Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Minehead fishermen at Carlingford in 1404

Minehead fishermen at Carlingford in 1404

Niall C.E.J. O’Brien


In August 1404 a group of fishermen from Minehead in Somerset went out into the Irish Sea to go fishing. The fishermen were John Bray, David Neethe, John Lacy, William Touky, Maurice Spencer and David Walter, all tenants of Sir Hugh Luttrell, lord of Minehead. Yet their fishing trip went very much against them as they were captured by pirates and held in captivity in a foreign castle for many months.[1]

Minehead and fishing

The port of Minehead in Somerset was owned by the Luttrell family, lords of Dunster Castle. The chief port of Dunster Castle used to be that of Dunster but this port silted up towards the end of the fourteenth century. The first notice of Minehead as a port is in 1380 when Ralph Cooke and others were forbidden to sell their fish outside the port. But within a few years Minehead became an important fishing port. In 1383/84 fish from Minehead were export to Beaumaris. In 1419 salmon was carried from Minehead to Harfluer in France where Sir Hugh Luttrell was a member of the garrison. In 1421 Lady Margaret Luttrell gave 10s to her tenants at Minehead towards the cost of building a jetty.[2] The custom records for 1485 show many vessels of Minehead and elsewhere importing herrings and salmon to the port.[3] In the reign of Henry VII another Sir Hugh Luttrell was admiral of the admiralty court at Minehead.[4]

Boats at rest off Minehead

Tenants at Minehead

In October 1404 Lady de Mohun, then lord of Minehead, died and Sir Hugh Luttrell of Dunster Castle shortly after succeeded to the property. Sir Hugh Luttrell had Irish connections as in 1394 and 1399 he visited Ireland, the latter time in the following of King Richard II.[5] Although the names of the captured fishermen do not appear among the inquisition into the property of Lady de Mohun (they were possibly too poor to rent directly from the lord of the manor), other people with the same surname do appear at various times in Minehead. In about 1331 John Tonky (similar to Touky) lived in Minehead. In about 1383 Nicholas and John Tonky formerly held different messuages in the town. In 1407 John Bray senior and John Bray junior rented property in Minehead.[6]

Fishing off Carlingford

Early in August 1404 the above five tenants of Minehead left the port to go out onto the Irish Sea for fishing. The type of fishing boat they used is not recorded or how successful they were at catching fish. On 20th August 1404 the fishermen dropped anchor off Carlingford in order to go fishing. Just then a well-armed ship under John Goo of Spain came upon the fishermen and captured them and their vessel.[7] It is easy for sailing vessels to come quickly upon each other out on the sea in a manner of a few minutes. It seems that the Minehead people didn’t notice the Spanish vessel coming upon them or they thought it would pass by a good distance off.

There were frequent attacks by pirates and foreign governments upon shipping in the Irish Sea in the fourteenth century. King Edward III tried to control the menace with patrolling warships but the efforts of later governments were fitful. The Hundred Years War between England and France made the English Channel dangerous for shipping were piracy by Breton and Spanish shipping increased.[8]

The Minehead fishermen may have considered Carlingford to be a safe place for fishing as the town was then in the hands of the English crown. The owner of Carlingford was Edmund Mortimer, 5th Earl of March, but he was only thirteen in November 1404 and so the crown controlled his estates. His father, Roger Mortimer, 4th Earl of March and heir presumptive to the English throne, was killed at Kells in Ireland in July 1398 aged just twenty-four.[9]

A view of Carlingford from the sea

Taken to Scotland

In the late twentieth century Spanish ships used to battle on the high seas with Irish and English fishing boats over fishing grounds. In medieval times such battles also took place. The maritime court at Lostwithiel recorded a low profit in 1339/40 because no mariners or fishermen docked in the port due to the hostile challenges of Spanish ships and fishermen.[10]

The attack off Carlingford may have been over fishing grounds but common piracy seems more likely in this case. The fishermen were taken to Scotland and sold to William Carneys, one of the Scottish king’s squires, and held prisoner at Bothwell Castle on the River Clyde. Conditions in Bothwell Castle were not good at the time and the material condition of the fishermen’s families back in Minehead was greatly reduced with no bread winner to keep the families above the poverty line.[11] The families must also have missed their husbands and fathers without little clear knowledge of their fate.

