Come and visit us here at The Rathgowry where you can relax beside the sea...

A warm welcome awaits you at The Rathgowry

Map Icon

  • Call us now for availability
  • +44 (0)1326 313482
  • enquiries@rathgowry.co.uk

Pirates here in Falmouth, Cornwall

February 9, 2016


The Rathgowry guesthouse is based in Falmouth Cornwall and overlooks the fabulous Falmouth Bay.  As I looked out the windows at the sea, beach and rocky coves, I started wondering about whether there were any famous pirates lurking in Falmouth’s history. I was quite surprised with what I found, as it involved a very prominent local (historical) family.  

So here is what I found – now it may not all be true – but thanks to the internet this is what I turned up…

Abuse of Power 

In the 1540s Pendennis Castle was built by King Henry VIII on part of the Arwenack estate belonging to the Killigrew family.Pendennnis castle, falmouth

John III Killigrew was appointed by the King as the first hereditary Governor of Pendennis Castle, and after his death Queen Elizabeth I appointed as second Governor – his son Sir John IV Killigrew.  

The Governorship allowed control to be exerted over all of the shipping in the Carrick Roads harbour and along part of the south coast.

Like his father before him, Sir John IV Killigrew used his privileged position to prey on the cargoes of the ships that came within his reach.

 In 1567 Arwenack House was fortified by John IV Killigrew as a stronghold and used to store merchandise stolen in raids on ships.

 Married into Piracy

Mary Wolverston, a daughter of Philip Wolverston (often described as a “gentleman pirate” himself), was a gentlewoman from Suffolk, who married Sir John IV Killigrew and apparently took to piracy with some enthusiasm.

Lady Mary Killigrew – as she became known following her marriage, was said to keep open house for the more ‘respectable’ pirates at Arwenack House.

 mary killigrew.jpeg
She and her husband (John IV) were said to have incited piracy as well as receiving, fencing and storing stolen goods at their home, Arwenack House.


On January 1st in early 1581 a Spanish ship, the Marie of San Sebastian was blown down the English Channel by a storm and was forced to take refuge in Falmouth harbour after the ships masts were broken.

At midnight on January 7, as part of a plan conceived by Lady Mary Killigrew, 2 of her household servants, a band of local sailors and fishermen boarded the vessel, murdered the crew, and sailed the ship to Ireland to be plundered. The two Killigrew servants, Kendal and Hawkins, brought bolts of Holland cloth and six leather chairs and a “chest” to Arwennack House—the share allotted to Lady Killigrew and others in the household. None of the women (Mary, daughter and female servants) actually went on the raid, but they did receive stolen goods.

Mary’s son, Henry was said to have played an active role.

Texts from ‘The History of Parliament’ states that Lady Killigrew presented several lengths of cloth to her servants and that a daughter of the house (“young Mistress Killigrew”) paid a debt with twenty yards of the material.

Mary is also said to have buried a leather cask containing some of the plunder in her garden at Arwenack House in Falmouth.


With Sir John IV Killigrew serving on the Commission for Piracy in Cornwall, nothing was done at first when the Spanish merchants who owned the ship complained.

Later, when they took their case to London, an investigation was ordered that ended with the execution of Marys servants – Kendal and Hawkins for murder.

Sentenced to death

In 1582 Mary herself, was also arrested and sentenced to death for piracy. She was 60 years old.

According to sources, her family either bribed the jurors and she was acquitted or Queen Elizabeth I arranged a short jail sentence.

Whatever transpired, she gave up pirating but continued to fence stolen goods, until she died a couple of years later at the age of 62 in the year 1584.

Historian Neville Williams described Mary as a “tough and unprincipled businesswoman” who managed Arwenack House and oversaw the burial of treasure in her garden. 

She was survived by three sons and two daughters – again, it is written that they too enjoyed a spot of piracy! 

Today, I wonder if the residents of Arwenack House (now split into multiple private houses) have been out with metal detectors or turned up anything unusual whilst doing the gardening!!?

I hope you have found this post interesting.   Be sure to look out for the    existing Arwenack House in Falmouth – which is an easy 10 minute walk from the Rathgowry Guesthouse.
You can read more about this in our previous post called Our Famous Falmouth Family.  In the meantime, why not give us a call on 01326 313482 to secure the best bed and breakfast rates and book that UK beach holiday. 🙂


Share this:

  • Facebook
  • Twitter