Privateer History - French Corsairs

French Corsairs - Early History


nown as corsairs, French privateers plagued English & Spanish shipping for several centuries. The French considered “la course,” their word for privateering, a family business where sons followed in their fathers’ footsteps. The word "corsair" comes directly from the French word corsaire which is derived from the Latin cursus, meaning "course", as in a journey or expedition. The French word corsaire may also come as a mispronunciation of the Arabic word "corsanni", which means pirate.

For the most part, in France, corsairs were not considered pirates but privateers working for the King of France attacking the ships of France’s enemies. While in France they did not need to fear punishment for piracy such as being hanged or beheaded as they were granted a licence as combatants, known as a Lettre de Marque or Lettre de Course. This document legitimized their actions to the French justice system and also was supposed to give them the status of a war prisoner in case they were ever captured, although this was not always the case.

In theory, the corsair was ordered to attack only the ships of enemy countries, theoretically respecting "neutrals" and their own nation's ships. If they did not respect this rule, then they were to be treated as a pirate and hanged. The corsairs' activities also provided the King with revenue as the license required them to hand over one quarter and sometimes even one third of the booty. However, in common with privateers of other nationalities, they were often considered pirates by their foreign opponents, and could be hanged as pirates if captured by the foreigners they preyed on.

Because corsairs gained a swashbuckling reputation, the word "corsair" is also used generically as a more romantic or flamboyant way of referring to privateers, or even to pirates.

In France, privateering gained its roots in about the 12th century. With the main goal being to compensate the crown for the economic problems in periods of war; and to appease the ship owners who did not accept that war was an obstacle to their trade.

Jean de Châtillon, a bishop, in 1144 gave the town of Saint-Malo the status of rights of asylum which encouraged all manner of thieves, rogues, and outcasts to move there. Located in the north of Brittany, St Malo was named after Father MacLaw, a Welsh monk and bishop who fled Wales to Brittany in 538. This 44-acre fortified city became very famous in 1590 when its inhabitants declared it an independent republic. Their motto was "Neither French nor Breton, but a Corsair am I". This status did not last more than four years but that was long enough for St Malo’s residents to earn a strong reputation as rebels, and indeed from the 12th century onwards, St. Malo was a haven for the French “cosaire”.

The Treaty Of Tordesillas - The Rise Of The French Corsairs

Despite its early roots, privateering in France did not flourish until the end of the 15th century. It’s growth was primarily sparked by the Treaty of Tordesillas, signed on the 7th of June 1494, which declared that lands lying beyond the Atlantic Ocean, whether discovered in the past or the future, were to be shared uniquely between Spain and Portugal.

In addition, Pope Alexander VI gave his approval in a papal bull. This treaty did not receive the agreement of France or England and they were all the more offended by it, because soon after its establishment, the Spanish refused to allow any other nation to trade with their American colonies.

Francois 1The exclusion of King François I of France from the Treaty of Tordesillas quite clearly reaffirmed that the two Iberian kingdoms did not intend to share their treasures with anybody. As a result, the king of France, François I, banded together a group of corsairs, which included, Giovanni da Verrazzano, Jean (Fluery) Florin aka "The Florentino" and Jean d'Ango. They were nicknamed, "Gueux de la mer" meaning "Sea Tramps" or "Sea beggars" in English and were co-funded by the Dutch. In 1521, French privateers began a series of attacks of Spanish vessels returning from the West Indies. It was in such circumstances as this that both France and England allowed their corsairs to attack Spanish vessels in Europe and the West Indies, with the justification that they had letters giving official permission from their government, although these papers were sometimes false. Indeed, sometimes the politicians actively encouraged such ventures.

The activities of the Corsairs were so profitable that the Marine Minister used this in his strategy to make money, and it became part of the budget of the French treasury. The Corsairs’ activities weakened France’s enemies; indeed, the English trade losses were very important from 1688 until 1717.

The relationship between the Corsairs and the State changed not only depending on who was in power; but as well as the relationship between the state and the church. Indeed, privateering in France was initially fuelled by religious turmoil – and persecution beginning with the Protestant Reformation.

