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date: 05 July 2022

Hawkins, Sir Johnfree


Hawkins, Sir Johnfree

  • Basil Morgan

Sir John Hawkins (1532–1595)

attrib. Federico Zuccaro, 1591

Plymouth City Art Gallery; photograph National Portrait Gallery, London

Hawkins, Sir John (1532–1595), merchant and naval commander, was born in Plymouth, the second son of William Hawkins (b. before 1490, d. 1554/5), merchant, sea captain, and shipowner, and his wife, Joan, only child of Roger Trelawny of Brightor, Cornwall.

Early years

Hawkins was probably brought up in the family home in Kinterbury Street, Plymouth. Nothing is known of his education, though the script and orthography of his letters, and his technical memoranda as navy treasurer, suggest a cultivated man, schooled in mathematics and navigation. By the time he was twenty Hawkins had killed a man, a Plymouth barber named White; but the coroner adjudged White to have been the aggressor, and Hawkins's father, realizing the seriousness of the offence, shrewdly secured translation of the verdict into a royal pardon, inscribed on the patent roll. During the negotiations for the marriage of Queen Mary to Philip of Spain, Hawkins seems to have performed some useful service for Spanish emissaries passing through Plymouth. The later Spanish claim that Philip actually knighted him seems far-fetched; but Hawkins did persistently refer to the king of Spain as 'my old master', probably as a formula designed to lend some legitimacy to his commercial forays in the Caribbean.

In the 1550s Hawkins was a partner with his elder brother, William Hawkins (c. 1519–1589), in the family shipping business. He spent considerable time in France (1556), attempting in the law courts of Brest to retrieve one of the firm's ships, captured as a prize but later impounded by its original owners. It is unclear whether Hawkins was successful, but his diplomatic skill was evident in his enlisting both the French ambassador in England and the English envoy in France in support of his suit. During the Anglo-French war (1557–8) Hawkins and his brother were successfully engaged in channel privateering. By the end of the decade he was a man of importance in Plymouth, where he had become a freeman (1556) and a common councillor (1558). But from c.1559 he began to denote himself as 'of London'. Hawkins bought a house in Deptford, and soon afterwards another in the city, in the parish of St Dunstan-in-the-East, which he retained for the remainder of his life. Until recently historians have believed that Hawkins's move to London coincided with his marriage to Katherine (d. 1591), daughter of Benjamin Gonson [see under Gonson, William], treasurer of the navy. It now seems clear that the marriage, at St Dunstan-in-the-East, did not take place until 20 January 1567. This means that their only child, Sir Richard Hawkins (c. 1560–1622), may have been born to John and Katherine before they got married, only to be legitimated by their subsequent union. Since Richard later spoke affectionately of Katherine, this would seem more likely than the view that he was Hawkins's illegitimate son by a mistress or an unrecognized earlier Catholic marriage. It is unclear whether Richard is synonymous with the base-born son of Hawkins who allegedly captained a pinnace involved in Drake's 1587 Cadiz expedition. Hawkins's move from Plymouth resulted in the winding up of his formal partnership with his brother, from which he emerged with £10,000; but he kept his properties there, maintained many of his ships in the port, and he and his brother continued to invest in each other's undertakings.

By 1561 Hawkins had made several voyages to the Canary Islands. There he became known as an honest trader, and from the friends he made he heard about the possibilities of trading slaves, garnered on the coast of Guinea, with the Spanish Caribbean colonies. He received promises of help to enter this trade, not least from the influential Pedro de Ponte, a scion of one of the great Canarian families. Such ventures would require more powerful backing than Plymouth could provide: hence the move to London.

The first voyage, 1562–1563

Hawkins received support for a first, exploratory voyage from a syndicate that included his father-in-law, Gonson, Sir William Winter, surveyor of the navy and master of the ordnance, and two leading city merchants, Sir Lionel Ducket and Sir Thomas Lodge. These men had all been active in the Guinea gold trade, which lately had become less attractive; Hawkins's slaving voyage provided a tempting alternative for further profit.

Sailing in October 1562, in at least 3 small ships totalling 260 tons and with 100 men from Plymouth, Hawkins picked up an experienced Caribbean pilot at Tenerife, and by the end of the year reached the Guinea coast, which he followed as far south as Sierra Leone. The account in Hakluyt, provided by Hawkins a quarter of a century later, says that he captured at least 300 African slaves. Hakluyt ignores Portuguese allegations that Hawkins took 6 of their ships. These may in part have been reports by local factors afraid of punishment for trading with interlopers; but Hawkins certainly used the largest ship to help transport his slaves across the Atlantic. On reaching Hispaniola, where de Ponte had already confirmed he and his cargo would be welcome, he avoided the seat of government at San Domingo, and disposed of his English merchandise and slaves, without violence, at the small north coast ports of Isabella (25 April 1563), Puerto de Plata, and Monte Christi, which were poorly served by official shipping. Hawkins was careful to appear as a peaceful trader rather than a pirate: he paid the correct customs dues to collusively participating local officials, from whom he secured written permissions to trade and certificates of fair dealing. He combated the dearth of coined money in the Indies by exchanging his goods for bills drawn on Seville, or bartering them for small quantities of gold, ginger, sugar, pearls, and—the bulk of his homeward cargo—hides.

