John Hawley - a Model for The Canterbury Tales Character

Categories: The Canterbury Tales

Hawley was a prominent figure in Dartmouth and is associated with some of the finest medieval buildings in the town- St Saviour's Church which he helped to consecrate, his home which was used as a Guildhall for 400 years and the first fortalice of the town. Born around 1340 he was a West Country merchant and ship owner. He was major of Dartmouth fourteen times, twice MP, escheator to the King and he paid for the chancel of St Saviour's Church to be built where his memorial brass in the chancel is inscribed in Latin with 'Venerable man (·) founder of this Chancel (appx).

I intend to investigate the juxtaposition of a man connected with the town of Dartmouth, who was accused of piracy, robbery and murder on the high seas and considered the model of the shipman in Chaucer's, 'The Canterbury Tales'.

Rodger writes that in Middle Ages, peaceful trade didn't exist and, 'the sea was widely regarded as lying beyond laws, treaties and truces' (1997, p.

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115). Piracy was illegal and a huge threat to commercial maritime activities, however it was common and inflicted prisoners to torture, drowning and were held to ransom when it was lucrative to do so. The Crown, mostly chose to ignore this piracy, unless the ransom was worthy of consideration. With no Royal Navy the English kings had to rely on the privately-owned ships to go to sea as privateers, armed to defend the country by resisting attacks from all corners, to trade, carry troops and who better to employ than merchants with experience of fighting.

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(Rodger, 1997, p.115,116).

Dartmouth was geographically in the front line both for war and trade. Freeman (2007, p.16) writes that after the conquest of the Normans, Dartmouth began to thrive and trade between the sea-faring countries of Europe flourished even when there was constant war. It became a prominent port involved in wars and on the marriage of Henry II when he gained Bordeaux in 1154 it opened the dynastic links across the sea, exchanging wine for wool, wheat and dried local fish. It was on this trade that Dartmouth developed and provided a source of income for local industry. It was here that John Hawley lived, and the following rhyme is a tribute to the success of a merchant's activities in bringing wine from Bordeaux to his quay, 'Blow the wind high, blow the wind low, it bloweth good to Hawley's hoe' (Freeman, 2007, p.34). Hawley had grown in prominence is likely to have inherited a warehouse and wealth from his father of the same name, who is believed to have died in the plague epidemic which swept from Europe to the trade routes of England in 1349 (Connors p.30). The 1377 Poll tax confirmed that Dartmouth was a rich and expanding town with 506 tax payers compared to Oxford who had 521 with Dartmouth households 31.7% of servants (Kowaleski, 2014, p. 581). Hawley was rich and one of the twelve burgesses in the town, responsible for upholding regulations and criminal law, defending the town from troublesome visitors, they also dealt with the aristocracy and the church and could arrest ships for royal service (Connors p. 20). In return for their royal service and loyalty, Dartmouth was granted a Borough seal in 1341 which enabled them to elect a Mayor and exemption from paying tolls. It proved that Hawley enjoyed a position of power from the start of his career which would evolve to other areas.

Freeman (2007, p.33) comments that Chaucer, who visited Dartmouth in 1373 as a trusted customs official of Edward III, was to investigate an enquiry into maritime matters. Chaucer had possibly heard of the West Country's privateering exploits and piracies and was inspired to write, 'The Canterbury Tales' which describes an unscrupulous shipman, it is thought that it is written about John Hawley. A section of the tale of the shipman: -

'A Schipman was there dwelling far by West;

For ought I wot he was of Dert-e-mouthe.

But of his craft to reckon well the tydes,

His stormes and his dangers all besides,

His harbour and his moone, his pilotage,

There were none such from Hulle To Carthage'

Local historian, Freeman claims that it could be written about William Smale, who in 1361 boarded a ship with cargo worth ?20,000, killed the master and 100 mariners (Freeman, 2007, p.33). Gardiner wrote that, 'Devon historians are agreed that John Hawley was the most outstanding inhabitant of Dartmouth', contributing to the prosperity of the port of Dartmouth (Gardiner, -- p. 173). Prince comments that he was, 'a public-spirited man, one that preferred the common to his own private good; undertaking for the service of his King and country, very noble exploits, at his own proper charges'. (1810, p.477). She writes that modern historians however view him in a different light, such as Kingsford (1925) who sees him as, 'a typical example of the merchant who combined trade with piracy'; Russell (1950) and Hoskins, (1954) that claim he is the model for Chaucer's shipman, 'expert in his job, who pilfered wine, kept few rules, and drowned his prisoners' and Gosse (1950), 'a typical example of a merchant who combined trade with piracy' (Gardiner, --p.174).

So, is there any justification to accuse John Hawley of piracy? This needs to be considered in the context of time and as Kingsford states, 'piracy had a wider meaning than it has today and was applied alike to those who were at the worst unlicensed privateers and to those who only object was to plunder' (Kingsford, 1925, p.78). Tom Bowling describes a pirate as, 'a sea robber, an exploiter of weakness. If the pirate has the power he will take what's yours' (2008, p. 7). Hawley had the power, a well-armed crew and the knowledge of the maritime laws and knew what risks he could take. Hawley had to be wealthy, as a sea going ship according to Rodgers was, 'the most expensive single piece of investment in the medieval money economy'. Merchants were not compensated if they lost their cog during 'royal service' whereas in contrast a knight would be highly compensated if they lost their horse, their most treasured possession (Rodger, 1997, p.119). Therefore, the lure to plunder would have been too tempting and privateering could provide a lucrative income; English piracy was encouraged by the kings as any spoils were split and they took a large percentage of the profits (Rodger, 1997, p.126). Privateering was legal, however due to a few maritime laws being recognised or upheld and excuses that ship owners were not able to distinguish between the ships of the country's enemies and neutrals, increased the rise of English piracy and turmoil.

