Nostalgia: The fate of the nation in his hands

Engraving of Trinity House on St Sepulchre Street. The building was rebuilt in the 1830s.
Engraving of Trinity House on St Sepulchre Street. The building was rebuilt in the 1830s.

There is an old saying of British naval officers, sometimes attributed originally to Admiral Lawson, that “it is not for us to meddle with state affairs but to stop foreigners making fools of us”. However, though Lawson certainly made fools of the Dutch, unwisely he did “meddle in state affairs”. His fellow senior officers were in step with Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector, but Lawson never liked or trusted him. His differences with Cromwell were personal, religious and political: he resented the “tyrannical” authority he had assumed; as a baptist, he was out of sympathy with his Independent views; and he objected strongly to the ill-treatment of ordinary seamen in the state’s navy. Much to the annoyance of the Lord Protector, Lawson promoted and openly endorsed a seamens’ petition asking for the abolition of forcible impressment, regular wages and a guarantee of payment for their wives and compensation for their widows.

When Cromwell ordered Lawson to lead an attack on Spanish Cadiz and made Montagu, a younger man without any naval experience, his superior, he resigned his commission. Even then he was too popular with his captains and crews to be punished. Finally, when he continued to associate with known troublemakers, Cromwell lost patience, put him in the Tower for a while and then banished him to Scarborough. In 1657, at the age of 42, Lawson’s public career seemed over.

It was not to be: Lawson’s finest hour was yet to come. After Oliver Cromwell’s death in September 1658 and the failure of his son Richard (“Tumbledown Dick”) to command authority, Lawson was called out of retirement to command the Channel fleet. For the next twelve months he held the fate of the nation in his hands.

When the army under Generals Fleetwood and Lambert seized control of London, for the first and only time in our history the Navy staged a coup d’etat. In December 1659 Lawson led his 22 warships up the Thames to blockade the capital. Without supplies of food and coal fuel the city was paralysed. The generals caved in and Parliament was restored.

But Lawson had no political ambitions of his own. His hold over the Navy’s captains and seamen had given him a decisive but negative say in the course of events and he was soon faced with an appalling dilemma. By April 1660 he had begun to realise that the republic was bankrupt, financially as well as politically, and there was a growing movement in the country to bring back the king. Was there to be another civil war, another military dictatorship or a peaceful restoration of the Stuarts? Since he alone commanded the total loyalty of the Channel fleet, he alone had the means to prevent the return from exile in Holland of Charles II and his brother, James, Duke of York.

It was to Lawson’s huge credit that he spared the country further bloodshed, but ever since this republican baptist who restored the crown and the Church of England has been the subject of sharp debate. Was he no more than a hypocritical opportunist and a self-seeking sycophant or merely a simple, plain honest seafarer overtaken by circumstances?

In May 1660 Lawson’s flagship, the London, brought James, Duke of York, into Dover. Once again the Navy was Royal. The new Cavalier Parliament would have dismissed Lawson and robbed him of his pension, but the Duke, who now became Lord High Admiral of the Fleet, and the king appreciated their debt and renewed his annual pension of £500, added an extra £1,100 “in acknowledgment of his services”, and made him a knight.

From 1661 to 1664, as commander now of the Mediterranean squadron, Admiral Sir John Lawson spent four consecutive summers at sea trying to subdue the Barbary corsairs from Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli and protect England’s first African colony, Tangier. Time and again he forced the North African rulers to make peace only to see it broken almost immediately, but according to Samuel Pepys Lawson’s valiant leadership won him “great renown among all men”.

Along with Bombay, Tangier was part of the dowry of King Charles’ wife, the Portuguese Princess Catherine of Braganza. Positioned so close to the Straits of Gibraltar, it had great potential as a naval base, but it was also open to the Atlantic and had no safe anchorage. Accordingly, Sir Hugh Cholmley of Whitby, regarded as the country’s leading expert on harbour defences, was sent to Tangier to design and construct a great stone mole there, modelled on the one he had built at Whitby. Lawson formed a close personal and business partnership with this son of his old civil-war enemy.

When a second war at sea with the Dutch seemed imminent, Lawson was recalled home. Given his unrivalled experience of fleet battle and knowledge of the Dutch, the Duke of York regarded him as indispensable. Of the three divisions of the English war fleet, Blue, White and Red, Sir John was appointed admiral of the Red.

At almost any time between 1642, when he first volunteered to serve Parliament, and 1664, when he came back to fight the Dutch again, Lawson could have been killed or maimed in battle, overcome by sickness, or drowned in a storm, but on June 3, 1665 his luck finally ran out. During the opening battle of the second Dutch war off Lowestoft the Admiral of the Red received a musket ball wound in the knee. The injury was thought to be curable but gangrene set in and he died at Greenwich and was buried nearby at St Dunstan-in-the-East.

Admiral Lawson’s last legacy to Scarborough was a gift of £100 to its poor. Eventually, the money passed to the Society of Owners, Masters and Mariners who with it bought a plot of land on the south side of St Sepulchregate and there built an almshouse for 27 old seamen and widows of seamen. Re-built from the original foundations in the 1830s, it is known today as Trinity House.

Lawson rightly remains a controversial figure. Pepys thought that he was a brave but greedy hypocrite. Lord Clarendon wrote that he was “incomparably the modestest and wisest man” whose loss was “almost irreparable”. In such an hierarchical society, his rough manners and speech were mocked; yet unlike his professional equals his elevation was due entirely to merit and not social status or patronage. No naval officer was more loved and respected by ordinary seamen and none had more concern for their well-being. If Lawson was not a great man, unquestionably he was one of the greatest sea captions we have ever had.