The Pirate of Pendley

View over the lake towards the west front at Claydon, Buckinghamshire ©National Trust Images / Arnhel de Serra

A nobleman born at Pendley Manor, Sir Francis Verney became a pirate following a legal dispute over his inheritance… and was even the inspiration for an iconic Disneyland ride!

Pendley Manor Francis Verney was born in 1584 at Pendley Manor in Tring. His parents were Audrey Gardner and Sir Edmund Verney.

Thanks to his father’s first and third marriages, Francis was related to seven royal families through marriage, and the convoluted ties continued when, at the age of just 15, he was married to Ursula St Barbe, his stepsister.

According to historians, it’s likely the match was engineered by his stepmother Lady Mary Blakeney, who had been described as ‘masterful’. Not only did she likely arrange the match to protect her daughter’s interests, she even persuaded her husband, Francis’ father, to split property left to Francis by his uncle, with their joint son Edmund. Another move that increased Lady Mary’s standing.

Edmund Verney died on 11 January 1600, and Francis went off to study at Trinity College, Oxford in September of that year. He obviously lived the high life, as he started running up thousands of pounds worth of debt. Once he left Oxford he lived separately from his wife – and legally separated from her once he reached adulthood. She received from him a £50 stipend for the rest of her life.

Verney was knighted at the Tower of London on 14 March in either 1603 or 1604.

It was also at this time that he took his stepmother to court over the division of his inheritance from his uncle, but they found in her favour. Unhappy with the judgment, Francis Verney sold his estates, and went abroad, where he became an accomplished adventurer. He came back to England for a short time to tie up his affairs – and then left the country forever.

According to family tales, he joined some relatives – Captains John and Philip Giffard – in Morocco, where they headed up an army of 200 Englishmen, who served Muley Sidan, who had a claim to the Moroccan throne.

The Giffards were unfortunately killed in a desert skirmish in 1607, and many of the men they had commanded took to a life of piracy. Francis headed to yet another relative – Richard Giffard – who was captain of the Fortune. Giffard was the commander of a pirate fleet and Francis became one of his officers. Francis, that boy from Tring, became one of the most feared pirates on the Barbary Coast, described by Francis Cottington of the English embassy in Madrid as ‘making havoc of his own countrymen, and carrying into Algiers prizes belonging to the merchants of Poole and Plymouth’.

He was said to have captured a merchant vessel heading to Marseilles, whose cargo included shipment of French wine for the court of James I. The activities of the pirates so concerned King James that a ship-of-war was tasked with escorting merchant vessels en route for Aleppo in the Levant area. More scandal in royal society occurred when Francis ‘became Turk’, adopting the ‘Mohammedan religion’. The wayward pirate was eventually captured by a Sicilain corsair and was held as a galley slave for two years.

The journal of the Royal Central Asian society notes ‘Sir Francis was captured in an Algerian ship of war wearing the turban and habit of the moors’. An English Jesuit called Sir Robert Chamberlain travelled to Malta to reclaim him in 1614. Verney was allowed his freedom on the condition that he converted to Catholicism, which he did.

Though he was free, he had no money and during his time in Sicily he enlisted as a soldier serving the Duke of Sona, the Spanish viceroy of Palermo.

A Scottish traveller-writer, William Lithgow, found him in ‘extremest calamity and sickness’ at a pauper’s hospital, in Messina, where he died on 6 September 1615.

Purple silk damask man’s robe cap and slippers
Claydon House

Verney’s personal effects, which included a turban, slippers, silk tunics, and pilgrim’s staff, were sent to Claydon House, near Buckingham, now a National Trust property.

However his legacy lives on. In Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 detective novel The Maltese Falcon he is named as one of the people who possessed the jewelled bird. The title character of the 1940 swashbuckler film The Sea Hawk, played by Errol Flynn, was inspired by his life, among others, and perhaps most surprising of all, he was among the real-life pirates used as inspiration by Disney Imagineer Marc Davis to be portrayed in Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean amusement ride. In the interior queue for Pirates of the Caribbean in Disneyland you’ll find a mural of Francis Verney, and boat number 29 is named, Francis Verney.

Visit Claydon House

If you’d like to visit Claydon House, which is a National Trust Property, it is situated near Buckingham. It’s also a location featuring in series 3 of Bridgerton on Netflix!

Find out more at