Privy Council Meeting of 28 October 1545
Captain Philip Chute: Pirate?

Francis Chute (with contributions by Kevin Isted, descendant of John Isted, 2007
Including discussion on mutually invented family histories
Further information on Anthony of Kent

462 years ago Philip Chute, Captain of Camber Castle, and John Isted, Bailiff of Hastings, were summoned to answer a charge of robbery at sea by a boat they jointly owned. Both men were respected councillors on the Kent/Sussex coast. Last week, Chute and Isted family representatives brought this skeleton out of their cupboard and tried to decide whether it was piracy or not.

Philip of course was the honoured Standard Bearer to Henry VIII who, at the head of the royal bodyguard outside Boulogne, confronted a French attack on July 29, 1544 and defended the King's life, for which the King gave him a sapphire from his ring. By that deed Philip wiped our family slate clean of the taint of treason, inherited from the Somerset Chutes who had supported a rising against Henry VII in 1497 and been heavily fined. Other rewards came Philip's way, so that he was able to rescue the Chutes from relative poverty. However, among many contemporary records of Philip there was this puzzling note that "Chewte" and "Istedde" were summoned before the Privy Council to answer for the "robbery" from a Spanish ship by their ship's captain. (The episode came and went, and neither Chute nor Isted suffered for it; so I did not mention it in "The Chutes of The Vyne".)

Kevin Isted, however, is a Kent historian whose researches into his ancestors led him to ask if we could help elucidate the puzzle. I had imagined that the ship owned by Chute and Isted, and captained by one William Woller, was probably licensed to board foreign vessels in the English Channel and confiscate any item which might be used by an enemy. After all, in the years after Henry's brief invasion of France, the French retaliated continuously and burned several towns on the English coast, including in the Cinque Ports area where Chute and Isted held responsible positions. So Woller might well have had a legitimate defensive mandate, but over-reached it and taken things from a ship which meant us no harm.

But Kevin (a) pointed out that the victimised ship was Spanish - when Spain was England's ally, and (b) found it odd that so minor an event was referred up to the highest council in the land. He suspected that Woller had done a bit of piracy, possibly with connivance of Chute and/or Isted. All I could say in Philip's defence was that when the Privy Council initially summoned the ship's owners to answer for "robbery", they were probably repeating the word used by the Spanish captain so as not to seem to pre-judge the issue.

Now for the documents and arguments so that you, the reader, may form your opinion!

Original documents.

The Court House in Hastings, built in 1450, where Philip Chute attended the hearing in 1545. Photo courtesy of Kevin Isted.
From State Papers of Henry VIII, 1545 (ed. Gairdner, c.1890).
Item 588: "15 October Privy Council business; letter of appearance to Ph. Chewte and 3 others to answer for a robbery by Will. Woller, captain of a ship of theirs."

Item 674: "On 28 October in Privy Council. Order taken for Ph. Chewte and John Istedde, bailiff of Hastinges, with two others of Hastinges, owners of a ship whereof William Woller was captain, to return to Ant. Macuelo goods taken out a Spanish ship by Woller, and to apprebend Woller."

Records, including Kevin's explanations inserted in parentheses.

Record of the decision of the Privy Council Meeting of 28 October 1545

“Attending Wyndesour (Windsor) the xviiith day of Octobre, being then present, -

Duke of Norfolk (The hereditary Premier Duke and Marshall of England), Earl of Hertford (Edward SEYMOUR, later created Duke of Somerset, the brother of Jane SEYMOUR and uncle of Edward VI), Sir Thomas Cheyne (Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports), Sir Anthony Wingfelde (Chancellor and Chamberlain), Sir Raufe Sadlair (Master of the Great Wardrobe), Sir William Pagett (Secretary of State), Sir William Petre (Secretary of State), Sir Richard Ryche (First Chancellor, later Baron Rich, whose evidence at the trial of Sir Thomas Moore condemned Moore to death for treason.)

