10 of History's Most Fascinating Female Pirates
10 of History’s Most Fascinating Female Pirates

10 of History’s Most Fascinating Female Pirates

Khalid Elhassan - March 26, 2018

10 of History’s Most Fascinating Female Pirates
Lady Killigrew. Pikabu

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.

10 of History’s Most Fascinating Female Pirates
Jeanne de Clisson. Famille Bretet

Jeanne de Clisson, the Lioness of Brittany

Jeanne de Clisson (1300 – 1359), also known as the Lioness of Brittany, was one of France’s most prominent female pirates. After the French accused her husband of being an English spy and executed him as such, the widow Clisson went on the warpath. She turned pirate and preyed on French shipping in the English Channel, torturing and executing every French nobleman she came across.

She was a Breton noblewoman who was born in the town of Belleville-sur-Vie into a prominent family, which had ruled the area for centuries. She was married at age 12, and bore her husband two children before he died in 1326. She remarried in 1328, but that marriage was annulled two years later, so she remarried once more, this time to a wealthy Breton named Olivier Clisson.

In 1342, during the Hundred Years War, Jeanne’s husband was military commander of a town that was captured by the English, and he was taken prisoner. They released him soon thereafter in a prisoner exchange – the only Frenchman to be released. Between that and an unusually low ransom requested by the English, Olivier Clisson’s French compatriots suspected him of treason. He was tried and convicted by a court of French aristocrats, and beheaded in 1343.

Jeanne viewed her husband’s execution as a cowardly murder, took her young sons to see their father’s head mounted on a spike, and vowed revenge. She sold her estates, used the proceeds to raise a force of armed followers, and switching her loyalties to the English, began attacking the French. She was not taken seriously at first, but then she attacked and captured a French castle, and massacred its entire garrison, except for one man whom she let live to tell the tale. She was taken seriously from then on.

Realizing that her forces were too small to withstand a determined French counterattack, Jeanne retreated across the Channel to England. There, she bought and outfitted three warships, and as a signal of her intent, painted them black and dyed their sails red. Then she led her black fleet into the English Channel, to fall upon French shipping.

Jeanne de Clisson and her pirate fleet soon gained a reputation for savagery, as they massacred nearly all who fell into their hands, except for a few survivors spared so they could spread the tale. French nobles in particular were in serious trouble if they were discovered aboard any ship captured by Jeanne. Although there was serious money to be made ransoming them, as the was custom of the day, Jeanne wanted none of that. Instead, she tormented the nobles, then personally chopped off their heads with an ax, before tossing their corpses overboard.

She continued her murderous rampage against the French wherever she could find them, for thirteen years, before her bloodlust was finally sated. Eventually, in 1356, Jeanne Clisson gave up the life of piracy, and retired to her estates in Brittany. She remarried for a fourth time, and settled into a castle on Brittany’s southern coast, where she died peacefully in 1359.

10 of History’s Most Fascinating Female Pirates
The execution of Rachel Wall, from ‘The Life, Last Words, and Dying Confession of Rachel Wall’, 1789. New England Historical Society

Rachel Wall, New England’s Female Pirate

Rachel Wall, nee Schmidt (1760 – 1789), was the first American born woman known to have turned pirate, and the last woman executed in Boston. Born into a devoutly Presbyterian family of Pennsylvania farmers, she was never happy with life on the farm. Instead, the sea called for her from an early age, and she liked spending as much time as possible on the waterfront.

There, she was attacked by a group of girls when she was 16, and was rescued by a sailor named George Wall. The two fell in love, and despite her family’s objections, Rachel and George Wall were married and moved to Boston. There, she got a job as a maid, while her husband did stints on merchant ships and fishing vessels. The couple befriended other sailors and their lovers, who all shared a desire for a life on the seas.

In 1781, George Wall got his hands on a schooner, and he and Rachel convinced their friends to join them on a piracy spree. Their first voyage was successful, as they cruised New England’s sea lanes in the aftermath of storms, pretending to be a ship in distress, battered by the recent tempest. To add to the effect, Rachel would cry out for help to passing vessels. When the Good Samaritans stopped to help, the unsuspecting vessel would be boarded and seized, with all on board murdered and robbed. Within a few months, Rachel and her companions had captured twelve vessels, murdered dozens of sailors, and netted about $6000 in cash, plus thousands more worth of looted goods.

