Mary Wolverston, Lady Killigrew
A strong, fearless, and independent woman, Mary (sometimes Elizabeth) Wolverston, better known to history as Lady Killigrew (circa 1525 – circa 1587), was an English gentlewoman from Suffolk who led a double life as a pirate. She was accused and convicted of organizing and a piracy ring that preyed on English shipping passing through the coastal waters surrounding Cornwall.
The rocky coast of Cornwall, where Killigrew carried out her piratical activities, had long been a home to smugglers, wreckers, and pirates. Piracy was in Mary’s blood, as her father, Phillip Wolverton, Lord of Wolverton Hall, had been a gentleman pirate for years. It was an era when piracy was something of an English pastime, often abetted or outright encouraged by the authorities. Particularly during the Elizabethan era’s wars against Catholic Spain, when the line between English pirates and the English navy was often indistinguishable.
Mary Wolverston was married and widowed at a young age, and was then married to Sir John IV Killigrew, becoming Lady Killigrew. Her second husband, like her father, had also been a pirate. However, unlike her father, who had retired from piracy, Mary’s second husband was still an active pirate. In of itself, that was not too problematic, as the Elizabethan authorities encouraged piracy on the high seas, as a form of economic warfare against the country’s enemies.
So long as it was conducted far away and in a manner that allowed the English government some measure of plausible deniability, it was not much of a problem. Unfortunately, Lady Killigrew and her husband did not prey solely upon enemy shipping in the high seas, but also engaged in piracy in English waters, against foreign and English ships.
Lady Killigrew’s downfall came in early 1583, when a Spanish ship, Marie of San Sebastian, docked at Arwenack near her castle. Hearing that the ship carried treasure, Lady Killigrew entertained the captain and crew at her castle, and had them visit her estates inland. During their absence, she led a raiding party that violently seized the Spanish ship, killing all who resisted, before absconding with the cargo.
When captain and crew returned to Arwenack and discovered what had happened, they complained to the local authorities. The local judge, however, was Lady Killigrew’s son, so their complaint went nowhere. Enraged, the Spaniards journeyed on to London, where they enlisted the Spanish ambassador’s help. Lady Killigrew’s latest piratical foray was not the kind of discrete piracy carried out far away, but a brazen act of piracy carried out in English waters, which threatened to cause a diplomatic crisis.
So the authorities in London sent officials to take a look. When it was discovered that Lady Killigrew’s son, the judge, had tampered with the local investigation, she and her chief accomplices were arrested. Some of the stolen goods from the Marie of San Sebastian were discovered in her house, so receiving and fencing stolen goods was added to her charges. She was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. Two of her accomplices were executed, but she received a commutation from Queen Elizabeth, and was later released from prison after her son doled out lavish bribes.