Did you know that International Talk Like a Pirate Day is held every September? Well, now you do! To celebrate this international celebration of what is essentially the west country accent, we thought we’d delve into the history of Devon’s pirate connection, specifically, that of Lundy Island off the coast of North Devon, which was a haven for pirates at various points throughout history and at one time was ruled by a Pirate King!
In case you didn’t know Lundy Island sits in the Bristol Channel and is just off the coast of North Devon, it is accessible by ferry or helicopter from the harbour at Ilfracombe and these days is a conservation area, known largely for its puffin population. In fact, the name itself comes from the Vikings, who named it Lund -Ey, which literally means Puffin Island. There is accommodation on the island and it is like stepping back in time, there is no electricity or wifi! Because it is a conservation area the wildlife that can be seen there is incredible, with a whole host of marine life and a huge bird population, so whether you’re into wildlife or pirates, it is a good place to add to your itinerary! Its location is what made it so appealing to the pirates of yesteryear, it is right in the shipping lanes leading in and out of Bristol, creating the perfect refuge for merchants, smugglers and pirates alike.
Today, Lundy Island is a peaceful retreat but between the 13th and 19th centuries it was the base for pirates – so certainly not as quiet as we know it now! During this time, Captain Salkeld and his crew seized Lundy Island and declared himself its king, making him the Pirate King of Lundy Island! Whilst based on the island, Salkeld’s crew attacked and captured ships in the Bristol Channel, taking their crew prisoner and pressing them into service.
It became such a problem, that Sir William Manson, a famous pirate hunter, was enlisted by the merchants of Bristol to fit out the 34 gun HMS Assurance and set sail for the island to retake it. However, he was so keen to get the job done that he decided to head out before the ship was ready. Luckily for him, one of the merchants that had been captured by the pirates led a revolt and drove them from the island – he was awarded with annual pension from the King for his efforts! Sir Manson and his crew went out on the hunt for Salkeld and the remainder of his crew but never found them. Salkeld didn’t get away though, he ended up joining the crew of Peter Easton who was also from the Devon/Cornwall coast. Turns out he couldn’t quite let go of his kingly nature and the pair argued relentlessly leading to Salkeld being thrown overboard and left for dead.
That isn’t the only story of pirates inhabiting Lundy Island, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, piracy was ripe on the island and she herself was quite fond of the odd privateer, including Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh, both of whom are connected with Devon. In the 1500s, the island was regularly used by several well known Cornish pirates, something that exasperated the local authority in Barnstaple so much that they launched an attack on the island in 1587, capturing a number of men that were thought to be pirates. The Queen herself even threatened to intervene and take control of the island if the actual owner, Sir Bernard Grenville, didn’t sort out the problem.
In the 17th century in particular, Devon was plagued by the Barbary Pirates who would traverse the coast burning settlements, sinking ships and capturing unsuspecting folk to be sold into slavery.
Want to find out more about Devon’s pirate past? Make sure to plan a trip to Plymouth where you can learn all about the region’s maritime history, Appledore where there is a museum dedicated to North Devon’s history and of course to Brixham, where they regularly hold a pirate festival.