Portrait of a Pirate: John Crabbe (c. 1290–1352)


Battle of Sluys, at which John Crabbe fought, from Froissart’s Chronicles


The world of John Crabbe, 1310–40.

John Crabbe was one of a very few medieval pirates who stood out as extraordinary, independent opportunists. Unlike the majority of these men, he operated without a lifelong base. On the contrary, he sought adventure by serving several different leaders, one after another. To each of them in turn, he could be relied on for very efficient and effective service, while it lasted, but not for consistent allegiance. There was nothing which tied him down.

During the period of thirty-five years when he was active at sea, he served the heads of three states, Flanders, Scotland and England, changing sides twice, as well as living through a period when he fluctuated between Flanders and Scotland. As a result he became one of the most celebrated, the most feared and, in several quarters, one of the most hated seamen of his day. However, in contrast to Eustace the Monk, a similarly independent character, Crabbe managed to live to an advanced age and die of natural causes.

Crabbe was probably born around 1290. His family circumstances went unrecorded, but he came from Muiden (alternatively known as Mude, now Sint Anna ter Muiden), near the mouth of the Zwin, on the left bank of the channel leading from the North Sea towards Damme and Bruges. He therefore grew up surrounded by the busy commercial life of the sea. As a small boy he is most likely to have witnessed with excitement the chaos which attended the arrival of Edward I’s fleet in 1297: if not actually present, he would have heard about that soon enough.

His name first appears in 1305 or ’06 in connection with the violent seizure off La Rochelle of the Waardebourc, a ship belonging to John de le Waarde, a merchant of Dordrecht. This was just one event which reflected a long-running dispute between the counts of Holland and Zeeland on the one hand and the counts of Flanders on the other. The bone of contention was ownership of Walcheren, Noord Beveland and Zuid Beveland, then three separate islands (now united as one) lying between the two mouths of the Scheldt. On this occasion Crabbe and his companions seized 160 tuns of wine and all the other goods on board with a total value of 2,000lt, and kidnapped the crew. Despite determined requests for justice and compensation, de le Waarde received no satisfaction until seven years later, when a treaty was signed between the two opposing sides.

Shortly before 28 May 1310 Crabbe struck again, this time far up the Channel, much nearer his home base. By then he was master of the ship de la Mue (Muiden) and accompanied by a second Flemish ship, he seized a vessel carrying the possessions of Alice, Countess Marshall, the widow of Roger Bigod, hereditary Earl of Norfolk. She was planning to leave London shortly to go ‘overseas’ – which may have meant she was going to Hainault to her father, John de Avennes, one-time count of that province. She had sent her clothes, jewels, gold and silver valued at 2,000l on ahead (into a pirate-infested sea!), only to lose them to Crabbe as her ship approached Wissant. Repeated calls to Robert, Count of Flanders, for return of the goods met with no response for five years, that was until 1315, when the count replied that a number of culprits had been punished. Whether that was true or not, Crabbe himself had evidently escaped some time previously, for by then he was living in a Flemish colony in Aberdeen.

Crabbe’s first phase of living at least part-time in Scotland had begun around 1311, when the Flemings were uniting with the Scots to exploit the continuing enmity between England and Scotland. On 3 September 1311 Crabbe and a collection of men from both Aberdeen and Flanders stole eighty-nine sacks of English wool from two ships sailing together from Newcastle to Flanders. Crabbe then sent the Scots on to sell the wool in Flanders, which may imply that he himself was already outlawed from Flanders. Then, in May 1313, Edward II asked Robert, Count of Flanders, to do justice to English merchants for the robberies committed by John Crabbe and other Flemings, on the understanding that the king would reciprocate by compensating Flemings who had suffered at the hands of English pirates at Crasden and elsewhere since the time of the king’s accession.

