Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Monson, William (1569-1643)

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1329547Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 38 — Monson, William (1569-1643)1894John Knox Laughton

MONSON, Sir WILLIAM (1569–1643), admiral, was the third son of Sir John Monson of South Carlton in Lincolnshire, where his family had been settled for many generations. On 2 May 1581 he matriculated from Balliol College, Oxford, being registered as then fourteen (Foster, Alumni Oxon.) ; but he himself has recorded that in 1585, being then sixteen, he went off to sea without the knowledge of his mother or father, and entered on board a ship with letters of reprisal. After a long cruise, they fell in with a Biscay ship one September evening. A very severe fight followed. The English boarded the Spaniard ; but the sea got up and their ship was obliged to cast oif, leaving her men to their fate. The struggle went on all night ; and the next morning, most of the English and nearly all the Spaniards being killed or wounded, the ship was surrendered. She was the first Spanish prize, Monson says, that ever saw the English shore. The success confirmed him in his adventurous career, and, having been reconciled to his father, he was put in command of a private ship of war, in which he cruised as far as the Canaries. The voyage lasted longer than was expected ; their provisions ran short, and with great difficulty, in storm and fog, they made Dingle Bay in Ireland, just as they were reduced to their last biscuit.

In 1588 Monson was lieutenant of the Charles, a small queen's ship, one of the fleet against the Armada ; and in 1589 he commanded the Margaret, one of the ships with the Earl of Cumberland in his voyage to the Azores and the Canaries [see Clifford, George, third Earl of Cumberland]. The Margaret was sent home with some of the prizes, while Monson, moving into the Victory, remained with the earl. They were unable to water at the Canaries, and were reduced to very terrible straits on the homeward voyage. 'The extremity we endured,' says Monson, 'was more terrible than befell any ship in the eighteen years' war;' but when he adds 'for sixteen days together we never tasted drop of drink, either beer, wine, or water' (Naval Tracts, 461), it is quite certain that his memory was guilty of some exaggeration. Privation and suffering brought on a severe illness, and for the next year Monson remained on shore. In 1591 he commanded the Garland in Cumberland's expedition to the coast of Spain, and was left in charge of a Dutch ship with a Portuguese cargo. She was recaptured by the Spaniards, and Monson became a prisoner. For two years he was detained, part of the time on board the galleys at Cascaes or in the Tagus, and part of the time in the castle of Lisbon. Although not actually ill-used, the treatment of a prisoner was severe, the confinement was close, and the daily allowance for food was equivalent to threepence. One day he saw a 'sumptuous galeon,' named the St. Andrew, sailing up the river, and laid a wager of one to ten that if he lived he would be at the taking of her, which he actually was, at Cadiz, in 1596.

In 1593, Monson, having been released, joined Cumberland in the Golden Lion, a queen's ship. They captured a fleet of Spanish ships laden with powder, and Monson was left to examine half of them, while Cumberland took the rest out to sea. Towards night he released them, without taking any precautions ; they accordingly returned to attack Monson, who, having no adequate force with him, jumped into his boat on one side as they boarded on the other, receiving a hurt in the leg which he felt all the rest of his life. Cumberland afterwards fell sick; he longed for milk, and Monson, going on shore at Corvo, in the Azores, brought off a cow, and then, with the earl, returned to England. In 1594 Monson took his M.A. degree at Oxford, and in 1595 he married. He had previously engaged to go to sea with Cumberland, and very shortly after his marriage took command of the Allsides, 'a goodly ship of the merchants,' Cumberland himself being in the Malice Scourge. They sailed from Plymouth ; but when they had got some eight or nine leagues to sea, Cumberland went back, leaving the Malice Scourge in command of another captain, without holding any communication with Monson, which, he says, 'did so much disconcert me for the present, that I abandoned the company of his ship at sea, and betook myself to my own adventure. This bred an after quarrel betwixt my lord and me, and it was a long time before we were reconciled' (ib. p. 462). His solitary cruise had no success, and after being nearly lost in a violent storm, he arrived at Plymouth just in time to go out with Drake and look for some Spanish ships which had sacked Penzance. The Spaniards had, however, departed, with 'the poor spoil they found in the town, not worth their labour.' In the following year Monson commanded the Repulse in the expedition against Cadiz [see Devereux, Robert, second Earl of Essex; Howard, Charles, Earl of Nottingham]. He landed with Essex, and with him, in some sharp lighting, won his way to the marketplace. He had one or two narrow escapes, one shot smashing the hilt of his sword as it hung by his side, 'without any further hurt.' This, he says, was the second time his sword had preserved his life ; the first was in 1589, at the island of St. Mary's. For his conduct on this occasion he was knighted by Essex.

