I'm annotating a late 16th or early 17th century English play for publication, and I'm having trouble making sense of a certain incident that takes place. I'm hoping someone familiar with Elizabethan nautical terms can help.

Here's the situation. Two pirate ships are grappled together as their captains fight in single combat for the booty plundered from a French merchantman. As they fight, a group of impressed sailors plan to escape by stealing the merchantman. To prevent the pirates from pursuing them, one says:

"We'll cut their hawsers."

The plan goes off, and the pirate captain orders a pursuit, but is told:

"They have cut our hawsers, we cannot budge a foot."

Here's my question. I always understood--and the sources I've looked at so far back me up--that the term "hawser" usually referred to the rope that moored the ship to a dock or to an anchor. In other words, if the pirate ship was moored or anchored, cutting the hawser would set them adrift. It wouldn't stop them from moving, it would do the opposite.

So what am I missing? How is it that cutting the hawser prevents you from pulling in the anchor, but leaves the ship still held by the anchor? Or is it the playwright who's confused--always a possibility?

If anyone is interested, the play is Robert Daborne's A Christian Turn'd Turk, published in London in 1612.

  • FreeDictionary has: hawser A cable or rope used in mooring or towing a ship. It could be the ropes binding the merchantman to the Pirate Captain who speaks' ship, but you'd still want: "They have cut our hawsers! And we cannot budge a foot." [being still fastened to the other pirate vessel]. Mar 7, 2014 at 21:38
  • Where are the ships? What is the tide doing? What is the wind doing? If the pirate ship is in port and can't be turned around or towed out then hawser could make sense. If there is no wind and the ship needs to be towed by rowing boats it could make sense.
    – Julian
    Mar 8, 2014 at 6:15

5 Answers 5


This citation (found in the OED) shows that the term hawser was not only used for the strong ropes used in towing and anchoring, but was also used to refer to the running rigging:

?1615   G. Chapman tr. Homer Odysses (new ed.) ii. 609   With well-wreath'd halsers hoise Their white sails.

Of course, it's possible that Chapman had confused hawsers with halyards—but if Chapman could be confused in that respect then so could Daborne. Landlubbers are often confused over naval terminology! The confusion might easily arise because of two naval tactics that both involve cutting ropes:

  1. To quickly disable an enemy ship, cut the rigging that supports its masts and controls its yards and sails. Unsupported, the masts cannot bear any press of sail, and it takes much time and labour to repair the cut ropes.

    For example, Captain Trollope of HMS Glatton wrote in his report on the action of 15 July 1796:

    I have no doubt, from the apparent confuſion the enemy were in, we ſhould have gained a deciſive victory, but, unfortunately, in attempting to wear, we found every part of our running rigging totally cut to pieces [i.e. by the enemy's cannon-fire], and the major part of our ſtanding rigging, every ſtay, except the mizen, either cut or badly wounded, and our maſts and yards conſiderably damaged.

  2. If a ship is anchored but needs to make way urgently, then the sailors will cut (or slip) the cable (or hawser) and run. This operation saves much time and labour, but leaves the valuable anchor on the seabed.

    For example, Captain Porter of the USS Essex wrote in his report on the surrender of the ship in the battle of Valparaiso, 28 March 1814:

    I ran close into a small bay, and anchored within pistol shot of the shore [...] The enemy soon repaired his damages, and made a fresh attack with both ships on my starboard quarter, out of reach of my carronades, and, where my stern guns could not be brought to bear—he there kept up a galling fire which it was out of my power to return. The only rope not cut was the flying gib halliards, and that being the only sail I could set, I caused it to be hoisted, my cables to be cut, and run down on both ships, with an intention of laying the Phoebe on board.

  • Your first quote is a great find, supporting halyard as being the present day equivalent (even though there typically is no yard arm to raise). Mar 8, 2014 at 16:38

OED's definition for hawser is...

A large rope or small cable, in size midway between a cable and a tow-line, between 5 and 10 inches in circumference; used in warping and mooring

I confess I didn't know what warping meant in this context, so I had to check warp...

Naut. A rope or light hawser attached at one end to some fixed object, used in hauling or in moving a ship from one place to another in a harbour, road, or river

OP doesn't make clear exactly what the current position of the "disabled" ship is, but perhaps it's such that it would need to be hauled into a different orientation in order for its sails to catch the wind and give pursuit.

Of course, not every playwright is a knowledgeable seaman. Perhaps Robert Daborne simply knew that hawsers are "ropes", and what he was trying to say was the sail ropes (sheets) were cut. Note Oldcat's comment below, and particularly note that "sheets" as used to let out and control sails are sometimes chains rather than ropes. The stretch from mooring hawser to sheet-controlling chain (or cable?) doesn't seem too great to me.

