Norris, John (1660?-1749) (DNB00)

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NORRIS, Sir JOHN (1660?–1749), admiral of the fleet, was apparently the third son of Thomas Norris of Speke, Lancashire, and his wife, Katherine, daughter of Sir Henry Garraway [q. v.] His arms were those of the Speke family. His brother, Sir William Norris (1657?–1702), is separately noticed. John was probably born about 1660 (Baines, County of Lancaster, iii. 754; Le Neve, Knights, p. 491). His first promotion is said by Charnock to have been slow; but whatever his early service, which cannot now be traced, he was in August 1689 lieutenant of the Edgar, with Captain Sir Clowdisley Shovell [q. v.] Early in 1690 he followed Shovell to the Monck, which was employed on the coast of Ireland, and did not join the fleet till towards the end of the year. It was possibly for service under the immediate eye of the king, but certainly not ‘for very meritorious behaviour at the battle of Beachy Head,’ that on 8 July 1690 Norris was promoted to the command of the Pelican fireship. In December 1691 he was moved to the Spy fireship, in which he was present at the battle of Barfleur and the subsequent operations in the Bay of La Hogue [see Russell, Edward, Earl of Orford], though without any active share in them. On 13 Jan. 1692–3 he was posted to the Sheerness frigate, attached to the squadron under Rooke, and present with it in the disastrous loss of the convoy off Lagos in June 1693 [see Rooke, Sir George]. Norris's activity in collecting the scattered remains of the convoy was rewarded in September with advancement to the command of the Royal Oak. After a couple of months he was appointed to the Sussex, and then to the Russell, in which he went out with Admiral Russell to the Mediterranean. In December 1694 he was moved to the Carlisle, one of the squadron under James Killigrew [q. v.], which on 18 Jan. 1694–5 captured the French ships Content and Trident. Russell afterwards assigned much of the credit to Norris, and appointed him to command the Content, added to the navy as a 70-gun ship.

Early in 1697 Norris was sent with a small squadron to recover the settlements in Hudson's Bay which had been seized by the French. At St. John's, Newfoundland, however, on 23 July, he had intelligence of a French squadron, reported to be sent out to reduce St. John's. A council of war, said to have consisted mainly of land officers, decided to act on the defensive. Norris, it is said, had further intelligence that the French ships were the squadron of M. de Pointis [see Nevell, John] escaping from the West Indies with the plunder of Cartagena; but the council of war declined to depart from their defensive attitude. In October Norris returned to England, where the inaction of his squadron was made the subject of popular outcry and parliamentary inquiry. Norris, however, was held guiltless, though his exculpation was generally attributed to the influence of Russell, the first lord of the admiralty, and suspicions of corruption and faction, if not treachery, in the conduct of the navy were widely expressed (Burnet, Hist. of his Own Time, Oxford edit. iv. 348). That Norris was backed up by strong interest seems certain. He was appointed to the Winchester, which he commanded during the peace, and in 1702 to the Orford, one of the fleet under Rooke in the unsuccessful attempt on Cadiz. During this time, 22 Aug., Norris had a violent quarrel with Ley, the first captain of the Royal Sovereign, Rooke's flagship, beat him, threw him over a gun, and drew his sword on him on the Royal Sovereign's quarter-deck. For this he was put under arrest, but, by the good offices of the Duke of Ormonde, was allowed to apologise and return to his duty on 30 Aug. The affair passed over without further notice, and Ley died very shortly afterwards (Rooke's Journal).

Still in the Orford, Norris was in the Mediterranean with Shovell in 1703, and in 1704 was one of Shovell's seconds in the battle of Malaga. In 1705 he was taken by Shovell as first captain of the Britannia, carrying the flag of the joint commanders-in-chief, Shovell and Charles Mordaunt, third earl of Peterborough [q. v.] In this capacity he assisted in the capture of Barcelona, and was afterwards sent home with the despatches, when he received a present of a thousand guineas, and was knighted on 5 Nov. (Le Neve, Knights, p. 491). But Peterborough, who wrote of him as ‘a governing coxcomb,’ had conceived a strong dislike to him (Letters to General Stanhope, p. 6). Probably on that account he was not employed during the following year.

