Skip to content

Five Pirate Women From The Pages Of History NUMBER ONE: Lady Killigrew!

2011 January 20

I made a category on this blog a bit ago called History Is Awesome. I planned to fill it with INCREDIBLE TALES OF DERRING DO from the feminist-relevant pages of history. Time to make a start! For Halloween 2010 I dressed up as Undead Anne Bonny. Some subsequent thinking ‘n’ reading led me to decide that what BadRep needs is a short run of posts about the lives and legends of history’s roughin’ toughin’ ladypirates.

Sea Queens

I’d barely heard of any ladies who swashed, let alone buckled, until Sarah J lent me this book, a 280 page lesson in “just because you ain’t heard of them, doesn’t mean they didn’t exist”. So, you may have heard of Anne Bonny and Mary Read, because they’re in the rather tabloidy A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates, published in 1724 and written by probably-Daniel-Defoe-with-a-pseudonym. But it didn’t start and end with them!

Photo: Wooden painted figurehead of a dark haired woman bearing a crest. Image via, shared under Creative Commons licensing.

LADIES ON BOATS: got up to more than this lass, it turns out.

Now, I’ll try not to glorify the murderating tendencies and obvious criminality of historical ladypirates just because they were ladies. But it did surprise me at Halloween to find a fair few fellow party-punters believing no women pirates existed at all. Isn’t Elizabeth Swann’s turn as the Pirate King, they asked, in That Obviously Very Historically Accurate Movie Franchise, a total wishful? A lady pirate king; that just takes the disbelief-suspension cake, right?

Wrong! Lady pirates, though rare in history, are one of the few things in those films whose historical accuracy should not be in dispute. (Jury’s out on Governor Swann’s periwig.)

Lives and Legends

It should be noted before we go any further that “lives” and “legends” are difficult to separate, and this is arguably even more the case for the women than for the dudes, simply because more has been written, in general, on the dudes, who were greater in number. That book, that started me on my research? You can’t easily get a new copy of that in England any more right now, unfortunately (keep watching Amazon though), and there aren’t all that many books in print that aren’t 50% retellings of the myths we have. So these posts will have to be as concerned with fun storytelling and legend-sharing as anything else.

I’m going to start with a woman who lived in a castle1 during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, headed up a family of notorious pillagers, and was pushing 70 at her most notorious. Her name was Lady Killigrew.


Um. Actually, there are at least two pirate Lady Killigrews in the Killigrew Family Tree. Based in Falmouth, Cornwall, the family were sufficiently piratical that more than one Lady Killigrew was active within the same fifty years – Mary first, then Elizabeth. Hearsay has tangled them together so that their deeds are difficult to separate without writing a book. I’ll treat the legend here as one woman.

It’s important to understand that being uproariously criminal at sea didn’t necessarily make the Killigrew family, who were aristocrats, wanted criminals all over England; quite the opposite. Many of them received Letters of Marque from Elizabeth I; licence to go ahead and pillage, as long as it’s the pesky Spanish, in short. (Francis Drake? Arguably a hero of this sort of patriotic piracy, commonly referred to as “privateering”). Lady Killigrew’s husband was a big shot in the Navy with precisely this sort of Season Pass for pirating on foreign ships himself.

Guys, Nobody Wore Thigh High Stilettos In 1582

So, historians aren’t certain on all the details of the lives of the Killigrew women. Nor is anyone on DeviantArt (WHO IS SURPRISED) which houses a few ‘artist’s impression’ jobs, a couple of which have blown through the internet on an ill wind, originating, I presume, from somewhere on the cutting room floor for Dead Or Alive: Buccaneer Babes Edition.

What we do know for definite is that Lady (probably E) Killigrew had a long career hoarding the profits of a full-on smuggling racket at the family home, until she ended up on trial for an Incident in her mid-sixties (setting an indefatigable example to all angry older women that makes me think Moira Stewart should sail up the Thames in a galleon, storm the BBC and steal her job back.)

