Nostalgia: Outsider’s meteoric rise

Whitby's notorious Royalist privateer, Browne Bushell.
Whitby's notorious Royalist privateer, Browne Bushell.

When civil war between King Charles and Parliament broke out in the autumn of 1642, most Englishmen preferred cautiously to wait and see the outcome rather than risk actively supporting one side or the other. John Lawson was an exception: without doubt or delay he immediately declared attachment to Parliament’s cause.

The reason for Lawson’s wholehearted commitment is not hard to explain: religious zeal was the mainspring of his thought and decision-making. By siding with Parliament he was convinced that he was the instrument of God’s will. For him, English Royalists, just like later Scottish Presbyterians, Dutchmen and Barbary corsairs, were all God’s enemies. So from the outset he offered himself and his ship to Parliament’s war service.

At first, Scarborough was in the hands of Parliament’s appointed military governor, Sir Hugh Cholmley. So early in 1643 we find the House of Commons thanking Lawson and two other Scarborough sea captains, John Legard and William Nesfield, for seizing a Royalist corn boat bound for Newcastle and instructing them to sell it and its cargo to pay for Cholmley’s garrison.

However, when Sir Hugh suddenly and inexplicably changed sides in March 1643, John Lawson could not bear to live under his rule and took his family into “banishment” (as he called it) at Hull. Yet such was Lawson’s known reliability and seagoing experience that there he was given command of one of Parliament’s armed merchantmen, the Covenant. With a crew of 42 and carrying 12 cannon, the 140 ton Covenant was Lawson’s first fighting vessel.

For his masters in London Lawson more than repaid their trust in him. The Covenant of Hull is listed in Parliament’s summer guard of 1643, 1644, and 1645 and the winter guard of 1645-6. During these years Lawson was employed in routine carriage of military supplies and soldiers into besieged Hull, but in 1644-5 the Covenant was on station off Scarborough blockading Cholmley’s occupation of the town and castle.

Merchantmen were naturally reluctant to take on warships, but Captain Lawson was always looking for a fight regardless of the odds. On one occasion, off Scarborough, after intercepting a Royalist relief boat, he gave chase to its Royalist escort when it ran away from him.

Though we lack precise details of the event, it seems that Lawson had some part in preventing the betrayal of Hull to the King’s forces. With characteristic modesty, he wrote later: “it pleased God to make me an instrument in discovering and (in some measure) preventing the intended treachery of Sir John Hotham”. Sir John was Parliament’s governor of Hull who, with his son, secretly conspired to hand over the city to the Royalists. Their plot was preempted, both Hothams were arrested, sent to London in chains, tried for treason and beheaded on consecutive days in January 1645. Hull was vital to Parliament’s military success in the north of England and its loss would have changed the course of the war.

After Cholmley’s surrender of Scarborough castle to Parliament’s forces in July 1645, John Lawson was able to bring back his family to his home town. When new elections were held at the end of September he was honoured with a privileged place in the First Twelve of the Common Hall. This spectacular elevation was almost unprecedented. Other newcomers to the First Twelve, such as Captain William Nesfield, John Harrison and Peter Hodgson, all shared Lawson’s Puritan persuasion, but they had all sat in the Second Twelve before Cholmley’s defection. Previously, Lawson had been an outsider and his meteoric promotion to the highest bench was entirely due to his outstanding war service. He was still barely 30 years old.

Lawson kept his position in Scarborough’s First Twelve in 1646-7 and 1647-8, but his services to the borough were not in local administration. During these years he spent much time in London pleading the town’s claims against civil war damages and losses. St Mary’s new vicar needed the grant of a parish stipend; King’s Lynn had to be stopped from imposing extra charges on Scarborough coals; and Parliament had to be persuaded to pay for Scarborough’s permanent military garrison. Such was Lawson’s diligence and competence that in 1646 Parliament made him captain of the soldiers in the town and castle. Local records now address him as “Mister” or even “Gentleman”. He had now entered the propertied class. He had bought a house at 4 West Sandgate, opposite the bottom end of what was then Merchant Row, and tenancies of several Corporation lands which included the Garlands, a 16-acre pasture at the foot of Weaponness.

However, Parliament’s greatest debt to Captain Lawson at this time was his capture of Browne Bushell, Whitby’s most notorious and successful Royalist privateer. For five years “The Bushell” had skilfully eluded every attempt made to take him as he preyed on merchant shipping off the North Sea coast; but in John Lawson, a former comrade, he finally met his match. No one knew the waters off Tynemouth better than Lawson and it was there in the Covenant that he surprised and caught “the old sea pirot”. Bushell was sent to London in irons, imprisoned in Windsor castle, and three years later, after a one-day trial, executed on Tower Hill.

In July 1648, Captain Lawson’s allegiance to Parliament was put to the test again. During his absence from Scarborough, Colonel Matthew Boynton, military governor of the town, had draped a red flag over the curtain wall of the castle and declared himself a faithful subject of King Charles and his son and heir the Prince of Wales. Lawson’s company of soldiers had gone over with Boynton wihout firing a shot. So for a second time he was forced to remove himself and his family from Scarborough and live again in Hull as an exile. It seemed that God had more work for him to do.