Lundy – The English Island Home to Pirates, Corsairs and Rebels

The tiny isle of Lundy has sheltered rebels, eccentrics and even a band of Barbary pirates. This is the story of Lundy’s rich history.

Map showing Lundy to the south of the busy Bristol Channel (en.wikipedia.org)

Lundy seems an innocuous island; sitting just 10 nautical miles (19km) off the Devon coastline, it’s a mere three miles (5km) long by 1/2 mile (1km) wide, and home to just 28 islanders.

You could say it’s a place coveted much more than it can cater for, being strategically well placed yet barren and too small for any community to grow and prosper. Many have come and gone thus, and virtually every period of British history has left a mark on this speck of rock.

Ancient History

Evidence of human habitation goes a far back as the late Stone Age, with Bronze Age burial mounds.

A cemetery was later uncovered dating from the 5th-6th Century AD. Interestingly, it included four gravestones with Latin and Celtic inscriptions alternatively.

The Vikings gave Lundy its name, meaning ‘Puffin Island’; named after the distinctly black and white seabirds with brightly coloured bills that once crowded the granite island.

No doubt those Norse raiders, who plundered and pillaged and marauded the coasts of northern Europe during the centuries when the light of civilisation was dim, came to regard the steep-sided isle with fondness for it served as a fantastic launching off point for raids on the nearby British coastline for which the Vikings were notorious.

The Marisco Family

The stout but cute Marisco Castle (ecastles.co.uk)

Lundy’s written history only began after the Norman Conquest, and with it, a long association with de Marisco family began. The Marisco family history is shrouded by the depths of time akin to how fog often shrouds Lundy from the English coast.

They were a noble family held in high esteem in the Norman king’s court at first, but their fortunes ebbed over hundreds of years until they were but mere yeomanry.

King Henry II granted the island to the Knights Templar in 1160, the Templars being a major maritime power for a while. Yet the Marisco family got in there first. It seems the Mariscos held a claim to the throne because a family member was the bastard offspring of the royal line; they wouldn’t kowtow to the king.

In 1235 William de Marisco murdered a King’s messenger, then later an assassin tried to kill King Henry III and he confessed to being sent by William. The rebel fled to Lundy, built a lightweight castle, and from there ruled the land like his own little realm.

His family turned to piracy, preying on shipping along the busy Bristol Channel trade routes.

Finally, Henry III sent troops to invade Lundy and William and 16 of his ‘subjects’ were captured.

William was hung, drawn and quartered for his treason and the king built another fortress of his own to secure the island.

Thomas, 2nd Earl of Lancaster, another rebel, would later possess Lundy until the King of England again seized the island in 1322.

A Pirates’ Den

Popular depictions of pirates are those in the Caribbean during the 18th and 19th Centuries. And many might think of England as this traditionally strong naval power that ruled the seven seas since time immemorial.

But the fact is England was basically a backwater European power until the Spanish Armada was destroyed in 1588, and pirates infested the British coastline throughout the medieval age. For instance, there was the great Cornish Killigrew family who served as governors, MPs and notorious pirates throughout the 15th and 16th centuries.

Over the next few centuries Lundy harboured pirates both foreign and British, including other Marisco family members. The port of Bristol was an up-and-coming trade hub and ships sailing to and from often had to pass close by Lundy at low tide which made them easy pickings for British, French, and Spanish pirates, and Lundy served as excellent a forward operating base for medieval pirates as it had for the Vikings.

There were pirates of a different kind too.

The Barbary pirates of North Africa plagued Mediterranean Christendom by enslaving its peoples with coastline raids, and attacks on Christian shipping.

Barbary pirates were based on Lundy for five years whilst they prowled the British Isles for Christian slaves to sell in N. Africa’s slave markets (en.wikipedia.org)

Barbary pirates became increasingly bold, and they began to venture beyond the Mediterranean environs.

Incredibly, these N. Africans would voyage as far north as the waters around Britain, Ireland, and even Iceland.

Sometimes whole town populations were carried off to be sold in the slave markets of the Ottoman Empire.

In 1627 a group known as the Salé Rovers arrived at Lundy from modern-day Algeria. These Barbary pirates under the command of a Dutch renegade named Jan Janszoon flew an Ottoman flag over the island that was a virtual stone’s throw away from England – the nation that would come to rule the seven seas within two centuries.

Slaving raids would be launched from Lundy and captured Europeans were held there before being sent to Algiers to be sold. These rovers maintained their little Barbary realm for five years.

The island got the occasional visit from sea raiders even as late as the 1700s.

The Kingdom of Heaven

Lundy’s residents continued to live outside of the law as Britain came into the modern era.

Thomas Benson, the Sheriff of Devon, diverted convicts who were supposed to be deported to Virginia to Lundy instead in order to build a cave that Benson used to hide stores as part of an insurance swindle.

In 1802 Lundy’s next owner was an eccentric Irish nobleman, Sir Vere Hunt, 1st Baronet of Curragh, who tried to establish an Irish colony on the island, complete with its own constitution, divorce laws, coinage and stamps. It failed however because the island’s topography was little good for a self-sustaining community to thrive on.

By 1834 the island changed hands yet again when William Hudson Heaven purchased it for just under £10,000. Heaven claimed it to be a ‘free island’, and successfully resisted the jurisdiction of the mainland magistrates. He built a church, a villa named Millcombe House and a road, but these building projects almost bankrupted him.

A puffin coin minted in 1929, equivalent to a British penny (en.numista.com)

Yet the Heaven family remained for two more generations, minting its own ‘puffin’ coinage. (which the House of Lords fined them £5 for …not to be paid in puffins.)

They eventually sold up in 1968 after much financial hardship suffered over the decades.

Eventually, the National Trust acquired Lundy and it manages the isle to this day.

Shipwrecks and Lighthouses

It’s perhaps no surprise that more than one ship has been wrecked by Lundy’s granite rocks over the years.

At the end of a long voyage from Africa, though not carrying slaves, a ship named the Jenny was only hours from reaching Bristol port when she crashed onto Lundy’s coast in 1797. All hands were lost, save the First Mate and the site of the tragedy is known as ‘Jenny’s Cove’.

In 1906 a Duncan class pre-dreadnought Battleship HMS Montagu ran aground. The ship’s crew believed they were actually on the mainland until a lighthouse keeper informed them otherwise. Strenuous efforts by the Royal Navy to salvage the badly damaged battleship during the summer of 1906 failed, so they gave up and sold her for scrap.

Two German Heinkel He 111 bombers crash-landed on the island in 1941 in separate incidents, and remains of one of the aircraft remain.

The island’s first lighthouse was built 10 years before Jenny’s tragic demise, and two lighthouses replaced that one in 1897.

Island Getaway

Lundy today; the Lundy Tavern with St Helen’s Church behind (inews.co.uk)

Today, Lundy is home to a large, varied bird population, plus Sika deer, grey seals, black rats and even its own horse breed.

Lundy also attracts thousands of visitors every year, with its own pub and holiday huts for overnight visitors. It is popular with birdwatchers and rock climbers, having the UK’s longest continuous slab climb, ‘The Devil’s Slide’.

In a 2005 opinion poll of Radio Times readers, Lundy was named as Britain’s tenth greatest natural wonder.

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