An order was taken that Phillipe Chewte and John Istedde, baylif of Hastinges, with ii of Hastinges, being owners of a certeyne shippe whereof was captayne one William Woller, sholde restore unto Antonio Macuelo all suche gooddes being lately taken out of a Spanisshe [ship] by the sayde William Woller as were come unto theyre handes, and to make as good a searche as they cowlde for the rest to be delivered accordingly. And towching Woller to do the best they cowlde for the taking of him and the committing unto wardde, and in the meane season to cawse all his gooddes to be arrested to be furthercomming for thanswering of the sayde robry accordingly."

Record of the Meeting of the Privy Council of 29 October 1545 concerning the letter to the Master of the Rolls

"Attending Wyndesour, the xxixth day of Octobre, being then present, -

Sir Thomas Cheyney, Sir Anthony Browne (Master of the Horse), Sir Anthony Wingefelde, Sir William Pagett, Sir William Petre, Sir Raufe Sadlair, Sir Richard Ryche.

A letter to the Master of the Rowles to discharge certeyne bandes entered before him by Antonio Macuelo and Antony Gueras towching a certeyne Spanisshe shippe at Plymmowth, for the whiche the sayde Anthony Macuelo and Antony Gueras wer thowrowly agreed with all parties, as by the copye of the sayde agreement sent with the sayde letters more largely might appere.”

(The Master of the Rolls and Records of the Chancery of England referred to was, Sir Robert Southwell, a neighbour of Sir Thomas Cheyne in Kent. He later became the Sheriff of Kent and as such opposed Wyatt’s rebellion in 1554, for which he subsequently received some of Wyatt’s confiscated property.)

Kevin Isted's Comments on the Cinque Ports and the positions of Chute and Isted:
(Note: the Cinque Ports were a group of strategic ports in southeast England facing the French coast:)

I first became alerted to this incident from the biographical notes on both John ISTED and Philip CHUTE in 'The History of Parliament', Bindoff (1982) which both make fleeting reference to it. As I'm sure you are aware, Philip CHUTE, like my ancestor John ISTED, represented Cinque Ports in Parliament on various occasions: John ISTED represented Hastings in 4 Parliaments under 3 monarchs from 1545 to 1554; and Philip CHUTE represented the nearby Cinque Port of Winchelsea in the Parliaments of 1542 and 1545 of Henry VIII, and may possibly have replaced ROWLAND as the Member for Winchelsea, following his death, during the 1547 Parliament of Edward VI. Each Cinque Port returned 2 members to Parliament in those days. It wasn't always a democratic process, as the Lord Warden of the time Sir Thomas CHEYNE, a kinsman of Philip CHUTE, kept trying to interfere in the electoral process. Indeed, it seems that Philip CHUTE's membership of Parliament was in each case by appointment of the Lord Warden, as John ISTED's may have been on at least one occasion. There are some copies of exchanges of letters on some of this contained in the extracts of the Old Record Book of Hastings. However, I suspect Francis will probably know much more about this as I've only come across references to Philip CHUTE by accident where they relate to my ancestor.

Philip CHUTE could have been what was called 'an out of Port Member' of Parliament for Winchelsea' although Camber Castle is very near Winchelsea. However, the fact that he was a part owner of a Cinque Port ship suggests that he might have been a member, with this part ownership being his share of meeting his ship service obligation. The Cinque Ports were essentially a money making franchise limited to 37 members per port. Membership could be obtained by inheriting it, being appointed to a vacant position by the Lord Warden, or buying your way into a vacant position. I suspect that if Philip CHUTE had been a member of the franchise, he was probably appointed by his kinsman Sir Thomas CHEYNE. It isn't clear how my ancestor came to be a member for Hastings - he doesn't appear to have inherited it.