In the Islands' voyage, the next year, Monson commanded the Rainbow; and in 1599 commanded the Defiance in the Downs, under Lord Thomas Howard. During the two following years he was continuously in the Downs and Narrow Seas, in command of the Garland, Nonpareil, Swiftsure, Mary Rose, and Mer Honour; but nothing called for any active service. 'Never,' wrote Monson, 'was greater expectation of war with less performance.' Early in 1602 a squadron of nine ships was ordered to sea, under the command of Sir Richard Leveson [q. v.], to intercept the Spanish treasure fleet. Monson, as vice-admiral of the squadron, was left to wait for the arrival of the Dutch contingent, but on further orders from the queen, he sailed without it to join Leveson. The delay was fatal to the 'intended blow, for Leveson, having met the treasure fleet before he was joined by Monson, was unable to effect anything against them ; and the sole result of the cruise was the capture of eleven galleys and a richly laden carrack at Cezimbra, after a stubborn fight on 3 June, with, to Monson, the special gratification of finding among the prizes the galley on board which he had been a prisoner eleven years before. Leveson then returned to England, leaving Monson in the Nonpareil, to command on the coast of Portugal, and in daily expectation of being joined by the Dutch ships and other reinforcements. A succession of bad weather obliged him to bear for England ; but on intelligence that the Spaniards were meditating another attempt on Ireland, he was at once ordered back to keep watch off Corunna. There he learned that the fleet, which had been suspected of a design against Ireland, had gone to Lisbon. Thither Monson followed. But his squadron was scattered in a storm ; he had with him, besides his own ship, the Swiftsure, only two others, one of which was but a pinnace, when, on the night of 26 Sept., he fell in among the Spanish fleet, and on the morning of the 27th was seen and chased. The enemy were fast coming up with the pinnace, which sailed badly and was of no force, when Monson, 'resolving not to see a pinnace of her majesty's so lost if he could rescue her with the loss of his life,' shortened sail and waited for her; on which the leading Spaniards also shortened sail to wait for the rest of their ships. After this, Monson cruised for some time off Cape St. Vincent, and on 21 Oct. attempted to capture a galeon which took refuge under the guns of the castle. He was beaten off, and on 24 Nov. returned to England. It was the last squadron against the Spaniards in the time of Elizabeth, and Monson prided himself on having been engaged in the capture of the first Spanish prize that was taken to England, and on now being in command of the last fleet in the reign of Elizabeth.

Two other fleets were, indeed, ordered for the following spring, but the death of the queen changed the plans, and one fleet under Leveson and Monson was stationed to keep watch on the coast of France and Flanders, against any attempt to interfere with the succession. Monson at this time had his flag in the Mer Honour, while Leveson was ordered to hoist his on board the Repulse, a smaller ship. Monson's explanation of this is that the lords of the council feared Leveson's ambition, and though they would not take the extreme step of deposing him from the command, they appointed Monson as his second, in a larger ship, with the understanding that if any opposition was offered to the accession of James, Lord Thomas Howard, afterwards Earl of Suffolk, was to take command of the fleet on board the Mer Honour, and send Monson to the Repulse to supersede Leveson. The precaution, however, proved needless, and on the king's arrival in London the ships were ordered to Chatham.

In July 1604 Monson was appointed admiral of the narrow seas. He accepted the office with some misgiving, pointing out to Cecil (afterwards Earl of Salisbury) that he might be called on to prevent the Dutch and Spaniards from fighting in English waters ; after the long alliance with Holland, after the long war with Spain, the Dutch had come to consider it their right and in the natural course of things to attack the Spaniards wherever they met them. This forecast was soon verified. During the war the right of the flag had been waived in favour of the Dutch, and they were unwilling now again to recognise it ; they enforced the blockade of the coast of Flanders and seized any English vessels that attempted to break it ; their ships came into the Downs and made no secret of their intention to seize any Spaniard that might be there. At Monson's request a proclamation prohibited 'all nations from offering violence one to another, within the compass of a line drawn from headland to headland.' On 10 May 1605, when Monson anchored in the Downs, he found there six Dutch ships which had come in, with the evident intention of seizing a Dunkirker, then lying in the harbour of Sandwich. Monson made the Dutch captains acquainted with the proclamation ; and on their refusing to obey it, he angrily answered that if one shot was fired at the Dunkirker, he would sink them. In the end they permitted the ship to escape (ib. p. 213), Such incidents were constantly recurring, and obtained for Monson the cordial hatred of the Dutch.

