John Callis enjoyed an exciting career as a pirate, although it's difficult to be too sure about many of the details of his life.
John Callis (or Callys or Callice) was born into a well-off family in Tintern, Monmouthshire, in the late 1550s. He had family connections with the Earl of Pembroke and the Herberts, the principal family of South Wales. After his education, he went to London as a young man to learn the trade of being a clothes merchant, but he soon returned to Wales to create havoc on the seas.
By 1574 he was being accused of being captain of the pirate ship, The Cost Me Noughte. The Admiralty described him as 'a notorious pyrate haunting the coasts of Wales', as he led a group of raiders terrorising sea-borne trade off the South Wales coast. However, because of his gentry connections, he was protected from prosecution. Indeed, Callis was friendly with William Herbert, High Sheriff of Glamorgan and Vice-Admiral of Wales, and stayed in his house in Cardiff as he attempted to sell the ill-gotten merchandise he had stolen from merchant ships. The gentry were well rewarded for looking after Callis.
- Carew Castle
In 1574 Callis and his crew took an Italian ship and sold its cargo in Bristol and Cardiff; at the end of the year he attacked a Portuguese ship off the Azores. For three years Callis preyed on a great number of ships in the Bristol Channel and further afield, around the coast of Britain. He was always safe in South Wales, because of his links with the area's main landowners. In addition to his friends in Glamorgan, he had a good relationship with the bigwigs of Pembrokeshire, men like Sir John Perrot of Haverfordwest, and he's said to have established a headquarters for himself in a tavern in Angle, near Milford Haven.
But Callis's rapacious career came to a halt when he was arrested in 1577 and dragged in chains to the Tower of London. He was tried for ten serious counts of piracy, but although he was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged, he found a way out by becoming a turn-coat, giving information to the authorities about the activities of the gentry who were behind piracy right across Britain.
Once free, Callis soon went back to his old occupation, capturing ships from Spain, France and Denmark, and selling some of the goods in Cardiff. In 1582 he joined an expedition that was aimed at catching pirates, but he used the opportunity to capture some more merchant ships. Over the next four years there are reports of Callis taking ships off the coast of Ireland, Scotland and the Orkney Islands.
His end is uncertain. Some sources say that he went to North Africa to continue his career as a pirate, but that he was killed there in 1586 or 1587. However, another report says that he was hanged in Wapping for his crimes, in the company of two other pirates who had been active in raiding the coast of Wales.
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