In addition to his own ships, Hawkins chartered a vessel locally and, possibly angling for an official asiento to supply slaves, sent it, with part of his new cargo, to Hugh Tipton, one of the most important English merchants at Seville, headquarters of the Spanish colonial administration. There the goods were confiscated as contraband, Tipton was arrested, and Spanish officials in the Caribbean were forbidden to trade with English interlopers. The Portuguese ship he also sent to Seville, under its Portuguese captain and crew; but it sailed to Lisbon, where its cargo was seized by the farmers of the Guinea trade. With the rest of his ships Hawkins reached England in August 1563 and, on hearing of the seizure at Seville, he went to London, and by 8 September had persuaded the government to take up his case. But although the queen wrote to Sir Thomas Chaloner, her ambassador in Spain, and to Philip II himself, Hawkins's cargo remained confiscated; he had no redress either on the Portuguese cargo. Although Hawkins claimed that the two seizures had cost him £20,000, the voyage still paid a handsome dividend.

Hawkins had travelled to and traded with the Spanish Caribbean colonies without the requisite licences, carrying goods not previously declared at Seville. He may have thought that the Anglo-Spanish commercial treaty of 1489 (which allowed English trade to the Canary Islands) would extend to territories 'beyond the line' discovered since that date; or that Philip would grant him privileged access to the Indies because of his past services, and as a potential aid against French, mainly Calvinist, freebooters who were sacking Spanish West Indian ports. But he had clearly contravened declared Spanish and Portuguese monopolies, and he should not have been too surprised at the confiscations, given a deteriorating Anglo-Spanish alliance and Spanish concern at Elizabeth's alleged patronage of a projected French colony in Florida. What he had done was to prove the possibility of extending the long-established English triangular trade via Guinea to Brazil—in which his father had taken a pioneering role thirty years earlier—to a new, and readily available commodity, namely African slaves, and to a new Caribbean destination, where Spanish colonists welcomed slaves as an important constituent element in their internal economy—a valuable, harder-working, and longer-living antidote to the chronic wastage of the aboriginal population, and furnished more cheaply than their own compatriots managed via Seville.

The second voyage, 1564–1565

By the time of Hawkins's second slaving voyage, a semi-official venture, Anglo-Spanish relations had further deteriorated. The investing syndicate was joined by three privy councillors: Robert Dudley (earl of Leicester from the summer of 1564), the earl of Pembroke, and Lord Clinton, the lord admiral. William Cecil did not invest in the voyage, but he had a clear supervisory role. Hawkins, possibly using his connections with the court through west-country gentry like the Carews, managed to get the queen's backing. He was allowed to charter one of the largest ships in her navy, the 700 ton Jesus of Lubeck, purchased from the Hanseatic port under Henry VIII (but now riddled with dry rot), and to sail under the royal standard. Williamson suggests that this voyage had a more overtly political motive: to examine the newly planted French colony in Florida, which clearly threatened Spanish Caribbean hegemony, and to rebuild the moribund Anglo-Spanish alliance by helping to defend their colonies against the French—a task seemingly beyond Spanish capacity—in return for privileged access to colonial trade, possibly even a slaving monopoly on the lines of Spanish arrangements with the Genoese. But Andrews denies that, once in the Caribbean, Hawkins made more than vague and insincere promises to aid Philip, and these merely to show goodwill to the colonists for trading purposes: 'There is no evidence that he meant to serve the king of Spain in any other way than by doing business with his subjects' (Andrews, Trade, Plunder and Settlement, 120). De Silva, the Spanish ambassador in London, clearly voiced his government's opposition to the voyage, but his protests were ignored.

In addition to the Jesus, Hawkins took 3 of his own, Plymouth-based, ships, totalling 220 tons. For a combined tonnage of 920, he used a crew of only 150. This use of only 1 sailor for 6 tons reduced overcrowding and meant that he lost no more than a dozen men from sickness on the whole voyage. Hawkins sailed from Plymouth on 18 October 1564. Off north-west Spain a head wind delayed him for five days, and there he issued his famous orders to the crews: 'Serve God daily, love one another, preserve your victuals, beware of fire and keep good company' (Williamson, 71)—the last an instruction to sail close together. Hawkins secured over 400 slaves on the coast of Sierra Leone, partly from the Portuguese, partly by direct seizure, but he lost 7 men while seeking gold at Bymba (27 December). Leaving the African coast on 29 January 1565, he reached Borburata in Venezuela (3 April) where, to marry the colonists' wish to trade and a trade ban imposed by the audiencia at San Domingo, he was induced into the charade of a threat of force to protect the governor, Bernaldez, which turned into a more serious incident, to achieve satisfactory trading terms. After lading a cargo of hides at Curaçao, which he left on 15 May, Hawkins traded profitably at Rio de la Hacha, after again using force to dictate slave prices. Here he offloaded 300 negroes, wine, flour, biscuit, cloth, linen, and ready-made clothing. So successful was his stay, that he even took orders for slaves and other goods to be furnished on a subsequent voyage. Hawkins was paid in gold and silver nuggets, and worked precious metals, so that he had room for a further consignment of hides, which he hoped to acquire on Hispaniola. Unfortunately the Caribbean currents carried him west of Jamaica, and he failed to land at Havana; on reaching Florida (July) he found René de Laudonnière's French colony at Fort Caroline (established in June 1564) in the direst straits. His aid to the French sits uneasily with Williamson's view that he aimed to help Philip clear the Caribbean of French privateers. They refused his offer of a passage home, but he sold them his smallest ship, shoes, beans, and meal. Now low on victuals for the voyage home, Hawkins late in August caught and purchased cod off Newfoundland, and arrived back at Padstow, Cornwall, on 20 September, having lost only 20 men overall.