Like in modern times when prisoners are displayed on television pleading for help to their government in return for some reward to the captors so it was for the Minehead fishermen. They were forced to send a letter to King Henry IV of England asking for release in exchange for money. The king and his council discussed the matter and on 24th November 1404 sent a letter to King James of Scotland requesting that he order William Carneys to release the fishermen but without the payment of any ransom.[12]

Other people and merchandise captured at sea

The detention of the Minehead fishermen in Scotland was not all one way traffic. Scottish seafarers also had problems of detention when going into English waters. On 24th July 1405 King Henry IV commanded William Spenser and four others of Lowestoff and Norwich to release John of Logy, Adam Strono, William Euty, William Strong, Richard of Bughwan, and Thomas Orkney, of Scotland, lately arrested by Sir William Calthorpe, in a ship stranded on the Norfolk coast. The seafarers were initially liberated by a previous letter from the King but they were arrested again on their journey homewards at Lowestoft, and were still detained there in violation of the truce with Scotland.[13]

In about 3rd March 1404 Thomas Raa of Scotland petitioned Henry IV for safe conduct to carry away his merchandises, lately captured at sea by Englishmen and since restored to him. At the same time he asked for safe conduct for the master, twelve seamen and four other merchants, and a vessel with goods, to trade for a year on the English coast.[14]

The battle of Homildon Hill

Meanwhile the Battle of Homildon Hill, fought on 14th September 1402, and its aftermath impacted on the Minehead fishermen and was connected with their story. During the time leading to the break of the Truce of Leulinghem, both Scotland and England began to raid each other. On 22nd June 1402, a small force of Scottish soldiers returning from one such raid into England was met at Nesbit Moor by George Dunbar. In the ensuing battle no quarter was given to the Scottish force.

In response, Archibald Douglas, 4th Earl of Douglas, led a large force into England. Archibald Douglas was arguably the most militarily powerful man in Scotland, and a key part of the Duke of Albany's administration. The Scots marched as far as Newcastle to avenge the battle and laid waste to the whole of Northumberland.[15]

As the Scottish army rested at Wooler on their return to Scotland, they were attacked by an English force led by Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland. Although caught on low ground, the Scots were able to make it onto the high ground of Homildon Hill. This position saved them from English knights on horseback but not from English longbowmen on foot. The Scottish army was destroyed with many killed and countless number captured including about 80 knights. No list of these captured people was compiled by any Scottish writer but in the 1870s, Sir Henry Maxwell-Lyte discovered a list in the records of Dunster Castle while examining the archives for the Historical Manuscripts Commission. Dunster Castle was the chief seat of the Luttrell family, owners of Minehead. It is supposed that a member of the Luttrell family could have been at the Battle of Homildon Hill.[16]

The capture of so many of the Scottish leaders, including Archibald Douglas, left the Duke of Albany, governor of Scotland, in a precarious position militarily if not politically. But the English did not press home their advantage due to internal problems within King Henry's administration and the Welsh rebellion. But Henry IV was keen that the captured Scottish soldiers should not return to Scotland to fight against him, and so refused to allow those who held noble captives to ransom them. This act was one of many of the grievances that the Percys had with the Crown. In 1403 they allied themselves with Owain Glyndŵr, and Archibald Douglas and went into open rebellion against the English king.[17]

Plight of the Minehead fishermen

In was into this political and military climate that the Minehead fishermen found themselves locked up in Bothwell castle. Bothwell Castle was owned by Archibald Douglas which he inherited from his mother, Joan Moray. With the Scottish exchequer too impoverished to pay the ransom for the release of Douglas and Henry IV refusing to accept the payment of any ransom, the Minehead fishermen were pawns in this international exchange.

Bothwell Castle at that time of 1404 was not the best of places to be a captive. In 1336 the powerful castle overlooking the River Clyde was in such good condition that it was headquarters of the army of Edward III in Scotland. But shortly after this it was taken with siege engines by its rightful owner, Sir Andrew Murray. After its capture, Murray had the castle silted by pulling down the west wall of the donjon so as to prevent its reuse by the English.

In 1362 the heiress of Bothwell, Joan Moray, married Archibald Douglas, 3rd Earl of Douglas. The castle was rebuilt and repaired by Douglas and this repair work was continued by his son, the 4th Earl. It was only by 1424 that the castle was fully completed.[18] Its condition in 1404 therefore must have been one of a building site and makeshift fortress with little creature comforts.