You may well know through researching your ancestor that the history of the Cinque Ports stretches back before the Norman Conquest and they were given special powers, privileges and immunities for supplying a certain number of ships to the Crown for so many days a year, before and after the founding of the Royal Navy. The Cinque Ports pushed their powers to the limit and engaged in activities such as piracy, smuggling, wrecking etc which the Crown often turned a blind eye to and sometimes even encouraged. Indeed, one historian has described the Cinque Ports as legalised mafia. However, on other occasions such actions brought the Crown and the Cinque Ports into conflict. Perhaps this apparent act of piracy on a Spanish ship was one such occasion, as Spain was England's ally at the time against France. Indeed, your ancestor had only recently distinguished himself at the siege of Boulogne during a war against France in which we were allied with Spain. This could have been politically and personally very embarrassing to the Crown, which is one of the things that leads me to believe that the actions of the Privy Council, of which Sir Thomas CHEYNE was a member, might have been an official cover up, and the hapless Captain WOLLER may have been made the scapegoat. There is, however, some circumstantial evidence to suggest that the captain's name, WOLLER, might have been an alias and that he may never have been held to account for this action."

Francis replied:

I agree with Kevin that the English government was anxious not to provoke dispute with the Spaniards, but I don't think we know whether this event was piracy or if Woller (under orders from Isted and Chute) was one of many ship's captains officially required to board foreign vessels sailing near our coast and remove any potential weapons of war. Given that the French kept up a sequence of retaliatory attacks on English ports after the 1544 campaign - one of which led to the ignominious sinking of the King's precious new ship Mary Rose - I guess that the atmosphere along the south coast was pretty tense for some years. Since England had no regular navy as yet , a lot depended on individual ships to monitor the cargoes of any foreign vessels who might be thought capable of aiding the French.

The episode is certainly worth further investigation, and if you have evidence that Woller was not what he seemed, let's hear more!

I think that the Cinque Ports had more honourable origins and duties than perhaps you mention, but I agree that their key strategic significance gave them bargaining power with kings to allow them remarkable freedom from law and restraint. The Lord Warden was automatically a senior adviser at Court for many centuries, and Sir Thomas Cheyney was of course Henry VIII's Treasurer as well. As he was present when the Privy Council made the order in question, we might deduce that the operation was within policy guidelines fully approved by the PC in principle, and by Isted and Chute acting on their behalf, and the seizure of goods was not one of piracy but of over-enthusiam by Woller which merely had to be put straight after the event - and that Woller was merely given public reprimand to soothe ruffled Spanish sensitivities. But I haven't the knowledge to pontificate on this, so please amplify."

Kevin replied:

I don't know any more about the incident other than what is contained in the Privy Council order, which you now have in full. The only background I have to set this against are various accounts on the Cinque Ports I have read, and 'Historic Hastings' by Mainwaring Bains in particular. These may well concentrate a little too much on the sensational side of Cinque Port history and give the impression that acts of piracy by Cinque Port ships under cover of their Charter was not an uncommon event. As you say, the Cinque Ports certainly provided sterling service to the Crown over the centuries - they were contracted to provide a certain number of ships (57) to the Crown for a certain number of days per year (15), each with 21 men and a boy. There was, however, a Royal Navy founded by Henry VIII, which by the time of the incident in question (1545) consisted of some 53 ships, with two Royal Dockyards at Portsmouth and Chatham to build and service them. The Cinque Ports were still important to the Crown, although their fortunes were on the wane, and they sometimes tried to avoid their obligations as correspondence between them and Cheyne testify.

I continue to see this incident as 'an apparent act of piracy', as the PC order refers to it as 'robery' and the definition of piracy is an act of robbery from a ship at sea. I also think we can make some reasonable assumptions about some of the things that happened during and following the incident, i.e. I assume:

