Devonshire Characters and Strange Events/Manly Peeke
THE pirates of Algiers had for some years been very troublesome, not in the Mediterranean only, but also along the European coasts of the Atlantic. Several English vessels trading to Smyrna had been plundered, and the corsairs had even made descents on the coasts of England and Ireland and had swept away people into slavery. James I proposed that the different Christian powers should unite to destroy Algiers, the principal port of these pirates. Spain, whose subjects suffered most, engaged to co-operate, but withdrew at the last moment. Sir Robert Mansell was placed in command of the English fleet, but provided with an inefficient force, and given strict orders from the timid and parsimonious James not on any account to endanger his vessels.
On 24 May, 1621, Sir Thomas sailed into the harbour of Algiers and set fire to the Moorish ships and galleys; but had scarcely retired—unwilling to follow up the advantage—when "a great cataract of rain" hindered the spread of the fire; and the Algerines succeeded in recovering all their ships with the exception of two, which burnt to the water's edge. The enemy brought their artillery to bear on the English fleet, mounted batteries on the mole, and threw booms across the mouth of the harbour. Mansell, hampered by his instructions, dared not expose his vessels further and withdrew, having lost only eight men; and returned to England. Among those who had sailed with him was Richard Peeke, of Tavistock, who returned home much disgusted, "My Body more wasted and weatherbeaten, but my purse never the fuller nor my pockets thicker lyned."
Charles I came to the throne in 1625; and one of his first acts was to organize and start an expedition against the Spanish. It was devised for the sake of plunder. His treasury was empty; he was obliged to borrow £3000 to procure provisions for his own table. Plate ships, heavy-laden argosies, were arriving in the port of Spain from the New World, and Buckingham suggested to him to fill his empty coffers by the capture of these vessels. The English fleet counted eighty sail; the Dutch contributed a squadron of sixteen sail; it was the greatest joint naval power that had ever spread sail upon salt water—and this made the world abroad wonder what the purpose was for which it was assembled. Ten thousand men were embarked on the English vessels, and the command of both fleet and army was given to Sir Edward Cecil, now created Lord Wimbledon, a general who had served with very little success in the Palatinate and the Low Countries. This appointment of a mere landsman surprised and vexed the seamen. The position belonged to Sir Robert Mansell, Vice-Admiral of England, in case the Admiral did not go; but Buckingham had made the choice and persisted in it. The fleet set sail in the month of October, and shaped its course for the coast of Spain.
Richard Peeke had remained in Tavistock after his return from Algiers till October, 1625, when—"The Drumbe beating up for a New Expedition in which many noble Gentlemen, and Heroical Spirits, were to venture their Honors, Lives and Fortunes: Cables could not hold me, for away I would, and along I vowed to goe, and did so." Peeke entered as sailor on board the Convertine, under Captain Thomas Porter.
In the Bay of Biscay the ships were damaged and in part scattered by a storm. One vessel foundered with a hundred and seventy men on board. This was the beginning of misadventure. The confusion of orders was such that the officers and soldiers scarcely knew who were in command and whom they were to order about. When Wimbledon got in sight of the Spanish shores, he summoned a council of war, the usual and dangerous resource of an incompetent commander. His instructions were to intercept the plate ships from America, to scour the Spanish shores and destroy the shipping in the ports. But where should he begin? In the council of war some recommended one point, some another; in the end it was resolved to make for Cadiz Bay. But whilst they were consulting, the Spaniards had got wind of their approach, and prepared to receive them. Moreover, Wimbledon allowed seven large and rich Spanish vessels to sail into the bay under his nose, and these afterwards did him much damage. "'Tis thought," says Howell, who had many friends with the expedition, "that they being rich would have defrayed well near the charge of our fleet."
