Once there lived, and once there was a man born and raised a Cockney who, like so many others, took to the sea. John Mucknell was in many ways what we think of as a stereotypical sailor—he drank too much, cursed too much, and when he was in his cups, he was mean. But he was a man who knew how to get a job done, and so he rose through the ranks of the East India Company. By 1642, he was a Master and Commander, in command of a vessel called the Blessing.
But in 1642, England was in turmoil. And that turmoil was about to find a home in the already-trouble-prone heart of John Mucknell.
The English Civil War
1642 began what we now call the English Civil War—which was, in fact, a whole series of wars and political upheaval usually divided in three separate conflicts. The First Civil War lasted from 1642-46; the Second from 1648-49; and the Third from 1649-51.
As with so many other civil conflicts, the strife was rooted in disagreement over the best form of government. England had of course had a monarch for centuries, but during this era there was huge disagreement over how much authority a king should have. Royalists believed in the divine right of kings and absolute monarchy; Parliamentarians believed in rule by an elected body that would limit the power of a king or even abolish the monarchy. Often called “Roundheads” because of their simple, close-cropped haircuts (as opposed to the elaborate curled coiffeurs of the Royalists), supporters of the limited monarchy were often made up of religious groups like Puritans and Presbyterians who abhorred not only the abuse of power they saw in absolute monarchy, but also the vanities so often associated with life at court.
The English Civil War had its culmination in a (temporary) removal of the monarchy in 1649, when Oliver Cromwell took control and declared England to be a Commonwealth.
But what, you may ask, did the royal family do during these years of upheaval? Well, they didn’t sit around waiting to be captured and executed, that’s for sure. They went into exile, and they rallied their supporters to fight back.
Enter John Mucknell.
From Flagship to Pirate Vessel
Mucknell was a Royalist. Maybe he just felt intense loyalty to his king…or maybe he felt immense hatred for the reforms the Puritans tried to push on the populace—we’ll let you be the judge of his motivations. Either way, when the war began, he found himself in an interesting spot.
The East India Company wasn’t exactly political…but they were very much profit-focused. And King Charles had cost them a lot of money. He had a habit of seizing whatever cargo he desired, always promising to pay but never actually giving the Company their fair due. So when Parliament seized power, the East India Company was only too happy to keep operating and supplying the government with all the goods they needed—for a fair price.
This didn’t make Mucknell happy. So when he learned that the Company was giving him command of their new flagship, the John, he began to hatch a plot for mutiny.
Though in execution the plot was complicated and involved many players, in concept it was simple: steal the John from the East India Company with its Roundhead loyalties and sail it to the Isles of Scilly, where the exiled royalty had set up a base of operations. He’d present the ship to his rightful sovereign and thereby earn himself their respect. They’d know the name of John Mucknell, and he’d be more to them than a mere Master and Commander for the Company.
It worked. There were some hiccups in the plan, of course, and some near failures, but the result was that Mucknell and his stolen ship did indeed sail into port in the Isles of Scilly and present their prize to the Prince of Wales.
The islands, however, weren’t exactly fit for royalty at the time. They were bare rocks, barely producing enough to support the locals who lived there, never mind the royal court that had dropped in on them. The added influx of people was enough to bring the whole island chain to the brink of desperation. So to have the finest, best equipped vessel on the seas dropped in their lap was a boon that surely felt like divine providence.
Charles II, Prince of Wales at the time
The prince welcomed Mucknell most heartily and commissioned him to “fight” for king and country…by capturing any vessels that sailed through the straits and seizing their cargo in the name of the king.
The John had just become a pirate vessel, preying on the fleet that it was once the flagship for. Because who do you supposed sailed most often through the waters between the Isles of Scilly and the Cornish mainland? East Indiamen.
Vice Admiral of a Pirate Fleet
Of course, Mucknell wasn’t the only captain of a ship who swore loyalty to the royal family instead of the Roundheads, and many more also found their way to the islands to pledge their lives and vessels to the prince. Given that his ship was by far the best, Mucknell was soon placed in command of the entire “royal” fleet. He was named Vice Admiral—but there was no denying that this fleet was a fleet of pirates. Most of them had rather checkered pasts to begin with, and now they had a blank check for mayhem.
Piracy is certainly nothing new; but pirates weren’t known for being team players. Mucknell’s pirate fleet is one of the few known to history to operate in cooperation with each other. And oh, were they fearsome! They caused serious trouble for the Company and for Parliament…which meant that eventually, the Company and the Roundheads deemed it time to fight back. John Mucknell soon became Enemy Number One.
The End of the John
Only 19 July 1645, after evading the enemy for years, Mucknell found himself in a tight spot he couldn’t get out of easily. He’d just taken a ship, so his holds would have been heavy. He engaged with another vessel sent out to hunt him that morning off Land’s End. He was making for port in the Isles of Scilly, when three enemy vessels closed in.
His fleet was nowhere nearby to help…and likely wouldn’t have, regardless. They were, after all, still pirates. But these ships, commissioned by Parliament to hunt him down at all costs, stood between him and safe harbor. He had no choice but to engage them. The result wasn’t quite as bad as it could have been—he held his own and hit plenty of blows against them, despite being outnumbered. The John, however, took serious damage.
For centuries, historians had no idea what actually happened to it. All we know for sure was that it never haunted the waters again, though Mucknell and his crew certainly did. Did the ship sink, there off the Isles of Scilly? Did they limp it to shore and strip it down? These questions have intrigued history buffs and divers for years.
Because if the John sank, then its last haul was no doubt still on it, which means treasure buried with the wreck, so close to the shores of the islands.
Todd Stevens, a Scilly-based diver, thought he may be onto the wreck at one point. This spurred him to hunt up all he could find about Mucknell, the John, and the piratical royal navy that operated from his own island home. He published his findings in a book called The Pirate John Mucknell and the Hunt for the Wreck of the John. His theory, which is now widely accepted, is that the John managed to limp into port, that they beached it, emptied it, and then stripped the ship, putting all its materials to use elsewhere.
He’s probably right. But even so, the mystery of what Mucknell did with all the treasure he captured remains unanswered. Did he really turn everything over to the Crown? Highly doubtful. But we do know that he and his wife, Elizabeth, never spent any treasure-money. In fact, after Mucknell eventually died in the Caribbean (where he’d gone hunting more pirating opportunities) after the Civil War ended and his king was back on the throne, Elizabeth petitioned the Crown for Mucknell’s pension—something she certainly wouldn’t have had to do if she was living on pirate treasure.
There are, of course, many simple explanations for what likely transpired with Mucknell and all the booty he seized. But far more interesting is what could have happened. Maybe, just maybe, he didn’t turn it all over the Crown. Maybe, just maybe, he hid some of it in the Isles of Scilly. And maybe, just maybe, an unlikely group of friends stumbled across some of it in 1906.
If so, you certainly don’t want to miss the story about them. 😉 The fun begins in The Nature of a Lady, but it doesn’t end there! My characters will find more of the mysteries Mucknell and his cohorts left behind in To Treasure an Heiress and the final book in the trilogy too!
And now, I’ll leave you with the saying Mucknell was famous for. He would shout this out in the heat of battle, or any time his emotions ran high. So of course, it had to make its way into the prologue of The Nature of a Lady as well:
“I am a prince at sea!
I am the proudest man upon the face of the earth.
I am an Englishman, and were I to be born again,
I would be born an Englishman.
I am a cockney—and that’s my glory!”