Pirates, hats, herring, and iron pots! The case of Captain Thomas Hubbard

When we get to “deposition day” in paleography class, one of the manuscripts that the students usually transcribe is Folger MS L.d.673, in which one John Bartholomew confesses to buying six iron pots, but no hats. Bartholomew states that he purchased the pots from one “Captaine Hubbart,” “before the bringinge in of the last two prises.”

John Bartholomew's examination

Folger MS L.d.673: The examination of John Bartholomew, taken September 4, 1576.

It is so short and so without context that the students don’t know what to make of it, and often don’t trust their initial reading of “pottes” and “hattes” and “prises.” When I tell them that the deposition is actually about pirates, they are still circumspect. After all, this isn’t the sort of swashbuckling piracy to which we are accustomed. The full story is a bit more action-packed, however: the deposition is part of the Bacon-Townshend collection, and many details can be gleaned by consulting other documents related to the Hubbard case. So last summer, one group of paleography students transcribed all eight depositions relating to Captain Thomas Hubbard’s piracy. 

Captain Hubbard plundered at least five ships along the Norfolk coast in the summer of 1576: two Zeeland burses with herring, barreled fish, and nets; one English hoy owned by Mr. Baker of King’s Lynn; and two Scottish ships with iron pots, candle, canvas, and hats. The Privy Council requested that Norfolk justice of the peace Nathaniel Bacon investigate the piracy case, and the Folger has at least fourteen other closely related letters and recognizances in addition to the depositions.

The various examinants—crew members of Hubbard’s ship, crew members from one of the Zeeland ships, and local merchants who unwittingly bought contraband from or supplied food and drink to Hubbard’s men—revealed acts of violence against the Dutch crew of the Zeeland ship, details about the feasting and entertainments aboard Hubbard’s ship, the prizes recovered and where the overtaken ships were taken, how the shares were divided among the company after Hubbard took his 50%, and how weapons and ammunition were transferred from Henry Carew’s ship to Hubbard’s.

Not surprisingly, the examinants were fairly consistent in their confessions, but their memories did not always serve them well. For example, in three examinations taken over a two day period, they give eerily similar yet crucially different eyewitness accounts about the results of Hubbard’s attack on one of the burses.

John Copleston's deposition

Folger MS L.d.670: detail from the deposition of John Copleston, one of Captain Hubbart’s company, September 3, 1576. He “saieth howe ther was about ix or x of the duche men at the least hurte and one of them slaine, but by whom that one was slaine it Could not be iudged.”

Dowsing's deposition: detail

Folger MS L.d.672: detail from the deposition of Edmund Dowsing, cook of Captain Hubbart’s ship of war. He “saieth howe ther was about xiiijten of the duche men hurte and one of them slayne but by whom that one was slaine he Can not iudge”

detail from Dutch deposition

Folger MS L.d.674: detail from the deposition of the four “duchemen” aboard one of the burses taken by Captain Hubbard, September 4, 1576. They jointly “affirme how that ther were xxxvj persons in both their burses And that ther were vij of them hurt and one slaine”

Everyone agrees that one Dutch person was slain, but either the identity of the slayer is truly unknown, or the two members of Hubbard’s company are simply being evasive (“it cannot be judged;” “he cannot judge”). Nine or ten men were injured by one account, fourteen in another, and only seven according to the Dutch crew. This is not a huge disparity, but it shows how memory can work very imprecisely.

The depositions and related documents are full of vivid examples of justice being carried out at the local level, while being carefully observed by the Privy Council, as described in the edition created by seven members of the Mellon Summer Institute in English Paleography at the Huntington in July 2012: “And one of them slayne, but by whom … he Cannot judge”: The pirate depositions taken by Nathaniel Bacon (1576) at the Folger Shakespeare Library, edited by Scott Bevill, Caroline Carpenter, Lauren Griffin, John Kuhn, James Lambert, Nate Probasco, Marten Stromberg (Folger Shakespeare Library, 2012).1

Their edition consists of an introduction to Folger MS L.d.669 to L.d.675, followed by a normalized and annotated edition of eight depositions. They have also included an appendix with semi-diplomatic transcriptions. The transcriptions were completed and vetted by the editorial team in Google Drive, and then converted to a PDF file. The images for the manuscripts are available as a media group in our digital image database. Their interesting introduction is below and the transcriptions are linked here; the introduction and transcriptions will soon be attached to the Hamnet record and the finding aid for the Bacon-Townshend collection.2

