John Hawley of Dartmouth

The life and times of Dartmouth's heroic privateer

engraving of Dartmouth Castle by Henry Besley, 1860
Medieval Dartmouth's favourite son

If there is one figure who stands head and shoulders above all others in the story of Dartmouth in the Middle Ages it is John Hawley. Wealthy merchant and landowner, consummate local politician, skilful mariner, privateer, battle hero, and yes, pirate too. His maritime exploits are legendary, yet he was a pillar of civic society; elected mayor of Dartmouth 14 times, he also served twice as the town's Member of Parliament. Born around 1340, he was a man of many talents, a local hero who exerted great influence in the town through most of his adult life until his death in 1408.

The Hawleys establish their ascendancy

It is thought that the first John Hawley moved to Dartmouth some time before 1340 from a small hamlet up river near Tuckenhay called Allaleigh, possibly the derivation of Hawley which is sometimes spelled Hauley. At that time Dartmouth consisted of two settlements, one on each side of a tidal inlet long since reclaimed; Hardness to the north, and Clifton to the south. In the 13th Century the two settlements were joined by a dam that utilised the power of the tide to drive the wheel of a flour mill.

Coming nearly 500 years before another Dartmouth hero Thomas Newcomen ushered in the Age of Steam by his invention of the coal-fired Atmospheric Engine, the townsmen were already showing enterprise in harnessing renewable energy. As the tide came in, the water flowed into the creek through the mill gullet. At high tide a sluice gate was dropped, diverting the receding water to turn the millrace.

Thereafter the creek was named Mill Pool. The dam became known as the Foss (or Fosse), which is odd because foss has been used since Roman times to mean a ditch or moat.

Outline map of Mill Pool, showing Hawley's Hoe

The Hawleys were very industrious folk, and by 1344 they had begun to build a warehouse and moorings on the east side of the Foss close to the mill wheel. These moorings became known as Hawley's Hoe. Already the Hawleys had amassed a small fleet of merchant ships, then known as cogs, and soon prospered in the thriving Dartmouth trades of the day: chiefly the importing of wine from France and Spain, and the exporting of woollens sent down river from Totnes.

Nothing more was heard of the Hawleys in the public record until 1372 when the first John Hawley's son John came to prominence while still in his early thirties. Edwards[2, p23] suggests that his parents may have been victims of the Black Death which had reached Devon by 1348. By 1372 the size of the Hawley fleet and the scope of their maritime activities had increased considerably.

This enduring couplet evoking the omnipotence of Hawley's fleet is widely quoted in one form or another:

Blow the wind high, blow the wind low,
It bloweth good to Hawley's Hoe.

The above version was used by John Prince in his biographical sketch of John Hawley in "Worthies of Devon"[5] and is reproduced in Arthur Mee's "Devon"[9] and elsewhere. Prince's interpretation is that the Hawleys had so many ships under sail that from wherever the wind blew it would be sure to help some of them.

Here [in Dartmouth] Mr Hawley liv'd and traded, and at length got a great number of ships to his own use; which he so employ'd abroad to all parts of the world, that let the wind be in what point of the compass soever, it always stood to his advantage to one coast or another. [5, p477]

Rosalind Northcote[10, p137], gives the second line as

It bloweth still to Hawley's hawe.

and translates hawe as 'house'. 'Hoe' with its maritime connotations for Devonians [note1] seems the most apt, but Northcote was no doubt influenced by this inaccurate passage from Prince's "Worthies", completed in 1697, in which he assumes that Hawley's Hoe and Hawley's Hall are one and the same:

So was the gentleman's habitation, in that town, called the Hoe or Haw; which retaineth the name to this day, with the corrupt addition of a letter, it being now pronounced Hawley's Hall. [5, p 477]
Detail from John Roope's 1619 map of Dartmouth showing Haley's Hall

An earlier reference to Hawley's place on the Foss as a hall can be found on John Roope's 1619 map of Dartmouth which labels it Haley's Hall[note2].

Roope was the owner of the mills on the Foss, and this map was prepared to support a lawsuit he brought against the Corporation aimed at preventing the townsfolk from crossing the mill bridges. His action failed and Foss Street became a public right of way.

The true Hawley's Hall was John Hawley's substantial town house (see below for a painting containing it). This straddled Higher Street and Lower Street and was later to become the Guildhall.