The Great Famine of 1315–17 hit all the northern countries, but Flanders probably suffered especially badly on account of its large, concentrated, urban population. The count reacted to the situation by assembling a fleet to send to sea at public expense ‘to acquire victuals for the sustenance of the men … where there is great need and famine’. In other words, this was state-sponsored piracy, and such was Crabbe’s reputation as a fearless and successful pirate that in this state of emergency he was recalled and, having been swiftly pardoned of all his previous wrongdoings, he was made leader of this Flemish fleet. He set sail on Ash Wednesday, 24 February 1316. Five days later they captured two Yarmouth ships on their way home from Rouen laden with provisions. It seems highly probable that other victims followed.

Crabbe was still in the southern area just before Christmas 1316, because then he captured a wine ship in the Downs off Sandwich. The Bona Navis de la Strode (Strood, on the Medway in Kent), with John Springer as master, had probably reached the end of her voyage when Crabbe and his associates attacked and made off with both the ship and the cargo – 86 tuns, 25 pipes of wine belonging equally to two merchants, Aymer de Insula, a merchant of Bordeaux and Arnold Dosyngham, described as a citizen of Bazas, 50km south-east of Bordeaux. The value of the wine was quickly established by the Sheriff of Kent at 788l sterling. Other goods and merchandise belonging to various merchants together with the ship’s tackle and beds and chests and other small belongings of the master were valued at 210 marks. The king immediately ordered the sheriffs of London, Lincoln, Norfolk and Suffolk to arrest various proportions of goods belonging to the Flemings up to this value, allowing 8l per tun and 4l per pipe of wine, and to keep them safely. Three demands met with no response from Robert, Count of Flanders before he eventually replied in April 1318. He was, he said, ignorant of the whole affair. This was greeted with astonishment in England, since it was well known that at that time Crabbe stayed in Flanders whenever he chose, that the count had appropriated the wine for his own use and had already passed the ship on to someone else. It was not until July 1332, sixteen years after the seizure of the ship, that Edward III finally instructed the sheriffs of Kent, Suffolk and Norfolk to produce the sums from Flemish cargoes which they had impounded, so that he could indemnify the merchants and owner in full.

Soon after his capture of the Bona Navis, and apparently banished from Flanders for murder, Crabbe began his second Scottish phase. Ever since the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, bitter fighting had been taking place on the Border, and on 1 April 1318 Berwick-upon-Tweed was captured from the English and became a vital Scottish outpost. Crabbe was certainly living there by August 1319 when the English tried to recapture it. His help in strengthening the town fortifications was invaluable, and he carried on serving the Scots, harrying the English on land and at sea.

A change in his fortunes, however, happened in 1332, coinciding interestingly enough, with the effective beginning of the reign of Edward III. The English destroyed all the ten Flemish ships Crabbe had taken north to the Firth of Tay in response to a request for support by the Scots, and later that autumn he himself fell into their hands during a skirmish near Kelso. Being extremely unpopular with the English, his life was in jeopardy. The parliament which was convened at York in January 1333 was in angry mood, demanding recompense and retribution from this man who had robbed their merchants and hanged their seamen from their own masts for many years past. They demanded that he pay the full penalty, and meanwhile he was to be kept in chains. It was an ignominious beginning to the final, English, phase of his life.

The English were then besieging Berwick, and Crabbe played the only card available to him. Against strong odds, he persuaded Edward III that his knowledge of the defences of that town would be useful. In the event, his inside knowledge and practical help proved so valuable that the king saw fit to pardon him of ‘all homicides, felonies and other offences of which he might possibly be accused, whether on land or sea’. He was also created constable, for life, of Somerton Castle, Lincolnshire. Seen in retrospect, his survival and recovery was remarkable. But his former friends, the Scots in Berwick, were furious at his treachery and apparently vented their wrath by killing his son.

Crabbe continued to provide advice and materials for the English war against Scotland. In March 1335 he assembled a fleet of ten ships, complete with 1,000 mariners and archers, to go to sea to try to prevent French support reaching the Scots. In December 1337 he was to be paid 100s for his expenses incurred while staying in Berwick, and all the engines there were to be repaired according to his specification.

