Civil War privateer Thomas Amy

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Privateer Thomas Amy


Thomas Amy's employer, Sir George Carteret

This article by Mike Sunier was first published in the Jersey Evening Post in 2014

At the time of the English Civil War Cornish sailor Thomas Amy was one of the most successful of the Jersey-based skippers supporting the Royal Cause.

His wife Gertrude had joined him in Jersey and, by 1647 the couple were preparing for the birth of a child.

But Thomas Amy's dangerous role as a privateer captain was to have tragic consequences for his family. He was one of the captains of the fleet of ships that Jersey Royalist leader Sir George Carteret had gathered in Jersey to help secure Elizabeth Castle (left) for Charles I and to defend the island from any possible attack by the parliamentary forces during the war.

In order to maintain his army of defenders, Sir George needed munitions and provisions, and his fleet of ships was despatched to seize ships and their cargoes and bring them to Jersey. Some of the captains in his fleet were Jerseymen, but mostly he recruited English, Dutch and French mercenaries.

Captain Thomas Amy, loyal to the Crown, had arrived from the Scilly isles with his first captured ship in 1646. Some of his successful exploits were recorded by the Jersey diarist Jean Chevalier, the letters of the exiled Royalists refer to him, and his story is also narrated by historian Samuel Hoskins.

The Malaga Prize

On one voyage Capt Amy sailed into St Aubin with a lucrative cargo of Spanish wine and dried fruit en route from Malaga to London. The cargo was stored in the celars of homes at St Aubin and it became known as the Malaga Prize among the Royalists staying in Jersey. There was much correspondence about who should benefit from the haul.

Capt Amy himself did well from the deal, for he next sailed to St Malo to purchase a new ship from the proceeds. This proved to be no ordinary vessel, but one that the Prince of Wales - the future Charles II - had commissioned during his first stay in Jersey but had failed to take delivery of before he had been ordered by the Queen of England [1] to join her in France.

He found the ship, described as a fine frigate with two topsails and a mizzen mast, lying idle in St Malo, and considered it to be the ideal purchase.

With his new ship he brought even more captured vessels back to the island, where the cargoes were secured for Sir George. No mean sailor himself, Sir George was impressed and on one occasion travelled across from the castle to St Aubin to marvel at the number of captured ship pennants flying from the mast of Amy's ship following a particularly successful voyage.

Enemy frigates

One foray into the English Channel proved a turning-point in his life. Aware of his skills as a captain Sir George dispatched him aboard a ship called the Navire to capture a parliamentarian frigate moored in Guernsey. When they were close enough, Capt Amy realised that the frigate they were sent to capture had more than 40 guns aboard, compared with Navire's five, and he decided that the sensible move was to return to port rather than engage in battle.

On the way home, near the coast of Sark, he was tempted to board another parliamentarian frigate that he encountered. Once close enough, he realised that his crew was once again badly outnumbered, but this time the rival ship gave chase.

Fortunately Capt Amy's ship was faster, and more manoeuvrable, and kept ahead all the way to the coast of Jersey. Here he tried to lure the bigger ship on to the Paternosters, but the rival skipper did not fall into the trap and sailed away.

His next problem was the weather. A storm was brewing and before he could reach St Aubin it threw the Navire well off course. He sought shelter close to Chausey until it subsided, but these delays were to have consequences at home.

Wife's death

Gertrude, now heavily pregnant, was fearful for the safety of her husband on his dangerous voyage. With no news and no sign of his successful return, she took to her bed ill with worry and soon went into labour.

Capt Amy and his crew finally sailed safely back to St Aubin, but by the time of his arrival he discovered that Gertrude had died while giving birth and his child was stillborn.

Jean Chevalier must have known Gertrude, for he described her as 'a fine young woman in the flower of her age'. her distraught husband erected a memorial in black stone to Gertrude [2] in the Town Church which was engraved in Latin, marking her passing in suitably solemn words.

However, he was not one to dwell on his loss, for Chevalier's diary recorded that he remarried in February the following year, and perhaps Chevalier was not impressed by the haste, for he wrote pointedly:'Amy had been a widower five months and 25 days.'

He continued his exploits at sea and further honours were bestowed on him. In 1650, when the future Charles II sheltered at Elizabeth Castle during his exile, it was Amy who was selected to command the ship that took the king safely to France.

Today in the Town Church the story of Thomas and Gertrude is not forgotten, if one looks hard enough. Behind some chairs in an area designated as a play area for young children, a black marble memorial has been fixed to the wall.

It seems unlikely that this was its original location in the church, but it is a precious tablet that Thomas had prepared in memory of Gertrude, a poignant reminder of a time when Jersey was home to a band of skilled men who sailed the seas in dangerous times on behalf of their king.

Notes and references

  1. His mother
  2. Gerteret as listed in the burial records
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