A man of Hawley's wealth and position might be expected to have the largest mansion in the place, and although all tradition of the fact seems to have been long ago lost, there seems to be no cause to doubt that the building that served Dartmouth as a Guildhall for 384 years was none other than Hawley's Hall. (Watkin[6, page x])
the Chaucerian connection

Chaucer's Prologue to the Canterbury Tales introduces us to a colourful seafarer from Dartmouth with a penchant for piracy.

A schipman was ther, wonynge fer by weste; There was a sailor, living far out west;
For aught I woot, he was of Dertemouthe. For aught I know, he was of Dartmouth.

Chaucer visited Dartmouth in 1373 in his capacity as a customs officer of King Edward III to enquire into the reported seizure of a ship's cargo from a merchant of Genoa with whom the king had good relations. Hawley was not appointed mayor for the first time until 1375, but it has been widely assumed that Chaucer met him during his visit, and that the shipman was based on none other than Hawley himself. However, Freeman[1] cautions against treating Hawley as the sole role model for the character:

It is more likely that he [the shipman] was a composite character based on many tales about the lawlessness of Dartmouth seamen which had reached court circles over the years. Chaucer knew that those who heard his poems would associate the port with piracy. Hawley himself in 1373 was not known to have been involved in anything but honest trading.
Geoffrey Chaucer

Hawley was granted his first privateer licence in 1379[note3] during his third term as mayor at a time when the war with France was hotting up. Only then did Hawley's exploits take a more nefarious turn. More about this later...

Chaucer portrays his shipman as a skilful navigator with a darker side; one who would deviously steal wine from his merchant's cargoes and think nothing of dispatching captured seamen overboard to a watery grave.

Ful many a draughte of wyn had he ydrawe Full many a draught of wine he'd drawn, I trow,
Fro Burdeux-ward, whil that the chapmen sleep. Of Bordeaux vintage, while the trader slept.
Of nyce conscience took he no keep. Nice conscience was a thing he never kept.
If that he faught, and hadde the hyer hond, If that he fought and got the upper hand,
By water he sente hem hoom to every lond. By water he sent them home to every land.
But of his craft to rekene wel his tydes, But as for craft, to reckon well his tides,
His stremes, and his daungers hym bisides, His currents and the dangerous watersides,
His herberwe, and his moone, his lodemenage, His harbours, and his moon, his pilotage,
Ther nas noon swich from hulle to cartage. There was none such from Hull to far Carthage.
Hardy he was and wys to undertake; Hardy. and wise in all things undertaken,
With many a tempest hadde his berd been shake. By many a tempest had his beard been shaken.
He knew alle the havenes, as they were, He knew well all the havens, as they were,
Fro Gootlond to the Cape of Fynystere, From Gottland to the Cape of Finisterre,
And every cryke in Britaigne and in Spayne. And every creek in Brittany and Spain;
His barge ycleped was the Maudelayne. His vessel had been christened Madeleine.
Hawley's fortalice
Hawley's Fortalice and other dart castles

In 1374 Edward III ordered special measures to be taken for the defence of the strategically important port of Dartmouth against attack from the sea, but it wasn't until 1388 in the reign of Richard II that John Hawley, who was mayor again by this time, ordered the burgesses to begin the building of a fortalice, or coastal fort, at the entrance to the port:

Order to compel, and if need be to distrain, all men and burgesses who ought to do so, according to the agreement to contribute to the building of a fortalice by the sea at the entrance of the port...for defence of the town and ports adjacent and of ships...which touch there. From Calendar of Close Rolls, Oct. 8, 1388 [12, p200].

It was completed by 1400, and a chain was laid across the river to Godmerock on the opposite side. This could be raised to prevent enemy ships from reaching Dartmouth. The fortalice pre-dates what we now know as Dartmouth Castle which wasn't started until 1481 in the reign of Edward IV. On the other side of the harbour mouth sits Kingswear Castle which was begun in 1491. Little evidence of the fortalice is seen at first glance today apart from the high wall incorporating a tower seen above the car park, but Edwards points to several areas around the site where remnants and other clues remain.

Artist's impression of Hawley's fort

This is Dartmouth Castle in 2007, showing the round tower on the left with a glimpse of the square tower in the background. Part of St Petrox Church is seen in the right foreground. Edwards' analysis of the remains bolsters the supposition that the round tower was constructed on top of an earlier tower forming part of the fortalice.

