Captain Sir William Monson


Captain Sir William Monson
(1568? - 1643)

Sir William Monson -- English Naval Officer

Monson, Sir William (1568?-1643), naval officer, was the third but second surviving son of Sir John Monson (d. 1593) of South Carlton, Lincolnshire, and Jane, daughter of Robert Dighton of Little Sturton, Lincolnshire. He was probably raised as a Catholic, as both he and his brothers, Sir Thomas and Sir John, were all described as such in their adult lives. He matriculated at Balliol College, Oxford, on 2 May 1581, aged about twelve-and-a-half (and not fourteen, as the university admission registers record).

In September 1585, aged almost seventeen (as he later recalled), he ran away to sea in a privateer, being 'led thereunto by the wildness of my youth' (BL, Add. MS 9298, fol. 33v). His vessel and its consort sailed for the Spanish coast, where they encountered a well-armed Biscayner of 300 tons, recently returned from Newfoundland, which refused to yield. She was boarded at 8 p.m. but, the sea growing rough, the English vessels were forced to ungrapple, leaving the boarding party, which included Monson, to contest possession of the ship throughout the night. The Spaniards mounted a stiff resistance, twice attempting to blow up the decks on which Monson and his fellows stood, but were forced to capitulate the following morning.

Monson again served in a privateer in 1586. His reputation grew, and in 1587 he commanded three small ships financed by Sir George Carew. Before sailing Monson consulted the famed astrologer Simon Forman, who predicted that he would take a dazzling prize. Sure enough at Easter, Monson came upon a Catalonian vessel at anchor, trading in the north African port of Salé. However, he was persuaded not to seize her by English merchants resident in the port, who feared retaliation by the local authorities. A subsequent cruise along the Barbary coast proved fruitless and Monson made for the Canaries. His provisions soon ran low and he was forced to head for home. After narrowly escaping shipwreck off southern Ireland he reached England on 26 May 1588, in time to serve as a volunteer aboard the queen's pinnace Charles, part of the fleet that opposed the Armada.

Though the 1587 voyage had proved unprofitable Monson continued to consult Forman, who assured him that had he taken the Catalonian vessel at Salé the earlier prophecy would have been fulfilled. In 1589 Monson served as vice-admiral in the earl of Cumberland's expedition to the Canaries and the Azores. Eight prizes were taken at Flores, three of which Monson described as being 'of reasonable good value' (Naval Tracts, 5.177), but the expedition failed to prevent ships of the West Indian flota from reaching the safety of Terceira. On the return voyage Monson (and his men) went without drink for several days and when he reached southern Ireland his health collapsed. To make matters worse one of the valuable prizes was cast away.

Monson remained unwell throughout 1590 but had recovered by the following spring, when he again went to sea, this time as Cumberland's flag captain. Soon after the earl's squadron reached the Spanish coast Monson was put in charge of a Dutch ship laden with Portuguese spices, which had fallen into Cumberland's hands. However, she was recaptured and Monson was imprisoned in one of the galleys based at Lisbon. There he hatched a plan of escape, which was thwarted when his galley unexpectedly put to sea. He subsequently attempted to smuggle out intelligence to England concerning the homeward route to be taken by the Spanish Indies fleet but his scheme was betrayed by his English interpreter and he was transferred to Lisbon Castle. His capacity for mischief-making remained undiminished, however, as he proceeded to aid the escape of Manuel Fernandez, a servant of the Portuguese pretender, Don Antonio, whose cell adjoined his own. During the ensuing investigation by the Spanish authorities he initially denied helping Fernandez on the grounds that he could not speak Spanish. He subsequently adopted a more robust line of defence, maintaining that as a prisoner of war he was duty-bound not to neglect any opportunity to do his queen service. After his interrogation orders were given for him to be more closely guarded. At the end of November Monson witnessed the triumphant entry into Lisbon harbour of the Spanish galleon St Andrew, which had recently taken Grenville's Revenge, and swore that he would one day be present at the taking of the St Andrew herself.

