Mary Killigrew

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Mary Killigrew
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Full Name: Mary Wolverston
Alias: Old Lady Killigrew
Origin: Suffolk, UK
Occupation: Fence
Crimes: Piracy
Type of Villain: Pirate

Lady Mary Killigrew (formerly Mary Wolverston, better known as Old Lady Killigrew or Lady Killigrew) was a gentlewoman from Suffolk, married into an ancient Cornish family, who was accused of piracy during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

She and her husband received and stored stolen goods at their home, Arwenack House. In 1582, she was arrested and sentenced to death after she sent her servants to seize the cargo aboard a ship anchored opposite Arwenack House, later the nucleus of the 17th century town of Falmouth. Queen Elizabeth eventually pardoned her, and she was released from prison.

Early Life

Mary Wolverston was born in an unknown year in the English city of Suffolk. She was the daughter of the "gentleman pirate" Philip Wolverston.

She married Sir John Killigrew, knight of the realm and one-time MP for Lostwithiel. After his father's death, John was appointed Governor of Pendennis Castle and subsequently dominion over the Carrick Roads harbour.

Illegal activities

Exploiting her husband's powerful position, Killigrew and her servants took part in piracy in the local area. She and her husband abused Sir John's power to plunder the ships in the harbour and to convince officials to turn a blind eye.. Arwenack House, a property of Killigrew's, was fortified to be used as a hideout for stolen goods. Most raids were conducted by Killigrew's servants on her orders.

On 1 January 1583 Killigrew ordered her servants to plunder the Spanish ship Maria of San Sebastian after learning there was treasure aboard. When the Captain and crew went into town, Killigrew's servants (and according to rumour Killigrew herself) boarded the ship and killed at least one crewmember who they found there. They then plundered the ship and fled. They were arrested by the Queen's men and charged with piracy.


Killigrew was charged with having fenced items acquired by piracy and tried alongside two of her servants. Several family members were implicated but not tried, though they were involved. Killigrew was sentenced to death, but the queen herself intervened and substituted a lengthy prison sentence for death penalty. Her servants weren't as lucky; they were executed. Killigrew stayed in prison until her son was able to bribe enough people to secure her release.


Mary died on an unknown date in the parish of St Budock, Cornwall, in which was situated Arwenack. She was still alive in 1587, when her son John was accused of hindering further legal proceedings for piracy against her.


  • She is often confused with her mother-in-law Elizabeth Killigrew, herself a pirate during that time.
  • She is the dominant character in the historical novel The Grove of Eagles. She is condemned as "that harsh and evil woman" and "a woman of insatiable greed and desire for power".