The Protestant Reformation & Rise Of The Huguenots

The Protestant Reformation, also known as the Protestant Revolt or the Reformation, was the European Christian reform movement that established Protestantism as a constituent branch of contemporary Christianity. It was led by Martin Luther, John Calvin and other early Protestants. The efforts of the self-described "reformers", who objected to ("protested") the doctrines, rituals and ecclesiastical structure of the Catholic Church, led to the creation of new national Protestant churches. The Catholics responded with a Counter-Reformation, led by the Jesuit order, which reclaimed large parts of Europe, such as Poland.

Protestantism also spread into France, where the Protestants were nicknamed "Huguenots", and this eventually led to decades of civil warfare, where “corsairs” frequently switched sides, at first for and then later against the state as the Huegonots formed a “rebellion” or “confederation” calling for religious and politial reform in France.

Huguenot CrestA term used originally in derision, Huguenot has indefinite origins. Various theories have been promoted. Some have proposed that the nickname may have been a French corruption of the German word Eidgenosse, meaning "a Confederate", perhaps in combination with a reference to the religious leader and politician Besançon Hugues (died 1532). Geneva was John Calvin's adopted home and the center of the Calvinist movement. In Geneva, Hugues was the leader of the "Confederate Party", so called because it favoured an alliance between the city-state of Geneva and the Swiss Confederation. This theory of origin has support from the alleged fact that the label Huguenot was first applied in France to those conspirators (all of them aristocratic members of the Reformed Church) involved in the Amboise plot of 1560: a foiled attempt to transfer power in France from the influential House of Guise. The move would have had the side effect of fostering relations with the Swiss. Thus, Hugues plus Eidgenosse became Huguenot, a nickname associating the Protestant cause with politics unpopular in France

Like the first hypothesis, several others account for the name as being derived from German as well as French.  Roche writes in his book The Days of the Upright, A History of the Huguenots that "Huguenot" is "a combination of a Flemish and a German word. In the Flemish corner of France, Bible students who gathered in each other's houses to study secretly were called Huis Genooten ('housemates') while on the Swiss and German borders they were termed Eid Genossen, or 'oath fellows,' that is, persons bound to each other by an oath. Gallicized into 'Huguenot', often used deprecatingly, the word became, during two and a half centuries of terror and triumph, a badge of enduring honor and courage."

Some disagree with dual linguistic origins, arguing that for the word to have spread into common use in France, it must have originated in the French language. The "Hugues hypothesis" argues that the name can be accounted for by connection with Hugues Capet king of France, who reigned long before the Reform times. He was regarded by the Gallicans and protestants as a noble man who respected people's dignity and lives. Frank Puaux suggests, with similar connotations, a clever pun on the old French word for a covenanter (a signatory to a contract).Janet Gray and other supporters of the theory suggest that the name huguenote would be roughly equivalent to little Hugos, or those who want Hugo.

In this last connection, the name could suggest the derogatory inference of superstitious worship; popular fancy held that Huguon, the gate of King Hugo, was haunted by the ghost of le roi Huguet (regarded by Roman Catholics as an infamous scoundrel) and other spirits, who instead of being in purgatory came back to harm the living at night. It was in this place in Tours that the prétendus réformés ("these supposedly 'reformed'") habitually gathered at night, both for political purposes, and for prayer and singing the psalms.

Similarly, this origin is reiteratied by Reguier de la Plancha (d. 1560) in De l'Estat de France who offers the following explanation as to the origin:

"The origin of the name is curious; it is not from the German Eidegenossen as has been supposed... The name huguenand was given to those of the religion during the affair of Amboyse, and they were to retail it ever since. I'll say a word about it to settle the doubts of those who have strayed in seeking its origin. The superstition of our ancestors, to within twenty or thirty years thereabouts, was such that in almost all the towns in the kingdom they had a notion that certain spirits underwent their Purgatory in this world after death, and that they went about the town during the night, striking and outraging many people whom they found in the streets. But the light of the Gospel has made them vanish, and teaches us that these spirits were street-strollers and ruffians. At Paris the spirit was called le moine bourré; at Orleans, le mulet odet; at Blois le loup garon; at Tours, le Roy Huguet; and so on in other places. Now, it happens that those whom they called Lutherans were at that time so narrowly watched during the day that they were forced to wait till night to assemble, for the purpose of praying to God, for preaching and receiving the Holy Sacrament; so that although they d'd frighten nor hurt anybody, the priests, through mockery, made them the successors of those spirits which roam the night; and thus that name being quite common in the mouth of the populace, to designate the evangelical huguenands in the country of Tourraine and Amboyse, it became in vogue after that enterprise."