A sudden attack on the shipping at Cadiz and Port St. Maria could hardly have failed even now, but the blundering and incompetent Wimbledon preferred to land all his troops, and he succeeded in capturing the paltry fort of Puntal, whilst his fleet remained inactive outside the bay. Then he moved towards the bridge which connects the Isle de Laon with the continent, to cut off communications. No enemy was visible; but in the wine-cellars of the country, which were broken open and plundered, a foe was found which has ever been more dangerous to undisciplined English troops than bullets and sabres. The men, under no control, got drunk, and became totally unmanageable; and if the Spaniards had been on the alert they might have cut them to pieces. Lord Wimbledon then ordered a retreat, but this was conducted in such a manner that hundreds of stragglers were left behind to fall under the knives of the enraged peasantry.
Richard Peeke, not being a soldier, did not accompany the army; but at midday thought that he might as well also go ashore to refresh himself. He did so, and met some of the men laden with oranges and lemons. He inquired of them where the enemy was. They replied that they had not seen a Spaniard. Thereupon "we parted, they to the shippes, I forward, and before I reached a mile, I found three Englishmen starke dead, being slayne, lying in the way, and one, some small distance off, not fully dead." Whilst Peeke was assisting the wounded man, a Spanish cavaliero, whose name he afterwards learned was Don Juan de Cadiz, came up and attacked him, but Peeke flapped his cloak in the eyes of the horse, which swerved, and Peeke mastered the Don, and threw him down. The Spaniard pleaded for mercy, and Peeke, after emptying the Don's pocket of a few coins, bade him depart. At that moment, however, up came fourteen Spanish musketeers. "Thus farre, my Voyage for Oranges sped well, but in the end prooved sower sauce to me." The musketeers overpowered Peeke, and the ungrateful Don stabbed at him, "and wounded me through the face from eare to eare, and had there killed me, had not the foureteen muskatiers rescued me from his rage. Upon this I was led in triumph into the town of Gales [Cadiz]; an owl not more wondered and hooted at, a dog not more cursed. In my being ledde thus along the streets, a Flemming spying me cryed out alowde, Whither do you leade this English dogge? Kill him, kill him, he's no Christian. And with that, breaking through the crowde, in upon those who held mee, ranne me into the body with a halbert, at the reynes of my back, at least foure inches."
He was taken before the Governor, who had him well treated and attended by surgeons, and when he was better, dispatched him to Xeres, which he calls Sherrys. Meanwhile his captain, Porter, induced Lord Wimbledon to send a messenger on shore and offer to ransom Peeke at any reasonable price; but the Spanish Governor, supposing him to be a man of far greater consequence than he was, refused this, and at Xeres he was had up on 15 November before a council of war, consisting of three dukes, four counts, four marquesses, and other great persons. Two Irish friars attended as interpreters. These men had been in England the year before acting as spies and bringing to Spain reports of the number of guns and troops in Plymouth. "At my first appearing before the Lordes my sword lying before them on a table, the Duke of Medina asked me if I knew that weapon. It was reached to me, I tooke it, and embraced it in mine armes, and with tears in mine eyes kist the pomell of it. He then demanded, how many men I had kild with that weapon. I told him if I had kild one I had not bene there now, before that princely Assembly, for when I had him at my foote begging for mercy, I gave him life, yet he then very poorely did me a mischiefe. Then they asked Don John what wounds I gave him. He sayd, None. Upon this he was rebuked and told that if upon our first encounter he had run me through, it had been a faire and noble triumph, but so to wound me being in the hands of others, they held it base."
He was now closely questioned as to the fleet, the number of guns in the vessels, the fortifications of Plymouth, the garrison and the ordnance there, and was greatly surprised to find how accurately the Council was informed on every point.
"By the common people who encompast me round, many jeerings, mockeries, scorns and bitter jests were to my face thrown upon our Nation. At the length one of the Spaniards called Englishmen gallinas (hens); at which the great lords fell a laughing. Hereupon one of the Dukes, poynting to the Spanish soldiers, bid me note how their King kept them. And indeed, they were all wondrous brave in apparell, hattes, bandes, cuffes, garters, etc., and some of them in chaines of gold. And asked further if I thought these would prove such hennes as our English, when next year they should come into England? I sayd no. But being somewhat emboldened by his merry countenance, I told him as merrily, I thought they would be within one degree of hennes, and would prove pullets or chickens. Darst thou then (quoth Duke Medina, with a brow half angry) fight with one of these Spanish pullets?