Artist impression of Bothwell about the time of 1404

Meanwhile after the Battle of Shrewsbury (21st July 1403), Archibald Douglas became a prisoner of King Henry IV. He was only released in 1406 on condition that he returned to captivity by Easter having concluded some private estate business. Douglas surrendered hostages to ensure his return. But Douglas did not return and remained in Scotland. It was only in 1413, on the payment of 700 marks to Henry V, that the hostages were released.[19]

Return of the fishermen

It is not known when the Minehead fishermen were released from Bothwell Castle and allowed to go home. The parole of Archibald Douglas in 1406 seems like an opportune date for their release as part of a prisoner exchange but the records are silent of the actual date of release. In the rental of Minehead taken in 1407 John Bray senior and John Bray junior are mentioned.[20] Could one of these men be the John Bray among the captured fishermen? We can’t be sure. The letter of Henry IV to King James of Scotland in November 1404 asked that the fishermen be released without the payment of ransom.[21] It is not known if any money was paid.

Other captured Minehead ships

The story of the Minehead fishermen of 1404 was repeated nearly one hundred years later. In 1497 a fishing boat under William Bassher was taken by a Scottish ship while fishing in the Irish Sea. England and Scotland were then at war over the succession to the English throne. But peace was shortly after declared and Bassher got back his ship after paying a ransom.[22]

William Carneys

Who was William Carneys, the jailer of the Minehead fishermen? On 17th August 1405 King Henry IV gave a licence of protection for a vessel of Sir John of Mountgomery of Scotland, of which John Galway was master, and his merchants Robert Cauldwelle, William of Carnys, Alan Clerk, and John Wulson, with a crew of 10, trading to various foreign parts, for a year.[23] Was this the same William Carneys who held the Minehead fishermen at Bothwell? It is not possible to say with any certainty. The records are not extensive enough to say that it was one and the same person. Maybe other documents will come to light to discover the real William Carneys – something for another day’s fishing the archives. 


End of post


[1] Paul Dryburgh & Brendan Smith (eds.), Handbook and Select Calendar of Sources for Medieval Ireland in the National Archives of the United Kingdom (Four Courts Press, Dublin, 2005), p. 170
[2] F. Hancock, Minehead in the County of Somerset (Barnicott & Pearce, Taunton, 1903), pp. 37, 167, 234
[3] Paul Dryburgh & Brendan Smith (eds.), Handbook and Select Calendar for Medieval Ireland, pp. 285, 287, 288
[4] Sir Henry Maxwell-Lyte, A history of Dunster and of the families of Mohun and Luttrell (St. Catherine Press, London, 1909), part 1, p. 132
[5] Sir Henry Maxwell-Lyte, A history of Dunster and of the families of Mohun and Luttrell, part 1, pp. 78, 80
[6] F. Hancock, Minehead in the County of Somerset, pp. 165, 166, 169, 170, 441
[7] Paul Dryburgh & Brendan Smith (eds.), Handbook and Select Calendar for Medieval Ireland, p. 170
[8] Wendy Childs and Timothy O’Neill, ‘Overseas trade’, in Art Cosgrove (ed.), A new history of Ireland, vol. 2: Medieval Ireland1169-1534 (Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 522, 523
[10] Maryanne Kowaleski (ed.), The Havener’s Account of the Earldom & Duchy of Cornwall 1287-1356 (Devon & Cornwall Record Society, New Series, Vol. 44, 2001), p. 42
[11] Paul Dryburgh & Brendan Smith (eds.), Handbook and Select Calendar for Medieval Ireland, p. 170
[12] Paul Dryburgh & Brendan Smith (eds.), Handbook and Select Calendar for Medieval Ireland, p. 170
[13] Joseph Bain (ed.), Calendar of Documents relating to Scotland preserved in the Public Record Office, London (General Registry House, Edinburgh, 1888), vol. 4 (1357-1509), no. 690
[14] Joseph Bain (ed.), Calendar of Documents relating to Scotland, vol. 4 (1357-1509), no. 649
[16] Joseph Bain (ed.), Calendar of Documents relating to Scotland, vol. 4 (1357-1509), p. xxviii
[20] F. Hancock, Minehead in the County of Somerset, p. 169, 170
[21] Paul Dryburgh & Brendan Smith (eds.), Handbook and Select Calendar for Medieval Ireland, pp. 170, 171
[22] F. Hancock, Minehead in the County of Somerset, p. 237
[23] Joseph Bain (ed.), Calendar of Documents relating to Scotland preserved in the Public Record Office, London (General Registry House, Edinburgh, 1888), vol. 4 (1357-1509), no. 697

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