Introduction

Folger MSS L.d.669-L.d.675 consists of eight depositions from a piracy case in southeastern England in August and September of 1576. Part of the Folger’s Bacon-Townshend collection, the depositions were produced in the early years of Nathaniel Bacon’s long career as a provincial JP in Norfolk. They describe the piratical actions of Captain Thomas Hubbard, sailing under the commission of Henry Carew and Mr. Cotton. The JPs sought a range of witnesses for depositions: sailors and crewmen on the pirate ship (including Edmund Dowsing, the ship’s cook); John Allen, a local merchant who had unwittingly supplied the pirates with beef; the Dutch crew of one of the seized ships; and a local man who had purchased goods from the pirates. These depositions trace the flow of goods and victuals into and out of the hands of the pirates, as well as information about where, how, and when Hubbard’s piracies occurred. The Bacon-Townshend also contains (though we do not include it here) correspondence relating to the case, including a letter from Nicholas Bacon, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, to his son, advising him on taking the depositions and dealing with the informants (L.d.140), a letter from Hubbard himself (L.d.364), recognizances (L.d.886 and L.d.891), and letters between Nicholas Bacon, Nathaniel Bacon, and members of Privy Council (L.d.66, L.d.403-406, L.d.482-485, L.d.612).

Though piracy has been much discussed in Atlantic, anti-Spanish colonial contexts, the Hubbard depositions reveal a North Sea basin rife with the same imperial politics and roaring trade that have made the former topic so appealing to historians. Hubbard’s prizes included Scottish ships carrying iron pots, probably on one leg of the Scandinavian-Scottish iron trade route; Dutch fishing vessels working the herring stocks of the North Sea; and even a small, local English vessel. Even Hubbard’s crew was nationally mixed, though this was not necessarily unusual in the period: two of the depositions mention (probably pointedly, given the political situation in the 1570s) that the ship had two Spanish crewmen, one of them the ship’s surgeon.

In addition to information about trade and the daily operations of provincial justice, the Hubbard depositions also offer a fascinating window into England’s international political commitments in the 1570s. Hubbard’s two biggest prizes were herring ships from Zeeland, a small but significant detail. A key, early player in the struggle for Dutch independence against the Spanish, the province had looked abroad for Protestant English support in the 1560s and 1570s. In the same year as the Hubbard piracy case, in fact, Zeeland and Holland would “elect” Elizabeth to be their ruler, an offer she rejected, fearing Spanish retribution and unwilling to actively underwrite a rebellion. Hubbard’s case shows the close relationship between these international commitments and piracy prosecution in the 1570s.  Piracy, as others have pointed out, was not a hard-and-fast distinction between lawful and unlawful trade practices, but rather a shifting, capacious designation that was frequently redefined as England’s political commitments changed. The outcome of the Hubbard case provides particularly direct evidence of this: a later letter from Francis Walsingham (L.d.612) tells us that the “Lords doe carrye them selves the more myldely in the punisshing” of the case because of Elizabeth’s “present offence ageynst the Prince of Orange,” an “offence” that had suddenly made anti-Dutch piracy look less criminal.

Rationale

We have produced a scholarly edition in order to provide a readable transcription for students and scholars interested in using the material for research purposes. We have also included a semi-diplomatic edition as an appendix, reproducing some of the features of the original for scholarly use. Placing the two transcriptions side by side serves as a paleographical learning exercise, demonstrating the pros and cons of the various methods of transcription.

In 1979, A. Hassell Smith, Gillian Baker, and R.W. Kenny included transcriptions of the depositions in volume 1 of The papers of Nathaniel Bacon of Stiffkey, published by the Norfolk Record Society. These transcriptions were made with an emphasis on the actions of Bacon rather than on the specific language of the depositions and the marks, shape, size, and appearance of the manuscripts. We have completed a new transcription in order to highlight the ways in which the depositions fit into Norfolk history, maritime history, and especially scribal practices of the time. We hope you enjoy reading these transcriptions as much as we enjoyed making them.

  1. Exactly a year ago (in a post from October 2012) I mentioned that I would share this edition: sorry for the delay! []
  2. Note that this is the last of our PDF editions: as the result of an IMLS grant that begins in December 2013, future paleography class projects will be true digital editions, tagged in TEI and available through Hamnet, finding aids, and a database: Early Modern Manuscripts Online. And past PDF editions will be converted as well. []

Author: Heather Wolfe

HEATHER WOLFE is Curator of Manuscripts at the Folger Shakespeare Library, and teaches early modern English paleography for the Folger Institute and Rare Book School.

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