Med­dling in state af­fairs

Law­son’s dis­trust of mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ships in­ad­ver­tently led him to help re­store the monar­chy


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)

Pris­oner His pa­tience ex­hausted, Cromwell agreed to im­prison Law­son in the Tower

1660 James, Duke of York crossed the Chan­nel in Law­son’s flag­ship, the Lon­don

Robert Blake who com­manded Cromwell’s navy in war against Spain in 1654.

Ed­ward Moun­tagu who was pro­moted above John Law­son.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.