore in Portugal. Gallant indeed!
It was the noblemen and landed gentry of the area who financed the pirates and their raids, and reaped many of the rewards. They included Sir Hugh Courtenay of Boconnoc, the Arundells, and the Treffrys of Fowey. Other local pirates included John Trevelyn, Thomas Tregarthen and Nicholas Carminow.
To stave off reprisal raids on the port, blockhouses were constructed either side of the estuary, linked by a metal chain 16 inches thick, which could be raised during an attack, preventing vessels further entering the harbour.
The plundering of Flemish, Spanish and indeed French ships during periods of truce was of acute embarrassment to the Crown, the more so when Fowey pirates continued to plunder shipping long after the Anglo-French war had ended in 1453. In 1469, John Wilcock's ship the Barbara seized 15 ships in just two weeks.
An indignant French fleet attacked Fowey in July 1457, ransacking the town. Dame Elizabeth Treffry played a heroic role in rallying the townspeople and saving the family home of Place, where many had sheltered within its fortifications. It is said she instigated the pouring of molten lead over the invaders. She was later immortalised in the 1884 poem The Lady of Place by Henry Sewell Stokes.
Despite repeated orders from the Crown for the piracy to stop, it continued regardless. The Fowey pirates were so notorious they were excluded from two treaties with France, eventually forcing an outraged Edward IV to take direct action, calling on 'the willing men of Dartmouth' to aid his cause.
In 1478, a meeting with the Fowey Gallants was called in Lostwithiel, but it was a ruse to allow the Dartmouth seafarers to enter Fowey and seize their ships and merchandise. The chain across the harbour was removed and transferred to the Devon port. The King ordered the arrest of all masters and mariners and a number were executed. The heyday of piracy in Fowey was over.
Even now, the Fowey Gallants live on, in the name of the local sailing club.