Hull, Sir William (c.1573–1643), pirate collaborator and settler, was one of two surviving sons and five daughters of Henry Hull, a merchant and ship owner of Exeter, and his wife Julianna (née Spurway). Henry maintained a family tradition by serving as mayor of Exeter in 1605. Nothing is known of William’s early life before his marriage, in May 1597, to Elizabeth Cockeram, the daughter of Hugh Cockeram of Honiton, outside Exeter; they had four sons (Argentine, William, Henry and John) and two daughters (Elizabeth and Mary).
In August 1601 William Hull appears on the south-west Irish coast being awarded £117 by the crown, presumably for naval services there during the nine years war (1594–1603). Hailing from a west country region that sent forth a host of privateers during the Anglo–Spanish war (1585–1604), he captained a privateer during 1602–3, largely operating in the Mediterranean in tandem with another ship captained by Philip Ward. They violated their commissions by robbing neutral traders, killing crewmembers while taking a French vessel off Sardinia in November 1602.
Aggrieved merchants complained to the authorities in London and sued Hull in the English courts, prompting the privy council to order his arrest in early 1604. Nothing came of this because Hull had been sharing his spoils with the vice admiral of Devon, Richard Hawkins. With the advent of peace with Spain, James I set about suppressing his increasingly piratical privateers and in November 1604 outlawed Hull and Ward for their murderous attack on the French ship. Hull went into hiding while influential friends interceded on his behalf, arguing that Ward was solely culpable. Ward was executed in July 1605, but not before he absolved Hull, who subsequently surrendered and was pardoned in February 1607. He also paid compensation and restored a ship to its owner.
Hull moved to Leamcon, Co. Cork, a remote headland on Ivaha (latterly the Mizen Head peninsula) in Ireland’s far southwest, where he had been active in 1601. Previously untouched by English influence, the region had been depopulated by warfare during the nine years war; most of the Gaelic leaders were in foreign exile while those that remained sought to mitigate their political exposure by associating with incoming English settlers. The O’Mahoneys, Ivaha’s local Gaelic Irish clan, granted Hull a long-term lease of the late medieval tower house and surrounding territory at Leamcon. He was sub-leasing the tower house by 1612, having built a fortified residence nearby.
Leamcon lay along Roaringwater Bay, which by 1607 was becoming a haven for displaced English privateers-turned-pirates by reason of its lawless frontier character, ease of access to international shipping routes, and array of islands, quays, anchorages and secluded berths. Pirate fleets of up to forty ships congregated there from spring to August, spending the rest of the year in their other principal base at Mamora (latterly Mehida) in north-west Africa. Baltimore was the bay’s bustling trading port, but sparsely populated Leamcon afforded discretion just eight nautical miles to the west. Moreover, Long Island, as well as being an ideal lookout point, hid any vessels anchored within the well-sheltered channel where ships could be careened at Croagh Bay. Hull positioned artillery on the headland overlooking the narrow passage separating Leamcon from Long Island.
Despite, or rather because of, his position as deputy vice-admiral of Munster (with responsibility for the Leamcon area), by 1608 he was the main player in the flourishing illicit economy that evolved from trading with pirates, most of whom hailed from his home region. In summer he might host ten or more pirate ships at a time about Leamcon. The much-diminished royal navy was outmatched, though it helped too that Hull’s colleagues in the Munster admiralty were shamelessly corrupt. He collaborated with the London-based vice-admiral of Munster, Humphrey Jobson, through Jobson’s deputy on the spot, his brother Richard Jobson. (Hull’s brother Henry, who settled nearby in Clonakilty, Co. Cork, married Humphrey Jobson’s daughter.)
Certainly, there was plenty to go around: in 1610 a single ship was said to have landed £2,000 worth of plunder at Leamcon. Hull laundered such contraband among wealthy regional interests, crown officials and traders arriving from England’s west country ports. Charging inflated prices, he kept visiting marauders well provisioned with livestock and through his mercantile connections, being confident enough, at times, to advance these supplies on credit. Pirate captains built houses on his estate, leaving their families behind while they were at sea, and relied on Hull to recruit crew members from among the English who flocked to Roaringwater Bay in pursuit of riches and adventure. Exotic currencies circulated freely at Leamcon where it was rumoured that buried treasure abounded.
