1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Monson, Sir William

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MONSON, SIR WILLIAM (c. 1569–1643), British admiral, was the third son of Sir John Monson of South Carlton in Lincolnshire, where the family was of old standing. He matriculated at Balliol College, Oxford, in 1581, but ran away to sea in 1585, being then according to his own account sixteen. His first services were in a privateer in an action with a Spanish ship in the Bay of Biscay, of which he gives a somewhat Munchausen-like account in his Naval Tracts. In the Armada year he served as lieutenant of the “Charles,” a small ship of the queen’s. There being at that time no regular naval service, Monson is next found serving with the adventurous George Clifford, 3rd earl of Cumberland (1558–1605), whom he followed in his voyages of 1589, 1591 and 1593. During the second of these ventures Monson had the ill-luck to be taken prisoner by the Spaniards in a recaptured prize, and was for a time detained at Lisbon in captivity. His cruises must have brought him some profit, for in 1595 he was able to marry, and he thought it worth while to take his M.A. degree. The earl offended him by showing favour to another follower, and Monson turned elsewhere. In the expedition to Cadiz in 1596, he commanded the “Repulse” (50). From this time till the conclusion of the war with Spain he was in constant employment. In 1602 he commanded the last squadron fitted out in the reign of Queen Elizabeth. In 1604 he was appointed admiral of the Narrow Seas, the equivalent of the Channel squadron of modern times. In 1614 he was sent to the coasts of Scotland and Ireland to repress the pirates who then swarmed on the coast. Monson claimed to have extirpated these pests, but it is certain that they were numerous a generation later. After 1614 he saw no further active service till 1635, when he went to sea as vice-admiral of the fleet fitted out by king Charles I. with the first ship-money. He spent the last years of his life in writing his Tracts, and died in February 1643.

His claim to be remembered is not based on his services as a naval officer, though they were undoubtedly honourable, but on his Tracts. These treatises consist in part of historical narratives, and in part of argumentative proposals for the reform of abuses, or the development of the naval resources of the country. They form by far the best account by a contemporary of the naval life and transactions of the reign of Queen Elizabeth and the beginning of the reign of King James. Monson takes care to do himself full justice, but he is not unfair to his contemporaries. His style is thoroughly modern, and has hardly a trace of the poetry of the Elizabethans. He was the first naval officer in the modern sense of the word, a gentleman by birth and education who was trained to the sea, and not simply a soldier put in to fight, with a sailing-master to handle the ship for him, or a tarpaulin who was a sailor only.

Monson’s elder brother, Sir Thomas Monson (1564–1641), was one of James I.’s favourites, and was made a baronet in 1611. He held a position of trust at the Tower of London, a circumstance which led to his arrest as one of the participators in the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury. He was, however, soon released and he died in May 1641. His eldest son was Sir John Monson, Bart. (1600–1683), a member of parliament under Charles I., and another son was Sir William Monson (c. 1607–1678), who was created an Irish peer as Viscount Monson of Castlemaine in 1628. Having been a member of the court which tried Charles I. the viscount was deprived of his honours and was sentenced to imprisonment for life in 1661. Sir John Monson’s descendant, another Sir John Monson, Bart. (1693–1748), was created Baron Monson in 1728. His youngest son was George Monson (1730–1776), who served with the English troops in India from 1758 to 1763. The baron’s eldest son was John, the 2nd baron (1727–1774), whose son William Monson (1760–1807) served in the Mahratta War under General Lake. William’s only son William John (1796–1862) became 6th Baron Monson in succession to his cousin Frederick John, the 5th baron, in October 1841. His son William John, the 7th baron (1829–1898), was created Viscount Oxenbridge in 1886. When he died without sons in 1898 the viscount became extinct, but the barony descended to his brother Debonnaire John (1830–1900), whose son Augustus Debonnaire John (b. 1868) became 9th Baron Monson in 1900. Another of Viscount Oxenbridge’s brothers was Sir Edmund John Monson, Bart. (b. 1834), who, after filling many other diplomatic appointments, was British ambassador in Paris from 1896 to 1904.

The one authority for the life of Sir William Monson is his own Tracts, but a very good account of him is included by Southey in his Lives of the Admirals, vol. v. The Tracts were first printed in the third volume of Churchill’s Voyages, but they have been edited for the Navy Record Society by Mr Oppenheim.