In particular, when viewed from the rocks below there is a marked difference in the masonry in an area up to the top of the wide opening for a cable attached to the chain.

Dartmouth Castle and St Petrox Church
privateering and piracy

Throughout Hawley's life England and France were engaged in a long-running conflict, primarily over the claims of English kings to the French throne, that later became known as the Hundred Years' War. In those days Kings didn't have a standing navy; instead they issued licenses to the owners of specified merchant ships allowing them to "go to sea at their own expense to attack and destroy the king's enemies", the form of words used at this time for a privateer.

For those merchants with a disciplined and well armed fleet such as John Hawley, privateering was a lucrative source of income. The king took a percentage of the value of any enemy cargoes seized, with the remaining spoils being divided between the ship owners and captains, as well as their crews who put their lives on the line. The temptation to indulge in the occasional "off balance-sheet" action against vessels from countries not at war with the king must have been considerable. Of course this was barefaced piracy, but who was there to police such plundering? After all, even in the twenty-first century maritime piracy is not unknown in the seas off the Horn of Africa and elsewhere.

Disputes arose when neutral ships where captured as in the case of Chaucer's Genoese merchant, or seized goods on an enemy ship belonged to a neutral third party. In these situations the wronged merchant could demand the return of his property. Often such cases ended up being contested in the English courts, the proceedings dragging on interminably with the accused maintaining he had acted within the law.

After a temporary lull in hostilities, the war against the French was intensifying in the early 1380s when the first reports of Hawley's privateering 'successes' became public knowledge. Freeman, quoting from Watkin[6], gives this account: 1383 the 'men of Portsmouth and Dartmouth' destroyed a French fleet, slaying all but nine men. They later captured 1500 casks of wine, sailed up the Seine, destroyed four ships and captured another four.
and again:
By 1386 Hawley was directing operations by a fleet of privateers who lay in wait off the coast of Brittany, attacking French and neutral shipping at will.

This last operation may have been in revenge for an episode in 1384 when Hawley was on the receiving end of an attack in a Brittany port. His cargo was taken, and Hawley and his seamen were assaulted and held to ransom.

A likely collaborator with Hawley during the 1386 ventures was Sir John de Roches, captain of the town and castle of Brest, an English possession at the time. But the two men may have fallen out over the division of the spoils, and in 1393 Roches instigated proceedings against Hawley in the Court of Chivalry before the Constable and Marshal of England. The charge against Hawley was "that in 1386 he and his men had captured certain Breton vessels and the goods therein which were being conducted under Roches' safe conduct to enable them to bring wine and other merchandise safely to Brest".

Hawley was not accused of taking part in the capture itself: he was charged with having condoned the robbery by distributing the booty, and keeping a share of it for himself when it was returned to England, something he did not deny. Indeed it is quite likely that Hawley was not personally engaged in many of the forays in which "his people" were accused of illegal activity. Hawley and the other shipowners depended on their ship-masters to conform to the current rules of naval warfare, and to safeguard their share of the spoils.

Many seamen from Hawley's ships were called as witnesses to testify in the trial. In some instances their statements were taken by special commissioners in Dartmouth to avoid the lengthy trip to London. At some point counsel for Hawley instigated counter charges against Roches, and later were able to obtain a temporary halt to the proceedings on the grounds that a maritime dispute should be resolved in the Court of Admiralty. No record of the final judgement has come to light, but in the end Hawley seems to have emerged with his reputation untarnished. The case lasted until 1401 by which time Roches had died.

victory on land

Early in 1403 Hawley took part with others in a number of raids on Flemish and Dutch shipping, prompting the Count of Flanders to retaliate by seizing English merchandise in Flemish ports. To appease the Count, the king summoned Hawley and 17 other privateers to Calais to answer charges against them, but they failed to turn up. Before the king could take further action events in the West Country took a dramatic turn. In August of that year William du Chatel, leader of the Bretons at the time, made a retaliatory strike on Plymouth, attacking and burning the town in the night. The king them commissioned the foremost seamen of Dartmouth, Hawley, John Corp, and Edmund Arnold, to make war on the Bretons.

