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Warwick, the Puritan Pirate King Who Colonized New England

Six fun facts about Robert Rich, the 1st Earl of Warwick

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Puritanism and piracy together helped colonize New England with the zealous oversight of Robert Rich, 1st Earl of Warwick.

Known as the “Pious Pyrate” in his day, Warwick sponsored half the pirates in the Atlantic between 1626 and 1630. His proceeds from the plunder allowed him to invest in the various companies that sponsored colonists.

Robert Rich (1587-1658), 2nd Earl of Warwick

In her new book, Jamie L. H. Goodall explains how piracy was as important as Puritanism in colonizing North America. The Daring Exploits of Pirate Black Sam Bellamy From Cape Cod to the Caribbean is less about Bellamy and more about the conditions that created pirates in the first place. Those conditions were in large part created by the man New England knew as Warwick. He “epitomized the intimate connection between piracy, colonization and intense religious devotion,” wrote Goodall.

Why Pirates? Why Bellamy?

The short version: Heads of state needed money to wage their wars, so they enlisted privateers to attack and loot enemy vessels. Then, when wars ended, unemployed privateers turned to piracy.

Privateer Boscawen engaging a Fleet of French Ships in 1745

Little is actually known about Black Sam Bellamy. He fell in love with a beautiful girl from Eastham, Mass., named Maria Hallett. He plundered the Caribbean and then sailed north, only to sink with his ship. The Whydah Gally wrecked in a hurricane off Wellfleet on April 26, 1717.

Bellamy became one of the better known pirates in 1984 when underwater explorer Barry Clifford discovered the Whydah Gally.Clifford has recovered several hundred thousand artifacts, including cannon, precious stones and pieces of silver. He also found pirate bones, though he has not identified Bellamy.

Without Warwick, Black Sam Bellamy may not have pursued his plunder. We know a lot about Warwick.


Robert Rich was the first son and third child of Penelope Devereaux and the 1st Earl of Warwick. Penelope, famously unhappy, bore the first earl seven children, then lived as the mistress of Charles Blount, 8th Baron Mountjoy. she bore him five children.

Warwick was born in 1587 during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, a time when piracy flourished. His rich and powerful family raised him as a devout Puritan. Warwick’s father, Robert Rich, 1st Earl of Warwick, maintained a privateering fleet. In 1618 he paid King James I £10,000 for the title of Warwick.

James I didn’t feel as comfortable with the Puritan pirates as his predecessor had. He tried to pushing them away toward the Americas.

In the early years of colonization, most colonial ventures were undertaken by private investors with the permission or charter from the crown. Warwick made investments in the colonies, financed by the proceeds from his personal pirate navy. One Spanish politician said the only reason for the British colonies was that they were “good for pirates.” Boston, wrote Goodall, eventually earned a reputation as “the common receptacle for pirates of all nations.”

Warwick used his political clout and money to help Puritans get charters for the colonies of New Plymouth (New Zealand), Providence Island, Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts Bay. .

The Pious Plunderer

He also helped radical Puritan ministers, sometimes by hiding them from prosecutors. Mostly, though, he paid for their livings. Helped by his relative Sir Nathaniel Rich, he supported 22 ministers. “Warwick was well placed to support, to influence, and to help organize for various political and religious initiatives an unusually large number of Puritan ministers,” wrote Robert Brenner in Merchants and Revolution: Commercial Change, Political Conflict, and London’s Overseas Traders, 1550-1653.

Warwick’s religious zeal put him at odds with the English monarchs. When the English Civil War broke out, Parliament named  Lord High Admiral of the British Navy in 1642.


He retired from public life in 1649, but remained close to the Puritan leader Oliver Cromwell. His grandson, also Robert Rich, married Cromwell’s daughter Frances. The marriage didn’t last long, as Rich died shortly afterward in  1658. Warwick died the next year.

Here are some other fun facts about the 1st Earl of Warwick.

1. Warwick’s pirates bailed out Massachusetts.

In 1640, English merchants would only accept hard currency, but the colonists didn’t have much of it. Massachusetts Gov.  John Winthrop lamented, “scarcity of money made a great change in all commerce.”

Warwick helped them out of their trouble. As Lord High Admiral, he commissioned a pirate named Capt. William Jackson to assemble a small fleet. In 1643, Jackson and his men began plundering Spanish towns throughout the West Indies.

Several times they returned to New England, got drunk and spent lavishly—in hard currency. They sailed to Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1646, where they “spente and scattered a great deale of money,” according to Winthrop.  He felt “divine Providence” had brought them to the colony.

John Winthrop. American Antiquarian Society

2. He helped Thomas Hooker hide from his persecutors.

Hooker, credited with founding Connecticut Colony, attracted Puritans with his fiery sermons at what is now Chelmsford Cathedral. Warwick listened to Hooker’s sermons there. Hooker ran afoul of the spiritual authorities, who silenced him and bound him over to appear before the High Commission. Warwick may have paid for his bond, and he certainly hid him away at the family’s private retreat in the Netherlands.


Thomas Hoooker and his people

3. His pirates showed up drunk in Plymouth Colony.

William Bradford described how about 80 unruly “lustie men” came on shore. There they behaved like “madmen,” after they “did so distemper them with drinke.” They grew more moderate and orderly over the next few weeks. Winthrop praised them because they “spent liberally and gave freely to many of the poorer sort [in Plymouth].

Plymouth Colony’s governor William Bradford really couldn’t complain about Warwick.  He signed the Peirce Patent, which promised Plymouth Colony 100 acres for everyone who stayed in the settlement for three out of seven years.

4. At least a half dozen places were named after him.

They include Warwick, R.I,. and  Warwick, Mass. In Virginia, he inspired the Warwick River, Warwick Towne, Warwick River Shire and Warwick County,.Warwick donated the land on which Bermuda’s oldest school, Warwick Academy, stands.

5. He was “a heroic figure among devout Puritans.”

That’s according to historian Mark Hanna. They had reason to admire him. In 1643, he headed a colonial commission tasked with governing the British colonies in North America and the Caribbean. The next year the commission incorporated Providence Plantations, now Rhode Island. He won a guarantee of religious liberty in the colonies and issued a declaration that established freedom of worship in Bermuda. .

6. He established a Puritan pirates’ nest in the Caribbean.

He started the Providence Company and financed the colonization of Providence, Henrietta and Tortuga islands. Settlers lived under strict rules: no drinking, whoring or gambling. But piracy was encouraged.

“The Earl of Warwick and his friends were sincerely trying to create three nests of pirates with the behaviour and morals of a Calvinist theological seminary,” wrote historian C.V. Woodward.

In the end, Providence Island failed when the Spanish massacred most of the inhabitants.

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