Queen Elizabeth’s Car Booty Sale

Avast! ‘Tis International Tark Like A Poirate Day once more.

Ye land-lubbers at Greenwich saw their fair share of Pirates, usually hanging from ye yard-arm, or from the cages at Execution Dock. But Britain, being a nation of crusty old sea dogs, has always had an uncomfortable relationship with piracy.

Although Piracy was, of course, ‘illegal,’ the edges were blurred. Queen Elizabeth I strung pirates up for attacking her ships, and the ships of her citizens, but if those vessels belonged to other nations, preferably those she was on poor relations with at the time, she turned a blind-eye. Attacking any ships from countries she was on open hostility with was postively encouraged. And the boundary between private vessels and the Royal Navy seems slender at best.

By 1592 it was Open Season on the Spanish, and the amount of booty that had been plundered from sundry galleons was getting frankly embarrassing. Treasure was building up at an alarming rate. Drake, Frobisher and Hawkins, all of which I’ll get onto on another day, and who were arguably some of England’s greatest pirates (ok, ok, “privateers”) were hauling ‘em in so fast that they just didn’t know what to do with all the plunder.

Things reached a head when Raleigh* brought in a giant Portuguese carrack (think of those classic ‘ships’ you see in kiddies’ story books – and you’ll have it…) among other ships, called the Madre de Dios. It came into Dartmouth and its haul was so enormous, it was the talk of England. Here’s some of the booty:

  • Chests of jewels
  • Chests of pearls
  • Chests of gold and silver
  • Chests of amber
  • Rolls of exquisite silks
  • Chests of perfume
  • 45 tons of cloves
  • Fine tapestries,
  • 35 tons of cinnamon
  • 3 tons of mace
  • 425 tons of pepper
  • 3 tons of nutmeg
  • Chests of benjamin, ambergris and musk (bases for perfume made from – well – you really don’t want to know…)
  • 25 tons of cochineal
  • 15 tons of Ebony
  • Chests of porcelain
  • Chests of ginger

plus all sorts of strange items such as quilts, diapertowels (heavens) elephants’ teeth and drugs.

In other words, the sort of haul to make a man proud to be a cutpurse.

Queen Elizabeth may have had more jewels than she could shake an ostrich-feather fan at, but she was always on the lookout for more. She allowed privateering, as long as she got the lion’s share of the treasure. Problem was, this massive haul was in bloomin’ Dartmouth – in the Wild West of her realm, and she was in Greenwich. Somehow she had to get her booty to where she could flog it off for hard cash.

The sailors on board had already filled their voluminous pockets, and every thief, highwayman, cutpurse and wheeler-dealer in the land had flocked to the place, in preparation for a massive haul. When she had been brought into dock, Raleigh reckoned the Madre de Dios was worth half a million; by the time he had fought off the brigands (and his own sailors) it was about £140,000. Still not a bad day’s work, and Elizabeth was rubbing her hands…

Robert Cecil was sent down to record and direct the treasure being moved. He was so suspicious that he stopped everyone he met along the way and sniffed their bags to check they hadn’t pinched any perfume. Several smelly-bag owners were sent to the Tower.

Although Cecil was beaten in the race to get there before the town was tipped off, he was largely unexpected and an outraged Cecil caught several shop owners red-handed, openly flogging the plunder that had been pinched on behalf of Her Majesty.

Hell – even the chest-sellers were having a good time.

No one was allowed to leave Dartmouth and Cecil arrested two dodgy innkeepers, a move that it was reckoned would have saved twenty thousand quid if he’d done it a week earlier. At another place he discovered a golden amulet and a fork and spoon set in crystal, which he popped in his pocket ‘for the queen…’

Give or take the gold, he hated his stay in Dartmouth. He reckoned he never met fouler weather, more desperate ways, nor more desperate people “As for rats,” wrote his secretary dismally, “they have them both black and white, the drink smells like smoke and he has little provision.”

It took ten freighters to take the haul up the Thames, and that was after the lighter and more valuable stuff had been taken out and transported by land. London was in one of its periodic plague times, so everything was brought to Greenwich, where Elizabeth held a giant car-booty sale in the palace grounds.

The Sarf London dockers were made to wear special canvas doublets with no pockets when unloading the gear.

I suspect that no table top, car boot or jumble sale like it has been seen since. I wonder what they got for the twenty-two thousand papal indulgences intended for the guilt-ridden conquistadors in South America that were captured from a Spanish ship at the same time…

*Raleigh was in disgrace at the time, having married without the Queen’s permission, so he was keen to make a good impression…


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