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War Memorials


By Geoff Ledden


John Hawkins was born in 1532 between his father’s voyages to Brazil and while he was Mayor of Plymouth. The family lived in Kinterbury Street, in the south west quarter of Plymouth, much of which has since been destroyed. Plymouth was a rough place at the time with slums, mobs and riots and by the time he was 20, John had killed a barber named White. He was adjudged by the coroner to be guiltless having struck the man ‘because he could not avoid him’. His father got the verdict translated into a royal pardon.

He was 21 when his father died and went into partnership with his elder brother William in the shipping business. Some years later they wound up the firm and John received £10,000 as his share, making him a wealthy man. The brothers got on very well and each set up a business and invested in the other’s ventures. He made several voyages to the Canary Islands before 1560 and became a common councillor in Plymouth during this period. In 1554-5 King Philip of Spain was negotiating marriage to Queen Mary and some of his emissaries travelled through Plymouth. It seems that John did the King some special favour at this time and there is a Spanish record that when Philip landed in England he conferred a knighthood on him.


Sir John Hawkins
In 1559, John married Katherine Gonson, daughter of Benjamin Gonson, the Treasurer of the Navy, and moved to London, although he retained his love of Plymouth and was a regular visitor. He maintained a house in the City of London for the rest of his life. Their only child Richard was born the following year.
Sir John Hawkins


By 1562, John had been employed by a syndicate to lead an expedition of 4 or 5 ships to the west coast of Africa to enter the slave trade. Portugal and Spain were already involved in slaving, which was regarded as a legitimate business in those days. They captured six Portuguese ships, 35,000 ducats, ivory and other commodities, and sailed to the island of Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic), the seat of government for the Spanish Main, where they sold slaves to the planters.

Following the success of this voyage another syndicate, including three of Queen Elizabeth’s Privy Councillors, invested in a second expedition. The Queen joined the undertaking by chartering to it one of the large ships of her Navy. She summoned Hawkins to a personal interview and authorised him to describe his squadron as her ships. She commanded him to sail not only under the Cross of St. George, but also under her royal standard to demonstrate to the Spaniards that the Queen of England’s Navy was in their waters. So John became a naval commander as well as merchant adventurer when the expedition set sail in 1564.

A third voyage took place in 1567 with the same royal commands, royal standards and royal ships, when one of the officers was a chap called Francis Drake. In his Will, Hawkins refers to Drake as his cousin, but this could refer to a cousin through marriage as well as a blood cousin. The term was also used to refer to a nephew, although this is almost certainly not the case here. Drake commanded the Judith, one of the caravels in the squadron. The expedition left Cartagena, in what is now Colombia, to sail home – a voyage of two months if the weather was favourable. But it was not and three weeks later the fleet was only approaching the western end of Cuba.


The Jesus of Lubeck
The Jesus of Lubeck

This was already an old ship when it was purchased from the Hanseatic League for use in the Queen's Navy in 1544


Foul weather now took over and one of the Queen’s ships, the ancient Jesus of Lubeck, was badly battered. Had it not been the Queen’s ship, Hawkins might have abandoned it as it had become a liability. Instead, he made for San Juan de Ulua, Mexico, where they got into a firefight with the Spanish fleet after the Spanish admiral had attempted to have Hawkins murdered. The Spaniards sank one ship, captured another and shot down the mainmast of a third, causing her captain to set fire to her and bring his men aboard the Jesus. Only the Judith under Drake managed to get clear to join the Minion, which Hawkins had previously moved to safer waters. The Jesus was heavily laden with valuables acquired during the voyage and so badly damaged that she was immobile.

Under cover of darkness, the Minion was manoeuvred alongside the Jesus and as much as possible of the valuables transferred. The exercise was interrupted by the Spaniards who let loose a large fireship. The English crew panicked and set the Minion loose, whereupon there was a rush to join her. Hawkins was one of the last to cross. The wind was unfavourable and the Minion did not get far. She anchored with the Judith somewhere in the vicinity. Next morning, for whatever reason, the Judith had gone, causing Hawkins to write the next year ‘With the Minion only and the Judith (a small bark of 50 tons) we escaped, which bark the same night forsook us in our great misery.’ Despite this comment, Hawkins and Drake remained on good terms, although they did not sail together again until 1588….the Armada. In his Will dated 3 March 1594, Hawkins leaves ‘To my very good Cousin Sir Francis Drake Knt. my best jewell which is a Cross of “Emorodes”.’

