Saturday 27th May. 9 AM – Lady Chapel, Ely Cathedral. Today we’re finishing Raleigh’s first presentation at court – the scene we began the day before yesterday.
As Raleigh approaches the throne the Spanish ambassador objects that this man is a pirate and the gifts he is about to offer are the proceeds of piracy against his country.
So was Raleigh a pirate? He might have argued that he was a privateer. So what’s the difference? Privateers were effectively privately owned warships (and their crews) that could be commissioned by a government to make reprisals, to gain reparations for offenses in time of peace, or to prey upon the enemy in time of peace and war. This practise dates back to the 13th century but really took off in the 16th century with the discovery of the New World and the huge cross-Atlantic trade which that brought. Strictly speaking this wasn’t piracy as pirates were stateless bandits who attacked anyone they came across at sea whilst privateers operated under a license, known as a Letter of Marque or Letter of Reprisal. A letter of marque authorised a privateer to capture the shipping of a specific nation to compensate for an alleged injury to his nation by theirs.
So privateering was potentially hugely lucrative and investing in privateering enterprises (as Raleigh did) could make you rich. It was also fraught with danger however as one man’s privateer was another man’s pirate and the road to riches could quickly turn into the road to the gallows.