During the reign of Elizabeth I, the coastal waters of Great Britain were a dangerous place for a vessel to be, particularly any carrying a valuable cargo. And the southwest of England, in particular, was a hotspot for piracy and smuggling, thanks in no small part to the countless harbors, coves and hidden beaches that dot the shoreline here. It was here that Mary Wolverstone plied her illegal trade.
Little is known about the early life of Mary, but it is known that she was born in the county of Suffolk around 1525. The history books describe her father Philip Wolverstone as a âgentleman pirate’. And while young Mary might have shunned the family profession for a short while, when her first marriage ended with the untimely death of her husband, she was soon following in her father’s footsteps.
Her chance came through her second marriage to Sir John Killigrew, an outwardly respectable Member of Parliament and landowner based in what is now modern-day Cornwall. However, like many politicians of the time, Sir John was often greedy and willing to break the law to get what he wanted. Part of his vast estate included Pendennis Castle, a fortification dating back to the time of Henry VIII. Control of the castle meant control of a huge natural harbor, something Sir John, with the help of his wife Mary, took advantage of.
The criminal couple would order raids on boats coming into their harbor, bribing local officials into keeping quiet about their illicit activities. While Sir John was adept at spotting ships with bug bounties, Mary loved handling the booty. Some of the treasure she stored in the basement of Pendennis Castle, and some she buried in its large gardens. The partnership was highly successful and hugely profitable, and Mary might have gotten away with it had she not let greed get the better of her.
In the winter of 1582, Mary heard rumors that a Spanish vessel carrying great treasures had docked not far from her base. Despite the fact she was now in her 60s, she sensed an opportunity and ordered her men out to sea. In the raid, a Spanish sailor was killed, something even the friendly local officials would struggle to hush up. Mary was accused of organizing the raid and also found guilty of fencing treasures obtained through piracy. The punishment for such a crime was, of course, the death penalty.
Mary, however, escaped the executioner’s ax after her son paid a huge bribe to the magistrates. She would eventually receive a royal pardon from Elizabeth I, and lived out her last years in relative obscurity. The exact date and place of her death remain unknown.