John Lawson, c.1615-65

Republican naval officer who, despite his distinguished service record, was always under suspicion for his political views.

Portrait of John LawsonThe son of a merchant from Scarborough, Yorkshire, John Lawson was a ship's captain when the First Civil War broke out in 1642. He offered his services to Parliament and was given command of the Covenant, an armed merchantman. In March 1643, Scarborough's governor, Sir Hugh Cholmley, defected to the Royalists. Lawson removed his wife and daughter to the beleaguered Parliamentarian port of Hull. During the siege of Hull, Lawson and the Covenant played an important role in keeping Hull supplied with food and ammunition and in blockading the Royalists in Scarborough. After Cholmley surrendered in July 1645, Lawson and his family returned to Scarborough. During the next few years, he emerged as a leading citizen of the town.

In 1650, Lawson was appointed commander of the 40-gun Centurion in the Commonwealth navy. After supporting Cromwell's campaign in Scotland, he was sent to the Azores to join Vice-Admiral William Penn in his pursuit of Prince Rupert in the Mediterranean. Although Rupert evaded them, Penn and Lawson had captured 36 French and Portuguese prizes by the time they returned to England in March 1652.

During the First Anglo-Dutch War (1652-4), Lawson commanded the Fairfax. He was promoted to vice-admiral of the red squadron in the reorganisation of the Commonwealth navy that followed the English defeat at Dungeness in November 1652. At the battle of Portland in February 1653, Lawson's skilful manoeuvring to assist Blake was a major factor in the English victory. Promoted to rear-admiral of the fleet, Lawson commanded the George at the battle of the Gabbard and bore the brunt of the fighting on the first day of the battle. He also fought at Scheveningen, the final battle of the war, after which he was promoted to vice-admiral and given command of the North Sea fleet blockading the Dutch coast. Like his fellow admirals Blake, Monck and Penn, Lawson was awarded a gold chain and medal for his services in the Dutch war.

Lawson was a radical in politics and religion. He supported the election of the Leveller John Wildman as MP for Scarborough in the First Protectorate Parliament and associated with army officers critical of the Protectorate régime. In October 1654, he endorsed (and probably authored) a naval petition calling for the abandonment of impressment, provision for widows and the settlement of other grievances. Regarded with suspicion by Cromwell, Lawson was too popular with officers and crews to be dismissed. The inexperienced but trustworthy Edward Montagu was appointed general-at-sea over him in January 1656. Lawson resigned his commission the following month amid rumours of his involvement in conspiracies with disaffected Levellers and Fifth Monarchists. Eventually, Cromwell lost patience with him and ordered his arrest. After a brief imprisonment in the Tower, Lawson was banished to his home in Scarborough.

After the collapse of the Protectorate in 1659, the restored Rump Parliament reinstated Lawson as vice-admiral and appointed him commander of the Channel fleet. He supported Parliament against the military junta headed by Fleetwood and Lambert that seized power in October 1659. Lawson sailed the fleet to Gravesend and threatened to blockade London, which forced Fleetwood to step down in December 1659 and restore the Rump Parliament a second time. The intervention of Lawson and the Channel fleet was the decisive factor in bringing down the junta, and Parliament rewarded him with a grant of land.

In January 1660, Lawson was appointed to the Council of State but he was outmanoeuvred by Monck and Montagu, who secured control of the navy and engineered the Restoration of the monarchy in May 1660. Lawson reluctantly accepted the Restoration, which in turn assured the loyalty of the Channel fleet. Recognising Lawson's popularity and influence in the navy, King Charles II rewarded him with money and a knighthood.

From 1661-4, Lawson commanded a squadron in the Mediterranean securing English commerce and shipping against the corsair states of Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli. He returned to England on the outbreak of the Second Anglo-Dutch War and was appointed vice-admiral to the Duke of York. Lawson was wounded at the battle of Lowestoft (3 June 1665) and died of his wounds three weeks later.


Bernard Capp, Cromwell's Navy, the Fleet and the English Revolution (Oxford 1989)

Jack Binns, Sir John Lawson, Oxford DNB, 2004