Letters of Marque

Letters of Marque

In olden times, Kingdoms and governments did not have navies. They would license private ships (Privateers) to capture their enemies’ shipping and goods. These licenses were called Letters of Marque and have been issued by all the major seafaring nations since the 13th century.


An ancient authority to arm a private warship–a Privateer!

Privateers were privately owned, armed vessels commissioned by their governments to prey on enemy shipping in wartime. The terms “privateer” and “pirate” are often confused. The misunderstanding is not without basis because some privateers (the same term also applied to the seamen on such vessels) engaged in acts bordering on piracy, and some, after peace was declared, actually became full-time pi- rates. But most privateers were manned by patriotic citizens who were acting in place of a non-existent navy.

Privateers were also highly motivated by the huge profits that might be made. The government commissioned a privateer by issuing a letter of mar- que and reprisal. This document authorized the captain to capture enemy ships, their crews, and their cargoes. Warships were usually avoided. The captain was required to post bond against misconduct. After capturing a ship, which was then termed a prize, the privateer’s captain had to bring or send the prize back to a port in his own country. There an admiralty court, also called a prize court, would determine whether or not the capture was legal. If illegal, the court would order the vessel to be returned to its owners; if legal, the vessel would be condemned and sold. After deduction of a percentage for the government, the proceeds were divided among the ship’s owner, captain and crew according to a predetermined formula.

The crew’s only pay was their shares of the proceeds from captured prizes. A rich prize could make them wealthy men, but they also faced the possibility of being killed, wounded, or captured and sent to prison. Privateer vessels might be anything from an open boat to a large, full-rigged ship, but usually they were sizable vessels, heavily manned and armed. Some privateers were specifically designed and built for privateering while others were converted merchantmen. Speed was an all-important factor in their design or selection. They had to be fast enough to catch any merchantman but, more importantly, fast enough to outrun any enemy warship that might chase them. They carried large crews both to man the guns and to crew prize ships back to port.

Rhode Island privateer, the St. Andrew, commanded by Captain Davidson. Wimble and Davidson entered into an agreement to cruise together and share whatever prizes they took. Their first captures were four small Spanish schooners that they manned with prize crews and sent to New Providence.


At the beginning of the American Revolutionary War, the colonists had no navy. It was only natural that they would turn to privateering as a means to prosecute the war at sea. One authority puts the number of American privateers commissioned at more than two thousand. 2,106 prizes were sent to American ports.

War of 1812 America fought a war with a weak navy. Whereas only 22 warships were commissioned during the war, but 538 privateer commissions were issued. Privateering was more effective in the War of 1812 than in any other.

Around the waters of the British Isles privateers captured more than sixteen hundred British ships.

American Brig 1814

License issued by the United States to capture British shipping. Issued during the war of 1812 to the Brig Prince Neufchatel of 318 tons, 18 carriage guns and 129 men.

American Schooner 1814

You can change ship name, city, number of crew, number of guns, enemy country, etc. License issued by the United States to capture British shipping. The war of 1812 caused President James Madison to issue this Letter of Marque to the Schooner Lucy of 25 tons, 4 carriage guns and 26 men so she could become a private war ship in order to “Subdue, seize, and take any armed or unarmed British vessel.”

Anti Pirate Fleet 1404

License to Henry Payne to form a fleet to capture the enemies of England, “To pass the seas with as many ships, Barges, and Balingers  of war, men-at-arms, Bowman…to do all the hurt he can do.”

Avalon 1667

Privateer license for the mighty HMS Emerald Dragon. Avalon is the legendary island where King Arthur was taken to recuperate and return to England at her greatest time of need. This is not an authentic document, but contains all the elements of the best war documents. It is a fine document for a women as the Queen rules.

Canada v America 1799

License issued in Canada by the British to capture American ships. This Letter of Marque authorizes the Duke of Kent, a British ship mounting 20 Carriage guns and navigated by 100 men as a private ship of war based in Nova Scotia, Canada to “distress and annoy all His Majestie’s Enemies.” the Americans.

Canada v America 1812

The most famous pirate ship out of Canadian territories. This License was issued in what is now Canada by the British to capture American ships. This remarkable schooner with only four carriage guns is credited with more than 50 captures of American vessels in the War of 1812. A real badass!

Captain Kidd 1695

Great document to personalize because it mentions 30 carriage guns and the name of his ship. Captain Kidd was a land owner and merchant in New York City. He was hung as a pirate because he couldn’t find these Letters of Marque and Reprisal. The Letters were found in the Public Record Office 200 years later! Kidd, contrary to popular belief, only captured two ships in his short career as a Privateer. He fought and lost many legal battles until he was finally hung at Wapping, England.

Conch Republic 1882

The chain of islands called the Conch Republic of the Florida Keys issued this license to arm a private warship (Privateer) when their borders were seized by the United States government in a contest over immigration. This is not an authentic document but does reflect an historical event.

Confederate States of America 1861

This is a composite of three documents written by Jefferson Davis and his Congress. There were 99 Letters of Marque issued by The Confederate States of America.

England v Scotland 1404

License to Henry Prince to kidnap a crew to attack the ships of Scotland and authorizing press gangs that must obey the captain under pain of death.

French versus England 1693

License from the Admiral of France to attack pirates, corsairs, subjects of the Catholic King of England. “…to arm the cutter Revenge with men, cannon, ball, powder, and lead…and attack pirates, corsairs and other lawless men.”

Henry Morgan 1699

This is the Privateering license for the greatest pirate of all time. Morgan commanded all land and sea forces in the Western hemisphere. If you were Spanish, you were in deep trouble. A real legend. This is his Letter of Marque that was issued to him from the governor of Jamaica authorizing him to invade Cuba and anywhere else the Spanish might be in the western hemisphere.Also see Morgan’s Instructions that accompanied his Letters of Marque. They are the rules he must abide by and the authority he can wield.

Two Ships and Two Captains 1405

This document is good to personalize for siblings, twins, partners, etc. because it gives two people equal power without showing favorites. King allows both captains to keep all the booty instead of the usual “tenths”.