The voyage had clearly yielded a good profit: de Silva reported it to have been 60 per cent. Hawkins also brought back the sweet potato; tobacco, at first used as a fumigant and narcotic; and a detailed and encouraging report of Florida's potential value as a site for permanent self-sufficient settlement. In celebration the queen granted Hawkins a coat of arms: the crest, a demi-Moor proper bound in a cord, was a direct reference to his slaving activity. Over the next six months, in two meetings with de Silva, Hawkins seems to have discussed the possibility of aiding Philip II against the Turks in the Mediterranean with armed ships; the king did not take up the idea. Indeed Philip's intentions in the Caribbean were made perfectly clear. Only weeks after Hawkins's visit, the French colony in Florida was brutally destroyed (Hawkins had been fortunate to avoid the avenging Spanish fleet), and the governor of Borburata was sent back to Spain as a prisoner. At the ambassador's request, Hawkins signed a bond promising not to trade again in the Spanish West Indies.

The third voyage, 1567–1569

In summer and autumn 1566 four ships owned by the Hawkins brothers were fitted out at Plymouth for another slaving expedition to the Spanish main. After further charades with the privy council over their destination, to satisfy Spanish protests Hawkins was barred from going (31 October 1566). But from spring 1567 he was involved in preparing for his largest and most momentous voyage, which had more the appearance of a national undertaking, possibly a veiled threat by the queen to increasingly menacing Spanish pressure in north-west Europe. She was again a shareholder, supplying the still-rotten Jesus, and an even older 300 ton vessel, the Minion, built in 1536. No list of the new syndicate survives, but Winter and Clinton were involved and the whole scheme was again masterminded by Cecil. Using the fiction that the ships were bound merely for the African coast to exact reparation for previous injury, the promoters fooled de Silva by alleging they were also to investigate vague claims of the existence in Africa, unoccupied by Portugal, of a rich goldmine, surrounded by fertile, dye-wood producing land; these were being peddled in England by two renegade Portuguese, Luis and Homem, who were supposed to sail with Hawkins. De Silva was given renewed assurances after he discovered that the ships being loaded at Chatham contained beans, the staple food for slaves on the middle passage, and fine cloths and linens, suitable for Spanish planters.

To the queen's ships were added 4 owned by Hawkins and his brother, together 333 tons; the crew totalled 408, 1 man to 3¼ tons, almost double the proportion of Hawkins's second voyage. By the end of July the ships had assembled in the deep anchorage of the Cattewater, at Plymouth. A month later an armed Spanish squadron under the Flemish admiral de Wathen, allegedly driven into the harbour by bad weather while waiting to escort Philip II to the Netherlands, but possibly also aiming to delay the expedition, refused to dip its flags—a clear sign of hostile intent. Hawkins opened fire to enforce the salute, an action for which he was publicly reproved by the government, after Spanish protests. On 16 September Luis and Homem disappeared from Plymouth, so demonstrating their imposture. Hawkins easily persuaded the government to approve conversion of the expedition into the slaving voyage he had probably always meant it to be.

Hawkins set sail on 2 October 1567. Despite a severe gale north of Finisterre, which scattered his ships and destroyed some of their boats, they were able to rendezvous at Santa Cruz, in Tenerife, where Hawkins was wounded above the eye in a fracas with Edmund Dudley, and managed to anticipate hostile Spanish fire from the guns of the fort. On the African coast he took an abandoned Portuguese caravel, bought another, and was joined by two French ships, which helped to replenish his stock of boats, needed to enter the various rivers for slaving. But Hawkins found slaves hard to come by, and the Portuguese factors unwilling to trade. Near Cape Verde he was wounded by a poisoned arrow when trying to surprise a native village; the antidote of a clove of garlic allegedly saved him. It took a joint attack, with the local king, on the town of Conga in Sierra Leone to bring his slave numbers up to over 500, though he had lost at least 17 men in their capture. Hawkins sailed west on 7 February 1568, and after a lengthy seven-week crossing spent nine days in friendly trading at Margarita, followed by two months at Borburata. But early in June, at Rio de la Hacha, the truculent governor, after Drake had shot up his house, forced Hawkins to take the town by direct assault before trading took place. After a further revictualling stop at Santa Marta (10 July) Hawkins did not attempt an attack on the heavily fortified Cartagena, and, reducing his ships to 8, turned for home (24 July) as the hurricane season set in. After the William and John became detached (and made her own way home), Hawkins was determined not to lose the Jesus, by now a floating, worm-eaten wreck, through whose gaping holes fish swam among the ballast.

Hawkins put in to San Juan d'Uloa, on the Mexican coast, for repairs (16 September), hoping to sail away before the Spanish plate fleet arrived to transport the year's silver output at the end of the month. The Spaniards, believing Hawkins's ships to be the plate fleet, made no resistance, and he occupied a low, 240 yard island 500 yards off the shore as a safeguard during refitting. Unfortunately the plate fleet arrived the next day: it contained Don Martin Enriquez, the new viceroy of Mexico, who resented the presence of a heretic corsair on the threshold of his dominion. After being allowed to enter the harbour he took on board, by night, 120 soldiers acquired from Vera Cruz, and at 10 a.m. on 23 September began a six-hour battle. The Spanish soon captured the island, and although Hawkins sank 3 Spanish ships, only the Minion and the Judith, commanded by Francis Drake, escaped. Hawkins managed to transfer most of his treasure from the stricken Jesus to the Minion before fire-ships increased the English panic. Next morning the Judith, with most of the stores, had vanished; in Hawkins's words, it 'forsook us in our great misery' (Williamson, 145). It made its own way back to England, but to this day it is unclear why Drake deserted his commander.