The legend of the Incident, attributed to both Ladies E and M Killigrew in different accounts I’ve read (though records show Lady E definitely went on trial for something piratical), goes something like:

  1. A horrendous storm rocked Falmouth to its very foundations. A Spanish trade ship struggled into dock. Bedraggled sailors made their way to the castle.
  2. This was their first mistake, for old Lady K saw them coming. And stocked up on pastries.
  3. The lure of a crackling fire, tankards of ale, and the friendly jurisdiction of a respectable old lady was strong. The sailors spilled the beans about what was on their 144-tonne ship (a lucrative lot of cloth cargo). Lady K advised them to stick around until the weather was fair, even going out of her way to set them up at a guesthouse in Penryn, further up the coast. The ship was left entirely under Lady Killigrew’s watch. The sailors left Castle Killigrew praising their good fortune – the Lady was married to the guy in charge of stamping out piracy, so leaving their ship under her watch was surely safe.
  4. Except for the part where Lady Killigrew up and stole the boat.
    The whole boat.

    Had it towed clean out of the bay.

  5. On the dark night of 6th January 1582, the stormclouds hadn’t cleared. The story goes that she actually had herself rowed out to where the ship was docked and personally presided over the seizure. Guards were jumped and done in, booty was loaded into rowboats, and the entire ship towed up the coast by her dedicated staff of heavies.
  6. The sailors returned to Falmouth in the morning. “Ship?” said Lady K’s doormen. “What ship?” Bingo: GRAND THEFT BOATO.

… there are a number of versions of this story. In some, like I say, it’s Mary Killigrew in charge, rather than Elizabeth. In some, Lady K takes up arms and leads a gang of armed privateers onto the ship to ransack it while the majority of the sailors are in Penryn. In some, a small-scale battle takes place in the harbour. In others, she simply empties the ship of its cargo, leaving an empty boat for the sailors.

But I like the version where she steals the boat best. You can’t begrudge me that. (BOAT!, as Kate Beaton would say.)

“Who’s Queen?”

Elizabeth I is famed in TV-spot history shorthand for her knack for staking out and maintaining middle ground. Whatever the detailed truth of that, she managed the ecclesiastical schisms that plagued England at the time bloody well by the, er, bloody standards, and seems to have clocked with reliable diplomatic intuition just when, how, and how far to take out the trash.

Unfortunately, this Fun With Boats was a bridge too far, and Lizzie, under pressure from some irate Spanish ambassadors, duly stuck Lady Killigrew on trial for piracy. However, the Queen clearly wasn’t wildly bothered – or at least, privateering was probably still politically useful to her – so within weeks she’d issued a pardon, and Lady K headed home to live out her days merrily fencing stolen goods in that basement ’til she died. She has a snazzy tombstone, complete with brass etching, at… a place. The freewheeling anarchist press that published my book haven’t actually captioned the picture with a location. This is irksome for trivia-thirsty feminerds like me, and begs the question: when are we going to get a big-guns mainstream-academic book about these women? At this rate I’ll have to write it and pay the rest of Team BadRep in rum to edit out my overuse of the capslock key and the word “AWESOME”.

To balance out the boobtacular hi-jinks on DeviantArt, here’s an illustration with historically plausible costuming.

Illustration of a lady in green 16th century costume shown from the waist up shining a blazing orange lantern into the dark with a devious expression on her face.

"Heh, park the boat round the back, boys! ... anyone for scones?"

Next time you hear a sexist joke at work about how women just aren’t dog-eat-dog enough to be the CEO, imagine Lady Killigrew, and do her proud. (But don’t shanghai your boss’s BMW out the car park. Age of CCTV, and all that.)

  • Which lesser-known sea-queen shall I do next? Grace O’Malley, maybe. Never heard of her? STICK AROUND. HISTORY IS AWESOME.
  1. EDIT: or at least, her family occupied one part-time as caretakers-to-the-crown, as one of  our commenters has helpfully pointed out below. []
22 Responses leave one →
  1. Russell permalink
    January 20, 2011


    “Lady Pirates don’t say “ARRRRRHHHH”!”

