A Haven for Pirates


In 1559, when a national system of customs and coastal protection was introduced, Cardiff became the principal port for the Welsh coastline from Chepstow to Worms' Head. The Customs House was built in High Street where officials assessed the correct duty, maintained a record of sailings, inspected cargoes, and gave them the seal of approval. Evasion of customs duty was almost a way of life at the time and customs officers themselves were sometimes guilty of malpractice. In 1598 a controller at Cardiff, John Millom, was found guilty of "sundry foul and notorious misdemeanours and offences', for which he was fined £200 and put in the pillory.

Before the end of the sixteenth century, 10 merchant vessels were regularly trading from Cardiff. Three of the larger ships, forty to fifty tons in capacity, ventured as far as the Channel Islands and France, but the smaller craft only sailed locally to Bristol, Bridgwater, Gloucester and Minehead. Their most common cargoes were agricultural produce, especially poultry, butter and cheese, all of which attracted higher prices across the Bristol Channel. The greatest menace to sea-farers was  piracy which had not abated since the Middle Ages, and was to pose a very serious problem in the reign of Queen Elizabeth. After seizing their prize, pirates sought a "safe' port where they could dispose of their loot with the connivance of corrupt officials and influential local citizens. In return for their sympathetic attitude, these gentry naturally received a share of the proceeds.

In the 1570's, Cardiff became the favourite haunt of John Callice, a notorious pirate who captured unwary merchant vessels in the Bristol Channel. He unloaded the cargoes in sheltered harbours such as Penarth or Sully, and then used Cardiff as a market for his ill-gotten gains. The townspeople were happy enough to buy stolen wine, salt, fish, or more exotic items at a bargain price, but they resented the swaggering arrogance of the pirates and the dreadful reputation Cardiffwas earning as a "general resort of pirates'. The merchants of the town, when travelling the length and breadth of the country, were afraid to "avow the place of their dwelling at Cardiff', such was its evil reputation. Ordinary people were helpless as long as the borough's prominent citizens, led by William Herbert, gave their blessing to these piratical enterprises. In 1574 Callice captured a Breton fishing boat, Grace of God, and disposed of its cargo in Cardiffand Bristol. Two years later, aided by a ruffian known as "Brother Battes', he seized a Spanish ship with its consignment of wool destined for Bruges. Once again the property was sold in Cardiff but, when the owners made an official protest, the

Admiralty Court
ordered all the purchasers of stolen goods to restore them. John Croft, the commissioner sent by the court to enforce the order, was treated with contempt and received a rough reception, especially from William Herbert. Croft followed one of the pirates' ships to Newport, where he witnessed its unloading and victualling, but his plea for assistance to apprehend the criminals was greeted with derision. As his mission ended in complete failure, Croft reported, "the townsmen of Cardiff and sundry gentlemen thereabouts did commonly buy and receive diverse of the goods and spoils brought there by Callice and his accomplices and gave them aid with victuals and other necessaries'.

The brazen arrogance of Callice forced the Privy Council into the appointment of a special commission of investigation. Its enquiries revealed the extent of the camaraderie between the pirates and the gentry. Notable burgesses fom Cardiff not only helped to equip and finance piratical adventures, but also visited Callice and his cronies on board their ship, or indulged in riotous evenings with them at "taverns and tippling houses in Penarth and Cardiff'. The Sheriff of Glamorgan, Nicholas Herbert, and even a member of the commission, Thomas Lewis of the Van, were implicated in dubious dealings with the pirates. Fines of £10 to £20 were imposed on the ring-leaders and they were bound over with a stern warning not to repeat the offences.

Callice was finally trapped off the Isle of Wight in May 1577. He was sent to the Tower but, in a petition to the Queen, he offered his services in clearing the coast of "wicked pirates'. He was given a pardon and then proceeded to prove that there was no honour among thieves by betraying his accomplice, "Brother Battes', who was captured and hanged. Despite the efforts of the Privy Council, the collaboration between pirates and gentry lingered on into the early years of the seventeenth century.

By that time Barbarypirates, using fast, light, well-armed vessels from bases in Ireland, were bringing a new terror to peaceful merchantmen in the Bristol Channel. Charles I tried to take firm measures against the pirates in 1626, when he requisitioned a thirty ton barque from the county of Glamorganto engage them at sea. The justices of the peace, with some embarrassment, pleaded that they were unable to supply such a ship since all five vessels of that size had recently been seized by Turkish pirates, "to the utter undoing of many poor merchants here and discouragement of all others'.

Gun-running from the port of Cardiff was another illegal activity which brought rich pickings to one local family. The Mathew fraternity manufactured cannon of a high quality at their iron works in Radyr, but profits were put in jeopardy as England's relations with Spain  deteriorated and Queen Elizabeth placed an embargo on the export of cannon. Edmund Mathew, however, was untroubled by any patriotic scruples and in 1574 he was accused of illegally exporting cannon.

He seems to have weathered that particular storm, but in 1602 the Privy Council again voiced its suspicions in ordering, "that especiall care be had to put down Edmund Mathew esq., for casting any ordnance at his furnace near Cardiff in Wales, because from that place very easily they may be carried into Spain'. It was alleged that Mathew had exported more than 150 tons of ordnance quite openly from Cardiff, between 1582 and 1600, because "the port officers were poor and dared not displease him'.

After this warning, Mathew took the prudent course of leasing his works to a Cardiffmerchant, a kindred spirit by the name of Peter Semayne. No doubt, Mathew continued to take an interest in the Radyr Forge and in 1609, following fresh accusations of illegal dealings in weapons, the Privy Council ordered Semayne's arrest and the destruction of the forge.

It was never an easy matter to carry out such orders at local level. In 1614 the Radyr Works was still intact and Sir John Throckmorton was castigating Semayne as "a pestilent fellow... arming all the world with our artillery against us'. Yet another attempt to arrest him and  destroy the furnace proved fruitless, though by 1625 the production of cannon at Radyr had ceased.