Hawkins, having lost about 90 of his 320 surviving men at San Juan d'Uloa—about 30 of them being taken prisoner to Spain aboard the flota—was left with about 200 men on the badly leaking and unvictualled Minion, reduced to stewing oxhides and eating rats and parrots. After a fortnight battling against contrary winds, Hawkins landed 96 in the Gulf of Mexico, north of the area of Spanish settlement, giving each man cloth for barter. Most were captured by the Spaniards and later tried by the Mexican Inquisition: only 4 are known to have reached England. On 16 October Hawkins sailed for home. After a protracted Atlantic passage, on which many more died, he reached the port of Vigo on 31 December, there losing perhaps a further 45 crew through their devouring an excess of red meat. He reached Mount's Bay in Cornwall on 25 January 1569, with perhaps 15 survivors, and wrote to the queen, 'All is lost, save only honour' (Rowse, 381). His brother dispatched from Plymouth a fresh crew to bring the Minion home. Although the voyage had been a disaster, it was not a financial failure: admiralty court records confirm that nearly all the treasure—gold, silver, and pearls—arrived safely. The Spanish actions at San Juan d'Uloa were not forgotten for generations: English slaving voyages ceased, but were replaced by open attacks on Spanish cities and treasure ships.


Early in February 1569 Hawkins proceeded to London, where he published a brief pamphlet on his third voyage, and he and his syndicate opened proceedings against Spain in the admiralty court. The damage suffered in Mexico, allegedly over £25,000, was clearly outside the court's jurisdiction; what Hawkins wanted was leave to make reprisals—which he failed to get. He was probably the commander of a 60-strong fleet which between April and July went to land supplies and English volunteers at the French Huguenot stronghold of La Rochelle, and returned with a cargo of wine, prize goods, and church bells. From mid-1569 to February 1570 there is no evidence of Hawkins's presence in England: Spanish sources reported him to have been seen off Cape St Vincent and near Tenerife, supposedly on his way to rescue the men he had left behind in Mexico. In February 1570 he was certainly in England, since he received a commission to impress men for his New Bark—to be employed on an unspecified service to the queen. At the end of April he helped escort the Merchant Adventurers' fleet to Hamburg. He pressed Philip II's ambassador, de Spes, to intercede for the release of the survivors of his third voyage, who were languishing in dungeons at Seville. Hawkins was also meditating capture of Spain's homeward-bound plate fleets off the Azores (August 1570), employing a fighting squadron of 10–12 ships he had established at Plymouth, 'the first appearance of a western squadron in the plan of national defence' (Williamson, 174). But the government forbade Hawkins to leave the English coast: the papal bull excommunicating the queen had been issued in February, and in the summer Alva threateningly sailed from the Netherlands down the channel with a fleet of 90 ships. By the time he had left English waters it was too late to attack the plate fleets.

In March 1571, as part of the government's web of counter-espionage, Hawkins offered de Spes, obviously with Cecil's connivance, the services of his Plymouth fleet to further Spanish designs, especially the enthronement of Mary, queen of Scots (a captive in England since 1568), and the restoration of Catholicism. In return for the release of the English captives in Spain (which did occur) he was to take his fleet to the Netherlands, so leaving the west of England unprotected against assault, and help facilitate an invasion of England by Alva's troops. Using as an intermediary George Fitzwilliam, one of Hawkins's former shipmates imprisoned at Seville, but released earlier, probably because of his kinship to Jane Dormer, the English wife of the duke of Feria, Hawkins received the endorsement of Mary, queen of Scots, and details from Feria, in invisible ink, of the Ridolfi plot. Philip made Hawkins a Spanish noble, pardoned him for his Caribbean offences, and promised to pay for the upkeep of 16 ships and 1600 men for two months (September–October). Hawkins passed all his information on to Cecil, and after the duke of Norfolk, the main English conspirator, was put in the Tower (7 September), and Mary's ambassador, the bishop of Ross, confessed everything, there was no insurrection and Philip dropped his invasion plans. De Spes was expelled from England (January 1572), carrying with him a cipher from Hawkins, by which they could continue to communicate.

By spring 1572 England was growing closer to France, and Hawkins was involved in March in the pressure to clear out from the ports of south-east England the mainly Dutch privateers who damaged French trade. In the summer he was prepared to lead a contingent of English volunteers to aid William of Orange and Louis of Nassau in an invasion of the Netherlands to expel the Spanish—but he was stopped by the privy council. The massacre of St Bartholomew (August) caused the end of the invasion plans, and Hawkins and his brother helped instead to equip an English expedition which failed to relieve La Rochelle. Between 1569 and 1573 they were involved in various expeditions for trade and reprisal, financed and equipped in London, fitted out, manned, and managed from Plymouth, which the Hawkinses made 'an ocean port, a naval base, a privateers' mart, the western bastion of England's defences' (Williamson, 196). From 1571 to 1581 Hawkins was MP for Plymouth; in February 1576 he sat on a committee concerned with ports. On 11 October 1573 he narrowly avoided death in London. While riding near Temple Bar with Sir William Winter, he was stabbed by Peter Burchet, a puritan fanatic of unsound mind, who confused Hawkins with Sir Christopher Hatton, possibly because of the fine clothes Hawkins habitually wore. For some days his recovery was uncertain.