During his third term as major, along with seven others, he was granted a royal licence as privateers, 'to go to sea at their own charges under the King's protection for one year (·) and destroy the king's enemies' (Watkin p.365). The Hundred Years War intensified and in 1383, 'The men of Portsmouth and Dartmouth destroyed a French fleet, slaying all but nine men. On another illegal exploit they captured 1500 casks of good wine and captured four others loaded with wine, iron and other booty'. (Watkin, p. 366). He comments that these escapades John Hawley was involved in went unnoticed possibly due to the licence that was granted in 1379. (Watkin, 1935, p.366). During the truce of 1384, Hawley sailed to Brittany with a cargo valued at ?300 when they were attacked by the Bretons and their cargo taken. It appears that the Bretons were retaliating to what happened to them and as Connors mentions it changed Hawley's attitude to privateering from them on. There were various attacks mainly on the Bretons and a notable one was in 1386 when Hawley was in trouble again with Richard II for taking possession of cargoes off the coast of Brittany and he was instructed to return the goods (Connors, 2008, p.78).

The English at this point were not doing well against the French and in 1388 Hawley was ordered by the king to build at fortalice at the mouth of the Dart. The town was granted as the only exporter of tin which would have provided the revenue to build the fortalice. It took fourteen years to build, which he supervised along with the extension to St Saviour's Church (Freeman, 2007, p.36). Also, in 1388, he was appointed by the king to build a barge at his own expense, 'with power to imprison contrariants' (Watkin, 1935, p.369). This was likely to be for the wedding of Richard II to his French princess. Hawley also in that year was appointed Collector of Customs for the area between Weymouth to Bridgewater. He had grown in importance and was an outstanding pillar of the community with great respect and due to this was recognition he was given the royal exemption of life from official duties for life (Connors p,97). According to Edison, he wanted release from civic burden and did not want to be involved in the turbulent politics of Central Government. In Edison's view, the reputation of the town, 'owed this reputation in considerable part to Hawley' (2013, p.125).

When Henry IV deposed and murdered his cousin Richard II, which angered the French as Richard's wife was a French princess, Pistano writes that another one of the biggest problems that faced Henry IV on his accession to the Crown was piracy (1975, p.322). John Hawley's misdemeanours at sea seemed to intensify and in 1402 he seized cargo from the Flemings and Castilians, and English pirates had broken the truce and stolen their goods and ships (Edison, p.131). Henry IV wrote to the privateers to summon them to Westminster, one of those was John Hawley (Edison, p. 132). A diplomatic truce with Flanders was reached on the understanding that the ships would be clearly marked so they would not be interfered with. However, this did to stop the likes of Henry Pay of Poole and John Hawley of Dartmouth and the Flemings reported twenty-six attacks on their ships (Edison, 2013, p.132). In 1403, the general lawlessness at sea continued and they captured seven Spanish ships returning from Flanders, some goods were returned as Florentine merchants were involved and according to Percy three of the prizes were retained for the English ship owners 'in consideration of the great losses of merchandise they had sustained through the men of Spain (1982, p.16).

During the 1400's there were increasing protests by neutrals such as the Bretons and the Spanish of piracy being carried out by Hawley's ships. By 1403, the Bretons in retaliation for so many English attacks on their coast sacked and burnt Plymouth. In 1404, they attacked Dartmouth at the Battle of Blackpool Sands, hoping to take Dartmouth by land. Du Chatel and his 300 ships and 200 knights were defeated by ill-equipped Dartmouth countrymen, who normally were renowned for fighting at sea. Henry IV and the court were so astounded by their success and Hawley was dubbed a national hero, the king honoured their bravery at Westminster. Du Chatel and other high-ranking officers were taken ransom, the king claimed half a share in two prisoners in which he summoned Hawley which unfortunately due to ill health he wrote to the king in the only surviving letter written by Hawley, declining the invitation due to poor health (Freeman, p.38,39).

One of Hawley's last involvement with law and order was in 1406 when he was an old man of 68. A large cargo was seized from a Spanish fleet which was under protection, Hawley's men were involved, though he was not mentioned. This angered the king and he was arrested and sent to The Tower of London and fined ?10,000 if he did not restore their property. In Connor's view, 'it was ironic that, after a lifetime of straight-arming the judicial system, and having won social rank, personal prestige and patriotic glory' that he should find himself incarcerated in the tower when he was not named as directly involved in the siege. Thankfully three West-Country bailed him out showing what respect and how he was highly regarded in the town (2008, p.131).

Hawley was a man who faced political and economic challenges and responded to those with vigour and strength by running the town for forty years. It is significant that he chose to be dressed in armour on his memorial brass and not associate with other symbols of a merchant signifying a, 'Venerable man' (Edison, 2013 p.126). He was a huge benefactor to the town, he built a fortalice and organised a land army to prevent an invasion from the Bretons, he was a fighter, an upstanding member of the community and was well respected. He was able to serve the Crown on his own terms and he became a serious power to be reckoned with. It could be considered that piracy could not be compared to the modern sense of the word and that the extent to which Hawley was a pirate was only that he retaliated to the personal losses that he had suffered (Kingsford, 1925 p. 78,84).

Updated: Nov 01, 2022
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John Hawley - a Model for The Canterbury Tales Character essay
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