The Minion sailed with two hundred men and almost nothing to feed them. They stewed the ox hides in the cargo, ate the cats, rats and parrots, and eventually made landfall north of the Spanish settlement. They did not know the coast and although fresh water was available, there was little food to be had. About 100 of the men decided to take their chances on the mainland and were each given six bales of cloth with which to barter, and money if they asked for it. Indians killed some; others simply disappeared; three were picked up by a French ship and back in England by the end of 1569; the rest surrendered to the Spaniards.

Hawkins set sail with the remaining 100 men on 16 October and on 31st December anchored in Ponte Vedra, near Vigo, in Spain and afterwards in Vigo itself. Some of the men had died on the passage and another 45 perished at Vigo, unable to cope with the sudden plentiful supply of fresh meat. Hawkins got 12 men from another English ship and set sail from Vigo on 20 January 1569, the day Drake entered Plymouth in the Judith. The Minion reached Mounts Bay on 25 January with, according to the Spanish Ambassador, only 15 men. He appears to have brought home most of the treasure, but otherwise the voyage was a disaster and a setback for John Hawkins in terms of being the leading seafarer of the era.


However, he became MP for Plymouth in 1571-2. In 1573 he was mistaken in the Strand in London for another man and stabbed so severely that his life was in doubt for some days. The Queen sent her surgeons and chaplain to minister to him.

He continued to organise and back expeditions to the West Indies and elsewhere in the following years, whilst Drake was commanding squadrons at the Queen’s behest and taking over Hawkins’ position as England’s leading seafarer. In 1580, Drake sailed home to Plymouth in the Golden Hind with enormous booty, having opened up future possibilities by his visit to the Moluccas and passage through the Far East and Indian Ocean.

The Hawkins Coat of Arms
Sir John Hawkins' Coat of Arms


Meanwhile John Hawkins had been appointed Treasurer of the Navy, the senior position on the Navy Board, towards the end of 1577. He immediately set about reviewing the way in which royal ships were built and reported on corruption and the poor state of the navy. The Queen was being ripped off and the navy comprised a haphazard mixture of ships, some of which were neglected and decayed. He struck a Bargain with the authorities and set about sorting out the problems, making Deptford, Chatham, the Navy’s principal dockyard. He also strengthened the defences of the Medway and Dover. He had to struggle against opposition from the other members of the Navy Board who were less than pleased that he had exposed their complacency and corruption and they, in turn, spread rumours that he was corrupt. Hawkins had been appointed by William Cecil, Lord Burghley, the most powerful of Elizabeth’s Privy Councillors. She called him ‘my spirit’ and fed him personally when he was dying. Hawkins was close to Burghley, who had enemies of his own. In 1583 the Privy Council appointed a commission to inquire into the state of the Navy. The principal commissioners were Burghley, Walsingham, the Lord Admiral (Earl of Lincoln), the Lord Chamberlain (Lord Hunsdon) and the Chancellor of the Exchequer (Sir Walter Mildmay). They appointed sub-commissioners from the principal sea captains of the time including Sir Francis Drake, Martin Frobisher and Walter Raleigh.

His enemies continued to try to undermine him, but in 1585 he struck the Second Bargain taking on sole responsibility for the entire maintenance of the Navy at a fixed cost. This is particularly significant given that the Armada took place three years later. He upgraded the force and, in what might have been his greatest achievement, changed the way in which the ships were manned. Hitherto they had been grossly overcrowded, causing starvation and a high death rate. He increased the pay of the officers and men by one-third and cut their numbers substantially so that their quality was greatly improved. Moreover, he improved the food supplies stocking the ships with apples and pears, live sheep and pigs, so that they were able to stay at sea much longer and the crews were healthier. His enemies on the Board backed off and they were reconciled, although others who had suffered from Hawkins’ anti-corruption measures continued to snipe at him. War with Spain was expected and Hawkins put the Navy into a good state of readiness. 

In 1586 the Queen gave him command of a squadron of 4 ships with instructions to ply up and down the Channel and intercept any invaders. The following year Drake attacked and destroyed part of the Armada, which was being prepared in Spanish ports and caused the remainder to waste much time in unnecessary manoeuvres.