Throughout the 1570s details of merchantmen owned by Hawkins and his brother occasionally reveal themselves: in 1575 and 1576 two of their ships freighted currants to England from Zante and Cephalonia; in 1577 four were chartered to ship alum from Civitavecchia. On one occasion the underwriters challenged Hawkins's collusive activities with Huguenot privateers at Plymouth. In 1577 he invested £500 in Drake's voyage of circumnavigation, and he was vice-admiral of the squadron sent to patrol the Irish coast against the threatened invasion of Thomas Stucley.

Treasurer of the navy

On 18 November 1577 Hawkins, having acquired the reversion some years previously, succeeded to the office of treasurer of the navy, at first jointly with his father-in-law, Gonson (who died ten days later). His appointment was clearly engineered by Burghley, who, as lord treasurer (from 1572), supervised naval administration. Hawkins's influence on the navy board, probably through Gonson, seems to have antedated his formal appointment, after which he became the dominant figure, presiding over its affairs. The old orthodoxy, led by Williamson, that Hawkins, disgusted with the performance of the high-castled Jesus in the Caribbean (but impressed with her devastating firepower), spearheaded a change in naval design to favour low-built warships, better for oceanic voyages, almost solidified into fact. But, although he may well have persuaded the admiralty to accept such designs, he did not invent the ‘galleon’: its design indeed derived from the galleasses of Henry VIII's reign. 'Accumulated experience rather than the inspiration of any one man tilted the balance of opinion within the naval hierarchy' (Quinn and Ryan, 66). The 300 ton Foresight had been built on the new lines as early as 1570, and the Revenge, prototype for later battleships, in 1575. Overall, much more credit should be given to Sir William Winter, who made the ships into floating gun platforms, gradually replacing the demi-cannon with the more accurate, longer-range culverin, and to the royal shipwrights, Peter Pett, Matthew Baker, and Richard Chapman. Hawkins, the only member of the navy board who had actually sailed outside Europe, did arguably produce the overall drive which ensured that by 1588 two-thirds of the queen's ships had been built or rebuilt to the new design, so making them more adept at operating on the high seas.

The majestic, but unwieldy, old carracks, with top-heavy castles at bow and stern, floating fortresses mainly useful in close fighting, and prone to unfortunate stresses and strains, were replaced by streamlined galleons, with proportion of beam to length on the water line of about 1:3½, and lower poop and forecastle. This, together with a more efficient sail plan, increased their speed and manoeuvrability, caused them to roll less in heavy weather, and, with their armament increased, greater use could be made of the gun-ports on the lower decks in fighting at long range. After his experiences in the tropics Hawkins introduced the double skin method of ship construction, with horsehair between the planking, to keep out wood-boring beetles. In the ships' interior economy, he encouraged a ratio of 1 man to 2 tons rather than 1:1½, so reducing victual consumption, and prolonging the time a fleet could stay at sea to four, even six months. He also increased the basic pay for ordinary seamen by a third to 10s. a month, partly to improve the quality of recruits, and ensured that his sailors were properly clad. Williamson regards Hawkins as 'the only captain of his generation recorded to have shown any interest in hygiene' (Williamson, 85). On his own ships he kept live sheep and pigs, carried apples and pears, experimented with 'Brasill beds' (probably hammocks), and, on his final voyage, loaded macaroni and instruments for seventeen musicians.

A report by Hawkins—probably to Burghley, and probably dating from the first half of 1579—lambasted the rampant corruption present in the dockyards whereby over half the queen's naval expenditure and the best materials were finding their way into private hands, 'which proceeds of the wilful covetousness of one man, and to set forth his glory' (Williamson, 252). This was Winter, who appears to have dominated the navy board until Hawkins's arrival and, although he had been a partner in Hawkins's transatlantic voyages, was to be a thorn in the treasurer's side for some time. Hawkins's central proposal was an offer to reduce the combined ordinary charge and repair expenses to £4000 per annum from the £7000 he alleged they had recently been costing. By the so-called 'first bargain' with the crown of 29 September 1579, Hawkins agreed to maintain fleet moorings at Chatham for £1200 per annum. A similar crown agreement with the shipwrights Pett and Baker covered the regular grounding and caulking of ships. The bargain aimed to save the queen from peculators, so implicitly reducing the need for extraordinary warrants. To help protect Chatham, the navy's principal dockyard, from a sudden cross-channel raid, Hawkins reconstructed the fort at Sheerness and laid an iron chain boom across the river at Upnor Castle. At Dover a barrier with sluice gates prevented drifting shingle from choking the harbour entrance, so that even the largest royal ship could enter the port. From c.1582 Hawkins was a JP for Kent.