"O my Lord, said I, I am a prisoner, and my life is at stake, and therefore dare not be so bold to adventure upon any such action; yet with the license of this princely Assembly, I dare hazard the breaking of a rapier; and withall told him, he was unworthy the name of an Englishman that should refuse to fight with one man of any nation whatsoever. Hereupon my shackells were knocked off, and my iron ring and chayne taken from my neck.
"Roome was made for the combatants, rapier and dagger the weapons. A Spanish champion presents himselfe, named Signior Tiago, Whom after we had played some reasonable good time, I disarmed, as thus—I caught his rapier betwixt the barr of my poignard and there held it, till I closed in with him, and tripping up his heeles, I tooke his weapons out of his hands, and delivered them to the Dukes.
"I was then demanded, If I durst fight against another. I told them, my heart was good to adventure, but humbly requested them to give me pardon if I refused, for I too well knew that the Spaniard is haughty, impatient of the least affront, and when he receives but a touch of any dishonour, his revenge is implacable, mortall and bloody.
"Yet being by the noblemen pressed again and again to try my fortune with another, I sayd, That if their Graces and Greatnesses would give me leave to play at mine owne Countrey weapon, called the Quarter-staffe, I was then ready there, an opposite against any comer, whom they would call foorth; and would willingly lay doune my life before those princes, to doe them service, provided my life might by no foule means be taken from me.
"Hereupon, the head of a halbert which went with a screw was taken off, and the steall [staff] delivered to me; the other but-end of the staffe having a short iron pike in it. This was my armor, and in my place I stood, expecting an opponent."At last, a handsome and well-spirited Spaniard steps foorth with his rapier and poignard. They asked me what I sayd to him. I told them I had a sure friend in my hand that never failed me, and made little account of that one to play with. Then a second, armed as before, presents himselfe. I demanded if there would come no more. The Duke asked, how
Three to One:
Being, An Englifh-Spanifh Combat,
Performed by a Wefterne Gentleman, of Tauyftoke in Deuon fhire,
with an Englifh Quarter-Staffe, againft Three Spanifk
Rapiers and Poniards, at Sherries in Spaine,
The fifteene day of Nouember, 1625.
Ln the Prefence of Dukes, Condes, Marqueffes, and other Great
Dons of Spaine, being the Counfell of Warre.
The Author of this Booke, and Actor in this Encounter, Richard Peccke.
Printed an London for I. T. and are to be sold at his Shoppe
Manly Peeke in his encounter with three adversaries
armed with rapiers and poignards
"The rapier men traversed their ground, I mine. Dangerous thrusts were put in, and with dangerous hazard avoyded. Showtes echoed to heaven, to encourage the Spaniards, not a shoute nor a hand to hearten the poore Englishman; only Heaven I had in mine eye, the honour of my Countrey in my heart, my fame at the stake, my life on a narrow bridge, and death both before me and behind me.
"Plucking up a good heart, seeing myself faint and wearied, I vowed to my soule to do something ere she departed from me; and so setting all upon one cast, it was my good fortune with the but-end where the iron pike was to kill one of the three; and within a few boutes after, to disarme the other two, causing one of them to fly into the armie of soldiers then present, and the other for refuge fled behind the bench.
"Now was I in greater danger; for a generall murmure filled the ayre, with threatenings at me; the soldiers especially bit their thumbes, and how was it possible for me to scape?
"Which the noble Duke of Medina Sidonia seeing called me to him, and instantly caused proclamation to be made, that none, on paine of death, should meddle with mee. And by his honourable protection I got off. And not off, only, with safety, but with money, for by the Dukes and Condes were given me in gold to the value of foure pounds tenne shillings sterling, and by the Marquesse Alquenezes himself as much; he embracing me in his armes and bestowing upon me that long Spanish russet cloake I now weare, which he tooke from one of his men's backs; and withall furnished me with a cleane band and cuffes."