That came to an end in 1782, when a navigational error got them shipwrecked. George Wall was drowned, but Rachel and other pirates survived. Without a ship, the pirates dispersed, returning to their previous occupations, and Rachel Wall went back to being a maid. She kept dabbling in crime, however, and became notorious for stealing from ships docked in Boston Harbor, and ended up with numerous convictions for petty theft and larceny.

Her criminal career came to a screeching halt in 1789, when she stole from the wrong person. Until then, she had been preying on sailors and other lower class people around the waterfront. But on March 18th, 1789, Rachel saw a 17 year old rich kid wearing a bonnet that she coveted. So she stepped up to her, punched her in the mouth, threw her to the ground, grabbed her bonnet, and ran. However, passersby gave chase, apprehended Rachel, and turned her over to the authorities.

She was charged with robbery, but requested she be charged with piracy instead, confessing to the piratical spree of 1781-1782 – although she denied having personally killed anybody. She was tried for highway robbery for the March 18th, 1789 assault and carrying off of a bonnet, convicted, and sentenced to death. On October 9th, 1789, Rachel Wall earned the dubious distinction of becoming the last woman to ever be hanged in Massachusetts, when she ascended a gallows erected in the Boston Commons. Her last words before the trapdoor was released were: “into the hands of the Almighty God I commit my soul, relying on his mercy, and die an unworthy member of the Presbyterian Church, in the 29th year of my age“.

10 of History’s Most Fascinating Female Pirates
Teuta, queen of the Illyrians. Pintrest

Teuta, Pirate Queen of the Ancient Illyrians

During the 3rd century BC, piracy flourished among the Illyrian tribes dwelling along the coasts of today’s Croatia and Albania. Piracy had been suppressed during the Classical period, when the powerful navies of Athens and Rhodes kept the waters around the Greek world relatively safe. Phillip II of Macedon and his son Alexander the Great followed suit, but after Alexander’s death his successors focused their energies on fighting each other. With no strong naval presence to keep them in check, the Illyrians took full advantage of the many hidden inlets along their coastlines, and turned to piracy as a way of life.

That eventually led to conflict with the expanding Roman Republic. Rome became a dominant Mediterranean naval power for the first time after its victory over Carthage in the First Punic War (264 – 241 BC). However, that newly won dominance was challenged by the Illyrians across the Adriatic Sea from the Italian Peninsula, most notably the Illyrian Ardiaei tribe, and their queen Teuta (reigned 231 – 227 BC).

Teuta had inherited the Ardiaei kingdom following the death of her husband, king Agron, in 231 BC. She continued her husband’s expansionist policies, pushing her realm’s borders deeper into the Balkans, while encouraging and supporting her subjects’ piratical activities. The trouble with Rome started when some of her pirates seized and plundered Roman vessels.

When the merchants complained to the Roman Senate, it tried to handle the problem with diplomacy at first, and so two envoys were sent to Teuta’s court to complain. Teuta responded that piracy was legal among the Illyrians, and her government had no right to interfere with the private enterprise of its citizens. When the Roman diplomats retorted that Rome would then have no choice but to make her change Illyrian laws, Teuta stopped feeling diplomatic. She ordered one of the Roman envoys killed, and the other imprisoned.

The outraged Romans declared war in 229 BC. A fleet of 200 warships was sent to harry the Illyrians at sea, while an army of 20,000 men and cavalry crossed the Adriatic to harry Teuta’s kingdom by land. Despite her fierce resistance, Teuta’s kingdom was no match for the might of Rome, and in 227 BC, she was forced to surrender. The Romans made her to sign a humiliating peace treaty. She was allowed to keep her throne, but as a de facto Roman vassal, paying annual tribute, and ruling over a shrunken realm, stripped of much of its territory.

10 of History’s Most Fascinating Female Pirates
Bronze statue of Anne Bonny and her friend Mary Read, in the Bahamas. Pintrest

Anne Bonney, Caribbean Terror

Anne Bonny (1697 – 1781) was one of history most famous female pirates. Her fame even rubbed off on others, making otherwise forgettable historical figures famous as well. Best example of that being Anne’s lover, John Rackham, better known as Calico Jack (1682 – 1720). He is one of the best known pirates of the Golden Age of Piracy, but not because he was much good at being a pirate. Instead, much of his fame is owed to the fact that his crew included two of history’s most famous female pirates, Anne Bonny and her friend Mary Read.