In February 1339 he was to be paid a further 24l for surveying the construction of certain engines and ‘hurdis’, which were either siege towers or wooden galleries to attach to the castle, at Dunbar. This payment seems to have been for clearing up matters prior to his departure, since he was about to set out on the king’s service overseas. That June he was paid for going north with another hundred archers ‘for the defence of the realm’ and, described as the king’s yeoman, he was also allowed 100l to repair his houses at Somerton.

In the meantime, in 1337 war with France had begun. As Edward III was hoping to use the Low Countries as a base for invading France, it was highly important to keep the sea lanes in the North Sea open and free of French marauders. To that intent Crabbe, the former pirate who probably understood more than anybody else about the geography of the Zwin and about navigation in the North Sea, was brought south in the summer of 1339 to work with Robert Morley, a Norfolk knight who had recently been recruited as admiral of the fleet north of the Thames and was to become one of the most able and energetic of naval commanders. It was this somewhat improbable combination of two men who, that year, took a convoy of ships carrying supplies of money, wool and military reinforcements over to Sluys. There they did raid an enemy merchant convoy and took numerous prizes, but they also attacked without discrimination neutral Flemish and Spanish escort vessels which they had been expressly told not to tamper with. To make matters worse, when they returned to the Orwell, they quarrelled over the division of the spoils of their plunder, and the fleet which had only been assembled with difficulty scattered and some of the vessels sailed off, beyond recall.

Edward III was still hoping to take an army across from the Orwell to Flanders, but he suffered repeated frustrations when his hoped-for force of men, supplies and ships failed to materialise. While he was delayed, Philip VI of France was also frustrated, because the Genoese who had added their important support to the French for nearly two years had mutinied and taken their ships back to the Mediterranean. Thus weakened, Philip fell back on the only policy open to him – using those ships which remained at his disposal to block the mouths of the Scheldt. At least the English would not be able to enter and anchor there.

Edward too had only a limited force, and in view of the great risks to the king himself, the Archbishop of Canterbury intervened and strongly advised him to be cautious about going. The king turned to Morley and Crabbe looking for more encouraging support, but he found that their advice confirmed that of the archbishop. In spite of this unanimous advice to the contrary, Edward pressed ahead and on 22 June 1340 sailed out of the Orwell estuary accompanied eventually, but possibly still reluctantly, by Morley and Crabbe. On the afternoon of the next day he reached the coast of Flanders, off Blankenberg. They were within 10 miles of the Zwin, probably within sight of the French galleys, which had been chained together across that estuary.

The most experienced of the French seamen, Barbavera, had pointed out the dangers of a large fleet being shut inside that inlet without room to manoeuvre, but this was a piece of good advice which the French admirals Quiéret and Béhuchet chose to ignore. Having held back until conditions were right, on the afternoon of 24 June, Edward seized the combined advantages of having wind, tide and sun all strategically behind him and went into the attack. The French were indeed trapped inside the estuary, unable to manoeuvre, and by nightfall they had been nearly annihilated by the hail of arrows from English longbows. Both French admirals lost their lives and 190 of the 213 French vessels were captured. Towards the end of the engagement, Crabbe was given forty ships with which to chase a few French ships which had escaped led by a notorious pirate called Spoudevisch.

This victory, which came to be named after the port of Sluys, seems to have marked the end of Crabbe’s maritime career, although subsequently he continued to work on land for the king. He collected taxes, a highly important duty since the Crown was once again bankrupt, and he took into custody at Somerton Castle one of the many important Scottish prisoners taken at the Battle of Neville’s Cross near Durham. His last years seem to have been spent peacefully at his castle, and he died in 1352.

Crabbe was a remarkably gifted man, who combined a high level of skill in seamanship and navigation with equal qualifications as a military engineer. In other words, he was particularly unusual and useful, being an expert in warfare both at sea and on land. He was also an adventurous, independent spirit and a political strategist. In him we see an excellent example of a symbiotic relationship, in which a medieval pirate was able to exploit various rulers to achieve his own ends, while simultaneously those same rulers were using his expertise to further their own objectives.

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