Who was Harry Paye?
Most people have heard of Sir Francis Drake, English hero of the struggle against the Spanish Armada. To the Spanish, he was an evil pirate who they called El Draqui. Drake was following in the wake of a man of Poole, Harry Paye, known to the Spanish as Arripaye.
A good 200 years before the likes of Blackbeard, Captain Flynn, Long John Silver, Charles Vane, etc all of whom are portrayed fantastically in the series ‘Black Sails’ (If you haven’t watched it, do so) the southern seas were abound with tales of an infamous pirate known as Harry Paye. Born around 1364, Henry Paye, also known as Harry, or Arripaye (to the Spanish), was a privateer and smuggler from Poole, Dorset in the late 14th and early 15th century, who became a commander in the Cinque Ports fleet.
Paye led naval raids along the coast of France and Spain from Normandy through to the Bay of Biscay and Cape Finisterre. He also helped quell the Welsh revolts brought about by Owain Glyndŵr, defeating a French fleet sent to aid the uprising. He was a renown and much-feared pirate of the southern seas.
Harry had a colourful life, He and his ship the Mary appear in the Kings’ records as being licensed to carry pilgrims to Spain. The Spanish archives record him as stealing a treasured gold cross from the church at Finisterre. He was notorious for having burnt the Spanish walled city of Gijon, home of his lover, Countess Isabel. Harry’s activities in Spain drove the Spanish to seek revenge. In 1405 whilst Harry was away with the English fleet in the Welsh Revolts, a squadron of Spanish and French galleys were making their way along the south coast. When they reached Poole they heard that it was hometown to the dreaded Arripaye. The galleys were crammed with heavily armed fighting men who attacked the town. The people of Poole fought valiantly and the fighting was fierce with many killed on both sides, including Harry’s brother. Eventually, the Poole people were forced to flee to the heath leaving the raiders to burn the town.
Two years later, in 1407, Harry decided it was “Paye back” time. His ship and 14 others swept the English Channel capturing French and Spanish cargo vessels. The archives record that 120 ships were sunk but one vessel that was captured was loaded with valuable goods including vast quantities of good French wine. To help to recompense the people of Poole for their sufferings Harry brought the captured ship back to Poole. According to local tradition, the town feasted and drank the captured wine for many days.
One story tells of how his ship was once captured by the French. Paye and his companions were held on deck by a few guards while most of the French went below, having removed their armour, to search for booty. However, Harry and his men broke free and killed all the Frenchmen as they emerged from the ship’s hold. He then seized two French vessels and sailed them up the River Seine, flying the French flag, to plunder several ships before escaping back to sea.
In the 1400s the average life expectancy of a pirate was just two years, however, Harry Paye went on from being a privateer and was made Warden of the Cinque Ports (five ports in south-east England that are closest to the French coast). He finally retired on a Royal pension and died in 1419, there is a memorial brass in Faversham Church in Kent, where Old Harry was laid to rest.
Six centuries later The Pirates of Poole finally decided to say sorry for the piratical exploits of privateer Harry Paye in Spain. The privateer Harry Paye, was employed by a Spanish count to help his cause against the monarch. However, Paye instead helped himself to the countess while her husband was away, fleeing when royal armies arrived, though not before burning the towns of Gijon and Finisterre and stealing a treasured cross from the Church of St Mary of the Sands in the latter.
What became of the crucifix is a still a mystery though as it was valuable gold it is suspected it was melted down but in 2008 a four-foot wooden cross crafted in Poole, incorporating a piece of a brass bell recovered from a Spanish ship wrecked off the Scilly Isles. The cross was sent on its way at Poole’s parish church of St James by the rector, the Rev Bob Mason and Canon Peter Webb of Our Lady of Fatima, Parkstone, and was be presented to Mayor Jose Traba by modern day Pirates of Poole. The people of Finisterre now also celebrate Harry Paye each year in August.
Here in Poole, in June the Pirates of Poole celebrate the life of Harry Paye to help raise funds for local charities and of course to keep the story of Harry Paye alive. Many of the townsfolk and visitors from afar don their pirate outfits and enjoy a day of merriment down on Poole Quay and you are always welcome to come along and join in the fun.