Letters of Marque were licences issued by, or on behalf of, the Crown allowing the licence holder to ‘venture’ a ship and legally attack and capture ships of enemy nations, usually in return for a share of the spoils. Though the terms are often used together, or interchangeably, Letters of Reprisal, in theory, only allowed the licence holder to take restitution for goods or ships illegally ceased by an enemy and not recoverable though other legal processes. Persons holding such licences were called ‘Ventures’ or ‘Privateers’ and were, for the most part, pirates who remained within the law only by virtue of paying taxes to the crown.
The Oxford English Dictionary gives the alternative English spellings mark, marc, margue, markque, merk, marke and mart and relates the word to French marque, Old French merk, Portuguese marca and Medieval Latin marcare, meaning to seize as a pledge. The Latin term literas marquandi, referring to such a licence, can be documented as early as 1293 and, from the context, appears to be of even earlier origin. It is possibly rooted in the Latin mercor, meaning to trade, traffic, or buy, from which we also get the English words merchant, market and mercenary.
The practice of issuing such letters came to it’s peek during the 16th and 17th centuries, however it’s origins lie in the codes of maritime law of the Babylonians, Egyptians and other ancient seafaring nations of the Mediterranean. These were developed to handled disputes involving sailors and seagoing merchants, when they lay outside the jurisdiction of any one nation. By 900 BC the Island of Rhodes had a written code, the Rhodian Law of the Sea (Lex Rhodia), which covered such things as contracts for shipment of goods, duties and conduct of ship’s masters, accounting for goods jettisoned, ransoming of ships from pirates and similar matters. Such a code was ratified by the Roman Emperor Justinian (527-565AD) and used throughout the Mediterranean into modern times. It is claimed that, on her return from the Second Crusade, Eleanor of Aquitaine brought such a code of maritime justice to the island of Oléron in the duchy of Guienne, and from there Richard the Lion Heart brought the code to England.
Letters of Marque allowed the Crown to regulate and profit from what would otherwise have been piracy. In times of war they provided the King with a ready navy, at virtually no cost, since almost any vessel could be ‘recruited’ to Royal service by issue of such a licence. In times of peace they provided a useful source of revenue, however as the practice of issuing such letters grew, so to the amount of administration required. Unfortunately this was too often left in the hands of those who most stood to profit, and the legalised piracy which was privateering usually flourished side by side with piracy proper.
In England the practice waxed and waned, being most prevalent in times of war or when the Crown had few ships of its own to call upon. It reached a high point during Queen Elizabeth’s war with Spain when Charles, Lord Howard held the post of Lord High Admiral.
There are many extant examples of Letters of Marque especially in the British Admiralty Court records of that period held by the Public Record Office at Kew. One of the earliest surviving records (Patent Rolls 6 John m.3) is a grant by King John to Thomas of Galway. Written in Latin in 1205, it translates as:
The King for all etc. Know ye that we have granted to the crews of the galleys, which Thomas of Galway has sent to us, one half of the gains which they may make in captures from our enemies; and we will, besides, recompense them for their service, according to the advice of G_____, the son of Peter, our Justiciary, and the said Thomas, and other our lieges, in such sort that they shall be well satisfied. Witness ourselves at Nottingham, 12th of March.
This is essentially the earliest known English Letter of Marque. It lays out the terms by which Thomas’s ships are permitted to make captures and what the division of spoils will be.
The letters themselves were open documents, or ‘Letters Patent’, written in the secretarial hand of the day and marked with the Royal seal. They were intended to be held by the ‘venterer’ or ‘privateer’ as evidence of his royal licence. Early English examples were written in Latin, or occasionally French and, from the 16th century, in English. They are often long-winded, repetitive and full of legalistic language, containing repeated listing of the people to whom the licence is issued and to whom it is addressed or to whom it should apply, with many an ‘aforesaid’ or ‘hitherto fore’.
They begin open with a statement saying who the letter is from and to whom it is addressed. The 1205 Grant to the Captor Ships begins simply ‘Rex omnibus, etc.’ i.e. The King for all, etc., presumably an abbreviation of The King to all and singular unto whom these presents shall come, Greeting. Which is the standard opening for royal letters of this period.
Those issued in the 15th century usually begin Rex universes et singulis Admirallis etc, Salutem. i.e. The King to all and singular Admirals etc, Greeting, or wording along those lines. Letters issued by Queen Elizabeth begin Elizabeth, by grace of God, Queen of England, Fraunce, and Irelande, defender of the faithe etc. or simply Elizabeth by grace of God etc. Those issued by the Lord High Admiral begin Charles Lorde Howarde, Etc, To all Christian people to whom theise presents shall come, or otherwise apperteaigne, Greeting in our Lord God everlasting. Some recite his entire list of titles, whilst others are abbreviated.
Next comes a statement of why the Letters are being issued. In the cases of reprisals, they explain the loss for which reprisal is granted, when and where it happened and who the culprits were.
For general licences a broad statement is made, such as Mary and Philip’s proclamation of 1557 (Adm. Court, Libels 31, No 76):
The King and Quene’s Majesties, being credible enformed that divers and many there loving faythfull and obedient subjects, inhabiting upon the sea costs and using traffyque by sea, and dyvers others, be very desirous to prepare and esquippe sundry shypes and vessels at there one costes and charges to the sea, for the anoyaunce of there Majesties’ enemies, the frenchmen, so as there might obteyne their gracious licence in that behalfe, have of their clemency, tender love, and zeale, which they beare to their sayd subjectes, by thadvyse of their honorable Counsayle resolved and determined as hereafter flloweth.
