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Sir  John Mennes (1599–1671), attrib. Sir Anthony Van Dyck, c.1640Sir John Mennes (1599–1671), attrib. Sir Anthony Van Dyck, c.1640
Mennes, Sir John (1599–1671), naval officer, was born at Sandwich, Kent, on 1 March 1599, the second son of Andrew Mennes and Jane, daughter of John Blechenden. The Mennes family was armigerous and had long been prominent in Sandwich, where both his grandfather Matthew and Matthew's elder brother Thomas had been several times mayor. Mennes was educated at the local grammar school, but while his intellectual accomplishments seem to imply a university education the supposition (derived from Wood) that he went on to Corpus Christi College, Oxford, cannot be reconciled with the college records, since the John Mynne admitted gentleman commoner there in 1615 was the son of a knight. Whatever the case he had gone to sea by his early twenties, for in 1620 he took part in a six-hour battle off Dominica in which the Margaret and John, taking passengers to Virginia, fought off two Spanish warships. The captain, James Chester, is said to have been Mennes's father-in-law, a term then used for a stepfather; alternatively it could indicate an early marriage. Mennes had already served in the English Channel under Sir William Monson and subsequently commanded the king's ship Seahorse. These details were given by Sir Alexander Brett in recommending Mennes for further service in April 1626.

In home waters

As a young man Mennes was seemingly quarrelsome, but soon established himself as a reliable officer. On 23 November 1628 he was appointed to captain the Adventure and convoyed a fleet to Glückstadt. On his return with a prize he was instructed to cruise the channel looking for further ships to capture, and was praised for ‘discreet and stout carriage’ in taking a Hamburger sailing under Dutch colours (CSP dom., 1628–9, 524). He was frequently employed in taking ambassadors and other distinguished travellers across the channel. On 24 May 1629 he brought ‘a gentleman’ from the Netherlands at the king's invitation (ibid., 557); this was Rubens. It is fanciful to suppose that Mennes's interest in painting dated from this mission, though he was doubtless chosen for this and similar duties because of his social as well as professional competence. His elder brother, Matthew, had been made knight of the Bath at Charles I's coronation. When Mennes was suggested for another command by Sir Henry Mervyn in 1630, it was in the hope of having a captain who had passed his ‘a,b,c’ (CSP dom., 1629–31, 343). The bailiffs of Yarmouth specifically requested Mennes for fishery protection duty, which he undertook in autumn 1630. On 11 December following he was appointed as captain of the Garland to patrol the channel; his lieutenant was his younger brother Andrew. In 1631 he sent Secretary Nicholas a manuscript by Monson which he thought of relevance to current naval concerns, and in 1633 it was rumoured he would be sent to the East Indies. On 30 March 1635 he was given command of the Red Lion and applied to have his brother again as lieutenant. On 7 October he was moved to the Vanguard, and by the 14th was named vice-admiral in the channel. On 13 March 1636 he was made captain of the Convertine; there was some question of his entitlement to this command over the claims of another officer, but he was in post by 18 May. In March 1637 he returned to the Vanguard, and in November he took up the captaincy of Walmer Castle. On 15 April 1638 he became captain of the Nonsuch and in May was deputed to carry an ambassador to Spain. On 5 March 1639 he was appointed to the Victory, in which he continued for the summer.

In 1640 Mennes temporarily left the sea, being appointed on 22 February to command a troop of Carabiniers in the war against the Scots. On 28 April he arrived at Newcastle, and continued in the north throughout the year. On 16 December he was promoted to command two troops of Wilmot's regiment, leaving York the following day to fetch a consignment of the money being paid to the Scottish army of occupation. In January 1641 he was back at York where by 9 February he had married and set up house with Jane (d. 1662), daughter of Thomas Liddell of Ravensworth, co. Durham, and widow of Robert Anderson.