The circumstances behind Monson's release in July 1592 are obscure. In 1593 he resumed his association with Cumberland. The two men captured a fleet of twelve hulks laden with powder bound for Spain, and Monson was left to examine half of them while Cumberland took the rest out to sea. Towards night the earl released them but they returned to attack Monson who, having no adequate force with him, narrowly escaped capture by jumping into his boat on one side as they boarded on the other. He sustained an injury to his leg which troubled him for the rest of his life. Monson returned to England later that year, soon after which his father died. As a younger son he inherited only a small amount of property.

Monson remained ashore throughout 1594, possibly suffering from another bout of illness for, when in August Sir John Hawkins contemplated sharing the treasurership of the navy with another, he discounted Monson on health grounds. On 9 July 1594 Monson was awarded an MA by the University of Oxford. Later, on 8 August, he was granted (honorary) admission to Gray's Inn. Early in the following year he married Dorothy, daughter of Richard Wallop of Bugbrooke, in Northamptonshire, and widow of Richard Smith of Shelford, Cambridgeshire. They had three sons (including William Monson) and two daughters. Before his marriage Monson had agreed to undertake a further privateering voyage with Cumberland, a decision which he soon came to regret. Shortly after putting to sea Cumberland returned to England, as he was no longer convinced that the expedition required his personal attendance, leaving James Langton in command. Monson was so furious at being overlooked that he sailed alone to the Spanish coast. Buffeted by storms, his ship was driven back to Plymouth; there he met Sir Francis Drake, whom he joined in a fruitless search for some Spanish ships which had recently sacked Penzance.

Monson's anger with Cumberland proved long-lasting and precipitated his entry into royal service. In April 1596 he was appointed flag captain to the earl of Essex. In the subsequent expedition to Cadiz, during which time he was knighted (27 June), Monson helped to take the Spanish galleon St Andrew, fulfilling his earlier pledge to be present at her capture. During the voyage to the Azores the following year he again served under Essex. That same year he wrote a paper advocating the establishment of a settlement on the west African coast rather than in South America. In February 1598 Monson challenged Cumberland to a duel after hearing that the earl blamed him for the failure to capture the treasure ships at Terceira nine years earlier but Cumberland ignored him. During the invasion scare of 1599 Monson commanded a queen's ship in the Downs under Lord Thomas Howard but saw no action. Howard's wife, Lady Catherine, was by birth a Knyvett and it was doubtless through her influence that Monson was elected to parliament for the Knyvett-controlled borough of Malmesbury in 1601. He took no recorded part in this, his only parliament.

On 26 March 1602 Monson sailed for Spain as vice-admiral to Sir Richard Leveson, who had departed with his own squadron a week earlier. Their orders were to forestall an invasion of England or Ireland by preventing the Spanish navy from putting to sea and to intercept the plate fleet. Before Monson could link up with his superior Leveson had encountered the treasure ships and their escorts but, being heavily outnumbered, he was forced to retreat. Despite this disappointment Leveson, now joined by Monson, espied in Lisbon harbour the carrack St Valentine, bearing cargo worth almost £130,000. Leveson entered the harbour first but his ships missed their station and were carried out of the road. Next came Monson, who engaged eleven enemy galleys drawn up under the guns of the nearby castle. His ordnance did fearful execution on these closely-packed vessels 'for when I hit one of them my shot passed through most part of the rest' (Naval Tracts, 4.114); the Spanish inflicted minimal damage, killing only five of Monson's crew. Nine of the galleys fled; the two that remained (one of which had earlier held Monson prisoner) were captured and burnt. There was still the carrack to be dealt with. Under a flag of truce Monson went aboard and treated with her Portuguese officers, who agreed to surrender their ship in return for their own freedom. Following this action a delighted Leveson wrote to the queen, desiring her to 'take notice of Sir William Monson', who had shown himself 'a very gallant, worthy gentleman' (Salisbury MSS, 12.184).

