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George Clifford, Earl of Cumberland, the Champion of the Tilt-Yard.


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When a nobleman neglects his private duties to his home estates and spends his fortune in fitting out ships to seek gold and jewels, and to damage the trade of a country he hates, different estimates will be formed of the honesty and nobility of the motives by which he is prompted.

We shall see in the sketch of George Clifford's life how various motives, good and indifferent, urged him to play the sea-king.

He was born in his father's castle at Brougham, Westmorland, in August 1558, being fourteenth baron Clifford of Westmorland. His family history had been distinguished, for the Pair Rosamond of Henry II. was a Clifford, and in the wars of York and Lancaster the Cliffords took a prominent part on the Lancastrian side. When George was still a boy his father brought about his betrothment to the Lady Margaret Russell, daughter of the second Earl of Bedford. He was being educated at Battle Abbey when his father died, and later he went to Peterhouse, Cambridge, to complete his studies under Whitgift, afterwards Archbishop of Canterbury, who was then Master of Trinity. He also proceeded to Oxford for a time, as was not unusual in those days.

Before he was nineteen he was married to his betrothed in St. Mary Overy's Church, Southwark: the young lady was scarce seventeen years old. Clifford was a young man of expensive tastes. Amongst his other qualifications for Court life he excelled all the nobles of his time in tilting, and soon won the recognition of the Queen by his prowess in the Westminster tilt-yard. So he was made a Knight of the Garter, and in the twenty-eighth year of his age was appointed one of the forty Peers by whom Mary Queen of Scots was tried at Fotheringay Castle, in Nottinghamshire.

Was it policy, or love of adventure, or just desire for gain? The Earl soon began to form schemes for sending ships to plunder the Spaniards; he fitted out at his own cost the Red Dragon of 260 tons, and the barque Clifford of 130. Raleigh sent a pinnace to join them, and they sailed in 1586 under the command of Robert Withrington. They took a few merchantmen on their way to Sierra Leone; the principle on which they acted was a mixture of courtesy and bullying. Hakluyt says: "Our Admiral hailed their Admiral with courteous words, willing him to strike his sails and come aboard, but he refused; whereupon our Admiral lent him a piece of ordnance" (it sounds so kind and friendly) "which they repaid double, so that we grew to some little quarrel." The result was that the English boarded the hulks and helped themselves. For they found the hulks were laden in Lisbon with Spanish goods, and so thought them fair game. When they reached Guinea they went ashore, and in their search for water and wood came suddenly upon a town of negroes, who struck up the drum, raised a yell, and shot off arrows as thick as hail.

The English returned the fire, having about thirty calivers, and retired to their boats, "having reasonable store of fish"; "and amongst the rest we hauled up a great foul monster, whose head and back were so hard that no sword could enter it; but being thrust in under the belly in divers places, much wounded, he bent a sword in his mouth as a man would do a girdle of leather about his hand: he was in length about nine feet, and had nothing in his belly but a certain quantity of small stones." Later on they found another town of about two hundred houses and "walled about with mighty great trees and stakes, so thick that a rat could hardly get in or out." They got in, for the negroes had fled, and found the town finely and cleanly kept, "that it was an admiration to us all, for that neither in the houses nor streets was so much dust to be found as would fill an egg-shell." The English found little to take except some mats and earthen pots; was it for this that they, on their departure, set the town on fire? "It was burnt in a quarter of an hour, the houses being covered with reeds and straw."

Thence they sailed across to America, having no little trouble with a disease which they had caught ashore. They came to Buenos Ayres, where was great store of corn, cattle, and wine; but no gold or silver was to be had. Here they fell into some contention as to their further course, but as food was growing scarce they sailed northwards, till they came to Bahia, where they met a hot welcome of balls and bullets, but took some prizes. Then came a storm, and some of their prizes got loose and were lost. "Anon the people of the country came down amaine upon us and beset us round, and shot at us with their bows and arrows."