Anne Bonny was born in Ireland, the illegitimate daughter of a lawyer and his housemaid. When she was a child, her father moved to London, and took Anne with him. But to conceal her from his wife, who supported him financially, Anne’s father dressed her as a boy, and called her “Andy”. His wife found out, however, and cut off his allowance. So he moved to South Carolina, taking Anne with him, and there, he eventually prospered as a businessman.

Anne was problem child from early on, and at age 13, she stabbed a servant with a knife. Soon thereafter, she met and married a scheming sailor and minor pirate, who had an eye on her father’s estate. Anne’s father responded by kicking her out of his house and disowning her. In retaliation, she reportedly set fire to her father’s plantation. She and her husband eventually moved to Nassau in the Bahamas, a notorious pirate haven at the time. There, Anne’s husband made money snitching on the pirates to the British authorities, to his wife’s disapproval.

While in Nassau, Anne met the pirate Calico Jack Rackham, became his lover, and left her husband to go pirating with her new beau. She disguised herself as a man aboard ship, with only Rackham and her friend Mary Read knowing the truth. She performed all the duties of the male crew members, and earned a reputation as a brave fighter, but the truth about her gender became evident when she got pregnant. She was landed on Cuba, where she gave birth to a son, before rejoining Rackham and Mary Read.

The trio resumed their piracy, and specialized in plundering small vessels engaged in coastal trade, but fell upon larger ships when the opportunity presented itself. In October of 1720, a pirate hunter chanced upon their ship at anchor. Rackham and most of his men were too drunk to fight, and the only resistance was offered by Anne Bonny and Mary Read, who fought ferociously before they were finally subdued. The captured pirates were taken to Jamaica, where they were tried, convicted, and sentenced to hang.

Anne was spared the noose after “pleading her belly” – she was pregnant, and under English common law, that entitled her to a stay of execution until she gave birth. She had little sympathy for her lover when he grew maudlin while bidding her goodbye before his execution, and reportedly sneered: “if you had fought like a man, you would not hang now like a dog!” After giving birth, Anne Bonny disappears from history. She was not executed, but what her ultimate fate was, is unknown.

10 of History’s Most Fascinating Female Pirates
Artemisia I of Halicarnassus. Dreams Time

Artemisia I of Halicarnassus

Artemisia I (flourished in the 400s BC) was ruler of Halicarnassus in Caria – a satrapy, or province, of the Persian Empire in southwestern Anatolia. A pirate queen and naval commander, she fought for Persia’s king Xerxes during his invasion of Greece. She was most famous for her role in the naval Battle of Salamis in 480s, which her side lost, but during which she distinguished herself.

Artemisia was the daughter of the king of Halicarnassus, who named her after Artemis, the Greek goddess of the hunt. She married the satrap of Caria, and after his death, she assumed the Carian throne as regent for her underage son. Ancient reports depict her as a courageous and clever commander of men and ships, who preyed upon Greek shipping during the Greco-Persian conflict.

When the Persian king Xerxes invaded Greece, Artemisia distinguished herself as a commander and a tactician in the naval battle of Artemisium, which was fought simultaneously with the more famous Battle of Thermopylae. She caused the Greeks so much trouble that they put a bounty on her head, offering 10,000 drachmas to whoever killed or captured her. None managed to collect the bounty.

In the even greater naval Battle of Salamis soon thereafter, Herodotus describes Artemisia as the only commander on the Persian side worthy of mention: ” I pass over all the other officers [of the Persians] because there is no need for me to mention them, except for Artemisia, because I find it particularly remarkable that a woman should have taken part in the expedition against Greece. She took over the tyranny after her husband’s death, and although she had a grown-up son and did not have to join the expedition, her manly courage impelled her to do so“.

Artemisia escorted Xerxes’ sons to safety after the Battle of Salamis, then faded from recorded history. Legend has it that her end came after she fell madly in love with a man who ignored her. So she blinded him in his sleep. However, her passion continued to burn hot despite his disfigurement. To rid herself of her feelings for him, she decided to leap from a tall rock that reportedly held magical powers, such that jumping off it would snap the bonds of love. Instead, she fell down and snapped her neck.

10 of History’s Most Fascinating Female Pirates
Rockfleet Castle, one of Grace O’Malley’s strongholds. Wikimedia

Grace O’Malley, the Pirate Queen of Connaught

Grace O’Malley (circa 1530 – circa 1603) was a 16th century Irish heroine, who fought the English on land and preyed upon their shipping at sea. Her English foes vilified her as “a woman who hath imprudently passed the part of womanhood“, and she was mostly ignored by contemporary chroniclers. Yet, her memory lived on in native folklore, and nationalists would later lionize her as an icon of the Irish fight for freedom and struggle against foreign domination.