On returning to England, Monson reported in person to the queen, and in mid-July, in recognition of his outstanding service, he was given his own command. He was instructed to return to the Spanish coast, where he was to link up with a Dutch squadron under Opdam to prevent the enemy from concentrating his naval forces for invasion. Though impatient to put to sea Monson remained wind-bound throughout August, and by the time he sailed the threat of invasion had receded, the last remaining rebel stronghold in Ireland having surrendered. On reaching the Spanish coast he found no sign of Opdam, who had consumed most of his provisions in awaiting Monson's arrival and was on his way home. Matters were made worse by a storm on 22 September, which scattered his ships. When Monson arrived off the rock of Lisbon four days later he was accompanied by just two of his eight escorts. He remained undaunted, and that night, when he espied the lights of an enemy fleet, he gave pursuit. Bearing up to the flagship, however, he was horrified to discover her immense size and the number of her escorts. He avoided detection in the darkness by employing a Spaniard then aboard to hail the enemy but one of his consorts was less fortunate and was badly mauled. The following day Monson extricated himself with some difficulty and went to lie off Cape St Vincent. On 21 October he attempted to cut out a galleon that had taken refuge under the guns of Sagres Castle but in the ensuing artillery duel he lost ten men. Forced to give over the fight when an enemy squadron appeared to the westward he returned to Plymouth on 24 November. Over the winter he advised Sir Robert Cecil, in writing, on how to continue prosecuting the war. In the event his lines were not needed; in March 1603, just as he and Leveson were making ready to intercept the plate fleet, the queen died, and in the following year England made peace with Spain.

On 1 July 1604 Monson was appointed admiral of the narrow seas, doubtless on the recommendation of the new lord chamberlain, Thomas Howard, now earl of Suffolk. It was to Howard's wife that Monson owed his former parliamentary seat, and in June 1604 he was described by a Spanish diplomat as 'a creature of the countess of Suffolk' (Loomie, 54). As commander of the channel squadron one of Monson's main duties was to preserve the peace in English waters. Given the continuing conflict between Spain and the Dutch this was never going to be easy. Even so Monson's willingness to remain even-handed must be doubted, not least because he was a closet Catholic and hated the Dutch. Moreover, in the summer of 1604 Spain, aware of his sympathies, granted him a secret annuity of 4000 crowns (later increased to 5500) in the hope that this would encourage his partiality towards them. Monson always denied showing favour towards Spain in the performance of his duties but in May 1606, after protesting at the behaviour of several Dutch captains who had chased a Dunkirker into Sandwich harbour, he was officially reprimanded for failing to remove the Englishmen who formed part of the Dunkirker's crew.

Monson helped to prevent the escape to France of Arabella Stuart in June 1611. In May 1614 he was sent to Scotland to suppress pirates but, on discovering their numbers had been exaggerated, he sailed to Ireland, where he found richer pickings. Monson's fortunes changed abruptly towards the end of 1615, at which time the power of his court patrons, the earl and countess of Suffolk, was diminished as a result of the Overbury murder scandal. Early in December he was arrested after the king learned of his Spanish pension; after being questioned at Hatton House, the London home of the lord chief justice, Sir Edward Coke, he was sent to the Tower on the night of 12 January 1616. The following day he was stripped of office. Coke interrogated him again on 24 January and desired to know, inter alia, whether he was in treasonable communication with the government of the Spanish Netherlands. In mid-April he was subjected to a final examination by Lord Chancellor Ellesmere and Attorney-General Bacon, when he made no attempt to conceal his hatred of the Dutch. Indeed he promised to provide a paper detailing the outrages committed by the Dutch during his period of office. No charges were brought against him and he was released in mid-July.

Despite his fall from office Monson harboured hopes of reinstatement. Instead he was left to languish at Kinnersley, his Surrey estate near Reigate; in 1617 the only official duty he performed was to counsel the government against mounting an attack on the pirate base at Algiers. By the beginning of 1618 Monson was so frustrated at his continued exclusion from office that he evidently consented to a scheme devised by the Suffolk faction to topple the new royal favourite, George Villiers, marquess of Buckingham. It involved his own second son, William, a youth of eighteen, whose handsome features it was thought would divert the gaze of the king from Villiers. In the event the flaunting of young Monson merely served to irritate James, who ordered the young man to be banished from his presence. Any hopes that Monson may have entertained thereafter of recovering favour were finally dashed in July 1619 with the fall of the Howards.