On 10 March 1706–7 Norris was promoted to be rear-admiral of the blue, and, with his flag on board the Torbay, accompanied Shovell to the Mediterranean. In command of a detached squadron he forced the passage of the Var, and afterwards took a prominent part in the operations before Toulon. He returned to England in October, narrowly escaping the fate of the commander-in-chief, the error in navigation, due to the unwonted strength of Rennel's current, having been common to the whole fleet [see Shovell, Sir Clowdisley]. On 26 Jan. 1707–8 Norris was promoted to be vice-admiral of the white, and again went to the Mediterranean, with his flag in the Ranelagh, commanding in the second post under Sir John Leake [q. v.] In the same year he entered parliament as member for Rye, for which he sat until 1722, when he was elected for Portsmouth. For Portsmouth he was again returned in 1727, and for Rye in 1734; he represented the latter constituency until his death (Official Returns). In 1709 he commanded a small squadron sent to stop the French supply of corn from the Baltic. He lay for some time off Elsinore, and stopped several Swedish ships laden with corn, nominally for Holland or Portugal. Against this line of conduct the Danish government protested, and the governor of Elsinore acquainted him that ‘if he continued to stop ships from passing the Sound, he should be obliged to force him to desist.’ In July a Dutch squadron arrived to convoy the ships for Holland, and Norris, conceiving that the object of his coming there had been secured, returned to England (Burchett, pp. 726–7).

On 19 Nov. he was promoted to be admiral of the blue, and early in 1710 went out to the Mediterranean as commander-in-chief. This office he held till October 1711, blockading the French coast and assisting the military operations in Spain, in acknowledgment of which services the Archduke Charles, the titular king of Spain, on 19 July 1711 conferred on him the title of duke, ‘to be reserved and kept secret until he should think it proper to solicit the despatches for it in due form,’ and also an annual pension of four thousand ducats for ever, placed upon the produce of the confiscated estates in the kingdom of Naples (Home Office, Admiralty, vol. 42). No further action seems to have been taken in the matter of the title, and it does not appear that the pension was ever paid.

In May 1715 Norris, with a strong fleet, was sent to the Baltic, nominally to protect the trade, but in reality to give effect to the treaty with Denmark, and force the king of Sweden to cede Bremen and Verden to the Elector of Hanover (Stanhope, Hist, of England, Cabinet edit. i. 225). The only effect was to induce Charles XII to intrigue with the English Jacobites, and to stay such English merchant ships as came within his reach. The approach of winter forced Norris to return to England, but in the summer of 1716 he was back at Copenhagen, and a combined fleet of English, Russian, and Danish ships, under the nominal command of the tsar in person, Norris acting as vice-admiral, made a demonstration in the Baltic, but without meeting an enemy or attempting a territorial attack. In 1717 Sir George Byng took command of the fleet in the Baltic, while Norris was sent on a special mission to St. Petersburg as 'envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary.' In March 1718 he was appointed one of the lords of the admiralty, a post he held till May 1730; but in the summer of 1718 he was again sent to the Baltic, always with the object of exerting pressure on Sweden.

But after the death of Charles XII Norris was in 1719 again sent to the Baltic as an intimation to the tsar that he could not be permitted to crush the independence of Sweden. It was probably thought that Norris, being personally known to and esteemed by the tsar, was a peculiarly fit person to command the fleet in the difficult circumstances. For the greater part of the season he remained at Copenhagen. and during the time his correspondence was that of a diplomatist rather than of an admiral. In August, however, he went further into the Baltic, and made an armed demonstration in conjunction with the Swedish fleet. In 1720 he arrived off Stockholm by the middle of May, having a commission to mediate a peace. In June he anchored off Revel, but as Peter refused his letters, as the place could not be attacked by the fleet alone, and as the Swedes were not prepared to throw an army on shore, he returned to Stockholm, where he continued till the end of October. It was not till the 22nd—which by the revised calendar was 2 Nov.—that he sailed from Elfsnabben, arriving at Copenhagen on the 30th. The course of service in 1721 was much the same, but led to better results. The tsar, convinced that he would not be permitted to destroy Sweden, consented to make peace, and by 20 Sept. Norris was able to represent to the Swedish government that, as the treaty was virtually concluded and the Russian ships were laid up, he proposed to sail at once (Home Office, Admiralty, vols. 50 and 51). In 1726, when the attitude of Russia seemed again threatening to the peace of the north, she was overawed by the presence of a fleet under Sir Charles Wager [q. v.], and in 1727 Norris again took the command. It was known that Russia was a party to the treaty of Vienna, and might be expected to aid Spain by supporting the Jacobites; but ‘a strong resolution rendered unnecessary strong measures,’ and the mere sight of the English fleets induced a more pacific temper (Stanhope, ii. 81, 103).