But Hawkins's activities did arouse opposition, especially from Winter, who had powerful allies on the privy council. Charges that Hawkins was corrupt and his ships unseaworthy peaked at the end of 1582, and were investigated (together with Hawkins's countercharges) by a privy council commission of 1583. Its original report is lost. A version of 25 January 1584 has recently emerged—possibly a submission to it, or a summary of its findings—which plainly exonerates Hawkins; but since it seems Hawkins was the paper's author, it clearly did not fully resolve the dispute. Hawkins did reduce ordinary naval expenditure to about £4000 per annum, as he had promised in 1579; but only once, in 1583, did he reduce total annual spending on the navy significantly below £10,000, and he never fully avoided reliance on extraordinary warrants. Indeed, total naval expenditure increased from £17,903 in 1585 to £90,813 in 1588. Hawkins was criticized for a lower rate of repair, but he changed the emphasis to rebuilding a single ship annually. His ambitious rolling plan for such repairs (which extended up to 1599) was the basis of the 'second bargain' of June 1585, best viewed as a compromise between Hawkins and his opponents. Winter described it as 'nothing … but cunning and craft to maintain [Hawkins's] pride and ambition' (Quinn and Ryan, 67), but henceforth they seem to have collaborated amicably. Hawkins additionally took over, for a further £1714 per annum, the master shipwrights' responsibility for extraordinary ship-repairs, principally heavy repair activity in dry dock, including payment of wages and provision of the necessary materials and victuals. The second bargain was never effectively implemented, since war with Spain broke out soon after it was signed and Hawkins's orderly plans were overtaken by extensive new shipbuilding, which rendered a regular repair schedule impossible. Six brand-new ships were built (1586–7) and major reforms were made to 13 others, under extraordinary warrants. By December 1587 the queen had 25 fighting ships of 100 tons or above, and 18 ocean-going pinnaces, useful for inshore activity. By the end of 1587 the second bargain had become unworkable, and was terminated, at Hawkins's request; he wished to free himself for the role of commanding the western squadron, based at Plymouth.

The Armada, 1579–1588

As early as August 1579, in a memorandum on an opening naval campaign in the event of war, Hawkins suggested sending such a squadron to capture the flota and systematically raid the Spanish Indies to stem Spanish wealth. A more precise memorandum to Burghley of July 1584, as war loomed, suggested an agreement with the Portuguese pretender, Dom Antonio, for Englishmen to fight under his flag alongside Dutch and Huguenot raiders. The aim was to encourage revolt in the Portuguese colonies against Spain, destroy Spanish fishing by attacking the annual Basque fleets to the Newfoundland Banks, sack the Atlantic islands, and keep the coast of Spain under constant alarm, all the while accommodating the queen's aversion to a formal declaration of war, and fighting in a way that was largely self-financing and, for Hawkins, self-enriching (since booty taken would be disposed of in Plymouth). All this would avoid expensive military adventures. In 1586 Hawkins was given command of a squadron which may have been intended for some of these objectives. But the Babington plot, the presence of Guise troops in Normandy, and the realization that Philip's Armada was being constructed, led to the council limiting Hawkins's activities to plying up and down the channel. When, in late summer, he was allowed off the leash, he failed to intercept either the silver fleet or the Portuguese East Indian carracks; but, after cruising along the coasts of Spain and Portugal, he did return home in late October with four minor prizes. It had been a low-key venture, and its primary object may have been support for the Huguenots in La Rochelle rather than the disruption of Spanish commerce. But as Rodger notes, Hawkins had shown that English ships could remain at sea for three months, off an enemy coast, 600 miles from base—a rare feat.

During the wait for the Armada Drake had been put in command at Plymouth, while Hawkins remained at Chatham at the elbow of the lord admiral, Lord Howard of Effingham. In December 1587 Hawkins showed he could fully mobilize the fleet in little more than a fortnight; Howard confirmed to Burghley (21 February 1588) that the ships were in excellent condition. It was early in June 1588 before Hawkins finally joined the assembled fleet at Plymouth. He owned 3 of the ships that fought the Armada and, as rear-admiral and later vice-admiral, he commanded the 800 ton Victory, one of the ships he had rebuilt at Deptford. Ranking third in seniority after Howard and Drake, he was a member of the war council. When the fleet spread out towards Ushant, Hawkins commanded the inshore squadron towards the Isles of Scilly. He hotly engaged a group of Spanish ships off Eddystone (21 July), expended much powder and shot off Portland Bill (23rd), and, after commanding one of the four squadrons at the Isle of Wight (25th), he was knighted by the lord admiral on board the Ark Royal (26th). The English galleons completely outsailed and outmanoeuvred the clumsy Armada carracks, and decisively outgunned them at their chosen range. Not a single English ship withdrew from the fight through damage by the elements or the enemy, and Hawkins's effective victualling of the fleet allowed it to chase the Armada past the Firth of Forth.

The last years, 1589–1595

Once it was clear that Parma's invasion had been baulked, Hawkins began paying off the sailors and refitting the ships at Chatham. Delays through bad weather and shortage of money made Burghley angry, and he wrote a sharp letter to Hawkins, who complained to Sir Francis Walsingham:

My pain and misery in this service is infinite … God, I trust, will deliver me of it ere … long, for there is no other hell. I devise to ease charge and shorten what I can … but my Lord Treasurer thinketh I do little.

Read, Lord Burghley, 431

From 1 January 1589 Hawkins was given a year's leave of absence from the office of navy treasurer to enable him to sort out the muddled accounts left by the Armada campaign. Later in that year he took on the additional navy board role of comptroller. In spring 1589, although he distrusted continental military operations, he and his brother helped to collect supplies for Drake's disorderly and abortive attempt to capture Lisbon.

