Chris Hallam: The legend of William Kydd

Pirates Cove in Exmouth. Ref exe 42 19TI 2237

Pirates Cove in Exmouth. Ref exe 42 19TI 2237 - Credit: Archant

East Devon historian Chris Hallam writes for this title.

Ask most people to name a pirate and you are likely to get a variety of answers. Many people will think first of Long John Silver, Captain Pugwash or Captain Jack Sparrow. They would not be wrong either: all are pirates. But none ever really existed. They were all fictional.

Others might say Blackbeard, in fact, a genuine real-life 18th century pirate, whose real name was Edward Teach or Edward Thatch.

The lines between reality and fiction often gets blurred here.

Blackbeard, was in the 1950s portrayed in heavily fictionalised form by the famously hard-living Dorset-born actor, Robert Newton. Newton also was well-known for bringing Treasure Island’s Long John Silver to the screen.

Newton’s Silver was the perfect eye-rolling, parrot-keeping, one-legged pirate. But just to be clear again, Silver himself was not a real person.

Still, others might say, Bluebeard. But Bluebeard was definitely not a pirate. He was a Frenchman who murdered his wives. He didn’t exist either. At any rate, people often confuse him with Blackbeard who was a pirate and was real.

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Still more confusion surrounds the identity of the pirate, William Kydd (sometimes called Kyd or even Keede). Kydd definitely was real and a pirate but is often confused with the later more famous Captain William Kidd, who was executed for piracy in 1701.

The later Kidd had no local connection: according to different accounts he was born in Scotland or Belfast. To add further confusion to the mix, some people even dispute the later Captain Kidd was even a pirate!

No such doubts exist about William Kydd, however, who seems to have been born in Exmouth around the year, 1400. Kydd seems to have been one of a number of mariners who took advantage of the increasingly lawless waters around the south coast during the closing stages of the Hundred Years’ War with France. In 1426, a French ship was reported captured by the people of Exmouth and discovered in Teignmouth.

An appeal was launched to retrieve both the ship and its merchandise by a number of Spanish merchants who had lost out.

Kydd himself seems to have become notorious for capturing vessels in the period between the 1430s and 1450s. In the 1430s, he seems to have captured a number of ships in raids off the coast of Rouen, Brittany and Guernsey.

Amongst other feats, he captured the Flanders-bound La Marie of London as it travelled through Kent, promptly travelling to the Isle of Wight to sell it off. In 1453, he captured The Marie of St Andrews. Kydd’s last and biggest success, although according to some accounts, the ship was seized and taken away from Kydd soon after he took it back to his native Exmouth.

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