Longsword by David Pilling

Monday, 20 August 2012

PIRATES!! (but no Johnny Depp...)

"Ende oec mede dese lede Crabbe,
Warp oec in sine swabbe,
Dese dede opt water grote scade,
Hine dede niemene genade..."

No, I've not been overdosing on merry pills - these are the words of the Antwerp chronicler, Lodewijk Van Velthem, recording the antics of the notorious Flemish pirate, John Crabbe. Translated into modern English they read something like: "'And in addition to the harm these men wrought, Crabbe also contributed his share. He wrought great damage on the seas, showing mercy to no one. Now he appeared here, now there..."

Van Velthem signed off by saying of Crabbe and his associates that "Such is the evil company of robbers - they do not keep to what they promise; and in the end themselves are deceived."

John Crabbe, however, was immune to any form of deception. In a long and wildly varied career as a pirate and seafaring mercenary, starting in about 1305 and ending with his death in England in 1352, he enjoyed the kind of success that later small-time buccaneers such as Blackbeard and Calico Jack (the inspiration for Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow, incidentally) would have killed for. He is also the latest villain to make an appearance in the ninth of my John Swale Chronicles, a splendidly amoral character, if little-known these days, and one I couldn't resist including. 

Born some time in the late 13th century in Muiden, a small town on the Flemish coast near the mouth of the Zwin, Crabbe had an inauspicious start to life. His surname was a fairly common one in Bruges and other places in Flanders - for instance, there was a Clais Crabbe recorded as living in 1347, and Crabbe's nephew, 'son of Peter Crabbe' (recorded as 'Crabbekin', possibly to avoid confusion) served as a pirate aboard his famous uncle's ships. 

John Crabbe's name first appears in connection with piracy with a robbery committed near the port of La Rochelle on the Bay of Biscay, in 1305. Here he and his crew forcefully seized a a ship called the 'Waardebourc'  belonging to one John de la Waerde, a merchant of Dordrecht. The pirates made a thorough job of it, snatching 160 tuns of wine and all the goods on board, torching the ship and holding the crew to ransom. De la Waerde appealled for justice and recompense to just about everyone, including Philip the Fair, King of France, but even with the help of the Count of Flanders it proved impossible to bring the slippery Crabbe to justice.

Nothing more is heard of the pirate for a few years, but in 1310 he struck again. This time he bagged an even richer prize, a ship belonging to Alice the Countess Marshal carrying a fortune in gold, jewels, expensive cloth, silver, and other items valued at 2000 pounds sterling. The ship was sailing peacefully in the Strait of Dover between Dover and Whitsand when Crabbe's ship, the De La Mue, descended on it. This time the King of England requested that the hapless Count of Flanders bring his wayward subjects to justice, and once again Crabbe slipped the clutches of the law. 

It turned out he had made good his escape to Aberdeen in Scotland, where he cleverly re-invented himself as a merchant and a soldier-for-hire, assisting the Scots in their endless wars against England. In his absence he was convicted of robbery, and condemned to a particularly nasty death - breaking on the wheel - if he ever returned to Flanders. But return to Flanders he did, many times, to sell goods from plundered English vessels in Flemish ports, and no Flemish official had the nerve to lay a hand on him. This is unsurprising, for by 1315 Crabbe had won fame and reputation as a tireless and ruthless freebooter, and not a man to cross.

Crabbe made himself indispensable to the Scots, advising them on the defence of Berwick-upon-Tweed when the English attempted to recapture the place in 1318-19. The Scottish chronicler John Barbour was moved to praise Crabbe in verse, saying that "John Crabbe, a Fleming was he, a man of great subtlety..." The pirate took advantage of such plaudits to wring favours from the Scottish government, and by the time he appears in my tale - 1332 - he was a respected burgher of Berwick, and in receipt of handsome payments for supplying the town with arms and stolen goods. 

He is, however, about to be pitched into a new war between Scotland and her old foe England that even John Crabbe, with all his experience and resourcefulness, might be hard put to survive...



  1. David, your new book sounds exciting. Thanks for the history lesson and the tease.:)