  • The Spanish ship in question was probably stopped in the Channel, probably enroute between Flanders/the Spanish Netherlands and Spain.
  • After the 'robbery' the ship appears to have put into Plymouth (mentioned in the note on the letter to the Master of the Rolls) where Macuelo and Guras probably made their complaint to the local authorities.
  • Knowing the Cinque Ports were exempt from prosecution in the King's courts without the Lord Warden's endorsement of a warrant, it seems the matter was pushed up the line to the Master of the Rolls, who as now was a senior judge.
  • Following this, the Master of the Rolls probably referred the matter to Cheyne as the Lord Warden, or to the Privy Council, for investigation and/or endorsement of a warrant due to his lack of jurisdiction regarding the Cinque Ports.
  • In any event, the matter seems to have been investigated by someone ahead of the PC meeting of 28 October 1545, probably by Cheyne or one of his men, judging from the detail in the PC order.
  • Of note amongst this detail is that some of the goods had come into the hands of Isted, Chute and partners.
  • As well as the investigation into the incident, there appears to have been some agreement between the parties (Isted, Chute and partners; and Macuelo and Guras) for the resolution of the matter, as the note on the letter to the Master of the Rolls suggests that there is other correspondence in which Macuelo and Guras had agreed that the matter was resolved to their satisfaction and that the Master of the Rolls could cancel their complaint.
  • While we can't be sure of all the detail of this apparent agreement, it is reasonable to assume that it included what is recorded in the PC order, i.e. Isted, Chute and partners would return what goods that had 'come unto theyre handes'; try the best they could to recover the rest and return them; try the best they could to arrest Woller, and confiscate his possessions until he had been brought to account.
  • Discharging the complaint with the Master of the Rolls left the jurisdiction entirely with Hastings, and John Isted in particular, who as the Bailiff of Hastings was the head of the local judiciary, which under their Charter at that time was set apart from England's general judicial system.

  • What we don't know is:

  • Whether the apparent act of piracy occurred while the Isted and Chute ship was acting for the Crown in accordance obligations under the Cinque Port Charter; or whether it was operating under letters of marque issued to Isted and Chute by the Crown authorising them to attack foreign merchant ships and seize goods as a prize. (Letters of marque had been issued by the Crown since the 14th century although they became more widely used during the 16th century, specially during the reign of Elizabeth I. As you probably know, operations under these letters of marque commonly became known as privateering.); or whether Woller was operating under independent instructions from Isted and Chute.
  • Whatever the case, did Woller exceed his instructions from Isted and Chute which may or may not have come from the Crown; or was he deliberately undertaking acts of piracy on his own as a profitable sideline.
  • How did part of the goods come to be in the hands of the owners. Was it their share of the booty - from piracy, or privateering or were they subsequently seized from Woller after they had discovered the robbery? The words used in the PC order 'were come unto theyre hands' suggests something more passive than seizure, although we can't be sure from this.
  • Did Hastings bring Woller to justice, or how hard did they try. (There is no record of Woller ever being brought to justice by Hastings, although the surviving records are far from complete. )
  • How seriously did the Privy Council expect Hastings to prosecute Woller. The wording, 'do the best they could' seems a bit half-hearted, or they knew something not mentioned that was going to make his apprehension difficult. It certainly seems half-hearted compared with the only other incident I can find of the Privy Council ordering Hastings to take action against one of there own at around this time - a 1553 case of someone uttering 'certain lewd words', where the Bailiff was ordered to have one of the alleged offenders ears cut off. I have absolutely no idea how or why the Privy Council got involved in such an apparently trivial issue as the utterance of lewd words.

  • Whatever the circumstances, we can assume that the apparent act of piracy was probably a political and a personal embarrassment to the Crown, Cheyne, Chute and Isted, given that it involved the ship of an ally - Spain. In any event, it seems the highest council in the land became involved and went to a considerable degree of trouble to resolve the matter with the minimum of fuss. It could well be that Woller was entirely to blame. However, if he wasn't and they were looking for a politically acceptable scapegoat, he would have been the lowest person on the food chain who could reasonably be held accountable.

    The idea that Woller might be an alias arises from Bains reporting that Hastings seafaring families often went by nicknames or aliases that were sometimes descriptive of function. This was not to conceal their true identity but to distinguish themselves from other people with the same surname in what was a small and relatively closed community. I assume a bit like some parts of Wales where there are a disproportionate numbers of Jones, Evans etc, where Dai the death might be the undertaker and Evans above might be the Chapel minister. Anyway, Woller is an occupational name, meaning a worker or dealer in wool. This might well have been the Captain's surname adopted from ancestors who had worked in the wool trade. However, it might have been an alias derived from the export of fleece from the Romney Marshes and the South Downs which was known to have been shipped from the Cinque Ports of Winchelsea and Rye, and Seaford which was a limb of Hastings. It is a possibility that the Isted and Chute ship was involved in this trade. Of course, they might only have used an alias to the Privy Council/Macuelo etc, if they wished to give the captain a degree of protection from eventual prosecution. Of course, this is again highly speculative.