The Spaniards, nobly appreciating the bravery of their captive, and discovering that instead of being a man of great consequence he was a mere sailor before the mast, and not likely to be redeemed at a great price, resolved to give him liberty, and under the conduct of four gentlemen attached to the suite of the Marquess Alquenezes, he was sent to Madrid to be presented to the King. During Peeke's stay in Madrid, which he calls Madrill, he was the guest of the Marquess. The Marchioness showed him great kindness, and on his leaving presented him with a gold chain and jewels for his wife, and pretty things for his children. On Christmas Day he was presented to the King, the Queen, and Don Carlos, the Infante.
"Being brought before him, I fell (as it was fitt) on my knees. Many questions were demanded of me, which so well as my plaine witte directed me, I resolved.
"In the end, his Majesty offered me a yearly pension (to a good vallew) if I would serve him, eyther at land or at sea; for which his royal favour, I confessing myself infinitely bound, most humbly intreated, that with his princely leave, I might be suffered to returne into mine own Countrey, being a subject onely to the King of England my sovereign.
"And besides that bond of allegiance there was another obligation due from me, to a wife and children. And therefore most submissively beg'd, that his Majesty would be so princely minded as to pitty my estate and to let me goe. To which he at last granted, bestowing upon me, one hundred pistoletts, to beare my charges.
"Having thus left Spaine, I took my way through some part of France, and hoysting sail for England I landed on the 23rd day of Aprill, 1626, at Foy in Cornwall."
Whilst Peeke was in Spain, Lord Wimbledon had been blundering with his fleet and army worse than before. After he had reshipped his army, there still remained the hope of intercepting the plate fleet, but an infectious disorder broke out in the ships of Lord Delaware, and in consequence of an insane order given by Wimbledon, that the sick should be distributed into the healthy ships, the malady spread. After beating about for eighteen days with a dreadful mortality on board, and without catching a glimpse of the treasure vessels from the New World, Lord Wimbledon resolved to carry his dishonoured flag home again, "which was done in a confused manner, and without any observance of sea orders." The plate fleet, which had been hugging the coast of Barbary, appeared off the coast of Spain two or three days after his departure, and entered safely into the harbour of Cadiz. Moreover, whilst he was master of these seas, a fleet of fifty sail, laden with treasure, got safe into Lisbon, from Brazil. With the troops and crews dreadfully reduced in numbers, with sickness and discontent in every vessel, and without a single prize of the least value, Lord Wimbledon arrived in Plymouth Sound, to be hissed and hooted by the indignant people, and to have his name of Cecil ridiculed as Sit-still. This sorry and unsuccessful expedition which had cost Charles so much was a grievous blow to him. A thousand men had perished in the expedition, a great sum of money had been thrown away, and the whole country was roused to anger. The Privy Council was convened and an examination into the miscarriage was instituted, but the statements of the officers were discordant, their complaints reciprocal, and after a long investigation, it was deemed expedient to bury the whole matter in silence.
It has been well said, that the only man who of the whole expedition came out with credit to himself and to his country was Richard Peeke, of Tavistock, who earned for himself the epithet of "Manly."
What became of Peeke afterwards we do not know; in the troubles of the Civil War he doubtless played a part, and almost certainly on the side of the Crown. The authority for the story is a rare pamphlet by Peeke himself, entitled, "Three to One, Being, An English-Spanish Combat, Performed by a Westerne Gentleman, of Tavystoke in Devonshire, with an English Quarter-Staffe, against Three Spanish Rapiers and Poniards, at Sherries in Spaine, The fifteene day of November, 1625 … the Author of this Booke, and Actor in this Encounter, Richard Peeke." There is no date to it. This has been reprinted by Mr. Arber in his English Garner, and large extracts have been given by Mr. Brooking-Rowe in his article, "Manly Peeke, of Tavistock," in the Transactions of the Devonshire Association, 1879. Reprinted also as supplement to Devon Notes and Queries, 1905. I have not in the above extracts strictly confined myself to the spelling, nor have I reproduced the capital letters employed profusely that are somewhat teasing to the eye of the modern reader.