In August 1641 Mennes was ordered to receive the king at Doncaster and on the 18th his regiment was disbanded as part of the general demilitarization of the north-east. In 1642 he was back in the navy and on 23 February, as captain of the Lion, was entrusted with taking the queen over to the Netherlands. Having landed Henrietta Maria at Helvoetsluys he returned at once; the king had waited at Dover for news of the queen's safe landfall, and when Mennes was able to report this on 25 February he was knighted. On 26 April he had orders to press men for the summer guard and on 1 May was named rear-admiral. He had originally been posted to the St George, but it was as captain of the Victory that he refused to acquiesce in the parliamentary takeover of the fleet on 2 July. He had, according to Clarendon, been ashore with Warwick, who refused to let him return to his own ship but took him aboard the flagship and tried to induce him to join the rebels. On his refusal, he was put ashore (Clarendon, Hist. rebellion, 2.218). However, the exchange of letters between Warwick and Mennes indicates that the latter, having on 2 July received the king's command to refuse Warwick's orders, had not attended aboard the James and was consequently told of his ‘discharge’ on 4 July (Powell and Timings, 15–17).

Army service

Since the king no longer had a navy Mennes transferred to the army. In 1643 he was general of artillery in Lord Capel's forces in the north-west, based at Shrewsbury. In February 1644 he complained he could do no useful service because of the ‘insulting people’ and for lack of money; his own revenues were detained by the rebels or such of his tenants ‘as have forgot to pay’ (Warburton, 2.371–2). By June 1644 he had been appointed by Rupert as governor of north Wales, with headquarters at Beaumaris. Again he did his best with limited resources of men and money, and in the face of rivalry from the archbishop of York, Williams, who had taken upon himself the role of saviour of the king's cause in those parts. Williams inveighed against Mennes and Dudley Wyatt as ‘sharks and children of fortune’ (CSP dom., 1644–5, 405).

In May 1645 Mennes replaced Pennington as the king's nominal vice-admiral. With the revolt of 1648 the king had a fighting fleet once more and Mennes resumed service afloat, though losing his flag. He also lost his estates—chiefly property in Bedfordshire inherited from his recently dead elder brother—sequestered by parliament. When Rupert's squadron left Helvoetsluys in January 1649 Mennes was captain of the Swallow, in which he led a successful detachment in search of prizes. He then sailed with the rest of the royalist fleet to Lisbon. In 1650, while the ships were still in the Tagus, Mennes left to attach himself to the exiled court, with which he remained until the Restoration. He served principally as a secret agent (and since little is known of his activities he would seem to have been effective); in March 1655 he was sent from Cologne, where the king was, to Flushing to monitor the posts. Mennes also acted as medical adviser to the exiled cavaliers, being an amateur venereologist. He doubtless played a part in the negotiations for the king's return, since he was friendly with Arnold Braems, a Dover merchant with contacts with Lawson and Montagu and who was one of the king's intermediaries in 1659.

Comptroller of the navy

At the Restoration Mennes was appointed a gentleman of the privy chamber. He petitioned for and received the return of the captaincy of Walmer, though he resigned by April 1663 after complaining of the costs involved. In March 1661 he and Robert Phillips, a groom of the bedchamber, sued for a reversion of the site of Cannington Priory in Somerset which was granted to them in August. Mennes had meanwhile been down to Chatham on 10 April 1661 to inspect the Henry, already designated his flagship. On 18 May he was formally commissioned vice-admiral in the narrow seas for the summer. While serving in this capacity he was named to succeed Slingsby as comptroller of the navy and he left the fleet on 30 October. He took his seat at the Navy Board on 2 November and his patent passed the great seal on the 28th. His junior colleague Pepys welcomed him as ‘a good fair-conditioned man’ (Pepys, Diary, 2.206), but he and others soon came to recognize the appointment as disastrous. Mennes wholly lacked the qualities of mind and application which the comprehensive duties of the comptroller demanded. Initially he retained his command, and on 16 November he delegated his office work to Penn. On 15 January 1662 he sailed for Tangier, delivering Lord Peterborough there as governor on the 29th. He then joined up with Sandwich in Lisbon and together they brought Catherine of Braganza to England as queen. Mennes had custody of the jewel chest; presumably the ‘great Portugal jewel’ of 180 diamonds set in gold, which he would bequeath, was a legitimate acquisition on this service. He returned to the Downs in May, having completed his last voyage.

