John Crabbe: Flemish Pirate, Merchant and Adventurer

Morvern French
Friday 15 November 2013

A little known article written by Henry Lucas of the University of Washington in 1945 examines the life of the Flemish John Crabbe, who had a wide-ranging career as a pirate, merchant and adventurer, some of it impinging on Scotland during the early part of the 14th century. In this posting we review Crabbe’s “Scottish career”, drawing on the findings of the Lucas article. We are grateful to Professor T.C. Smout for pointing us to this article. This is the second in a series of postings aimed at examining the role played by noteworthy Flemish people in Scotland.


John Crabbe was a Fleming who came from Muiden, a small town on the Flemish coast near the mouth of the Zwin river. The name Crabbe was quite common in Bruges and other parts of Flanders.[[1]]

Crabbe first came to fame around 1305 in connection with an act of piracy perpetrated off the port of La Rochelle on the Bay of Biscay. In this act, involving a ship called the Waardebourc owned by a Dutch merchant, Crabbe seized 160 tuns of wine and all goods on board, burned the ship, and kidnapped the sailors. This act added to the intensity of a long running dispute between the counts of Holland and Zeeland on one side and the counts of Flanders on the other. The Dutch merchant sought to obtain justice and compensation but was unsuccessful despite subsequent improvements in the troubled relationship between the counts.

In 1310 Crabbe and his Flemish crew struck again. This time Crabbe, with two Flemish ships, attacked a ship in the Straits of Dover that was heading to London. The cargo included cloth, silver, gold and jewels. King Edward II of England sought justice from Count Robert of Flanders, but when no restitution was forthcoming a levy was placed on property of Flemings in England.

Interestingly, John Crabbe appeared in Aberdeen in 1311 and, supported by other Aberdeen based Flemish, stopped two ships out of Newcastle-upon-Tyne that were bound for Flanders laden with 89 sacks of wool.

A period of incessant rain in Flanders in 1315 led to a famine in 1316 and this, coupled with the ongoing war, provided a window for Crabbe’s return to the county. His resourcefulness was rewarded by Count Robert who appointed him as admiral of a fleet of ships “under orders to acquire victuals and other necessaries for the sustenance of the county, where there was great need and famine, from enemies as prize of war, and from others as payment”.[[2]] He dutifully seized a number of ships as part of his remit. By now Crabbe had won widespread notoriety as an energetic and heartless freebooter.

Expelled from Flanders, reportedly for murder, Crabbe returned to Scotland where he continued his life of crime, taking advantage of the feud between England and Scotland to repeatedly attack English ships. The proximity of Berwick-upon-Tweed to England, then in Scottish hands, made it an ideal place for Crabbe to base himself. He had established himself there by 1318 and had even become a burgess in the town. Crabbe made himself indispensable for the defence of the town when the English, in 1318-1319, tried to capture it.

Always the opportunist, Crabbe was able to secure favours from the Scottish government. In 1327 he supplied the royal household with victuals, probably stolen goods.

The next change in the political situation once more proved Crabbe’s remarkable ability to make himself useful, if not indispensable, to people in high places. In 1332 war again broke out between the English and the Scots. The English King Edward III covertly supported Edward Balliol, the claimant of the Scottish throne, who invaded Fife and defeated the Scots in the Battle of Dupplin Moor. The invaders next proceeded to Perth. The Scots, under their newly appointed regent, Sir Andrew Moray, moved towards Perth from the west. Hoping to surround the English, they summoned John Crabbe from Berwick who came into the Firth of Tay with ten Flemish ships and at once attacked the English vessels. The English, however, put up stout resistance and destroyed all of Crabbe’s fleet. Crabbe escaped, but only with great difficulty, and fled back to Berwick.

In a subsequent skirmish near Kelso, Moray and a force that included Crabbe were defeated by Edward. Crabbe fell into the hands of the English.

Much was still to happen to Crabbe but suffice it to say here he managed to opportunistically switch sides and assist the English for the balance of his life, including helping Edward in a successful siege of Berwick.

In the introduction to this blog we implied that Crabbe was a noteworthy Fleming. Perhaps “notorious” is a better word. What is interesting from the perspective of the Scotland and the Flemish People Project however is how an enterprising Fleming was able to establish himself in eastern Scotland, doubtless helped by the fact that there were already communities of Flemish merchants and seamen that provided a base of support.

Alex Fleming,
November 2013


Alex Fleming is part sponsor of, and researcher in the Scotland and the Flemish People Project.



[1] Henry S. Lucas, “John Crabbe: Flemish Pirate, Merchant, and Adventurer”, Speculum, Volume 20, No. 3, 1945
[2] Calendar of Inquisitions Miscellaneous (Chancery), II, 89

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