Medieval MP of the Month: The sea hawk – Robert Wenyngton alias Cane

June’s medieval MP of the month is the swashbuckling Robert Wenyngton of Dartmouth. Dr Hannes Kleineke, of our House of Commons 1422-1504 Section, discusses this fifteenth century pirate (and politician) below…

THE HISTORY OF PARLIAMENT: THE HOUSE OF COMMONS 1422-1461, edited by Linda Clark, is out now. For further details about the volumes, including purchasing information,  visit the Cambridge University Press website, here.

Long before Queen Elizabeth’s sea hawks (popularised by Michael Curtiz’s eponymous film of 1940 with Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s rousing score) threatened foreign shipping on the Spanish main, England, and particularly its south-western counties, produced seafarers who combined legitimate trade and shipping with open acts of piracy and privateering. These freebooters were no outsiders shunned by their more respectable neighbours, but rather leading members of the communities of their maritime communities, men who held local office and represented their towns in Parliament. This was no accident, for as in the second half of Henry VI’s reign the English possessions in France dwindled away, these men and their vessels increasingly became the last line of defence for less martially-minded overseas traders, a state of affairs that became a regular subject of parliamentary debate.

Errol Flynn in the trailer of The Sea Hawk

One of these shipowners in the ranks of the Commons was Robert Wenyngton, otherwise known as Cane, or ‘de Caen’ after the Norman town from which his family probably originated. Indeed, Wenyngton was probably something of a newcomer to the Devon port of Dartmouth where in the early 1440s his commercial (or piratical) success allowed him to build himself a brand new house on a plot he had acquired on a long lease for this purpose. He first took local office as one of the bailiffs of Dartmouth in the autumn of 1445, and was elected to the first of two stints as mayor just two years later. By that date he had already served in a succession of royal customs offices for more than six months, and he had only recently relinquished the mayoralty when he was elected to the Commons for his home town in the early weeks of 1449.

At the time, a truce existed between England and France, an absence of war that had been precariously maintained since the treaty of Tours of 1444, cemented by the marriage of King Henry VI to the French princess Margaret of Anjou, but this was brought to an abrupt end by the activities of a shady character with a French name, one François de Surienne, who on 24 March 1449 attacked, took, and pillaged the wealthy Breton town of Fougères in the name of the English. At the time, there were those in the English government who not merely colluded in de Surienne’s adventure, but who deluded themselves that the sacking of a fortified Breton city would somehow bring a pro-English faction at the Breton ducal court into the ascendant. 

What the episode did achieve was instead a reopening of hostilities with France, which within a year led to the complete loss of the English duchy of Normandy to the French. Even in the spring, however, tensions at sea where the truce had always been largely ignored, seem to have been heightened, and Wenyngton may have been among those who were vocal about the need to send armed ships to sea to protect commercial traffic. He was consequently selected to assemble a fleet and to go to sea for the ‘rebukyng of the robbeurs and privaters’ – a charge not without irony, since he himself had a considerable reputation as a successful privateer.

With hindsight, it is not altogether surprising that the expedition did not go quite as the King’s ministers might have intended. Within a short time of putting to sea, Wenyngton’s small flotilla encountered a neutral fleet of some 100 mainly Dutch and Hanseatic vessels. Wenyngton hailed their captains and ordered them to strike their sails, exercising a right of search which had first been claimed by Edward III for all English sovereigns, but which was understandably not recognized by the Germans, who consequently refused to comply. Wenyngton indignantly threatened to force them to do his bidding, but as the neutral ships heavily outnumbered his own vessels, the foreigners merely laughed at his threats. The heavy Hanseatic trading vessels were, however, unable simply to evade the lighter and more manoeuverable English ships, and instead began to bombard them with their cannon. Wenyngton would later claim that he had been subjected to a hail of over 1,000 cannon balls, as well as innumerable other missiles. The battle continued all day, and into the night, but on the second day, a wind started up which enabled the English ships to prepare to ram their opponents, and this manoeuvre caused the Germans to surrender, rather than risk being sunk. Wenyngton escorted the captured fleet to port in triumph, and asked for instructions as to how to dispose of the captured crews. As far as he was concerned, he told the royal council, he was ‘avesyd, and all my feleschyp, to droune them and slee them’.

If Wenyngton returned home to much acclaim in his native Dartmouth, his adventure caused a serious diplomatic crisis for which English merchants paid the price. The towns of the Hanseatic League whose ships had been seized were incensed at this unwarranted attack by a fleet sent to sea for their protection, particularly as the goods of the Dutch and Flemish merchants which had also been taken were speedily restored, leaving the Esterlings as sole victims. The High Master of the Teutonic Order, whose town of Danzig had accounted for 14 of the largest of the captured ships, immediately ordered the arrest of all English merchants and their goods within his territory, as did duke Philip of Burgundy, who had to be pacified with a payment of 4,000 marks, which the cash strapped English government had to borrow from the merchants of the Calais staple. Further difficulties developed in the Baltic. In late July the English ambassadors to the High Master of the Teutonic Order were captured on their voyage to Prussia by a ship of Lübeck, one of the Hanseatic towns which had suffered most in the attack, and imprisoned there.

At another time the disruption of the trade with the Baltic (from where, after all, commodities important for the French wars such as bow staves were imported) might have caused serious concern, but the successive disasters of the loss of first Normandy and then Gascony to the French, and the domestic upheavals of Jack Cade’s uprising, the duke of York’s Dartford adventure, and King Henry VI’s descent into madness came to dominate the English political agenda for years to come. Wenyngton was re-elected to Parliament by his Dartmouth neighbours in the autumn of 1449, and may have come to be regarded as something of a hero by the resurgent Yorkists, among whom, after all, Richard Neville, earl of Warwick, himself a man renowned for his exploits at sea, played a leading part. It may be representative of English attitudes that in 1458, the year when Wenyngton once again served as mayor of Dartmouth, Richard Neville for his part also seized a Hanseatic bay fleet, once again on the pretext that they had refused to salute the English arms.


For more medieval MPs of the month, click here.

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