English ships prepare to meet the Spanish Fleet
English ships prepare to meet the Spanish fleet


In 1588 the Lord Admiral, Lord Charles Howard of Effingham, made it clear that he would take charge if the whole Navy were mobilised against the Spanish fleet, much to the chagrin of Drake who had charge of the Western Squadron at Plymouth. Howard was not a seafarer, but was the fourth member of his family to be Lord Admiral in Tudor times, so he was not wholly ignorant of naval affairs. He esteemed Hawkins and his work in preparing the fleet, and kept him in London and Deptford. The government sent Howard to Plymouth with the main part of the fleet; Drake was made his Vice Admiral, and Hawkins third in command as Rear Admiral. Hawkins, too, went to Plymouth in June and took command of the Victory, one of the old ships he had rebuilt as a modern galleon. Howard sailed in the Ark Royal, Drake in the Revenge – a beautiful, modern ship acquired from Sir Walter Raleigh – and Frobisher in the Triumph. The first encounter with the Armada took place off the Eddystone lighthouse on 21 July when Hawkins was hotly engaged and took two of the Spanish great ships. Two days later there was a long, sharp fight off Portland Bill when both sides used up a great deal of ammunition, but no ships were lost. Howard then reorganised his fleet into four squadrons commanded by himself, Drake, Hawkins and Frobisher.

On Friday, 26 July with the fleets drifting in calm weather, Howard called his officers on board the flagship and conferred six knighthoods, his right as Lord Admiral on active service. Hawkins was the senior recipient and must have been immensely proud to receive the accolade on the flagship’s deck in sight of the great Armada, but he said not a word, even to his old friend and supporter, Burghley. Three days later there was a long fight off Calais and Gravelines that proved a great victory for the English. The Armada, low on food and water, was blown towards Scotland by a gale and chased up the east coast of England. The English turned back to restock and land the sick whilst the Spaniards sailed into the northern sea where they lost more than half their ships. Howard was in the Downs with part of the fleet and Hawkins at Harwich with the remainder. As Treasurer, Hawkins was left with the task of paying the men off and was rewarded with a hefty reprimand from Burghley, who was careful with the Queen’s money and thought him over-generous.

Sir John was given a year’s leave in 1589 from his duties as Treasurer in order to sort out the muddled accounts of the Armada, However, he was also appointed Comptroller of the Navy so now held two offices on the Navy Board. This was Burghley’s way of demonstrating to Queen Elizabeth his esteem of Hawkins who no longer faced the sniping he had had to endure before the famous victory. He was also Port Admiral of Plymouth.

 Lady Katherine died in July 1591 when she and John had been married for 32 years. He could not live alone and married Margaret Vaughan, daughter of a Herefordshire gentleman and bedchamber woman to Queen Elizabeth. Sir John felt tired and tried several times to be relieved of his naval responsibilities, but the Queen and Burghley would not let him go.

On 9 June 1595 reports were received from Lisbon that John’s son, Richard, had been captured in the South Seas with the great treasure he had taken on an expedition that he commanded. His father was already planning an expedition with Drake to capture Panama. The Queen was providing ships. Hawkins now saw this as a way of obtaining the wherewithal to secure his son’s release. Hawkins and Drake sailed from Plymouth on 28 August 1595 with the changed objective of capturing two million ducats in San Juan de Puerto Rico. They had equal authority and sailed on different ships, a mistake as they were different characters with different ideas and unable to communicate on a daily basis. There were misunderstandings and arguments when they did meet, especially when it transpired that Drake had too many men on board (despite a previous agreement) and was short of provisions. They stopped at Grand Canary, against Hawkins’ judgement, to take on supplies, but some of the men were captured and interrogated by the Spanish governor, who immediately despatched a fast caravel to warn Puerto Rico. The fleet sailed without its supplies and most of it met up in Guadeloupe on 28-29 October after one of the barks had been captured by five Spanish gallizabras (called ‘treasure frigates’ by the English). Drake wanted to hotfoot it after the Spaniards, whereas Hawkins wanted to regroup and get the fleet up to scratch. On 31 October Hawkins fell ill and two days later could not leave his bed. Drake led the fleet to Puerto Rico where it was anchoring at three in the afternoon of 12 November 1595, when Admiral Sir John Hawkins died.

The attack on Puerto Rico was repulsed and Drake reverted to the original plan of capturing Panama. He sailed to Nombre de Dios, landed the soldiers and watched them march for Panama under the command of Sir Thomas Baskerville. Four days later the survivors were back, defeated by a well-posted Spanish force. Drake then died of dysentery and was buried at sea. Baskerville brought the sad expedition home.




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