    I had hoped that you might have had some family papers which might have thrown further light on this. Unfortunately, I very much doubt any further information will come to light. So I suspect we will be left with the conclusion from the Privy Council order that Woller was either off on a frolic of his own, or that he had exceeded his orders from his owners which may or may not have originally come from the Crown. Everything else that might lead to an alternative conclusion is merely speculation based on circumstantial evidence.

    Francis' Addendum:

    There you have the question: piracy or legitimate defensive precaution?

    The correspondence with Kevin Isted yielded two other matters of interest.

    1. Inventing an ancestor.
    Having looked at our website and noticing the doubts we have about our traditional genealogy in the early Tudor period (1500-1530), Kevin said that his own family - though actually long established in Kent, England - had felt the lack of a distinguished pedigree in Tudor times, and had produced the legend of an immigrant from a place called Isted in Denmark. With that recent immigrant ancestor they could explain their lack of noble English lineage!

    This reminds us of the legend treasured by Irish Chutes ~ of a 'Chevalier de Chute' who escorted the French princess to England for her marriage to Henry V. This sounds like another face-saving 'tradition". Around 1520, when the Chutes had to smokescreen their recently treasonable conduct (supporting Warbeck) but were anxious to resume respectability, circumstances were ideal to invent such an alternative ancestry.

    2. More on Anthony, ancestor of the American Chutes
    Kevin mentioned above how Cheney bullied the Cinque Ports townsmen to accept his nominees as their members of parliament. In Cheney's letter quoted below (transcribed by Kevin) we find mention of Anthony Chute, elder brother of Philip. We knew that Anthony was born c. 1505, married a Miss Girling of Wrentham, Suffolk (possibly a sister of Philip's 3rd wife) and was father of Arthur who lived in Suffolk. Anthony was at one time a gunner at the Tower of London, but we had no guide to his later career.

    Now we find that in 1553 he was under consideration to be Member of Parliament for Winchelsea (an Ancient Town within the Cinque Ports), which in Kevin's opinion means he was a member of the Freedom of Winchelsea - i.e. a dignitary likely to be resident there. This is consistent with the guess (p. 132 of my book) that he went periodically to East Anglia on official business to control the age-old conflicts between the Portsmen and Yarmouth fishermen, but it counters my assumption that he settled in Suffolk near the families of his wife and son.

    From Sir Thomas Cheney, Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, re the March 1553 Parliament

    To my well beloved servt. John MONY1NGS my Lieutenant of Dover Castle and of the. Cinque Ports, with speed
    For as much as there will be Burgesses chosen for the Ports I would have ISTED my servt. for Hasting, for so he was the last time & I will appoint the other and Captn. SHUTE if he will or his brother to be one for Wtnchelsea & I will appoint the other; he dwells in Rye. And PADYAM my Man to be one for Romney & I will appoint the other and John KNIGHT my Man to be one for Hythe & I will appoint the other, and Mr HANNNGTON to be one for Dover and I will appoint the other & Mr PAGE for Sandwich & I will appoint the other - [next words missing) -

    Divers honest and credible Men have told me that all my Predecessors have appointed the Burgesses & I am sure that all will do so at this day through all England. You the officer will I pray you send every Town a copy of this my Letter & if they will not be thus contented as all others are let them do the best they can for themselves for they get no help at my hand.

    From Shorland the 16th. Jany.
    Your Lovg .. Master
    Thos Cheney

    This implies that Cheney gave Philip Chute the option to accept for himself or Anthony. (Which of the 3 men lived at Rye is not clear). We know that neither Philip nor Anthony entered Parliament in 1553. But Kevin considers that, to qualify, Anthony and Philip must have been members of the Freedom of Winchelsea.

    Three weeks later Cheney sent an angry letter because his orders were not being accepted!

    There is clearly a lot more for us to learn by consulting Kent documents.

    Francis Chute
    June-July, 2007

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