Bidding to exploit the abundant pilchard shoals off west Cork, he was by 1612 sending out fishing boats crewed by skilled migrants arriving from the English west country. This industry provided a convenient explanation for the presence of numerous English mariners, who in fact divided their time between seine boats and pirate ships, while the visiting merchants could claim they were supplying the fishermen. Hull built fish curing cellars at Leamcon, and the quay at Leamcon Creek probably dates to his time.
Although the Irish-based pirates largely spared English merchants, they otherwise inflicted such damage on Atlantic shipping that the crown was embarrassed into activity. In December 1609 the admiralty in London ordered Hull’s arrest, but conciliation was cheaper (and more feasible) than coercion: he was in England by the time the order reached Munster, returning in March 1610 with the authority to negotiate with pirates. This allowed him to board their ships without arousing suspicion, providing the perfect cover for his black-market dealing, which continued unabated. That said, his pirate associates were open to securing a safe retirement in return for paying restitution: since 1609, he had been brokering temporary protections from prosecution. Pirates seeking a formal pardon often took the precaution of landing first at Leamcon for at least the preliminary communications with more senior officials. Some of those pardoned settled on his estate.
This amnesty program unfolded in a fraught, halting and confused manner, with mistrust and double dealing all around. Navy captains and special royal envoys descended on Leamcon, cramping Hull’s scope, and the intense jockeying for bribes disrupted what had been a cosy local ring. The provost marshal of Munster, Richard Aldworth (qv), subjected him to a campaign of legal harassment, eventually gaining a suitable pretext for dispatching a garrison in summer 1612 to seize his land and tower-house at Leamcon and to harass his tenants. Hull quickly recovered his grazing pastures, and if the soldiers remained in the tower-house for a time, there were only twenty of them, all grateful receivers of gifts.
Whereas other complicit officials might face dismissal, even prosecution, Hull’s standing with the pirate community – which the crown saw in part as a strategic naval reserve – shielded him; so too did his contribution to the planting of a militarily robust (albeit semi-criminal) English presence along Ireland’s vulnerable south-west coast. By 1615 his diplomacy, together with attritions inflicted by the Spanish and Dutch navies, had broken up Roaringwater Bay’s pirate colony. Sea raiders kept availing of his facilities and services at Leamcon, but the trafficking was on a far smaller scale.
With the local pilchard shoals proliferating into the early 1630s, he established additional fishing operations, including curing facilities, on the Ivaha peninsula at Crookhaven by 1616 and subsequently at Dunbeacon, where he leased land from 1622. Struggling O’Mahoney landowners leased or mortgaged their properties to him, often defaulting on the mortgage to leave him in full ownership. Accumulating long-term leases of dispersed rural acres across the peninsula and of land to the east in and around the plantation towns of Clonakilty and Bandon, he engaged in a small amount of tillage but otherwise farmed livestock (sheep principally), while sub-leasing certain lands, mostly to Irish tenants.
From the mid-1610s he flourished under the wing of Munster’s wealthiest man, the notorious land-grabber Richard Boyle (qv), earl of Cork. In addition to leasing properties from the earl (including half of Clonakilty town), Hull borrowed from him, supplied him with goods, partnered with him in fishing ventures and served as his rent collector in west Cork. He was Cork’s enforcer in a remote region where most of the earl’s lands had Gaelic Irish tenants. Their alliance was sealed in January 1622 when Hull, whose first wife had died, married Cork’s sister-in-law Elizabeth (née Lacy), the widow of John Boyle, bishop of Cork; she brought five children with her to Leamcon, and she would bear him another son (Boyle Hull). One of Hull’s daughters from his first marriage, Mary, subsequently married one of his stepsons, while another son (William Jr) married Jane Boyle, the daughter of Cork’s cousin, Richard Boyle (qv), archbishop of Tuam. Cork also appointed one of Hull’s sons to two vicarages that he controlled, and leased land to various members of Hull’s family. Hull was becoming respectable; he was knighted in 1621 and elevated to the council of Munster (probably during the 1620s). Somewhat ironically, he also served as a customs officer at Kinsale, Co. Cork (1620–24).
