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Parliament’s seafaring hero

Admiral Sir John Lawson
Admiral Sir John Lawson

The Civil Wars of the 1640s between Royalist and Roundheads, and the religious and political issues they aroused, turned Scarborough’s John Lawson, previously a minor, merchant master, carrying coals out of Sunderland, into a naval officer and warship’s captain.

When hostilities between King Charles I and his Parliament began in the late summer of 1642, John Lawson was then a 25-year-old, recently-married, master mariner and part-owner of the collier Adventurer. But whereas nearly all of his sea-faring brothers in Scarborough would not take sides, openly and actively, Lawson immediately offered himself and his ship to Parliament’s service. His commitment was total and, at first, proved costly. When Parliament’s military governor of Scarborough town and castle, Sir Hugh Cholmley, abruptly changed over to the Crown, Lawson’s was one of only four families which abandoned their homes and livelihoods and chose “exile” in Parliament’s Hull.

From 1643, in recognition of his loyalty and seamanship, Parliament employed him as captain of the Covenant, an armed merchantman of 140 tons with 12 cannon and a crew of 42. Out of Hull, Covenant carried vital military cargoes up and down the East coast, and in 1645 blockaded the besieged Royalist garrison in Scarborough castle.

After Cholmely’s surrender in July 1645, Lawson brought his wife and two daughters back to their home in Scarborough. As rewards for his recent service, he was given a privileged place in the Common Hall’s First Twelve, Scarborough’s ruling elite, and made captain of the castle guard.

During the next few years, Lawson also became a substantial property-owner, of a house in West Sandgate and leases of Corporation land in the Garlands and in Butt Closes. Now he was qualified for the title of “gentleman”, at least in his own town.

His service to Parliament during the war had been extraordinary. He had played some unspecified part in pre-empting the plot of Sir John Hotham and his son to betray Hull to the King and their subsequent trial and execution for treason in 1645. Also, early in 1648, he had captured Captain Browne Bushell, Whitby’s notorious Royalist privateer, and handed him over to the Admiralty for imprisonment, trial, and ultimately execution in 1651.

However, towards the end of July 1648, for the second time in five years, he was compelled to bring his family out of Scarborough to another “exile” in Hull. Colonel Matthew Boynton had followed Cholmley’s successful “treachery” and suddenly turned his coat. No details have survived of Captain Lawson’s part in the second siege of Scarborough castle, but after Boynton’s capitulation in December he was again put in charge of the castle garrison and soldiers billeted in the town.

Yet whatever his military merits, Lawson’s forte was at sea, where he gave further examples of exceptional enterprise, skill and bravery. Early in 1650, he was commissioned captain of the Commonwealth’s warship, the Lion, a reward for his growing reputation and reliability. In May 1649, he had sailed right into the heavily-fortified Danish port of Gluckstadt to retrieve a loaded collier that had been stolen and that rightfully belonged to one of his Scarborough associates.

Lawson’s final break from military service in his home town did not come until, in 1651, he was made captain of the Fairfax, a first-class frigate carrying 36 guns in Admiral Penn’s Mediterranean squadron. During the next 14 months, the squadron failed to capture Prince Rupert, the only remaining Royalist at sea, but they took many French and Portuguese prizes.

When he returned home at the beginning of 1652, it was Lawson’s intention to retire from the navy. However, the imminence of war with the mighty Dutch battle-fleet convinced him otherwise. He could not find it in his conscience to desert his country in its time of perilous need. So the Dutch were now added to his lengthy list of “God’s enemies”.

Of the six major battles fought between the two fleets, Lawson had a decisive part in at least four of them. For his outstanding initiative and courage at Dover, he was promoted to Vice-Admiral of the Red Division. In a running, three-day battle off Portland, he gave further proof of his navigational skill and bold enterprise. When Admirals Blake and Dean were in danger of being surrounded and annihilated, Lawson rescued them and the day. By tacking around the smoke and mêlée and crashing into the rear of the Dutch warships he separated them from their merchantmen. The late arrival of Admiral Monck is usually given as the reason for an English victory, but that would be like saying that Blucher won at Waterloo. Lawson was the Wellington of Portland.

But the price had been high. Nearly half of Lawson’s crew were dead or badly wounded and the Fairfax was a wreck. Even its brass cannon had melted in the heat of firing. Lawson’s only explanation for his own survival was “God’s providence”. He was made rear-Admiral of the whole fleet in command of the Blue division and transferred to the George.

In the two-day battle off the Gabbard, Lawson’s eagerness for close, murderous combat was nearly fatal for his whole Division; yet if Monck had had his way there would have been no result at all. In the end no English ship was lost, though seven of the Blue Division were declared “lame and disabled”, and 19 Dutchmen were captured, sunk or blown up. The English were now masters of the Channel and the North Sea and the Dutch blockaded in their own harbours.

At the last engagement off the Dutch coast, Lawson accepted the necessity for order and discipline. For the first time, the English fought as a fleet, not in separate Divisions. They sailed and fired broadside in line ahead, passing through the disorganised Dutch four times. The did not stop for prisoners or prizes. They did not board or capture. The result was that all the Dutch losses in warships were sunk, blown up or burnt.

As tokens of favour and gratitude for the services against the Dutch at sea, the two senior admirals, Blake and Monck (Dean had been killed at the Gabbard), were each given gold chains worth £300 (£180,000 in today’s money) and Penn and Lawson, chains valued at £100.

At the end of 1653, as the war petered out, Lawson was again promoted to Vice-Admiral of the fleet, the fourth in seniority in Cromwell’s navy, Admiral of the White Division, and commander of the Channel squadron.

(to be continued)