Of another fight which occurred shortly after, when the barque Clifford was boarded by the enemy, the merchant Sarracoll says: "Giving a mighty shout they came all aboard together, crying, 'Entrad! Entrad!' but our men received them so hotly, with small shot and pikes, that they killed them like dogs. And thus they continued aboard almost a quarter of an hour, thinking to have devoured our men, pinnace and all ... but God, who is the giver of all victories, so blessed our small company that the enemy having received a mighty foil was glad to rid himself from their hands: whereas at their entrance we esteemed them to be no less than betwixt two and three hundred men in the galley, we could scarce perceive twenty men at their departure stand on their legs; but the greater part of them was slain, their oars broken and the galley hanging upon one side, as a sow that hath lost her left ear, with the number of dead and dying that lay one upon another." While this terrible havoc was a doing, others of the crew had gone ashore and fetched sixteen young bullocks, "which was to our great comforts and refreshing."

After committing what havoc they could along the coast, with little profit to themselves, the commander resolved to go home; which resolution was "taken heavily of all the company - for very grief to see my Lord's hopes thus deceived, and his great expenses cast away."

The Earl took part in the Armada fight on board the Bonadventure, and the Queen, to mark her approbation, gave him a commission to go the same year as General to the Court of Spain, lending him the Golden Lion; this ship he victualled and furnished at his own expense. After taking one merchant ship and weathering a storm, he was obliged to turn.

But the Queen was his good friend and lent him the Victory, and with three smaller ships and 400 men he sailed from Plymouth in 1589, We do not hear what his Countess thought of so much wandering into danger, but duty, or profit, called her lord to the high seas. He made a few prizes, French and German, for he was not too scrupulous about nationalities, and made for the Azores, where he cut out four ships. At Flores he manned his boats and obtained food and water from Don Antonio, a pretender to the throne of Portugal. As they were rowing back to their ship, "the boat was pursued two miles by a monstrous fish, whose fins many times appeared above water four or five yards asunder, and his jaws gaping a yard and a half wide, not without great danger of overturning the pinnace and devouring some of the company"; they rowed at last away from the monster. They were now joined by a ship of Raleigh's and two others.

Meanwhile the richly laden vessels of Spain were on their way home, with orders to rendezvous at St. Helena. Some of the Earl's cruisers sighted them, but did not dare attack the huge carracks, though Linschoten tells us - and he was aboard one of them - that if the English had attacked they must easily have been taken; for scurvy, caused by bad food, was making ravages on the crews. "Every day men who had been some days dead were discovered in the places whither they had crept that they might lie down and die in peace." But all the English cruisers did was to insult them with reproaches and annoy them with musketry, and such small cannon-shot as vessels of thirty tons could carry. As Admiral Colomb used to say, "A captain of a man-of-war in those days could carry a cannon-ball in his coat-tail pocket," so small and light were they.

When the Earl was told that the West Indian fleet had sailed past, he returned to Fayal and took possession of the town, consisting then of some five hundred well-built houses; the inhabitants had abandoned it at his approach. He set a guard to preserve the churches and monasteries and stayed there four days, till a ransom of 2000 ducats, mostly in church-plate, was brought to him, with sixty butts of wine.

While taking two Brazilian ships at St. Mary's laden with sugar, the bar detained his vessel in a position exposed to the enemy; eighty of his men were killed, the Earl was wounded slightly in the side; "his head also was broken with stones, so that the blood covered his face, and both his face and legs were burnt with fire-balls."

On their way home they fell in with a Portuguese ship laden with sugar, hides, and silver. Full of joy at their good speed they resolved upon going home. Captain Lister was sent in the prize to Portsmouth. He was wrecked at Helcliff, in Cornwall; all in her was lost, and only five lives saved. The Earl was delayed so long by bad weather that drink began to fail, and they had to collect what they could in sheets during a storm of rain. Many licked the moist boards and masts with their tongues, like dogs. In every corner of the ship were heard the lamentable cries of the sick and hurt, ten or twelve men died every night. Yet, we are told, the Earl ever encouraged his men by his presence of mind and his example; then they spoke a vessel which helped them with a little beer, and at last they put into Ventre-haven on the west coast of Ireland.

On arriving in London, as if the Earl had not suffered enough already, news was brought him that his eldest son was dead. But shortly after came another messenger announcing the birth of a daughter; this was the Lady Anne Clifford, who became, first, Countess of Dorset, and then of Pembroke. In this voyage thirteen prizes had been taken, and the profit doubled the outlay on his adventure in spite of the loss of his richest prize. It is difficult to realise the exceeding bitter feeling that existed between Spain and England at that time - a bitterness sharpened by religious differences, and kept in memory by private revenge.