In March 1623 Monson was consulted by the government over his enthusiastic support for plans to wrest control of the North Sea's fisheries from the Dutch. Monson's interest in this matter was of long standing for he had frequently lobbied the late Henry Howard, earl of Northampton, on the subject and had supported the publication in 1614 of Tobias Gentleman's pamphlet England's Way to Win Wealth, which had argued for the strengthening of England's fishing industry. Henceforth much of Monson's time was taken up in writing. The first of his six books was completed in 1624 (though later revised); comprising an account of the Elizabethan war at sea, which has achieved notoriety for its many inaccuracies, it circulated in manuscript form only. It clearly had a practical purpose, for England in 1624 was again on the verge of war with Spain. A further book (book 3), dealt with 'the state of his Majesty's navy and the abuse that is crept in by inexperienced carelessness' and was drafted shortly after the abolition of the navy commission in February 1628. Among its contents is 'A proposition to the parliament', wherein Monson anticipated the ship-money levies of the 1630s by advocating that parliament authorize the raising of £20,000 each year for the benefit of the navy.

Monson's advice was sought prior to the foundation of a royal fishery society in 1632. Despite his enthusiasm for the project he did not agree to invest in the new company until 1636 and had to be pursued to pay his £100 subscription in 1637. In 1635 Monson, now in his late sixties, was permitted to serve as vice-admiral of the first ship-money fleet under the earl of Lindsey. At the end of his cruise, which was largely uneventful, he submitted a paper of criticisms to the admiralty on the management of naval affairs. Its contents were taken seriously. Monson's opposition to the large number of watermen employed as mariners in the first ship-money fleet may help to explain why proportionally fewer were employed in 1636, and it was undoubtedly at Monson's suggestion that the admiralty permitted an under-treasurer to accompany the fleets of 1636 and 1637, an officer whose purpose was to pay for the needs of sailors put ashore for reasons of sickness or injury. In addition to his formal submission to the admiralty Monson wrote a separate, rather more candid paper based upon his observations of the first ship-money fleet. It formed an addition to his earlier book on naval administration and contained sly digs at admiralty commissioner Sir John Coke, of whose success he was obviously jealous. Some of the criticisms contained within this second paper were quite unjust. For instance Monson's view that the navy board had interfered in the victualling of the ships ignored the fact that for most of 1635 there had been no surveyor of marine victuals and that the board had therefore been acting under admiralty orders.

Monson was not employed in subsequent ship-money fleets, probably because of failing health, but he was appointed, on 9 May 1637, to the newly revived council of war. His final years were spent largely in writing. In 1638 he wrote a paper, 'How to make war upon Scotland if they follow their rebellious courses', while soon after the battle of the Downs (October 1639) he composed a short treatise in defence of ship money. A book containing various projects on how to make war on France, Spain, or the Dutch was being written as late as 1641. Monson never saw any of his work through the press, however. He died intestate in the Westminster parish of St Martin-in-the-Fields, where he was buried on 13 February 1643. Letters of administration were granted to his eldest surviving son, William, Viscount Castlemaine.

In 1682 part of Monson's book on the Elizabethan war with Spain appeared alongside Heywood Townsend's Debates in Parliament; all six of Monson's books were eventually published in 1704 by Messrs A. and S. Churchill. Since Monson evidently never achieved a final text, the publishers collated two variant copies of the manuscript, both of which are apparently now lost. The Churchill edition was itself collated with other known copies of the manuscript by Michael Oppenheim at the beginning of the twentieth century, and the end result was published in five volumes by the Navy Records Society between 1902 and 1914. At least one of Monson's tracts, hitherto unidentified as his and written at some time during the early 1630s, escaped inclusion in book 5 and is now in the Public Record Office (SP 9/202/24). Presented to Charles I, it advocated a pre-emptive naval strike on the Dutch in conjunction with Spain. Besides his naval writings Monson is said by Oppenheim to have penned 'Certain considerations that are not worthy of the name of history that happened to England since the year 1588 and a little before', several copies of which apparently are in the British Library. Sadly Oppenheim failed to specify their catalogue numbers. Monson also wrote a detailed account of his interrogation by the Lisbon authorities regarding his part in the escape of Manuel Fernandez 'at the request of my friends' (Naval Tracts, 5.159) but this is not known to have survived.