Hawkins submitted to Burghley (July 1589) a scheme for a 'silver blockade', which he had suggested to Walsingham the previous year. This involved maintaining a continuous patrol of the area between Spain and the Azores, in relays of 6 large ships and 6 pinnaces, with 1800 men, victualled for four months, and partly financed by private adventurers. The aim was to stop the flow of East Indian and American wealth to Spain, so crippling her war machine, as well as assuring handsome profits by way of prizes, and opening the way for further English oceanic enterprises. This influenced Elizabethan strategic thinking, but it is unclear whether Hawkins was right, since the continuity essential to the plan was never realized, even for a single year, and such a commitment would have meant half the Royal Navy being unavailable for home defence. Early in 1590 Hawkins did fit out an expedition in two squadrons: 7 galleons under Sir Martin Frobisher were to sail to the Azores; Hawkins, victualled for six months, was to operate off the Spanish coast with a further 6 ships. The aim was to intercept the Spanish treasure fleet. But the queen, worried by reports of another Spanish armada massing at Corunna, and of Philip's intention to use Brittany as a base for the invasion of England, kept Hawkins in port until late June, when the treasure was safely home, transported in fast frigates (gallizabras). He captured some prizes off the Spanish coast, but abandoned his blockade to relieve Frobisher off the Azores, so allowing a Spanish fleet to sail unmolested and occupy Blavet in Brittany. As a result Hawkins was summoned home, and he returned to Plymouth in October. Even such an ineffective blockade certainly disrupted Spanish trade, and persuaded Philip to hold back the main flota in Havana that year. Indeed, during the period 1589–91, 236 English privateering vessels, working as individuals rather than a team, took 300 prizes, worth £400,000.

In 1590 Hawkins and Drake took the lead in founding the pioneer scheme of contributory social insurance known as the Chatham chest, a fund used to compensate injured and disabled sailors, pay pensions to the aged, and burial money for the dead—so-called because the 5 per cent deducted from the wages of all seamen on the royal ships was lodged in a large chest. Hawkins also built an almshouse at Chatham (1592) for 12 poor seamen and shipwrights (and their wives), known as Sir John Hawkins Hospital; it survives today. Hawkins's wife died early in July 1591; soon after he married Margaret (d. 1619), daughter of Charles Vaughan, of Hergest Court, Herefordshire, and a lady of the bedchamber to the queen. They had no children. After Hawkins's death she behaved meanly to her stepson Richard, withholding money which would have ransomed him from Spanish captivity.

After Hawkins's expedition of 1590 the government made no attempt to launch a silver blockade. The fleet was kept at Chatham to prevent a Spanish army landing, while English troops were employed in costly military operations in France and the Netherlands. The fleet was increased by the construction (1590–96) of 16 more ships. In July 1592 and February 1594 Hawkins attempted to resign from the navy board, but was not allowed to do so. On 12 February 1593 he was awarded £2400 from the plunder of the Madre de Dios. In 1594 his son Richard was captured by the Spaniards in Peru; he was not to return to England until 1602.

1595 saw Hawkins, with Drake, embarking on his final expedition, which aimed to follow up John Oxenham's abortive attempt of 1576–7 and land at Nombre de Dios, cross the isthmus, and capture Panama, thereby choking off supplies of Peruvian silver from Spain. It was clearly a mistake to give Hawkins and Drake equal command: they were temperamentally unsuited to co-operation. Hawkins worked with foresight and careful planning; Sir Thomas Gorges reported from Plymouth on 16 July that Hawkins 'sees all things done properly' (Harrison, 1.308). By contrast Drake disliked administration, rarely thought ahead, and was mercurial in his changes of plan. The choice of Hawkins may have represented the influence of the queen, to provide a moderating influence on the impetuous Drake; or it may have been a temporary alliance between competing privateering factions. The two commanders were each to take a third of any booty. The queen, who provided 6 ships, was to receive the rest. By the beginning of March, reports of the preparations had reached Spain; by early in May the ships were in Plymouth, ready to depart, with 2500 men on board (half of them soldiers). But a long delay, for which the queen personally blamed them, allowed a Spanish raid from Brittany (23 July) to burn three Cornish ports. Elizabeth, to the fury of her commanders, frequently changed her mind, ordering them to cruise off the Irish and Spanish coasts—to forestall a further Spanish armada, aimed at Ireland or England—then banned them from sailing at all.

When Hawkins and Drake finally departed, it was only on condition that they returned within six months, to counter the Spanish invasion envisaged in 1596. This was hardly enough time in which to capture Panama, and clearly reduced the expedition to a mere hit-and-run treasure hunt. Before the 27-strong fleet finally left Plymouth on 28 August, with Hawkins in the 660 ton Garland, built in 1590, they had learnt that the plate fleet was already in Spain, apart from its bullion-laden but crippled flagship, lying at San Juan, Puerto Rico; this Drake aimed to capture. Since Drake and Hawkins sailed on different ships, often out of communication for days on end, factional disputes were liable to occur. Hawkins agreed only reluctantly to a time-wasting and ultimately abortive diversion to Gran Canaria (27 September) for further victualling of Drake's ships. The delay allowed Philip to send ships to the Caribbean, which captured the Francis off Guadeloupe, so discovering the fleet's destination. They then moved to strengthen the defences at Puerto Rico. On 31 October 1595 Hawkins became ill; by 2 November he was unable to leave his bed, and at about 3 p.m. on the 12th he died. He was buried at sea off Puerto Rico.

The fleet returned with a fifth of the complement dead, including Drake, and a pitiful £5000 in booty. 'It represented the nadir of Elizabethan strategy' (Andrews, Trade, Plunder and Settlement, 241). Hawkins's will left funds for the poor of London, Deptford, and Plymouth; in a codicil he left the queen £2000. There was no monument to Hawkins in Plymouth. But his will provided for one to be erected to his memory in the church of St Dunstan-in-the-East, in which parish he had lived for thirty years. This had a long Latin inscription; another, even longer, in English, appeared on a nearby mural tablet. Both perished, along with the church, in the fire of 1666.

