Pirates of Stage and Sea

London’s theater scene and the fate of two sea dogs.

By Matthew Leib

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Two pirates hanging in high tide, illustration from A True Relation of the Lives and Deaths of the two most Famous English Pyrats, Purser and Clinton, by Thomas Heywood, 1639.

When playwrights Thomas Heywood and William Rowley set out to stage Fortune by Land and Sea, a tragicomedy about pirates, murder, and redemption on the high seas, they were charting unknown waters. Since debuting at London’s Red Bull Theater around 1607, the play has attracted scholarly attention for its reflection of contemporary statecraft and maritime law. But the question of whether or not the play was intended as a veiled critique of England’s early projections of sea power should not obscure lesser-traveled sea-lanes of scholarship—namely, the curious interplay between London’s burgeoning theater scene and the fate of two of the city’s most scurrilous sea dogs.

As England emerged as a major sea power in the late sixteenth century, tales of its mariners’ exploits were imported from every corner of the globe with every ship that came to dock. Cults of celebrity sprang up around national heroes like Sir Francis Drake and Sir Thomas Cavendish whose raids on Spanish galleons flooded London markets with gold from the Americas.

Lesser known today, but no less successful in their own time, were the pirates Clinton Atkinson and Thomas Walton, better known as Clinton and Purser, whose outlaw tendencies earned them something of a bad-boy reputation—further cemented when they were captured and hanged for their crimes in 1583.

Naturally, the public lapped up every detail and clamored for more. So, as any savvy commercial playwright would have done, Heywood and Rowley decided to make them stars upon the stage, weaving the story of their lives and deaths into the plot of Fortune by Land and Sea.

The only problem lay in the last word of the title. The sea, as we shall learn, has historically been hard to replicate on stage. Theater critic Lyn Gardner notes, “The thing about introducing water into a production is that often it can detract from the action more than it adds.” In a stage setting, water threatens to soak actor and producer alike. At best, it’s a production complication overcome with technical acumen and no small quantity of mops. At worst, you get Waterworld.

In 1899’s Stage-Land: Curious Habits and Customs of its Inhabitants, the humorist Jerome K. Jerome observed, “few things are more remarkable in their behavior than a Stage sea. It must be difficult to navigate…the currents are so confusing.”

Lampooning popular tropes of the late-Victorian theater though he was, Jerome saw Britain’s masters of stagecraft as having foundered where its admirals had long flourished. Britannia might have ruled the waves at the turn of the twentieth century, but in Jerome’s estimation, neither a blue sheet furiously rippled by hands unseen nor the intricate oscillations of painted wooden waves could do justice to the dramatic undulations of the oft-celebrated azure main. “As for the waves,” Jerome writes:

There is no knowing how to steer for them; they are so tricky. At one moment they are all on the larboard, the sea on the other side of the vessel being perfectly calm, and the next instant they have crossed over and are all on the starboard, and before the captain can think how to meet this new dodge, the whole ocean has slid round and got itself into a heap at the back of him. Seamanship is useless against such very unprofessional conduct as this, and the vessel is wrecked.

Which is to say nothing of the production.

Before the widespread adoption of the proscenium arch in Restoration England, staging plays—let alone sea scenes—was a spare business. Actors could be hoisted using ropes and smoke billowed from beneath trapdoors, but beyond costumes and a few movable props, dialogue alone lent setting to the action. Rather, urged the courtier and poet Sir Philip Sidney in The Defence of Poesy, theatergoers should “piece out imperfections with their thoughts.” He writes:

Now you shall have three ladies walk to gather flowers, and then we must beleeve the stage to be a garden. By and by we heare news of shipwrack in the same place; then we are to blame, if we accept it not for a rock.

But when the meticulously stage-managed masques endemic to the Elizabethan and Jacobean courts called for more lavish effects, imagination could only carry stagecraft so far. In a letter from 1604, the diplomat Sir Dudley Carleton describes an impressive scene:

At night, we had the Queen’s Maske in the Banqueting-house…there was a great engine at the lower end of the room, which had motion, and in it were the images of sea horses...(with other terrible fishes)

Carleton could not help but wryly note that for all the pageantry, “The indecorum was, that there was all fish, and no water.”