    “Well what do they say then?”

    “”ARRRHHHHH!” But at a slightly higher pitch.”

  2. burntcopper permalink
    January 20, 2011


    couple of corrections – it’s not Castle Killigrew, it’s Pendennis Castle (built by Henry VIII) to defend the Carrick Roads (ie, the river) – hubby was the current caretaker. (still owned by the crown, you just got the duty of caretaker and running it). The actual seat of the Killigrews was Arwenack House in Falmouth.

    She rather famously cuckolded him and he had to pay all the legal costs when she got locked up. (pretty sure she was imprisoned – if you can find any images of the Arwenack House plaque, it’s got more details.

    • Miranda permalink*
      January 20, 2011

      Haha, thanks – I wasn’t using “Castle Killigrew” seriously there, I just liked the ring of the phrase. Pendennis is indeed the correct name of the castle, thank you! I should have mentioned it in the article, really. I think I’ll stick a footnote in now to include this correction – they may not in fact have lived in Pendennis, as you say.

      For the readers interested in further info, though:

      Here’s a short BBC article, for anyone reading who’s interested, which mentions Arwenack House, but again, there aren’t a lot of details in it as to precisely what either Lady E or M Killigrew got up to other than possibly “getting sailors drunk”. We do know, as you say, that there was some sort of trial/imprisonment, and there are reports of a ‘ship heist’, to put it colloquially. I ended up basing this post on the possible myths as much as the “hard facts”, because (especially with dramatic, illegal goings-on like piracy) they really do bleed together.

      Here’s the English Heritage site for Pendennis castle, too.

      Geographically, I’m not 100% sure where, in the stories that surround the family, they reputedly hid fenced goods – either Pendennis or Arwenack. Both are based in Falmouth, which was the seat of the family, though.

      The main thing I like about the figure of Lady K as a story and a historical figure is that she’s rumoured to have stolen an entire boat, though. Or at least a boat’s-worth of stuff. There are the versions where she takes up arms and ransacks the ship in a mini-battle, versions where she simply has her crew rob it, and so on… the truth is somewhere in there, but the legends have a sort of momentum of their own that I quite like. Piracy is a particularly difficult area to research with complete historical accuracy, because it is so covered in kitschmongering and legend-spinning. But I like that – and I think that the legends with women in should get some space, even if accounts of them, like their male counterparts, are often covered in dramatic conjecture. One thing’s clear: it’s more than wench-tops and thigh-high boots!

      Women Pirates & the Politics of the Jolly Roger is a collected volume comprising two authors’ work, some of which is anecdotal and some of which is more scholarly, and that book goes with the “stole the boat” story. Neither writer is based in England and the details on castles, locations etc in the section on the Killigrews are relatively vague, but I’ve followed the boat-steal line too because, though it’s possibly sensationalised, I think it makes for a damn good lunchbreak blog-read. Call me immature, but with all these splinters of versions of the story floating around, I was like “Going with the boat theft. That’s a good story.”

      • January 20, 2011

        The stealing of an entire boat reminds me of this news item from 2008, in which a group of thieves in Russia stole a church.

        Not just the fittings, or the windows or something, an entire church, taken while no one was looking.

      • burntcopper permalink
        January 21, 2011

        audacious theft is rather awesome. :cough: sinking of boats in revenge still happens in Falmouth. especially amongst the ferry companies. We’re not saying a single word about smuggling, barratry or other such activities.

        Pendennis is mostly noteworthy for it and St Mawes being built to accommodate cannon rather’n being adapted later.

        • Pet Jeffery permalink
          February 2, 2011

          Stealing the whole boat seems to make more sense to me that merely looting the cargo. Just going for the cargo, Lady K would only have had till morning before the Spaniards woke up to her skulduggery. (Should that be skull-and-crossbones-duggery?) Towing the whole boat to another harbour, it could be emptied at Lady K’s leisure.