On 20 Feb. 1733–4 Norris was promoted to be admiral and commander-in-chief, and during the summer commanded the large fleet which was mustered in the Downs, or at Spithead, with the union flag at the main. The next year the fleet visited Lisbon as a support to the Portuguese against the Spaniards. In 1739 and the following years Norris commanded the fleet in the Channel. Public opinion was very indignant that nothing was done; but, as the Spaniards had no western fleet at sea, there was no opportunity of achieving or even attempting anything. Early in 1744 it was known that the French were going to become parties in the war. An army of invasion, with a flotilla of small craft, was assembled at Dunkirk, and this was to be supported by the fleet from Brest, under the command of M. de Roquefeuil, which actually put to sea on 26 Jan. 1743–4. On 2 Feb. Norris was ordered to go at once to Portsmouth, and, in command of the ships at Spithead, to take the most effective measures to oppose the French. Afterwards some ships, reported as French men-of-war, were seen at the back of the Goodwin Sands, and Norris was ordered to come round to the Downs. He insisted that these ships had nothing to do with the Brest fleet, which was certainly to the westward, but the order, repeated on 14 Feb., was positive. On the 18th he had intelligence that the French fleet had been seen off the Isle of Wight; and on the 19th he wrote that the Dunkirk transports ought to be destroyed as soon as the weather moderated, and then he would go to look for the Brest fleet. ‘If we remain without attempting anything we leave the French at liberty to do what they please in the Channel, and perhaps an invasion may be carried on from La Hogue, as was intended before my Lord Orford's battle there’ (Norris to Newcastle, 19 Feb., Home Office, Admiralty, vol. 84). But he was sorely afraid that his force was insufficient. ‘Had I been believed,’ he wrote, ‘in what I represented last spring, we had been now in a condition to have driven the Brest ships out of the Channel, and at the same time been covered from any insult or attempt from Dunkirk; but I was treated then as an old man that dreamed dreams’ (ib. 13 Feb.). Thus the fleet was still in the Downs when, on 24 Feb., Norris had news of the near approach of the French. On that afternoon they had come to off Dungeness, to wait for the tide, and were disagreeably surprised to find themselves met by a very superior English force tiding round the South Foreland against a south-westerly wind. When the tide turned the English anchored about eight miles from the French. The night set in wild and dark. At eight o'clock the wind flew round to the north and north-east, and blew a fierce gale, which increased in strength till, about one o'clock in the morning, the storm broke out with excessive violence. Most of the English ships parted their cables and were driven out to sea; but the French ships, which had shortened in, parted their cables at the first of the gale, about nine o'clock, and, leaving their anchors, went away before the wind unperceived and unfollowed. Three days later Norris wrote to the Duke of Newcastle: ‘If they can escape out of our Channel, I believe they will have so great a sense of their deliverance as not to venture again into it at this season of the year’ (26, 28 Feb. Home Office, Admiralty, vol. 84).

The same storm that drove the French ships out of the Channel destroyed the transports at Dunkirk, and the admiralty, seeing that the danger at home was past, ordered several ships from the Channel to reinforce Thomas Mathews [q. v.] in the Mediterranean. Norris was very angry; on 18 March he requested permission to resign the command, and on the 22nd wrote that his retirement was as necessary for the king's service under the present management of the admiralty as for his own reputation and safety (ib. Norris to Newcastle). His resignation was accepted, and he retired from active service. He had long been known in the navy as ‘Foulweather Jack.’ He died on 19 July 1749. He had married Elizabeth, elder daughter of Matthew, first lord Aylmer, and by her had issue a daughter and two sons, the elder of whom, Richard, a captain in the navy, was cashiered for misconduct in the action of 11 Feb. 1743–4; the younger, Harry, served with some distinction, and died a vice-admiral in 1764.

A portrait by George Knapton is at the admiralty. There is a mezzotint by T. Burford.

[Charnock's Biogr. Nav. iii. 341; Burchett's Transactions at Sea; Lediard's Naval History; Beatson's Nav. and Mil. Memoirs; Official Papers in the Public Record Office. Cf. also Stanhope's and Lecky's Histories of England; Torrens's Hist. of Cabinets; Coxe's Memoirs of Sir R. Walpole; Walpole's Letters, ed. Cunningham; Gent. Mag. 1749, p. 284; Official Returns of Members of Parl.; Norris's MSS. in Brit. Mus., esp. Add. 28126–57, logs, journals, and letter-books, of little biographical value.]

J. K. L.