In any event, Huguenots became known for their harsh criticisms of doctrine and worship in the Catholic Church from which they had broken away, in particular the sacramental rituals of the Church and what they viewed as an obsession with death and the dead. They believed that the ritual, images, saints, pilgrimages, prayers, and hierarchy of the Catholic Church did not help anyone toward redemption. They saw Christian life as something to be expressed as a life of simple faith in God, relying upon God for salvation, and not upon the Church's sacraments or rituals, while obeying Biblical law.

Like other religious reformers of the time, they felt that the Catholic Church needed radical cleansing of its impurities, and that the Pope ruled the Church as if it was a worldly kingdom, which sat in mocking tyranny over the things of God, and was ultimately doomed. Rhetoric like this became fiercer as events unfolded, and eventually stirred up a reaction in the Catholic establishment.

The Catholic Church in France opposed the Huguenots, and there were incidents of attacks on Huguenot preachers and congregants as they attempted to meet for worship The height of this persecution was the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre when 5,000 to 30,000 were killed. The Huguenots, retaliating against the French Catholics, frequently took up arms, even forcibly taking a few Catholic cities.

The Huguenots took part in anti-Catholic movements in England during the reign of Henry VIII. They were hired by Henry VIII to suppress various Catholic orders in England. They were responsible for confiscation of many of the Catholic Church's possessions at the time on behalf of the king acting as “corsairs” for England.

Huguenots faced persecution from the outset of the Reformation and due to the fact that he was not personally interested in religious reform, Francis I (1515–47) initially maintained an attitude of tolerance, arising from his interest in the humanist movement. This changed in 1534 with the Affair of the Placards. In this act, Protestants denounced the mass in placards that appeared across France, even reaching the royal apartments. The issue of religious faith having now been thrown into the arena of politics, prompted  Francois to view the movement as a threat to the kingdom's stability.

This led to the first major phase of anti-Protestant persecution in France, in which the Chambre Ardente ("Burning Chamber") was established within the Parlement of Paris to deal with the rise in prosecutions for heresy. Several thousand French Protestants fled the country during this time, most notably John Calvin, who settled in Geneva.

Calvin continued to take an interest in the religious affairs of his native land and, from his base in Geneva, beyond the reach of the French king, regularly trained pastors to lead congregations in France. Despite heavy persecution by Henry II, the Reformed Church of France, largely Calvinist in direction, made steady progress across large sections of the nation, in the urban bourgeoisie and parts of the aristocracy, appealing to people alienated by the obduracy and the complacency of the Catholic establishment.

French Protestantism, though its appeal increased under persecution, came to acquire a distinctly political character, made all the more obvious by the noble conversions of the 1550s. This had the effect of creating the preconditions for a series of destructive and intermittent conflicts, known as the Wars of Religion. The civil wars were helped along by the sudden death of Henry II in 1559, which saw the beginning of a prolonged period of weakness for the French crown. Atrocity and outrage became the defining characteristic of the time, illustrated at its most intense in the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre of August 1572, when the Roman Catholic party annihilated between 30,000 and 100,000 Huguenots across France. These Hugeuenots formed “corsair” divisions waging a sea battle against the Iberian states, the seat of the Catholic power.

In France, the height of the Huguenots power came in the 16th century, when the Huguenots became organized as a definitive political movement. Protestant preachers rallied a considerable army and a formidable cavalry, which came under the leadership of Admiral Gaspard de Coligny. Henry of Navarre and the House of Bourbon allied with the Huguenots, adding wealth and holdings to the Protestant strength. At its height, they controlled sixty fortified cities and posed a serious threat to the Catholic crown and Paris over the next three decades. The Corsairs were given license by other states such as England under Henry VIII, to attack Spanish and Catholic strongholds.