I grew up in the town of Poole on the south coast of England. It has a long and colourful history, and the pirate Harry Paye was one of the most colourful characters in that history!
Harry Paye and Poole
The town of Poole, in the English county of Dorset, is particularly proud of one of its less respectable former citizens, namely Henry (or Harry) Paye, who flourished in the late 14th and early 15th centuries. Depending on one’s point of view (and nationality), he was either a doughty defender of his town’s and nation’s interests, a shipmaster who was not averse to using strong-arm tactics when they suited him, or a pirate who was out to get what he could no matter who stood in his way. The facts that the nearby Old Harry Rocks were probably named in his honour, and the
It is not known when Harry Paye was born, but it was probably around 1360. This was a difficult time for a number of reasons, one being the continuing outbreaks of plague that had devastated the population of
Poole, a port with a large shallow harbour (pictured), had been growing steadily since the early 13th century, obtaining its first charter in 1248 which allowed certain freedoms to the merchants who traded there. Wool was the chief export from the area, and it was largely to protect this trade that
Sea dog and pirate
It is clear that Harry used the international situation to his personal advantage, in that he was very active in attacking ships belonging to
In 1398, he plundered the town of
When he captured a French barque, the “Seint Anne”, he seized its cargo of more than 12,000 gallons of fine wine and it is reported that the citizens of
Indeed, he was shortly afterwards authorised to fit out a small fleet with the sole purpose of harassing the French. He was also given the official title of warden of the Cinque Ports (five ports in south-east
A story from 1404 tells of how his ship was captured by the French. Paye and his companions were held on deck by a few guards while most of the French went below, having removed their armor, to search for booty. However, Harry and his men broke free and killed all the Frenchmen as they emerged from the ship’s hold. He then seized two French vessels and sailed them up the River Seine, flying the French flag, to plunder several ships before escaping back to sea.
Repercussions for Poole
His activities against the Spanish, particular his seizure of cargoes of iron from Bilbao, eventually led to a revenge raid on Poole in 1405, authorised by the King of Castile and Leon. A combined Franco-Spanish fleet of five galleys and two smaller ships, with crossbowmen on board, sailed into the harbour at night and approached
Eventually the French were forced to send in reinforcements, and their greater numbers were enough to defeat the Poole men. Among those killed was a brother of Harry Paye.
Harry’s activities continued for some years after this raid, although on one occasion in 1406 he was ordered by the king (Henry IV) to return a captured ship that turned out to be owned by a merchant from
In 1407, Harry, with just 15 ships at his command, captured a whole fleet of 120 ships laden with iron, oil and salt and escorted them back to Poole from Brittany.
The end of the story
However, after 1407 there are no further references to Harry Paye in the official record. He seems to have died in 1419, and there is a damaged memorial brass in
At all events, the reputation of Harry Paye has come down the centuries as being a positive one, at least in the eyes of the people of
© John Welford