An important part of his duty at this time was the carrying ambassadors or princely visitors backwards and forwards across the Channel or to Spain. These, with their retinue, numbering sometimes as many as three hundred persons, were on board perhaps a day, or it might be a month. During this time their maintenance was at the admiral's cost, amounting, he says, between 1604 and 1616 to not less than 1,500l., which was never repaid him. Another extremely important service which he was called on to perform was the suppression of the pirates, who had established themselves in the creeks, lochs, and firths of the west of Scotland, among the Hebrides, and still more on the west coast of Ireland. In 1614, after searching along the coast of Scotland and through the islands, Monson arrived in the end of June at Broad Haven, in co. Mayo, 'the well-head of all pirates.' Here he found that the most friendly relations existed between the pirates and the natives ; and when he led the latter to believe that he too was a pirate, he and his people were entertained with the utmost cordiality. The men, and still more the women, received them with open arms ; and in feasting, drinking, dancing, and love-making the days passed merrily, till Monson, having tracked out the whole organisation, suddenly seized all the principal persons of the neighbourhood, and for four-and-twenty hours kept them prisoners in the expectation of being hanged. He then released them with a caution ; one only, an Englishman, who had fraudulently obtained a pass from the sheriff, being sent out of the country. The Irish were, however, so frightened that a few days later they betrayed to Monson a large pirate vessel which incautiously ran into a neighbouring river. The pirates were brought prisoners to Broad Haven, and there the chief of them were hanged scoundrels ' who had tasted twice before of his majesty's gracious pardon.' The executions struck such terror into the community that 'the pirates ever after became strangers to that harbour of Broad Haven, and in a little time wholly abandoned Ireland' (ib. p. 221).

In June 1611 Monson arrested the unfortunate Lady Arabella Seymour as she was escaping to France (ib. p. 210). Monson believed that he incurred the hatred of many for his share in the business ; but he also believed that his being 'too forward in complaining, and wishing a reformation' of the navy had 'purchased him much envy,' and especially the ill-will of the Earl of Nottingham. That in later years Nottingham was no friend of his appears from his confining John, Monson's son, in the Gatehouse as 'a most dangerous papist' (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 20, 30 May 1623); but if his feelings towards Monson were all along as bitter as Monson loved to fancy, he would not have continued him for twelve years in the command of the narrow seas. In 1615 Monson's elder brother, Sir Thomas [q.v.], fell under suspicion of being mixed up with the murder of Overbury; Monson was involved in the same suspicion, and on 12 Jan. 1615-16 he was sent to the Tower (Hist. MSS. Comm. 12th Rep. i. 91). There was, however, no evidence against him, and in July he was released (Gardiner, ii. 346, 363, iii. 186). He was not, however, restored to his command, nor had he any employment at sea for nearly twenty years. He claims, indeed, to have been frequently consulted by the admiralty, and to have given his opinion freely on the several expeditions that were fitted out. It may, however, be doubted whether the very frank criticisms which he penned were communicated to any except a few trusted friends (Naval Tracts, pp. 223, 228, 244). The papers which we know to have been delivered are of a very different sort, such as a proposal for a lighthouse on the Lizard, or suggestions for the establishment of fishing stations in Orkney and Shetland, and of schools for the children of the islanders (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 4 Feb. 1624, November 1629).

Of the king's action in the matter of ship-money he approved. He was one of the few who could see the necessity of increasing the strength of the navy, who understood that the attitude of France and Holland was really dangerous; and for the constitutional question raised by Hampden he cared nothing. He was likewise eager to see a severe lesson given to the Dutch, whom he considered as personal enemies; and he distinctly approved of the policy which, in 1635, appointed him to be vice-admiral of the fleet, under the command of the Earl of Lindsey. The French and Dutch had formed a combined fleet off Portland, 'in the bragging pretence of questioning his majesty's prerogative on the narrow seas;' but on learning that the English fleet was at sea, they drew back to their own shores. Lindsey, however, remained out till October; during which time, says Monson, 'we made good our seas and shores, gave laws to our neighbour nations, and restored the ancient sovereignty of the narrow seas to our gracious king, as was ever due to his Majesty's progenitors' (Naval Tracts, p. 257).

This was Monson's last service. He retired to his seat at Kinnersley in Surrey, where during his remaining years he occupied himself in writing or arranging his 'Naval Tracts,' a work of greater interest and value for its pictures of the state of our own and other navies than for its historical narratives, which, written apparently from memory long years after the events recorded events, too, which he had known only by hearsay are not to be implicitly accepted. He died at Kinnersley in February 1642-3, and was buried at St. Martin's-in-the-Fields in London. He married in 1595 the daughter of one Goodwin, who was the widow of one Smith, and by her had a large family (Collins, vii. 241). One of his daughters, Jane, married Sir Francis, second son of Sir William Howard of Lingfield, and nephew of the great Earl of Nottingham (ib. p. 126). Of the sons, John, the younger, was the 'pestilent papist.' The elder, William, was put forward by Lord Suffolk in 1618 as a rival to Buckingham in the king's favour (Gardiner, iii. 186), though whether with his father's approval is doubtful.

[The principal authority for the Life of Monson is the Naval Tracts, which are to a large extent autobiographical. They have never been published separately; but form part of vol. iii. of Churchill's Collection of Voyages, first issued in 1732. The edition here referred to is the first. What appears to be the original manuscript is in the possession of Lord Leconfield at Petworth (Hist. MSS. Comm. 6th Rep. i. 305). An excerpt was published in 1682 under the title of 'A True and Exact Account of the Wars with Spain in the Reign of Queen Elizabeth.' In addition to these there are some notices of Monson in the Calendars of State Papers, Domestic, but not of much biographical importance. See also Gardiner's Hist. of England (index at end of vol. x.)]

J. K. L.