1684 sketch by Jan Luyken | Captain Lambert with six ships carrying prisoners and sent to Algiers. 125 pirates are thrown, per two prisoners tied back to back, into the sea before Algiers. | Amsterdams Historisch Museum. A41724 | Public Domain | Source

When it comes to pirates in Elizabethan England, they are truly fascinating because all of the glorious pirate action you see in big hollywood blockbuster films, was a real thing. Not only that, but for Elizabethan England, pirates were a integral part of the nations international naval strategy. 


Under Queen Elizabeth I, there were lawful pirates who were officially authorized by the English government to attack treasure bearing ships of enemy nations. Given what is called a “letter of marque” they were appointed to their position of Privateer and given official license to plunder the ships of their enemies.

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Replica of the Elizabethan galleon, The Golden Hind, captained by Francis Drake in 16th Century, Southwark, London, UK. Photo taken and owned by Jose L. Marin. Used under Creative Commons License 2.5 Generic License which gives permission to use the photo with appropriate attribution. Read license and original source photo here.

 Known as the Golden Age of Pirates, the Elizabethan era saw many of the explorers from England who were seeking out new lands for the Queen, labeled as pirates by the enemies who suffered at their hands. Technically, they were explorers for England, but their activities of pillaging, plundering, and sinking/attacking ships on their way to and from these expeditions, drew a fine line between hero and villain, determined mainly by whether or not you were their friend.

As the film says, they weren’t really rules, but more like guidelines anyway. 

Some of England’s most famous pirates included Sir Francis Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Martin Frobisher, Sir Richard Hawkins, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, Sir Richard Greenville, and Sir John Hawkins. 

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 Portrait of John Hawkins, National Maritime Museum, London. Unknown artist. 1581. Source

1588 Portrait of Sir Walter Raleigh, as displayed at the National Portrait Gallery. Public Domain. Source

1600 Potrait of Richard Hawkins, held at NMM Greenwich, UK. Public Domain. Source

Post 1590 portrait of Sir Francis Drake, by Marcus Geeraerts the Younger (contemporary of Shakespeare).  Public Domain. Source

So why were these men pillaging for England? Well, that was mainly due to the fact that England arrived late to the colonial game. It would not be until the founding of Jamestown under King James of England, just 4 years after the death of Queen Elizabeth that England established its first real colony in the New World. While Roanoke as well as a few other landing sites gave colonization a good go under Elizabeth, many historians record that there were no colonies for England under Elizabeth I. 



1589 Hand-colored engraving, by Giovanni Battista Boazio of Sir Francis Drakes West Indian Voyage 1585-86. Held in the Library of Congress. Public Domain. Source


Whether or not you count a few of the journeys that happened in the late 16th century as legitimate colonies or not, the fact was that England’s land conquests internationally paled in comparison to that of the Spanish and Portuguese, who had already been generating revenue from these new settlements long before England decided to follow suit.

In response to their being behind in the game, England decided to steal the gold and treasures off the Spanish ships as they made their way back to Europe from the new colonies.England supported these efforts, as the confiscated treasure was a revenue source at home for England. As you can imagine, however, Spain greatly disliked this behavior, and it would eventually lead the the Anglo-Spanish War from 1585-1604 (the eruption of which is one reason colonies like Roanoke remained under supplied in the New World), and these same English privateers which were stealing from the Spanish as lawful pirates were the same group of men who formed the naval assault which famously defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588. 

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“La batalla de Gravelinas” |Described as “Elizabeth I and the Spanish Armada; the Apothecaries painting, sometimes attributed to Nicholas Hilliard. A stylised depiction of key elements of the Armada story: the alarm beacons, Queen Elizabeth at Tilbury, and the sea battle at Gravelines.” Attributed to Nicholas Hilliard, for National Geographic. This image is in the public domain due to its’ age of over 70 years. Source


In addition to English pirates, the Dutch also supported pirateering, establishing Protestant Privateers to attack the Catholic Spanish ships. Protestant England under Queen ELizabeth supported these efforts, and allowed the Dutch pirates to enjoy safe harbour in English ports.

These entire group of pirates established by the English were known collectively as The Sea Dogs. In essence, it was ENgland’s way of making it ok to attack Spain during peacetime. The group was started in 1560, just 4 years before Shakespeare was born, and would remain in operation in England through to 1604. At the conclusion of the Anglo-Spanish war, the Sea Dogs moved to operations off the Barbary Coast of Africa, eventually developing into the Caribbean pirates.

This map by Jan Janssonius (1588-1664) shows the coast of North Africa, an area known in the 17th century as Barbaria. The upper part of the map represents a general map of North-Africa from the delta of the River Nile to the Canary Islands. The bottom part shows large areas of Algeria, Tunesia and Libya. Circa 1650. Public Domain. Source

While glamorous and powerful in their heyday, it would be his involvement as a Sea Dog which ultimately lead to the death of one of England’s most famous pirates, Sir Walter Raleigh. During one expedition for England, after the peace treaty had been established with Spain, a subordinate of Raleigh raided a Spanish outpost (undoubtedly due to this action being a force of habit by this point, and it being hard to convince pirates to stop hating their enemies just because the monarchs signed an agreement). Nevertheless, the action violated the peace treaty with Spain, and while Raleigh was granted clemency under Elizabeth I who favored Raleigh, King James I would order the execution of Sir Walter Raleigh in 1618, in a direct effort to appease the anger of Spain over the looting of their outpost.

Francis Drake in California, 1579. Published 1590. Unknown Artist. Public Domain. Source

From his birth until his death, the reign of pirates across the sea for England was a reality for William Shakespeare’s lifetime, which may explain why the word “pirate” show up over 20 times in the words of William Shakespeare, claiming they are everything from “warlike” pirates in Hamlet, to “sanctimonious” in MEasure for Measure. It seems Shakespeare’s impression of pirates matches that of our historical records in thinking there was a great overlap between good vs bad and villain vs hero when it came to understanding a pirate.

That’s it for this week! I’m Cassidy Cash, and I hope you learn something new about the bard. Find even more episodes of That Shakespeare Life inside our brand new digital streaming app! Bonus documentaries, animated plays, and more help you learn something new about William Shakespeare.

Find the the app at www.cassidycash.com/experience and be sure to hit like and subscribe below this video to join us every Saturday for even more Shakespeare.

See you next week!


Use our collection of activity kits to can cook, play, and create your way through the life of William Shakespeare with recipes, games, and crafts straight from Shakespeare's lifetime (and mentioned in his plays!) It's the most fun way to explore history.

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