Then comes the actual giving of licence, in which it is stated whom the licence is being given to and against whom it is given, sometimes repeating the reasons for it being given.
Often there is a statement of how prizes will be divided. Earlier versions simply state the percentage that will to go to the Crown, or Royal officials, such as the Admiral. Later versions charge the licence holder not to “break bulk” (i.e. not to unload and sell off any of the cargo) but to bring the ship, with cargo intact, to the nearest port where its value and validity as a prize can be judged by the proper authorities. Licences given in war-time generally followed the ancient custom or the captor retaining the entire prize.
Letters would sometimes include a reminder of whom the licence is not against, stating the penalties for attacking friendly ships. They might mention a bond for good behaviour or a limit to the licence and, if so, what the bond or limit is. This is most common in letters of reprisal where the limit might be a length of time, or until the losses are recouped, often both.
Many letters conclude with an instruction to those persons whom they address to assist and help the licence holder as far as they are able. Several extant examples include stern warnings to comply and, for good measure, a statement nullifying any previous grant or favour which might be seen as an exemption to such an instruction.
Letters close by saying where and when they were written. The 1204 Grant ends Teste me ipso apud Nottingham, xij die marcii -Witnessed by me at Nottingham, 12th of March. Those from the 15th century tend to finish In cujus, etc. Teste Rege apud Westmonasterium quarto die February or similar. One example issued by the Lord High Admiral, Charles Howard in the 16th century ends:
In witness where of I have caused the greate seale of my office to be affixed. Geoven at London in her Majestie’s High Court of the Admiraltie the viijth of Maye 1591, and in the xxxiijrd yere of the raigne of our soveraigne lady Queene Elizabeth by grace of God Queene of England, France, and Ireland, Defender of the Faith.
Queen Elizabeth ends a Letter of Marque to William and George Winter ( Adm. Court, Acts 13, 7 Feb.1569) with:
In Wittnes whereof we have caused this oure letters to be made patents. Wittnes ourself at Westmynster, the first day of Feruarie, the eleventh year of oure reigne.
However, a commission of reprisal from the Queen to George Reyman in 1591 (Patent Rolls, No 1606, Watson’s Roll, m 7d) ends in the old Latin form:
In Witness whereof &c. Teste Regina apud Westmonasterium vicesimo secundo die Martii anon regni sui tricesimo tertio.
Dates and numbers are almost always in Roman numerals, with terminal ‘i’ often rendered as ‘j’. Arabic numerals only appear towards the end of Elizabeth’s reign. They are used primarily for dates whilst Roman numerals continue to be used for tallies and accounts.
Official documents such as Letters of Marque and Reprisal were written by clerics, scriveners or secretaries of the court in the hands known as Bastard, Common Law or Secretary. These were the handwriting styles used for day-to-day business, court records and household accounts, as opposed to the more formal hands used in creating books and manuscripts. Hector’s Handwriting of English Documents gives an excellent explanation of these hands and photographs of their use in extant court documents. Although there are no Letters of Marque amongst Hector’s examples, we can be confident that the Letters Patent, Foot Fines and other court documents are in similar hands to those used for Letters of Marque.
As letters of Royal commission, licence or Letters Patent, Letters of Marque and Reprisal were open letters, to be held by the licensee and shown to anyone enquiring into his business. As such they bore the Royal seal, or the seal of the issuing office. This seal was usually appended to the document on a cord and served, as signatures do now, to evidence that the letter was issued by the correct authority and was not a forgery.
Most Letters of Marque were written on parchment, in black oak-gall ink, using a quill pen. Paper came into use in England in the 14th century, but was generally reserved for humbler purposes such as private correspondence and household records. Parchment continued to be the writing surface of choice for important documents into the 17th century. As Letters Patent issued by, or on behalf of, the Crown, Letters of Marque would have fallen into this category. Most of the extant examples are not the actual letters issued, but copies either made for the court records of the time, or copies of such copies, made at a later date.
Law and Customs of the Sea, by R.G. Marsden, printed by the Navy Records Society in 1915, transcribes many extant records from the English Admiralty Court and elsewhere, giving both original texts and translations.
Andrews Kenneth R. English Privateering Voyages to the West Indies 1588-95 The Hakluyt Society, Cambridge University Press.
Berckman, Evelyn Victims of Piracy The Admiralty Court 1575-1678. London, Hamish Hamilton, 1979
Hector, L. C. The handwriting of English documents London : E. Arnold, 1966.
Marsden R.G. Editor Documents Relating to Law and Custom of the Sea
London : Printed for the Navy Records Society, 1915-1916.
Rodger, N.A.M. The Safeguard of the Sea: a Naval History of Great Britain, Vol 1 660-1649 London, Harper Collins 1997.
Rogozinski, Jan. Pirates! An A-Z Encyclopaedia. Da Capo Press, New York, 1995.
Rule, Margaret. The Mary Rose: The Excavation and Raising of Henry VIII’s Flagship London, Conway Maritime Press, 1982.