For instance, Hakluyt tells us of a small English ship of about forty tons which was captured on the seas. Her crew were put by the Spaniards under hatches and coupled in bolts together; these men, after they had been prisoners three or four days, were murdered by a Spanish ensign-bearer, who had had a brother killed in the Armada fight, and who wished to revenge his death. This man took a poniard in his hand and went down under the hatches, where he found eight Englishmen sitting in chains, and with the same poniard he stabbed six of them to the heart; the remaining two clasped each other about the middle and threw themselves into the sea and there were drowned.

It is only fair to say that this act was much disliked by the other Spaniards, who carried the ensign-bearer a prisoner to Lisbon. The King of Spain willed he should be sent to England, that the Queen might treat him as she thought good; however, his friends interceded that he might be beheaded instead. On a Good Friday, as the Cardinal was going to Mass, captains and commanders stopped his Eminence and entreated for the man's pardon, and in the end they got his pardon, and his life was saved.

In 1592 the Earl of Cumberland hired the Tiger of 600 tons, and with his own ship the Samson, the Golden Noble, and two small vessels, he set forth. Contrary winds kept him east of Plymouth so long that it became too late to intercept the outward-bound carracks, so the Earl transferred his command to Captain Norton and returned to London. After some hard fighting the ships returned with a richly laden carrack. The narrator of the voyage moralises upon the happy finding thus: "I cannot but enter into the acknowledgement of God's great favour towards our nation, who, by putting this purchase into our hands, hath manifestly discovered those secret trades and Indian riches which hitherto lay strangely hidden from us ... whereby it should seem that the will of God for our good is to have us communicate with them in those East Indian treasures, and by the erection of a lawful traffic to better our means to advance true religion and His holy service." The pious sailor then goes on to enumerate the goods that were stored in the holds of the Spanish carrack - from jewels and silks of China to spices and carpets of Turkey - in all estimated to be worth 150,000 pounds. This was of course to be divided amongst the adventurers.

But exaggerated expectations ended in general discontent, for the Queen had one small ship at the capture of the carrack, and because the Earl was not commanding in person his share was adjudged to depend on her Majesty's mercy and bounty. The royal lioness "dealt but indifferently with him." She took her share, and the other jackals helped themselves as largely as they dared; so that the Earl was fain to accept of 36,000 pounds for him and his, as a pure gift. The carrack was unloaded at Dartmouth, and being so huge and unwieldy she was never removed from the river, " but there laid up her bones."

The spirit of adventure in the Earl was not quenched by this disappointment, for in the latter end of 1593 he got ready two ships royal and seven others, which set sail next spring. Off the isle of Flores he met the Portuguese fleet and had to stand off to avoid them, as they were too numerous to attack. He was taken ill and would have died, had not Monson gone ashore on Corvo and stolen a milch cow, which they brought aboard. Twelve hulks yielded him some treasure, and he left for home after a gainful voyage.

Three of his ships he had sent to the West Indies, and they made for the pearl fisheries at Margarita. A Spaniard treacherously showed them where the pearls were stored in a rancheria; they surprised it by, night with twenty-eight men and carried off 2000 pounds worth of pearls. Coasting along, two of them fell in with seven ships, moored alongside head and stern, and fought all day, hammer-and-tongs. The Spaniards got into their boats next day and made for the land, carrying the rudders with them; the English helped themselves and fired the ships. They then brought the chief ship of 250 tons safely to Plymouth.

Next year the Earl set forth on his eighth voyage, and in June came in sight of a big Indian ship whose name was Las Cinque Llagas ("the Five Wounds"), and she carried 1400 persons, of whom 270 were slaves.

The Earl's Mayflower was the first to get up to her, and was hotly fired into; for the Portuguese had sworn to defend their ship to the last, and fought with desperation. Don Rodrigo de Cordoba, having both his legs shattered, cried out, "Sirs, I have got this in the discharge of my duty. Be of good heart. Let no one forsake his post; let us perish rather than be taken."

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