Scarborough’s tarpaulin admiral meddles in state affairs

Edward Mountagu who was promoted above John Lawson.
Edward Mountagu who was promoted above John Lawson.

There is an old saying in the Royal Navy that “it is not for us to meddle with state affairs, but to stop foreigners making fools of us”. But, in fact, to his credit, Scarborough’s tarpaulin admiral found it quite impossible for him to fight for a cause which he believed to be against his country’s interest and contrary to the dictates of his conscience. In short, he could not support or even tolerate a military dictatorship.

Lawson disliked political generals on principle and developed a profound distrust of the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell, in particular. His disagreements with Cromwell were personal, religious and political. He resented the “tyrannical” power he and his generals had assumed; as a Baptist, he was out of sympathy with a head of state who tolerated church tithes; and he objected strongly and openly to the ill-treatment of ordinary seamen in the Protectorate’s navy. Much to Cromwell’s annoyance, Lawson actively promoted and endorsed a sailors’ petition asking for an end of impressment, regular wages, and a guarantee of payment to their wives and compensation to their widows.

Lawson had accepted the peace treaty with Holland in 1654, but he was disappointed that it conceded too little for the enormous cost of English blood and treasure. However, when Cromwell declared war on Spain and he was instructed to serve in the battle fleet under the commands of Blake and Mountagu, he refused and resigned his commission. Blake was now seriously ill and it was obvious that Cromwell wanted Lawson out of the way, but not to succeed to overall command. It was a personal and deliberate insult to place Mountagu, a mere army colonel who had never been to sea, above him. Nevertheless, if Lawson’s dramatic resignation was intended to provoke a mutiny of seamen in the fleet, it failed. The expedition to Cadiz went ahead without him.

Yet, instead of retiring home to Scarborough, Lawson continued “to meddle with state affairs”. Though he was well aware that John Wildman, a notorious Leveller radical, was an enemy of Cromwell’s Protectorate, in July 1654 he successfully sponsored his election to Scarborough’s remaining parliamentary seat.

Evidence of Lawson’s “secret” intrigues with plotters against the regime continued to accumulate. He was holding meetings with Levellers, with Fifth Monarchists, and even with Royalists. In February 1655, even Charles Stuart in exile wrote to him to change sides, offering a pardon and rewards. But however strong his discontent with the Protectorate, Lawson was still a republican, not a monarchist, and as long as he had the loyalty of the Channel fleet there could be no return of the Stuarts.

Eventually, however, his patience exhausted, Cromwell agreed to imprison Lawson in the Tower. How long he stayed there and in what conditions it is not known, but he was not brought to trial. Instead, before the end of 1657, he was released and banished to Scarborough. At the age of 42, it seemed that his career in public service was finished.

It was not to be. After the death of Oliver Cromwell in September 1658 and the resignation of his successor son, Richard (“Tumbledown Dick”), the following May, Lawson was restored to his rank and his command of the Channel fleet. For the next 12 months he had the fate and the future of the nation in his hands.

The one regime that Lawson could never stomach was the rule of military generals. So that when Generals Lambert and Fleetwood seized power in London and expelled Parliament in October 1659, Lawson’s intervention was swift and decisive.

Under his direction and leadership for the first and only time in British history, the Navy staged a coup d’etat. In December 1659, with the full support of all his captains and their crews, the Vice-Admiral brought his formidable squadron of 22 warships from the Downs into the Thames and anchored it at Gravesend.

In mid-winter, Lawson had now the means to starve and freeze Londoners into submission. No vessel was allowed to enter or leave the capital. On Christmas Day, Fleetwood admitted defeat. The Rump Parliament was re-called and Lawson was given General Lambert’s quarters in Whitehall. As the historian of the Commonwealth navy wrote: this was “Lawson’s finest hour”.

Just as Lawson’s hold on the Channel’s warships had scuppered the rule of the generals, unknown to him yet, it had also made possible the restoration of the monarchy. In May 1660, James, Duke of York, crossed the Channel in Lawson’s flagship, the London. The Cavaliers in the newly-elected Parliament would have dismissed him from his post and robbed him of his pension, but King Charles and the Duke appreciated how much they owed to him. They granted him a knighthood, a pension of £500 a year, and a free gift of £1,000 from the sale of old navy stores.

Lawson’s role in the Restoration was as unintended as it was crucial. He was outwitted and outmanoeuvred by Monck and Mountagu whose republicanism was skin-deep and conditional.

Lawson’s volte-face was extraordinary, though not unique. A notorious republican, he had brought back the Stuarts; a zealous Baptist, who had tolerated Quakers, but not church tithes, he had helped to restore the Church of England and vicars like William Simpson, who he detested, to Scarborough’s St Mary’s. Not surprisingly, even his friends found it hard to defend him against charges of hypocrisy, sycophancy and cowardice. Samuel Pepys compared him to a spaniel dog; Robert Blackbone, an Admiralty man, probably voiced the opinion of many when he called Lawson “the greatest hypocrite in the world”. The best that can be said in Lawson’s defence is that he suffered from an acute case of political naivety and that he had accepted the restoration of the old regime only to save his country from military dictatorship or bankrupt anarchy.

Lawson’s redeeming characteristic was his sincere concern for the welfare of ordinary seamen which they repaid with genuine loyalty. When he first entered the state’s service he had been appalled by the poor quality, bad behaviour and cruel treatment of the lower decks. Unlike most captains and officers, he made it his duty to know every member of his ship’s crew personally. For instance, after one of his seamen, John Morris, was killed on board the Fairfax off Portland, he signed a certificate for the benefit of his dependants and below it added in his own, untutored hand: “The father of the above named is an Inpotent Aged man and in great want”.

(to be continued)