It was assumed that Dartmouth would be the most likely target of any further incursion by the Bretons, and sure enough the attack came in April 1404. Instead of making a frontal assault on Dartmouth, du Chatel with a supporting cast of 300 ships, 2000 knights and assorted crossbowmen landed round the coast at Blackpool Sands near Slapton, hoping to take the town from the rear. Hawley, having decided to remain at the fortalice to defend against a frontal attack, dispatched an army to confront du Chatel on the sands. This is Freeman's account of the ensuing battle:

Some of du Chatel's army had deserted to plunder some passing Spanish ships, so that when the two sides met at Blackpool, with a high tide swelling the stream between them which the English had fortified into a strong defensive position, he was without his usual screen of crossbowmen to defend his knights. Taunted by one of his knights for showing cowardice when he at first hesitated, du Chatel determined to show his valour and attack none the less. In the hail of arrows and stones from the English side many of his knights were killed; some drowned when their armour dragged them down as they crossed the stream. One English chronicler records that women and peasants fought in their army. Du Chatel was mortally wounded after a heroic struggle, 25 high-ranking prisoners were taken, and those who were not killed fled.

This victory against strong, well armed opposition by a ragtag army that had never fought on land before so pleased King Henry that he ordered a Te Deum in Westminster Abbey in celebration.

Hawley's last years

The king's pleasure after Hawley's success on the battlefield was to prove short-lived. By 1405 Hawley was engaging once again in privateering, often involving attacks on parties friendly to Henry IV who was threatening to arrest any seamen accused of wrongfully seizing merchandise. In December 1406 Hawley was imprisoned briefly in the Tower of London until he pledged to compensate some merchants of Barcelona. He was released after three of his loyal west country supporters put down a surety of £3000. Even in the last year of his life at the age of 68, Hawley was listed among several shipowners as being responsible for the illegal capture of 17 ships.

The prestige of the Hawleys both in their official roles as agents of the Crown in Devon and as defenders of the southwestern peninsular from invaders was such that up to this time John Hawley had mostly defied the King's orders to compensate the foreign merchants whose cargoes he and his men had seized.

Henry IV's dependence upon them during periods of crisis when the country faced threats of foreign invasion could not have but impressed upon the Hawleys how valuable they were to the Crown, a position which they repeatedly took advantage of by seeking loopholes in the Royal Foreign Policy which would allow them to continue their plundering on the high seas. Still Henry IV must share the blame for the damage inflicted upon the maritime trade of various nations in the Channel.. ..Henry, however, was preoccupied during the early years of his reign with immensely more critical matters than English privateering no matter how irritating the behaviour of Hawley and other Devonshire sea rovers may have been. (Pistono[4, p158])

The six hundredth anniversary of Hawley's death was commemorated in 2008. How then are we to judge Hawley after the passage of so many years?

Another West Country privateer of the period whose exploits matched those of Hawley in their boldness, but who also served the king when called to, was Harry Pay of Poole in Dorset. Despite the apparent contradictions in their actions and loyalties, Kingsford[7] places this fearless pair just on the side of the angels:

Pay and Hawley played the parts of patriot and pirate in turn, and in spite of occasional backsliding, their careers were on the whole not unworthy.

Gardiner[3], after studying contemporary documents pertaining to proceedings for restitution in which Hawley was involved, comes down on his side:

..when considered with the existing maritime conditions in mind, [one is] lead to the conclusion that the complaints [against Hawley] were the inevitable result of a state of war which obliged the inhabitants of coastal towns to defend their shipping and shores at their own expense and were in no way detrimental to his reputation.

Bearing in mind that the foundation of the wealth of Hawley and the other shipmen of Dartmouth was in maritime trade, it was in their best economic interest to keep the seaways open by whatever means. As Gardiner puts it:

..he and his fellow shipowners had an obvious motive, as well as a recognised duty, to do all they could to safeguard the trade routes and coasts and to combine provision for the defence of their homes with a profitable occupation for their ships [as privateers], to offset the losses caused by the restriction to their trade by the hostilities. Like soldiers on land, their seamen had come to count on receiving a share of the booty as their just reward.

In conclusion, here is Freeman's succinct but more open verdict on Hawley:

Controversy will always reign about whether he was a privateer or a pirate, but in the midst of war few rules were kept, and saintly characters were rare on either side of the channel.
the final resting place

Dartmouth's grandest church, St Saviour's, was consecrated in 1372; the impressive rood-screen and the painted stone pulpit both date from the medieval period.

The chancel of St Saviour's was built by Hawley, and on his death in 1408 his tomb was laid there, along with a brass portrait showing him attired in armour with his two wives on either side. Each good lady is adorned with jewels in her hair, and has a pair of small dogs with bells on their collars for company. John survived them both: his first wife Joanna died in 1394, and Alicia in 1403. His son by Joanna, also called John, was in the service of the King from 1395 and continued in his father's footsteps as a privateer and was likewise many times accused of piracy.