  • Those ropes are called sheets.
    – Oldcat
    Mar 7, 2014 at 22:00
  • @Oldcat: I don't claim to be a "knowledgeable seaman" myself. But I do know that hawsers today are invariably made of steel, so nobody could mistakenly think they're relevant to raising sail. In Daborne's time they really were just "thick ropes", so it's at least possible he could get them muddled up. But I'll edit it in, because it might be relevant. Mar 7, 2014 at 22:04
  • 1
    Just indicating that ropes, thick or thin, for different tasks on sailing vessels have unique names - probably to avoid confusion on the vessel. The playwright might not know this. But assuming he did, hawsers would be what would be used to connect two or three vessels into a unit for a fight, just as they are used to tie to a dock in port.
    – Oldcat
    Mar 7, 2014 at 22:08
  • Yes, I Understand your proposition as set out in your answer. For all I know, yours is the correct interpretation (you seem to have more nautical knowledge than me). But particularly after your last point, now that I know the sheets might actually be chains, it seems more reasonable to me to suppose what these sailors have lost is the ability to control/set sail. Mar 7, 2014 at 22:15
  • 1
    Actually, we use steel halyards to raise our sails on anything but the smallest of boats. The tension on these halyards is tremendous, and anything other than steel rope would have to be of very large diameter to handle the loads. In some cases, we are able to lock the head of the sail in, to take the load off of the halyard, but not in every case. Even the clew on the mainsail may have a steel rope as the outhaul. Mar 7, 2014 at 23:20

Since the etymology of hawser points to the old French « halcier » and « haucier » meaning "hoister" or "to hoist", I suspect that they are referring to what we call halyards today.

The current French word « hausser » means to raise or elevate. Hausser looks like a loan word that became hawser, where only the spelling has changed.

Raising and lowering a sail is sometimes called hauling up or hauling down. Of course the halyards are used to raise the sails. On some boats, there is a line called a downhaul to lower the sail.

So I suggest that, back in the day, hawser was most likely the halyards to the sails. During the mêlée with grappled ships, it's unlikely the sails are raised. Getting under way would be impossible until they are hoisted.

Also in sailing, we haul in or haul out a sail. By this we use the sheet line to bring the sail closer to the centerline of the boat (haul in) or let it out (haul out). (Being close hauled generally means the boat is sailing close to the wind and the sails are hauled in.

So while these sail control lines have other names, they may also have names that are closely related to hawser or to the act of hoisting or hauling.

  • I had the same thought.
    – David M
    Mar 7, 2014 at 22:48

OED 1 suggests (although it does not explictly state) that the modern sense of hawser derives from the conflation of two phonetically similar terms with very different origins and meanings:

  • Hawse, noun, (in old spellings also halse, haulse, hause, houlse, harse) is thought to derive from Old norse háls = “neck” and originally signified “part of the forecastle or bow of a ship”—I presume because the hull narrowed at that point. Eventually the sense became restricted to senses connected with the hawse-holes, openings cut in the hull at the bow to allow an anchor cable to pass through; and then by extension of this restricted sense hawse came also to designate the sea-space between the bow and the dropped anchor across which the anchor cable passed.

  • Hawse, verb (old spellings hause, halse, haulse), meaning “to raise, exalt, hoist” and Hawser (old spellings hauceuour, hauucour, haucer, hauser, halsor, halser, haulser, haurser, harser, harsor, hasar, hassar), meaning a rope used for drawing or hauling, both derive from Old French halcier, haucier, “raise” < haut, hault “high” < Latin altus, “high”. Eventually the sense became restricted to the rope which passes through the hawse-hole, viz. the anchor cable. See, for instance, the internet Probert Encyclopedia of Ships, s.v. hawser, “The word hawser means a cable used at the hawse.”

The quotation from Chapman's Homer provided by Gareth Rees suggests very strongly that the folk-etymological conflation of these terms was not yet complete in the early 17th century, and that Daborne uses hawsers quite properly to mean halyards.


Perhaps the cutting of the hawsers is keeping the pirates from getting onto the deck of the French merchantman, because the gap is too large.

Picture the three ships bound together by hawsers. The impressed sailors cut the lines to the other two ships and drift away slightly. The pirates can't pursue on foot. Sailing in pursuit afterwards would be another issue, but the two pirate ships are still tied together, and the crews presumably still fighting each other. Thus the embarrassing situation for the pirates.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.