Few pirate tales are more legendary than the meeting at Greenwich Palace between Irish she captain Grace O’ Malley and Queen Elizabeth I. Fictional books, ballads, and art have certainly sentimentalized the meeting between the ‘wild Irish rose’ and ‘Gloriana’. But what is the real story behind this unlikely friendship?
The Irish Queen
Grace O’ Malley (Grainne Mahal) was certainly not your typical swash buckling pirate. She was born in Ireland around 1530 to the O’Maille clan. From a young age, Grace was not the kind of woman to sit back and throw dinner parties at the castle. One story claims that when Grace’s father told her she could not accompany him on an expedition to Spain due to her long hair that she quickly solved the problem by chopping off her locks. (According to legend, this is how she earned the name Grainne Mahal because Maol means “bald” in Irish.) Another story claims that when her father’s ship was fleeing from the Algerian corsairs that Grace gave a final salute by pulling down her trousers and mooning her enemies. Another story claims that when the English seized the family galley, Grace jumped onto the back of an armed English sailor in an effort to save her father’s life. Tales like these tend to earn a gal respect amongst marauding pirates. So it isn’t hard to imagine that Grace gained quite a following by the time she reached adulthood.
Grace’s method of operation was similar to any pirate of the Renaissance. She would first lie in wait off the coast for slower merchant ships to cross her path. Then, she would seize the ships and negotiate a fee with the captain to continue on unharmed. If the captain of the captured ship refused, the plunder would follow. What made her legendary is that she was able to continue this dangerous lifestyle while avoiding being captured. Yet, it was all fun and games until Grace’s son, Tibbot, was captured in 1593 and her property was seized. Thus, Grace sailed to England to petition Elizabeth I for his release and the return of her property.
The English Queen
Queen Elizabeth had a somewhat hypocritical attitude toward her local pirates. Basically, any pirate that raided English ships was a treasonous rake. But any pirate that raided Spanish or French ships immediately became a friend and employee to England. (Bonus points were given if you brought her back some of that yummy tobacco from America that she so liked to smoke.) Grace had the potential to fall into the latter category of friendly pirate and it is for this reason that Elizabeth most likely granted Grace’s request for a meeting.
First hand accounts of the apocryphal meeting do not survive, but legend tells us that she appeared before the stiff-laced, bejeweled Elizabeth barefoot and in rags. They supposedly chatted in Latin, but what was said has been lost to history. What we do know is that Elizabeth agreed to all of Grace’s demands. Her son and property were to be restored and Grace was to continue her life of, “maintenance by sea and land.” This “maintenance” included the right to fight the Spanish and French on behalf of the English. (in other words, piracy).
As with many things concerning Elizabeth, we are left to guess as to why she granted Grace’s requests. It’s very tempting to imagine that Elizabeth as a powerful woman caught in a patriarchal society might have seen a bit of herself in this pirate queen. But I tend to think of Elizabeth as a pragmatist first and a feminist second. Firstly, Grace as friend over foe could only serve Elizabeth’s goals of filling the English coffers with stolen booty. And like Elizabeth, the 60-year old Grace was in the twilight of her years, and was therefore simply not much of a threat to English sovereignty. In a letter to Lord Bingham, Elizabeth reveals some of her attitude toward Grace when she wrote, “have pity for the poor aged woman.” (1) Perhaps Elizabeth painted Grace as a weak and feeble female because she knew it was the quickest way to divert attention? We will never know, but it’s hard not to romanticize these two aging warrior queens united together in one common goal: self-preservation.
If you are in the mood for a little Irish music this St. Patty’s day then I recommend listening to "Oró Sé do Bheatha 'Bhaile" which tells the tale of Grace O’ Malley. Happy St. Patty's day!
(1) Sjoholm. P. 34
Sources and Further Reading:Sjoholm, Barbara. The Pirate Queen: In Search of Grace O’Malley and Other Legendary Women of the Sea, California: Seal Press, 2004.
Chambers, Anne. Ireland's Pirate Queen: The True Story of Grace O'malley, 1530-1603, New York: MJF, 2003.