St Saviour's church
Brass of Hawley and wives in St Saviour's Ch.

John junior persevered with his father's other business interests as merchant and landowner, and he was several times M.P. for the Dartmouth constituency. His death in 1436 brought to an end the era of the powerful Hawleys of Dartmouth, as his own son Nicholas died childless a few years later. Nicholas' sister Elizabeth, wife of John Copleston, inherited the Hawley fortune that included a number of properties in Cornwall in addition to the Dartmouth assets.

The Coplestons and their descendants remained in the Hawleys' house until 1494 when it was sold to the burgesses for use as the Guildhall which it remained until 1864 when it was demolished as part of a road expansion scheme to improve access to the town.

The Dartmouth Guildhall, formerly the residence of John Hawley, is the second house on the left in this 1839 painting of Higher Street by Miss C.B. Hunt.

Hawley's house in 1839 (second on left)


A few miles to the west is the familiar Plymouth Hoe, which Richard Polwhele spells as 'Haw' in his "History of Devonshire" written between 1797 and 1806: 'The hill between the town of Plymouth and the sea, that we call the Haw.', Vol I, p46. However the hoe (or haw) at Plymouth refers to a promontory which does not exist in the case of Hawley's Hoe which is at sea-level. [return]
Watkin[6] lists 12 alternate spellings of Hawley in his index, but omits Haley because the index is restricted to names appearing in his primary sources: Hawle, Hauley, Hawlee, Haulegh, Hawlegh, Haulee, Hawelegh, Hawley, Hauleygh, Haulech, Haweley, Hawele, and Howly. [return]
King Richard II granted six ships out of Dartmouth (including three owned by John Hawley) licence to attack and destroy all they could in one year:
1379, December 1. Licence for John Haule, Benedict of Bottessana and Thomas Asshenden of Dertemuth to go to sea at their own charges under the King's protection for one year from the feast of the Purification to attack and destroy his enemies with two ships, la Katerine and la Magdaleyne of Dertemuth, four barges, la Seintsavourscogg (whereof the said Thomas is owner), la Mighel, la Cog Johan, and la Jouette (whereof the said John is owner) and one balinger la Alisote (whereof the said Benedict is owner) and during that time they and their men are to be exempt from any other service unless specially appointed. (Watkin[6, p365]) [return]


Dartmouth and its Neighbours by Ray Freeman, Phillimore 1990. Includes much material on medieval Dartmouth. Highly recommended. The paperback edition is now out of print, but the book has been re-published as a hardback available from the Harbour Bookshop, Dartmouth. [return]
Hawley's Fortalice by Terry Edwards, Dartmouth History Research Group, Paper 24, 1998. [return]
John Hawley of Dartmouth by Dorothy Gardiner, Transactions of the Devonshire Association, volume 98, 1966. [return]
Henry IV and John Hawley, Privateer, 1399-1408 by Stephen P. Pistono, Transactions of the Devonshire Association, volume 11, 1979. [return]
The Worthies of Devon by John Prince, New Edition, London, 1810. (p477-479) [return]
Dartmouth: Pre-Reformation by Hugh Watkin, Devonshire Association, 1935. This comprehensive work consists largely of transcriptions of primary sources comprising Manor and Borough records, ecclesiastical records, and naval and commercial records.
The following works have limited coverage of the Hawleys of Dartmouth, some of which are referred to in the text above.
Devon by W.G.Hoskins, Collins 1954, new edition Phillimore 2003.
The Kings' England - Devon, by Arthur Mee, Hodder & Stoughton 1938. [return]
Dartmouth (Pre-Reformation). The Castle and St. Petrox by Percy Russell, Note 151, Devon & Cornwall Notes & Queries, Volume 23, Exeter, 1949. [return]


Chaucer translation from Middle English courtesy the Internet Medieval Sourcebook
Engraving of Dartmouth Castle by Henry Besley (1860) reproduced from the Devon Libraries Local Studies Service Etched on Devon's Memory series.
The artist's impression of Hawley's fortalice and the old drawing of his house are reproduced from the history pages of the Dartmouth Directory. The former was drawn by James Stewart and originally appeared in Hawley's Fortalice[2].