Character and achievement

The Victorians, judging sixteenth-century morals from the standpoint of Wilberforce, saw Hawkins as primarily the greedy and unscrupulous father of a lucrative English slave trade. Williamson's three, increasingly refined, volumes (1927–69) produced an exhaustive and very readable narrative that embraced Spanish sources and widened the picture to show Hawkins's role as a maritime strategist and naval reformer. But both he and Lewis (a Hawkins descendant), in a rather cloying work of familial piety, portrayed him in roseate hues, at times approaching idolatry. A further corrective has been spearheaded by Andrews, whose lucidly sharp yet temperate writings emphasize the immaturity of Elizabethan sea power and naval strategy, and view Hawkins as a more autocratic figure, whose hands were less clean and heart less pure than Williamson suggests. More recently specialist periodical articles have further clarified Hawkins's role as naval treasurer.

A product of his age, which accepted slaving with an easy mind, Hawkins was probably happier at sea than ashore, and showed a mastery of all aspects of ship-handling. As a commander he enforced strict discipline, but seems to have won affection as well as respect—praying with dying seamen, showing an interest in their families, and less prone to use corporal punishment on shipboard than many of his contemporaries. He was a first-class businessman, and his three slaving voyages demonstrated his robust and opportunistic eye for profit. His drive, method, and relative honesty in an age when public and private funds are difficult to disentangle, helped advance a revolution in English ship design, though his criticism of Winter is not substantiated elsewhere. As a naval strategist, his boldness and imagination paid insufficient attention to the needs of home defence. Hawkins took every chance of personally acquainting himself with politicians and courtiers. His courtesy, charm, and diplomatic finesse could gull Philip II and his ambassadors in England, and caused Castellanos, his adversary at Rio de la Hacha in 1565 and 1568, to be reported as saying, 'No-one talking to him hath any power to deny him anything that he doth request … not through any villainy … but because of his great nobility' (Lewis, 107). Once an orthodox Catholic, by degrees his letters developed a puritan ring, so that the queen, on reading his letter to Burghley of 31 October 1590, is alleged to have exclaimed, 'God's death! This fool went out a soldier and has come home a divine' (DNB). Overall, if Drake's maritime pyrotechnics have given him a higher historical profile, it was the steadying ballast provided by Hawkins that did more to stiffen the Elizabethan response to the challenge of Spain. Long after his death, when naval administration was ineffective and the condition of the royal ships had noticeably deteriorated, observers looked back at Hawkins's stewardship as a golden age of efficiency and probity.


  • J. A. Williamson, Hawkins of Plymouth, 2nd edn (1969)
  • K. R. Andrews, Trade, plunder and settlement: maritime enterprise and the genesis of the British empire, 1480–1630 (1984)
  • D. M. Loades, The Tudor navy (1992)
  • S. Adams, ‘New light on the Reformation of John Hawkins: the Ellesmere naval survey of January 1584’, EngHR, 105 (1990), 96–111
  • D. B. Quinn and A. N. Ryan, England's sea empire, 1550–1642 (1983)
  • N. A. M. Rodger, The safeguard of the sea: a naval history of Britain, 1: 660–1649 (1997)
  • G. Parker, ‘The dreadnought revolution of Tudor England’, Mariner's Mirror, 82 (1996), 269–300
  • K. R. Andrews, ed., The last voyage of Drake and Hawkins (1972)
  • M. W. S. Hawkins, Plymouth Armada heroes (1888)
  • M. Lewis, The Hawkins dynasty (1969)
  • R. Unwin, The defeat of John Hawkins (1960)
  • D. W. Waters, ‘The Elizabethan navy and the Armada campaign’, Mariner's Mirror, 35 (1949), 90–138
  • R. B. Wernham, ‘Elizabethan war aims and strategy’, Elizabethan government and society, ed. S. T. Bindoff, J. Hurstfield, and C. H. Williams (1961), 340–68
  • W. N. Gunson, ‘Who was Richard Hawkins?’, Mariner's Mirror, 80 (1994)
  • G. Mattingly, The defeat of the Spanish Armada (1962)
  • C. Martin and G. Parker, The Spanish Armada (1988)
  • G. B. Harrison, ed., The Elizabethan journals, 2 vols. (1965)
  • M. J. Rodriguez-Salgado and others, Armada, 1588–1988 (1988)
  • D. Loades, The mid-Tudor crisis, 1545–1565 (1992)
  • J. McDermott, Martin Frobisher, Elizabethan privateer (2001)
  • T. Glasgow, review of J. A. Williamson, Hawkins of Plymouth, Mariner's Mirror, 56 (1970), 122–3



  • oils, 1581, NMM
  • attrib. F. Zuccaro, oils, 1591, Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery [see illus.]
  • R. Boissard, engraving, 1603, repro. in Holland, Baziliologia (1618)
  • S. de Passe, line engraving, BM, NPG; repro. in Holland, Herōologia (1620)
  • W. and M. van de Passe, line engraving (after unknown artist), BM, NPG
  • photograph of bas-relief, repro. in Hawkins, Plymouth Armada heroes

Wealth at Death

see Hawkins, Plymouth Armada heroes, 72–5

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