    • Norman Holness permalink
      July 25, 2013

      I recently visited Cadgwith, near The Lizard, and whilst chatting with an elderly gentleman outside his cottage he told me about Lady Mary Killigrew and said that she had lived in the cottage he now owns. It was also previously owned by the pianist Harriet Cohen.

  3. Hodge permalink
    January 20, 2011

    Not wishing to sound too Luvvy…

    …But this article made me VERY HAPPY.

  4. January 20, 2011

    “Bold in her Breeches” is also well worth a look:

    The same author did a pretty good overview of cross-dressing warrior-women in “Amazons and Military Maids” too.

    Looking forward to Grace O’Malley. :)

    • Miranda permalink*
      January 20, 2011

      Brilliant, that’s gone right on my shopping list! It seems to only be available in limited, mostly secondhand, quantities – I keep finding this with books on this subject, alas! Totally buying that on payday, though, thanks!

      • January 20, 2011

        You’re welcome. :)

        And, my mistake, 2 different authors (I picked the 2 books up around the same time, about 15 years back, and clearly confused them).

        Incidentally, this re-enactment website has an excellent, if brief, overview of warrior-women of all eras, from Ahotep to the women of the Cossack regiments:

        • Miranda permalink*
          January 21, 2011

          Wow, that is a good link. That should go on our next linkpost, I think.

  5. Doccy permalink
    January 21, 2011

    My wife’s related to Grace O’Malley – looking forward to that one :D

    • Miranda permalink*
      January 21, 2011

      AWESOME. I’m still working out what to do with the illustration for Grace – I want to do a lil’ illustration for each post in this series.

      There seems to be a real trope for red hair in artists’ imaginings of pirate women* – Anne Bonny, Grace O’Malley and even Mary Killigrew are constantly depicted with long, wild auburn locks! This is partly based on some of the accounts of them, I’m sure, but the romanticised images of fresh-faced, nubile young ladies Google served up for Lady Killigrew didn’t quite match the fact that she’s meant to be in her sixties when she’s put on trial! Grace has kind of become even more of a legendary figure than Lady K, though – clan leader, sea queen, determined mother… so I’m not sure whether to bow to the red-tresses-and-romance trend or not!

      *(For the Western world, anyway. There were also many pirate ringleaders in the Middle East and China, and I’m hoping to go round the world a bit in the course of these posts…)

    • November 30, 2011

      I’m actually related to Lady Killigrew. My husband’s family still lives around Falmouth. We have been in the Arwenack house multiple times, legends say that there is still stolen items buried under the house :)

      • Miranda permalink*
        November 30, 2011

        Wow, that’s awesome! I really do wish there were some half-decent, widely available books on her and some of the other women I want to look at in this series (continuation of which is much overdue)…

  6. Aisling Kenny permalink
    January 21, 2011

    *pre-emptive squeeing over Grainuaile*

  7. Poppy permalink
    August 8, 2011

    Thank you for this!
    I’m actually doing an English Heritage Pirate gig at Pendennis Castle in a couple of weeks and am stocking up on my research to tell tales of female pirates – I think telling them of the piratical history of Pendennis itself should prove popular!

    • Miranda permalink*
      August 9, 2011

      Oh, awesome! Hope it goes well! I really must write the other posts in this series.

  8. December 3, 2011

    POPPY, I have actually studied the same thing, it is a very awesome experience the Pendennis Castle is a significant architectual manor I love it!

    • Miranda permalink*
      December 3, 2011

      Would you happen to know where Lady K is buried? The book I used has pictures of a brass tomb – very lovely- but no location details!

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

  1. Celebrate Talk like a Pirate Day with the Geekettes’ Favorite Female Pirates | The Daily Geekette

Leave a Reply

Note: You can use basic XHTML in your comments. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS