I was reading a book that touched on Eric of Pomerania, King of Denmark, Sweden and Norway. After he was dethroned in 1439, he set up as a pirate in the Baltic. Now, the book claims that this was not entirely strange, and that privateers existed and had recognised legal status. Checking Wikipedia, I found that England had indeed issued letters of marque for over a hundred years by then, and that the idea reached back another fifty or so years.

However, I am wondering what kind of protection such a letter (or other equivalent proof of being employed by a state) would give someone when captured by another state. Klaus Störtebeker was executed for piracy, but that was after the Victual brothers had stopped being privateers and moved on to "real" pirating. Would it possibly have been different if he had been captured when King Albert was still at war with Queen Margaret?

I'm primarily interested in the fifteenth century and northern Europe, but arguments and examples from later (or earlier) and other parts of Europe are acceptable as substitutes.

  • 7
    I was under the impression that a letter of marque was more a protection against accusations of piracy by your own state (as well as a means of the state getting a share of the plunder). As you state, the line between pirate and privateer was often blurry at best (and crossed back and forth).
    – Steve Bird
    Commented Nov 22, 2016 at 21:12
  • 3
    Wikipedia claims that the letters would turn a ship into essentially a naval auxillary, and that captured privateers should be treated like POW, and also that Grotius argued that privateers were essentially engaged in private wars, so the letter should mean some protection against foreign powers as well.
    – andejons
    Commented Nov 23, 2016 at 7:22

3 Answers 3


Like much legistation, the role of the letter of marque evolved from it's initial inception to it's eventual demise.

The original purpose of the letter of marque and reprisal (to use the full title), was to allow subjects the ability to gain their own 'recompense' for injuries inflicted on them by foreign powers without the need for the states to go to war. Where "marque" referred to the crossing of frontiers and "reprisal" was the taking of goods in return (for the injuries previously suffered).

...as the delay of making war may sometimes be detrimental to individuals who have suffered by depredations from foreign potentates, our laws have in some respects armed the subject with powers to impel the perogative; by directing the ministers of the crown to issue letters of marque and resprisal upon due demand...These letters are grantable by the law of nations, whenever the subjects of one state are oppressed and injured by those of another; and justice is denied by that state to which the oppressor belongs.[1]

In effect, the purpose of the early laws was to distance the aggresive actions of the subject from that of the state while giving the injured party approval for a measured retaliation.

...here the necessity is obvious of calling in the sovereign power, to determine when reprisals may be made; else every private sufferer would be judge in his own case. In pursuance of which principle, it is with us declared by the statue 4 Hen. V. c. 7. that if any subjects of the realm are oppressed in the time of truce by any foreigners, the king will grant marque in due form, to all that feel themselves grieved.[2]

Again, it's clear that these early laws were intended to apply in times of peace (truce) rather than, as later became the case, in times of war. The process of granting a letter of marque and reprisal also allowed a period for the offending party to make voluntary recompense before a letter of marque and reprisal would be granted.

...the sufferer must first apply to the lord privy-seal; and he shall make out letters of request under the privy-seal; and if, after such request of satisfaction made, the party required do not within convenient time make due satisfaction or restitution to the party grieved, the lord chancellor shall make him out letters of marque under the great seal; and by virtue of these he may attack and seize the property of the aggressor nation, without hazard of being condemned as a robber or pirate.[3] [sic]

My emphasis on the last sentence to highlight that, from the perpective of the injured party, his protection was from being judged a pirate in his own country, i.e. he could return laden with the goods he gained in recompense without fear of being condemned at home. Obviously, these were not international laws, they gave the injured party no protection in the foreign state other than identifying that the party was acting on their own behalf (and not as an agent of their state) to settle a personal dispute.

[1] Commentaries on the Laws of England, Volume 1, pg 192-3 - Sir William Blackstone, et al.
[2] Ibid, pg 193
[3] Ibid, pg 193


I only know about this for the late eighteen and early nineteenth centuries, when a letter of marque would usually give you protection from ships belonging to the country that issued it. Usually, not guaranteed. It did no good at all with ships of the country or countries you were "entitled" to attack, who would treat you as a pirate. Other countries might do anything, and it was best to stay away from their ships.

Edit: I have to admit my sources for this are tertiary, but the naval fiction of C S Forrester and Patrick O'Brien was very well-researched.

  • This answer would be improved with a few sources (though your take on this concurs with my own understanding of that period in history). Commented Nov 23, 2016 at 16:38
  • i would guess showing that document to a ship of a country you were entitled to attack would be the dumbest thing ever.
    – Jeff
    Commented Nov 23, 2016 at 23:46

A "letter of marque" protected a privateer only against his home state (the one that issued the letter). In effect, it was a "peace treaty" between the two; the privateer "lays off" the ships of his sovereign, who then promises not to prosecute, provided the privateer confines his depredations to the vessels of other countries.

It provided no protection against other countries, who would regard the "privateer" as a "pirate."

Perhaps the most famous privateer was Sir Francis Drake.The king of Spain asked Queen Elizabeth I for his head, but she knighted him instead.

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