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The Reluctant Kingmaker

Gill Blanchard

An edited extract from the first chapter of a biography of Vice-Admiral Sir John Lawson (1615-1665). Citations for documents quoted are available from the author.

On 13th December 1659, with the army controlling Parliament and rioting on the streets of London, Vice-Admiral John Lawson led 22 warships into the Thames threatening to blockade the city in defence of Parliament. ‘As becomes Englishmen’, he declared, ‘I am resolved with my life and fortune to pursue the restoration of our liberties’.1 Lawson was about to play a pivotal role in the death throes of the republic for which he had fought so hard since 1642.

Lawson had offered his services to the parliamentarian cause when civil war broke out in 1642. ‘Ever since’, he said, ‘the Lord has kept my heart upright to the honest interest of the nation, although I have been necessitated twice to escape for my freedom and danger of my life’.2

Portraits show him with a receding hairline and long, curling hair. Large round eyes look out with a steady gaze over a narrow and slightly crooked nose, and firm, but not over full lips. Brief flashes of his personality emerge from letters and diaries of contemporaries. ‘A man of probity’ thought parliamentarian Edmund Ludlow,3 whilst royalist Sir Philip Warwick described him as ‘most generous hearted and intelligent’.4 Renowned diarist Samuel Pepys generally thought well of Lawson despite the occasional acerbic remark such as his being ‘as officious poor man, as any spaniel can be’.5 Others considered him just a rough mannered, blunt speaking tarpaulin – a common sailor – who had risen above his station. These were mostly those who did not share his politics.6

Born in 1615, his home was at the lower end of Merchants’ Row in Scarborough, which ran alongside the Castle dykes. Despite his reputed ‘low parentage’7 Lawson was a literate and articulate ship owner and sea captain. His conversations with Edmund Ludlow during the crisis of 1660 reveal a trusting and optimistic nature in contrast to the steely resolve he displayed to the army leaders. He was the epitome of Cromwell’s ‘plain russet coated captain who knows what he fights for, and loves what he knows’.8

Winter 1659: high winds, heavy rain and flooding swept across England and Scotland. Harvests were ruined for the third year in a row. The country’s mood was desperate amidst fears of a return to the bloody conflicts of the 1640s and early 1650s. From on board his ship The James, Lawson wrote publicly to the Lord Mayor, aldermen and councillors of London, that he and his captains ‘could not in all conscience tolerate the breach between parliament and army that had come to the fore since October’. The cause which had cost them all ‘so much blood and treasure’ was facing ‘utter ruin’.9

Radical elements in the army had taken control of government. Driven by religious and political scruples Lawson was desperately trying to restore a commonwealth government in whose defence he had already been imprisoned and exiled. This was, he asserted, a contest fought in Christ’s own interest as well as of his people. If parliament could not be saved by friendly means he and his men would use the ‘utmost endeavour for the removal of that force’.10

Appealing fervently to the Lord Mayor and City Council to withstand the designs of King Charles I’s son – Charles Stuart – this deeply committed Puritan led his men into the Thames that grey December day on a point of principle. Parliament should never be subordinate. Not to the army. Not to any King. Nor to any Lord Protector.11

Lawson believed this could only be achieved by preserving the Rump Parliament which had come into existence eleven years before.12 The Rump derived its name from the small number of Members of Parliament left in 1648 after Pride’s Purge (after the MP who led it) forcefully removed those hostile to trying King Charles I for treason. Cromwell ushered in the commonwealth republic the following year. This is what Lawson was willing to fight and die for.

Lawson’s fierce devotion to parliamentarianism had seen him navigate his way up the ranks until he was rewarded with the Vice-Admiralty by Cromwell in 1653. Later that same year Cromwell decimated the Rump by instigating another coup. Denouncing those he believed to have failed in reforming parliament as whoremasters and drunkards, Cromwell copied the events of 1648 and had nearly half the Rump MPs removed by force and physically prevented from re-entering. Within months Parliament and the Commonwealth were reduced to bare bones and Oliver Cromwell had established himself as Lord Protector.

Lawson publicly supported the Levellers who agitated for a radical egalitarian society (at least for men). He was rumoured to be one of the religious subversives known as Anabaptists as well as associating with the Fifth Monarchist Movement – many of whom believed Christ would descend to earth in 1666. Lawson had become tainted in Cromwell’s eyes despite the many honours previously bestowed on him.13

There is no doubt where Lawson’s sympathies lay. For him the ‘just foundations of a godly government’14 could only be achieved through freedom of worship and the abolition of tithes – a tax which maintained Church of England clergymen.15 In very modern sounding terms Lawson also proposed making comfortable provision for disabled seamen and the widows and orphans of serving sailors, creating jobs for the able bodied poor and giving financial aid to those ‘too lame and impotent to work’.16

Here we catch a glimpse of what shaped Lawson. He spent a large portion of his life in a town whose fortunes – even its sights and smells – were dominated by the treacherous North Sea; learning his trade transporting coal from Sunderland. Perhaps it was personal experiences that led him to call for the abolition of the pressgangs that forced men into the army and navy. He was intimately concerned with the welfare and morals of his men. Almost unique amongst seventeenth-century naval officers in not having been a gentlemen soldier first, his manner certainly found favour with ordinary sailors.17