It was in staging such masques that the architect Inigo Jones rose to prominence in the first half of the seventeenth century. Jones was a frequent collaborator with—and rival of—the playwright Ben Johnson. Theirs was a rivalry of style versus substance. Across two decades, Johnson incessantly ridiculed Jones in his plays, believing his own literary talents superior to Jones’ impressive, oft-praised set constructions.

Jones greatest triumph in translating sea to stage was William Strode’s 1634 comedy The Floating Island for which he created a bobbing island. In attendance was the antiquarian Brian Twyne, who described a set of special shutters designed by Jones,

Within which was set forth the embleme of the whole playe in such a sumptuous manner to behold: therein was the perfect resemblance of the billowes of the sea rollinge up & down, and an artificial Iland…waving up and down & floating in the same in one whole piece.

Twyne did not elaborate as to how this particular effect was achieved, but it was not so impressive that critics still considered the play a failure. In the opinion of one chaplain in the audience, it was “fitter for schollers than a Court.” The sea was there, but where was the substance? Somewhere Ben Johnson was having a laugh.

pirate ships.jpg

When Fortune on Land and Sea debuted three decades prior at The Red Bull Theatre, a venue known more for rowdy crowds than art direction, the stage would have been strewn with rushes and the play’s shipboard scenes announced only by “a great alarum, and shot” or “a great alarum and flourish.” However, Heywood and Rowley knew the public's tastes lay elsewhere than in the showy, starfish-spangled set pieces so often demanded at the royal court. If they couldn’t bring the sea to stage using convincing scenery, they would instead whet audiences’ appetite in other, more familiar ways—harnessing their play to history by dramatically reenacting the capture and execution of Clinton and Purser, the previous century's most notorious pirates.

As practiced in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries by Sir Francis Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Thomas Cavendish, state-sponsored “privateering” meant prowling the seas with an eye toward enriching the crown first and one’s own crew second. If mariners wanted to operate legitimately—sailing freely from homeports to raid enemy vessels without fear of repercussion—they would abide by the protocols laid out by the Court of the Admiralty, which usually involved not attacking ships of England or any of its allies.

But in the 1580s, even Drake’s daring raids paled at the audacity of the pirates Clinton Atkinson and Thomas Walton. Not content to play understudy to their contemporaries, Clinton and Purser went off-script to launch a freebooting career in flagrant defiance of the rules set out by the English crown; establishing themselves, in the words of Thomas Heywood, “as lords, Nay, kings, at sea.” In A True Relation of the Lives and Deaths of the two most Famous English Pyrats, Purser and Clinton, a two-part pamphlet published in 1639, Thomas Heywood writes of the pair’s early acquaintance:

These two being grown into familiar acquaintance, and both of them of haughty and ambitious spirits, having diverse meetings, they at length began to discourse betwixt themselves, that in regard of their experience and skill in Navigation, what baseness it was in them to be no better than servants, who had both the judgement and ability to command, and to be only employed to benefit and enrich others, whist they in the interim wanted themselves: they further reasoned that service was no heritage, and that in regard they had either of them been more than a prentiship to learn their art, it was now high time to be freemen of the sea, and set up for their selves.

At Plymouth they found a willing crew of “discontented saylers” and, absconding on a ship, captured a Turkish and a Spanish vessel within days of launch. Heywood writes:

Neither was there any Sea-towne, either in this our own Kingdome, or elsewhere, in which they would not command victual, and other commodities which they wanted…sending their longboats ashore to fetch them at their pleasure: the Magistrates of these places, fearing to deny them, because not able to withstand them.

