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Devon County

Devonshire Rgt.

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War Memorials


By Geoff Ledden


According to my parents, there was a story in the family that we would be rich if we could find the treasure hidden by our ancestors.  This was a reference to the famed seafaring Hawkins family of Plymouth. The link to them has not yet been proven, but the story of the Hawkins family is so fascinating that I shall go back as far as possible.

Writing ‘Plymouth Armada Heroes’ in 1888 to mark the tercentenary of the Armada, Mary Hawkins states that the origin of the family was Hawking in the Hundred of Folkestone. Osbert de Hawking lived in the reign of Henry II (1154-89) and his descendant Andrew Hawkins married an heiress, Joan de Nash, in the reign of Edward III (1327-77). Through her the Hawkins family came into possession of Nash Court, near Faversham in Kent.

Mary considers that the Hawkins of Devon are probably a branch of the Kent family, but this assertion is disputed by other authorities including Lewis and Williamson. John Hawkins held lands in Plymouth before 1480 and passed them on to his heirs at his death in, or before 1500.



John lived at Tavistock and married Joan, the daughter and heiress of William Amadas, Esquire, of Launceston, who was Sergeant-at-Arms to Henry VIII. William married Margaret Hawkins, but it is not known how she was related to John. It seems possible that this marriage led to the introduction of the Hawkins family to the court of Henry VIII.

John would have been born about 1475. He and Joan had three children: William, Henry and Agnes.


CAPTAIN WILLIAM HAWKINS (the first of this name):

William was probably born about 1495. He became a merchant of Plymouth and the customs ledgers of the last years of Henry VIII show him exporting cloth and tin to Europe and importing wines from Bordeaux, Portugal and Spain, olive oil, sugar, salt and pepper, as well as ‘Newland fish’ and other commodities. He was responsible for establishing English trade with the South Seas. This was clearly profitable and he became Lord of the Manor of Sutton Valletort. His trading activities led him into politics and he was appointed Receiver, or Treasurer to the Corporation of Plymouth in 1524-5, as well as Collector of the subsidy for the county of Devon. William was already a person of some importance before he undertook three famous voyages to Brazil. The following is an extract from ‘The Tudor Venturers’ by Richard Hakluyt, a contemporary of Sir Francis Drake and William Shakespeare:



The Portuguese discovered Brazil in 1500, the only part of South America not claimed by the Spaniards; they established a few settlements along the coast and claimed a monopoly of trade, here and also on the Guinea coast, which William Hawkins visited en route. There was a valuable trade in brazil wood, which was used in dyeing and which gave its name to the country. Hawkins was among the interlopers who disputed the monopoly, but if he had to fight the Portuguese his son John Hawkins was too cautious to say so, or Hakluyt was too cautious to record it.

A brief relation of two sundry voyages made by the Worshipful Master William Hawkins of Plymouth, father to Sir John Hawkins, Knight, late treasurer of Her Majesty's Navy, in the years 1530 and 1532.


"Old Master William Hawkins of Plymouth, a man for his wisdom, valour, experience and skill in sea causes much esteemed, and beloved of King Henry VIII, and being one of the principal sea captains in the West parts of England in his time, not contented with the short voyages commonly then made only to the known coasts of Europe, armed out a tall and goodly ship of his own of the burden of 250 tons, called the Paul of Plymouth, wherewith he made three long and famous voyages unto the coast of Brazil, a thing in those days very rare, especially to our nation. In the course of which voyages he touched at the River of Sestos upon the coast of Guinea, where he trafficked with the negros and took of them elephants' teeth and other commodities which the place yieldeth. And so arriving on the coast of Brazil, he used there such discretion and behaved himself so wisely with those savage people that he grew into great familiarity and friendship with them. Insomuch that in his second voyage one of the savage kings of the country of Brazil was contented to take ship with him, and to be transported hither into England: whereunto Master Hawkins agreed, leaving behind in the country as a pledge for his safety and return again one Martin Cockeram of Plymouth. This Brazilian King, being arrived, was brought up to London and presented to King Henry VIII, lying as then at Whitehall: at the sight of whom the King and all the nobility did not a little marvel, and not without cause; for in his cheeks were holes made according to their savage manner, and therein small bones were planted standing an inch out from the said holes, which in his own country was reputed for a great bravery. He had also another hole in his nether lip wherein was set a precious stone about the bigness of a pea. All his apparel, behaviour and gesture were very strange to the beholders.

Having remained here the space almost of a whole year, and the King with his sight fully satisfied, Master Hawkins, according to his promise and appointment, purposed to convey him again into his country: but it fell out in the way that by change of air and alteration of diet the said savage King died at sea, which was feared would turn to the loss of the life of Martin Cockeram, his pledge. Nevertheless the savages, being fully persuaded of the honest dealing of our men with their Prince, restored again the said pledge without any harm to him or any man of the company: which pledge of theirs they brought home again into England, with their ship freighted and furnished with the commodities of the country. Which Martin Cockeram, by the witness of Sir John Hawkins, being an officer in the town of Plymouth, was living within these few years."


Sir John Hawkins

John Hawkins,son of William

later Sir John Hawkins

1532 - 1595

William married Joan Trelawny of the famed Cornish family and they had two children: William, born about 1519 and John, 1532.

He became Mayor of Plymouth in 1532. In 1544 he was Deputy Mayor and England was at war with France when, with others, he received a commission from Henry VIII to annoy the King’s enemies with 4, 6 or 8 barks sailing at their own cost. This commission marks the entry of the Hawkins family into the business of privateering. The privateers, or men-of-war as they were known at the time, inflicted great damage on French commerce at great profit to themselves. One of William’s ships took a Spanish vessel, whose cargo he asserted was French, falsely represented as Spanish. A French invasion seemed imminent and it was uncertain whether Spain would back France. It was therefore expedient to keep the Spanish Emperor happy and Hawkins was imprisoned until he should have made restitution to the owner of the captured ship. In fact it transpired that the owner was a Spaniard who, some years earlier, had become a naturalized Frenchman so William was in the right. In any event it was not discreditable for a public figure to go to prison in the 16th century and it did not lower him in the estimation of those who sent him there.


The war ended in 1546 and King Henry died the following February. In 1549, William improved the fortifications of Plymouth and the castle held out for the Government against the rebels of the Prayer Book Rebellion (Cranmer’s new prayer book). Mary Tudor became Queen in 1553 when Hawkins was again Member of Parliament for Plymouth. It was his last public service and he died in 1553 or 1554.   It is not known whether he died at home, or in London.
Sir Richard Hawkins

Sir Richard Hawkins

Grandson of William Hawkins and son of John (above)


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