There were two Irelands in the 16th century, with two distinct cultures. There was Dublin and its surrounding counties, an English enclave ever fearful of the hinterland comprising the rest of Ireland. That rest of Ireland was the land of the native Irish and the Gaelicized Old English, whom the English viewed as uncivilized and wild, given to raid and strife and interminable violence.

Grace O’Malley was born and raised in Connaught, in western Ireland, and belonged to that “wild Irish” hinterland, which consisted of numerous autonomous territories. Its rulers and inhabitants frequently feuded, raided each other, rustled cattle, captured and lost castles and strongholds, and otherwise vied for advantage and dominance. All were part of a clientele system, in which the weak aligned with the strong, offering tribute in exchange for protection.

The O’Malleys were Irish nobility with clients of their own, who looked to them for protection. They were, in turn, clients of another, even more powerful family. They traded produce and raw materials for luxury good, fished, ferried passengers, levied tolls on shipping passing through their waters, and engaged in opportunistic piracy. For protection, the O’Malleys built a row of castles facing the sea.

Grace was married in 1546, and bore three children before her husband was killed in an ambush in 1565. Because of the era’s misogynistic laws, she was unable to inherit her husband’s property, so she settled on Clare Island, and made it her stronghold and base of operations. She started off with three galleys and a number of smaller boats, and began her career in piracy, preying on shipping and raiding coastal targets.

While seething over the laws that deprived her of her husband’s property, and building up her pirate fleet, Grace consoled herself by taking as a lover a shipwrecked sailor. When her lover was killed by a rival family, the MacMahons, history got its first glimpse of Grace O’Malley’s ferocity, To avenge her lover, she attacked Doona castle, where her lover’s murderers were holed up, and killed them. That earned her the nickname: “Dark Lady of Doona“.

She remarried in 1566, but still mad at her sailor lover’s murder, she had another go at the MacMahons in Doona Castle, and seized it by surprising the garrison while they were praying. Around that time, she also went after a thief who stole something from her, then fled to a church for sanctuary. So she surrounded the church and decided to wait him out, offering him the choice of starvation of surrender. He chose a third option, by digging a tunnel and escaping.

Grace became Ireland’s sea mistress, and a pirate queen who controlled the waters around Connaught with an iron fist. She preyed on shipping and coastal communities along Ireland’s western coast, as well as on eastern settlements on the Irish Sea. While expanding her control, she personally led a raid on a seaside stronghold known as Cocks Castle. To commemorate her courage in capturing it, it became known thereafter as Hens Castle.

After defeating the Spanish Armada in 1588, the English were able to focus on consolidating their grip on Ireland, and fighting Irish piracy and pirates such as Grace O’Malley. To resist that English expansion, O’Malley allied with Irish lords rebelling against the English. However, in 1593, the English captured her sons and brother, so Grace sailed to England, to petition Queen Elizabeth I for their release.

She met the English Queen at Greenwich Castle, where Grace reportedly refused to bow, on the grounds that she did not recognize Elizabeth as Queen of Ireland. Elizabeth extracted O’Malley a promise to cease assisting Irish rebels. Elizabeth did not live up to her part of the bargain, however, so Grace O’Malley went back to helping the rebels, and reportedly died in one of her castles in 1603.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Sources & Further Reading

Amazing Women in History – Sayyida al Hurra, Islamic Pirate Queen

Ancient Origins – The Fierce Queen of the Illyrians: Teuta the Untameable

Ancient Origins – The Lioness of Brittany and Her Black Fleet of Pirates

Atlas Obscura – The Chinese Female Pirate Who Commanded 80,000 Outlaws

Berkley, Amy, History of Boston and Beyond – Pirate in a Petticoat: the Legend of Rachel Wall

Head Stuff – Jeanne de Clisson, the Bloody Lioness of Brittany

History Ireland, March/ April 2005, Volume 13 – Grainne Mhaol, Pirate Queen of Connacht: Behind the Legend

New England Historical Society – Rachel Wall, New England’s Only Lady Pirate

Pirate Empire, The – Lady Pirate, Mary/ Elizabeth Killigrew

Smithsonian Magazine, August 9th, 2011 – If There’s a Man Among Ye: The Tale of Pirate Queens Anne Bonny and Mary Read

Wikipedia – Anne Dieu-le-Veut

Wikipedia – Ching Shih