In April 1657, his links to schismatic republican groups resulted in Lawson’s imprisonment in the Tower. Upon release he returned to Scarborough with his wife Isabella and daughters. During their two-year exile he rented the Garlands fields on the edge of town and turned to farming.18

Oliver Cromwell died in September 1658. Although thousands mourned just as many others celebrated. One can only wonder if Lawson honoured this man who also fought for parliamentarianism, despite their differences. Or, did Lawson believe Cromwell to be as much as traitor as those who had turned to the royalists?19

Oliver Cromwell’s son Richard succeeded him and the fault lines between moderate and extremist republicans opened. Revolutionary ideas were abroad again. The army was owed months of back pay and was accused of giving guns and swords to Anabaptists and Quakers.

By May 1659, Republican army leaders had forced Richard Cromwell out and reinstalled the Rump Parliament. The new regime declared it would re-establish a commonwealth without a single ruler. They brought Lawson back from exile and reinstated him as Vice-Admiral with command of six frigates. John’s political regeneration had begun.20

This new parliament was no more popular than the one it replaced. Royalist plotters seized their opportunity, encouraged by Charles Stuart arguing that the dissolving of Richard Cromwell’s parliament was a just and proper reason for ‘all men to betake themselves to their arms’.21 His informers reported that ‘the common soldier’s discourse… is that they are worse under this Parliament than they were before’.22 By June plans were well underway for a royalist rising against the Rump, but the plot was uncovered in July. Suspected sympathisers were interrogated and people’s homes searched, provoking immense hostility to the government.23

On 12th October 1659, Lawson’s world turned upside down.24 He was at the naval base at Rye in Sussex, when, after months of conflict the Rump attempted to limit the army’s power. The next day, in an echo of the events of 1648 and 1653, the army in London under John Lambert’s command marched to Westminster, drove the MPs and the Speaker out, locked the doors and set guards to prevent them re-entering. They did so in the name of the republic.

A military dictatorship was now running the country. ‘Anger began to boil to an exceeding great height’.25 ‘What governance we shall have next is not yet known’,26 wrote the royalist spy Mr. Samborne. By the first week of December the country was at ‘the mercy and impulse of a giddy, hot-headed, bloody multitude’.27 Soldiers patrolled the streets of London.

Then, on 5th December, came a surge of violence as city apprentices’ petitioned for the removal of the army. Troops and the young protestors from every trade and city guild clashed near Whitehall. It is likely that Samuel Lawson, the son of John’s cousin, and apprentice grocer to his father in Lyme Street28 was one of those hurling stones, tiles and turnips. The soldiers shot them down, killing several and wounding over thirty. In the following days soldiers pulled down city gates and carried grenadoes – an explosive shell – into St. Paul’s Cathedral and elsewhere. Butchers pretending to play football attacked the guard inside Whitehall. The prisons filled.29

This was John Lawson’s moment. Declaring himself for the Rump and against the army he and his fleet arrived at Gravesend at the mouth of the Thames on 13th December. Londoners boarded up their shops and homes or fled to the shires for safety. ‘We entreat you, as servants of the Commonwealth’, Lawson wrote to city officials the same day. ‘Take off the force that is now put upon Parliament… My men and I will not acquiesce to the army ruling government. The Rump must be allowed to sit again’.30

350,000 Londoners were dependent on the river for trade and transport. Terrified of Lawson’s power to paralyse the city, Lawson’s friend Sir Henry Vane was dispatched downriver to ‘stroke’ him.31 A satirical account of their meeting has Vane bemoaning Lawson’s ingratitude at leaving them ‘in the suds.’32 Rejecting Vane’s overtures, Lawson’s duty was, he said, to oppose all ‘pernicious designs’ to convert ‘the supreme power of the nation into the hands of the army’.33

This then was the crux. All these men had fought on the same side. Together they had brought into being the Rump Parliament that Lawson swore to protect. Now his former companions had swept it away. Both sides believed they were protecting the Commonwealth. The only thing they agreed on was no monarchy. Lawson was forceful. If the Rump was not restored and the army brought back under control his forces would bring ‘them to account for all their horrid perjuries, breach of trust, blasting, and abusing of the nation’.34 He was declaring for the Commonwealth republic as created in 1649.

Christmas Eve 1659: London’s Common Council had appealed to General Monck, Commander-in-Chief of the Army in Scotland, to support Parliament. This appeal and Lawson’s letters and declaration in defence of the Rump had been printed onto broadsheets and widely circulated.35 Now, the ordinary soldiers of the London regiments turned against their commanders and protested outside Whitehall. Army rule collapsed and on Boxing Day the Rump was restored. The Speaker and MPs walked together to parliament to applause from the soldiers who had just days before kept them from sitting.36

Samuel Pepys began his journal on 1st January 1660, noting how ‘Lawson lies still in the River’37 and the army officers were forced to yield.38 Snow fell hard and the city froze as Monck and his army made their way south.39 After being publicly thanked in Whitehall for his fidelity and good service, Lawson was granted a pension of £500 a year.40

Within three months of his bold stand to defend the Commonwealth Lawson had forsaken it and become a reluctant kingmaker.


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