As tales of their prowess grew, Queen Elizabeth sent a captain to their ship with the offer of full pardon if they would return to land or accept a commission as part of her fleet of privateers. The pirates conferenced long into the evening, but ultimately refused the offer. The crown would not brook such open defiance, however, and Clinton and Purser’s illustrious career was soon after brought to an end when they were tricked into boarding a ship belonging to Captain Burrowes, a rear admiral in the burgeoning English navy, who “brought both their ship and men to London, where they…lay for some weeks in prison.” Heywood writes:

They were Arragined at Saint Margerets in Southwarke, convicted, and condemned; and two days after brought by the Officers out of the Marshalsees, (with a Silver Oare borne before them) and conducted through South-warke over the Bridge, through London, and so to Wapping, and to the place of execution there.”

There were no fewer than twelve theaters operating in London between the years 1570 and 1640, but there was never a production more dramatic than those held along a silty stretch of the north bank of the Thames as it bends northeast on past Tower Hill known as Wapping’s Execution Dock. Its steps descended to the mark of low tide where the gibbets stood, strategically placed so the high tide would engulf the dangling bodies in such a way to symbolize the Admiralty’s jurisdiction on the seas.


On the day of an execution, a crowd would have gathered, pressed close to the river’s edge. Others would have rented boats to view the coming spectacle. The script was always the same and the players of a sort: sea dogs run afoul of the law. The condemned were allowed a quart of ale—enough to steady the nerves, perhaps, but hardly adequate to numb the totality of an impending death sentence—and yet, as Heywood relates, Purser and Clinton “appeared as brave in habits, as bold in spirit” at their hour of anti-triumph:

Some of the garments they then wore, they distributed amongst their private friends who came to see them dye, that they might remember them after their deaths. When imbracing one the other in their armes, it seemed they no more joyfully lived together than they were willing to dye together.

Once upon the scaffold, the pirates would have been questioned and given a chance to recant their ways and ask forgiveness for crimes before God. This would have marked a crescendo in the unfolding drama as the condemned men declared freely what they would make known of their lives at sea—often a titillating tale couched as a confessional. When a sheriff in Fortune on Land and Sea informs the stage version of Clinton and Purser that “their hour draws nigh,” Heywood’s Purser opines upon the Execution Dock:

How many gallant spirits, Equal with us in fame, shall this gulf swallow, And make this silver oar to blush in blood! How many captains that have aw’d the seas, Shall fall on this unfortunate piece of land! Some that commanded islands; some to whom The Indian mines paid tribute, the Turk vail’d! But when we have quak’d, nay, troubled floods And made armadoes fly before our stream, Shall founder thus, be split and lost, Then be it no impeachment to their fame, Since Purser and bold Clinton did the same!

In Heywood’s play, Clinton and Purser would then have been marched off stage—theatergoers needing no visualization of their ultimate fate. In 1607, the execution scene at Wapping Dock was the same as had played out at the historical execution of Clinton and Purser a quarter century prior: the sentence would have been read aloud a final time before the condemned were turned off from the ladder and slowly strangled by a shortened rope. Heywood writes,

It appeared to all the multitude that were then present, that they could not live more irregularly, than they dyed resolutely: and so there they hanging till from that ebbe two Tydes overwhelmed their bodies.

A certain boyish sense of adulation for the pirates pervades both play and pamphlet. Heywood would have been in his young teens when the historical Purser and Clinton were hanged in 1583. And while it cannot be determined whether he or William Rowley witnessed the event firsthand, there would have been opportunity enough to glimpse a similar scene at Wapping on any other day.

The gathered crowd would have lingered for a while to watch the bodies on the gibbets sway; and as the tide crept in to lap the muck-black steps of Wapping Dock, a straggling few would wander home, on past the Bankside brothels and toward the theaters; and stopping there a while, would think that for a penny’s price a play might for an evening quench that newly-kindled ache for drama on the seas. There would persist an ardent hope that the drama on the stage—the second in a double-billing unique to time and place—might equal the one just witnessed on the savage stage at Wapping Dock; its actors, having played a one-night-only run, now bowed beneath the Thames’ watery curtain.