Persisting with his old habits, he enticed Dutch privateers-cum-pirates to Leamcon in the early 1620s, before the revival in English privateering during England’s wars against Spain (1625–30) and France (1627–9) created further opportunities for illicit profits. The entrenched regional dominance of the Boyle clique stood Hull in good stead, even amid determined efforts by the powerful royal favourite and lord high admiral in London, George Villiers, duke of Buckingham, to bring his wayward Munster officers to heel from 1624. Hull covered his tracks by seizing eight pirates on Long Island and arranging for their execution at the Cork assizes in June 1625 with the lord deputy in Dublin, Viscount Falkland (qv), only informed retrospectively. This was shortly before the arrival from England of two investigators who complained about being hindered by local officials: Hull procured the arrest of their leading witness. There was, however, already enough evidence to prove that he had been dealing with rogue privateers (English and Dutch) and, far more seriously, denying Buckingham his cut. Around 1625 he was forced to pay an onerous £200 fine, really a bribe, but he was always just useful enough to survive as Munster deputy vice-admiral: by then he was providing logistical aid to the royal ships and garrisons that were defending Ireland’s southern coast.
Continuing to consort with pirates in the early stages of the 1625–30 wars, he also initially encouraged privateers to dispose of their captured cargoes in Munster for the benefit of local admiralty officers. His superiors in London successfully insisted on all prizes being sent to England for adjudication, ignoring his protests that this would deter Irish-based privateering. He spoke from experience: during these wars, he financed three well-armed privateers based at Leamcon and joined a syndicate that sent out two privateers from Bristol. Officially, his Irish privateers took just three ships, which has struck some historians as indicating his illegal disposal of undeclared prizes. His known prizes were adjudged in England, where according to Hull, intermediaries swindled his profits.
After the mid-1620s, Hull’s ties to piracy ceased, in official records, at least. The political pressure may have told; moreover, Muslim corsairs were then raiding aggressively into the north Atlantic, culminating in 1631 with the abduction and enslavement of over 100 settlers at Baltimore. Once piracy began undermining rather than stimulating the west Munster economy, Hull and other local interests became more supportive of the royal navy, which largely succeeded in clearing Irish waters of pirates by the mid-1630s. In any case, his legitimate interests had kept expanding, most notably from buying out the original developer of the English settlements either side of Leamcon at Crookhaven and Schull. Furthermore, he continued to improve and convert land to arable farming and in 1640 completed his new residence at Clonakilty.
He was at Clonakilty in early December 1641 when, amid the outbreak of a countrywide rebellion, the O’Mahoneys led attacks on his properties further west in Ivaha. To his annoyance, the naval forces that evacuated the English inhabitants of Crookhaven and his son William’s family at Leamcon destroyed the settlements of Crookhaven and Schull and the fortified Hull residence at Leamcon. After Clonakilty was abandoned to the rebels in mid-January 1642, Hull removed to Bandon with his extended family, including six grandchildren and two of his deceased brother’s younger children. There, he provided ordnance for Bandon’s defence, and busied himself strengthening its walls and advising the town’s youthful military governor, Cork’s son Lewis Boyle, Lord Kinalmeaky.
Bandon became an isolated government-held outpost, and a contemporary rebel ballad singled out ‘William Hull crookback’d’ from among all the ‘English bastards’ within as most deserving of being hanged. The wartime privations led Bandon’s garrison to pillage the wealthier civilians inside, with Hull complaining that Kinalmeaky was too soft on his unruly soldiers. By summer 1642, the town’ inhabitants were reportedly unhappy about his self-interested sway over Kinalmeaky. Hull was at Kinsale on 22 October, completing an unusually detailed deposition outlining the losses that he had suffered in the rebellion; his estimates are almost certainly inflated. He was dead within six months of the deposition, having died by 8 April 1643, probably in Bandon. His heir William recovered the family lands in west Cork in the 1650s, with the Hulls continuing as landowners at Leamcon into the mid-nineteenth century. Lurking along the margins of recorded history, William Hull remains an elusive figure, his few surviving letters rendered in a hand that one nineteenth century scholar branded ‘villainously bad’ (Grosart, 85).