Mennes had been suspicious of Sandwich as a former Cromwellian, and had warned the king that the fleet was not safe in his hands. But these fears proved groundless and Sandwich at least was disposed to be friendly. Mennes's true friends, however, were those like Clarendon and Carteret who shared his unwavering affection to the crown. Mennes became a member of the council for foreign plantations in 1661, master of Trinity House in 1661–2, a member of the Tangier committee from 1662, and a founder assistant of the Royal Fishery Company in 1664.

Declining years

Criticisms of Mennes as incompetent, incoherent, and vacillating abound in Pepys's diary and white book. His frustration with the ‘old dotard’ (who was in poor health from 1663) was coloured by some hope of succeeding him. But dissatisfaction with the comptroller was general, and repeated attempts were made to remove him to a sinecure, or at least delegate his key duties. When in November 1663 Pepys proposed taking on some of these himself, Sir William Coventry warned that Mennes would react ‘as a dog in a manger’ (Pepys, Diary, 4.398). When the matter was generally aired at the board in January 1664 Mennes would have none of it. During the Second Anglo-Dutch War, although Mennes was as busy as his health allowed, he became ‘every day less and less capable’ (ibid., 7.76). In August 1666 he was reported to be dying, and Pepys prematurely composed his epitaph: ‘a very good, harmless, honest gentleman, though not fit for the business’ (ibid., 7.255). Mennes, however, recovered. It was then proposed that he be made a commissioner-at-large, with Penn and Lord Brouncker as joint comptrollers. This was achieved only in part. By an order in council of 16 January 1667 Brouncker was to assist Mennes in the treasurer's accounts, and Penn with those of victuallers and pursers. Mennes pretended that this was his own idea, but his discontent was plain.

This was still unsatisfactory for Pepys and Coventry, who continued to call for Mennes's complete removal from the board, which they felt could not function properly while he sat there. Indeed Coventry ruefully suggested that the king would have been better served in the war by giving Mennes £1000 per annum ‘to have sat still’ (Pepys, Diary, 8.571). In March 1668 there were rumours that Mennes might actually survive a general purge of the Navy Board, prompting Pepys to observe that his dotage and folly did the king more hurt ‘than all the rest can do by their knavery if they had a mind to it’ (ibid., 9.100). Ranks were closed when Pepys, Mennes, and others from the Navy Office stood before the bar of the Commons on 5 March, when Pepys's oratory saved the day. But a month later Pepys was resolved to do something about Mennes ‘before it be long’ (ibid., 9.151). In January 1669 Pepys and Brouncker raised the issue with the duke of York, who promised to speak to the king. Pepys reminded the duke of this during an audience on 2 April, and was assured ‘that he had so often spoke of it to the King … that he cannot doubt his Majesty's remembering it whenever there shall be occasion’ (Samuel Pepys and the Second Dutch War, 192). Pepys then recommended that Brouncker should be given a further share of the comptroller's work. But Matthew Wren, the duke's secretary, contrived to restrict the matter to the accounts of Sir William Warren, for fear of discouragement to one who had served the king so long. The truth was that Mennes was well befriended at court (though after 1667 he was without the sympathetic support of Carteret and Clarendon). There was reluctance to dismiss him when this might seem to acknowledge opposition criticism of the Navy Office's management of the war. These criticisms came to a head when the Brooke House commission's charges were debated before the privy council in January and February 1670. Pepys, who single-handedly defended the board at these proceedings, managed to attribute the greater part of the collective failure to Mennes, while extolling him as ‘a gentleman of strictest integrity’, worn out in mind and body through service to the king (ibid., 342).

