Portrait by Sir Peter Lely of Prince Rupert, nephew of King Charles I.
Portrait by Sir Peter Lely of Prince Rupert, nephew of King Charles I.

The loss of his home, land and position in Scarborough were not the only grievous consequences suffered by John Lawson’s stubborn loyalty to Parliament. According to a surviving Royalist certificate, the commission of the Prince of Wales, then at Great Yarmouth, to Colonel Matthew Boynton at Scarborough, was carried by William Lawson, master of his ship, the Isabel. So if William was John’s father, it seems that like many other families the Lawsons had been split by the civil war. Whether William was forced by the Prince to take the commission back to Scarborough cannot be said, but John would never have agreed to perform such a service whatever the pressure. If John was not a republican at the beginning of the first civil war, he had become one by the outbreak of the second.

Though the crews of ten warships under Parliament’s Lord Admiral had mutinied and gone over to the Prince, even before Boynton’s defection Lawson had declared his continuing obedience to his masters in London. However, instead of resuming the sea blockade of Royalist Scarborough in the Covenant, Captain Lawson joined Colonels Bethell, Legard and Lascelles in the fierce land battles for control of the town. By September 1648 Boynton had been driven back to the castle. In the retreat dozens of his motley band of mercenaries, assumed by the Roundheads to be Irish Catholics because they wore crucifixes and spoke a foreign language, were butchered without mercy in Scarborough’s streets. (An ordinance passed by Parliament in 1644 permitted the immediate execution of any Irish Catholic carrying weapons, but the victims of this atrocity were in fact mostly French-speaking Walloons.)

Within days of Boynton’s withdrawal, “Mr John Lawson” was re-elected to his old seat in the First Twelve, along with other Puritan townsmen such as the Harrisons, William Nesfield and Peter Hodgson, the Quaker. Three months later, in December 1648, Captain John Lawson was one of the signatories to the articles of surrender of the castle and under his command a company of soldiers stood guard there. Unlike most castles in Yorkshire, Scarborough’s was considered too vital to be “levelled to the ground” by order of Parliament.

Mr John Lawson kept his place in Scarborough’s Common Hall until 1653, but for the last three years he did not occupy it. Early in 1650 he went back to sea as captain of the Commonwealth’s warship, the Lion. The North Sea was still infested with privateers and the Admiralty’s appointment of Lawson was partly in response to a request for naval protection from Scarborough’s merchants. They were soon not disappointed.

Browne Thomas, another local seafarer who had turned himself into a Royalist privateer, had taken a loaded collier belonging to John Harrison and towed it into the Danish port of Gluckstadt for sale there. Undaunted by the overbearing shore artillery of Gluckstadt fort, Lawson sailed straight into the harbour, seized the collier and towed it back out again. The Danes were so surprised that Lawson was out of range before they could fire a shot at him. He brought his prize back to its rightful owner at Scarborough.

As a reward for past services and outstanding valour, Lawson was then given command of the newly-built Centurion, a warship of 500 tons with 40 guns. In this, during the summer of 1650, he gave support to Cromwell’s brilliant campaign into Scotland which culminated in his great victory at Dunbar.

Early the following year, now as captain of the Fairfax, Lawson sailed southwards to join Admiral Penn’s squadron in the Azores. The purpose of their expedition was to search out and destroy the ships of Prince Rupert, the late King’s nephew, which were causing havoc to English merchantmen en route to and from the Mediterranean. For the next 14 months, the squadron sailed thousands of miles from Malta in the east to the West Indies. They took many French and Portuguese prizes but failed to find Rupert.

When Lawson finally came home to Scarborough in the early summer of 1652 his intention was to retire from what he called “sea employment”. The war had been won everywhere at sea as well as on land. All the Commonwealth’s enemies – Irish, Scottish and Royalist privateers – had been subdued or swept into foreign exile. There could be no doubt which side God was on.

The Commonwealth’s navy had won mastery of the seas. One by one, Portugal, Spain, France and Venice, had reluctantly recognised the new republic and opened their ports to English traders. But there was still one exception to this submission – the Dutch Netherlands. Not only did their merchant ships dominate world-wide carrying commerce from the East Indies to the Caribbean, in the Baltic and in the Mediterranean, but they had provided refuge for Royalist runaways and supplied arms to Irish and Scottish rebels. After a series of incidents in which Dutchmen refused to “salute” their English counterparts at sea, open war broke out between them in July 1652.

By that time Lawson had already accepted the summons to return to active service. As he wrote later, he could not “satisfy his conscience” by refusing. The Dutch had now been added to his lengthy list of “God’s enemies”.

The first war with the Dutch (1652-4) brought Lawson to the top of the naval rigging. When it began he was merely one of dozens of captains, but when it ended he was Vice-Admiral of the Fleet, the fourth most senior post in the Navy. Of the six major sea battles, Lawson had a key role in four victories. Off Dover, in May, in the Fairfax, he received the surrender of two enemy warships; in February 1653, off Portland, he saved the day by rapid thinking and daring manoeuvre; at the Gabbard in June, now in the George, he was the first to close with the Dutch; and finally, at Scheveningen, where the Dutch suffered a crushing defeat, with his close-range gunnery Lawson disabled their flagship. For his conspicuous gallantry, leadership and success, Lawson was awarded a gold chain worth £100 (the equivalent of £60,000 today) and given command of the North Sea fleet blockading the Dutch coast by Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell.