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Harry Paye: Poole's famous pirate

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 Poole speedway team called itself the Poole Pirates, seem to point not only to civic pride but also to the piratical intentions of Harry himself.

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 England since the arrival of the Black Death in Dorset in 1348. Another factor was the so-called “Hundred Years War” with France, which constituted a series of hostilities between 1337 and 1453.

Poole, a port with a large shallow harbour, 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 England was at war with France for so long. Harry Paye’s story is therefore part of the story of Poole and also that of wider political and dynastic events.

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 France and Spain and taking their contents. His piracy (for such it should be termed) extended from the straits of Dover all the way to northern Spain, and he became a byword to sea captains throughout the region, being universally referred to as the feared “Arripay”. No ship or port was safe from his predations as he took cargoes and prisoners at will, ransoming the latter for cash. He operated from one of the smaller islands in Poole Harbour, and there are many stories of treasure being buried on the islands and shoreline of the harbour.

In 1398, he plundered the town of Gijon in Spain, setting fire to the buildings and carrying away the crucifix from the church of Santa Maria de Finisterra. What happened to the crucifix is unknown, but in 2008 recompense was finally made when a four-foot high wooden cross was presented to the mayor of Gijon by the people of Poole.

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 Poole were drunk for a month as a result. However, this exploit led to a charge of piracy being levelled against Harry, although he seems to have escaped the consequences of his misdeeds.

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 England that are closest to the French coast).

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 Poole itself. The French commander thought that a landing was unwise, but the enraged Spanish leader sent a raiding party ashore with order to burn the town. Harry Paye was not there at the time, but the locals were able to put up a stout resistance, finding that their longbows were able to fire a continuous stream of arrows at the invaders, whose crossbows took much longer to reload. 

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 London. At this time the English crown was under threat from the Welsh under Owen Glendower, and part of Harry Paye’s role was to prevent French supplies reaching the Welsh rebels.

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 Faversham Church in Kent, indicating that he ended his days in Kent rather than Dorset. It appears that his final appointment was as water bailiff of Calais, with a royal pension to his name. Although the king could not openly acknowledge that he supported the dubious activities of the “Poole pirate” there is every possibility that his deeds were condoned rather than condemned.

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 Poole. There is an annual “Harry Paye Charity Fun Day” in June, which is generally shortened to “Paye Day”, in which a lot of fun is had both on and off the water, as a celebration of the life of one of Poole’s most colourful characters.

(The photo is one I took a few weeks ago that shows one of the smaller islands in Poole Harbour, which could have been where Harry Paye had his lair)

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