Pepys never let his despair at ‘the old fool’ diminish his affection for Mennes as a friend, a wit, and a raconteur; he particularly admired his talents as a ‘mimique’ (Pepys, Diary, 7.2) and an improviser in verse. He recalls one memorable evening when Mennes and Evelyn vied with one another in this literary parlour game. Mennes conceded defeat with characteristic generosity: his ‘mirth … to see himself out-done, was the crown of all our mirth’ (ibid., 6.220). Mennes was himself a poet, writing in collaboration with Dr James Smith and possibly Sir John Suckling (to whom Mennes had also been an army colleague). These works enjoyed popularity in spite or because of their tending to vulgarity; but the particular quality of Mennes's own contribution cannot be identified. Mennes was a true virtuoso, with medical and scientific interests, and a competent eye for pictures. He was also something of a sexual connoisseur, candid about buggery, teasing about bestiality, though with a personal preference for the simple charms of the women of Bury St Edmunds.

Mennes died, still comptroller of the navy, on 18 February 1671 in London and was buried in St Olave, Hart Street, where a memorial was erected. He was also commemorated in Nonington church, Kent, where his kinsfolk were buried. His second wife had died in 1662 and he had no children. His principal estate—land at Loughton, Essex, and part of the rectory of Goodnesborough, Kent—went to Francis Hammond, son of his dead sister Mary. He made other bequests to his nieces Lady Heath, wife of Sir John Heath of Brasted, Kent, and Jane, wife of Anthony Moyle, and to their children.

The poems Mennes wrote in collaboration with Smith were republished by Thomas Park in 1817 and J. C. Hotten in 1874. Mennes is not to be judged by these trifles, nor by the insufficiency with which he exercised the comptrollership in his last years. He was then most aptly characterized by Coventry as ‘like a lapwing; that all he did was to keep a flutter, to keep others from the nest that they would find’ (Pepys, Diary, 5.313–14). His forty years of active service, involving high command on land and sea, deserve to be remembered more than the frailties of his old age.

C. S. Knighton


G. Callender, ‘Sir John Mennes’, Mariner's Mirror, 26 (1940), 276–85 · TNA: PRO, SP 16/24, no. 87 · CSP dom., 1628–71 · T. Raylor, Cavaliers, clubs and literary culture: Sir John Mennes, James Smith, and the Order of the Fancy (1994) · Clarendon, Hist. rebellion, 2.218, 222, 223; 4.424–5; 5.372 · J. R. Powell and E. K. Timings, eds., Documents relating to the civil war, 1642–1648, Navy RS, 105 (1963), ix, 3, 4, 8, 15–18, 137–8 · Memoirs of Prince Rupert and the cavaliers including their private correspondence, ed. E. Warburton, 3 vols. (1849), vol. 2, pp. 371–4; vol. 3, pp. 55–6 · A collection of original letters and papers, concerning the affairs of England from the year 1641 to 1660. Found among the duke of Ormonde's papers, ed. T. Carte, 1 (1739), 49, 54, 67, 89 · Pepys, Diary · Samuel Pepys and the Second Dutch War: Pepys's navy white book and Brooke House papers, ed. R. Latham, Navy RS, 133 (1995) [transcribed by W. Matthews and C. Knighton] · J. D. Davies, Gentlemen and tarpaulins: the officers and men of the Restoration navy (1991), 123 · TNA: PRO, PROB 11/335, fols. 297rv · R. Hovenden, ed., The visitation of Kent, taken in the years 1619–1621, Harleian Society, 42 (1898), 107


BL, letters, verses, etc.


attrib. A. Van Dyck, oils, c.1640, priv. coll. [see illus.] · attrib. A. Van Dyck, oils, second version, NMM, NPG

Wealth at death  

modest landholding; £50 p. a. as comptroller: will, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/355, fol. 297rv