ROBINS, John (b.c.1511), of Dover, Kent.
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Family and Education
Robins was a master mariner who owned some of the ships of the Dover passage. Judging from a deposition taken in February 1577, which estimated his age at ‘sixty-five or thereabouts’, he must have been born about 1511. His name, however, has not been traced in the extensive Dover records before the middle years of Edward VI’s reign, when he would have been nearly 40. This, coupled with the absence of any reference to his family prior to that date, suggests that he may not have been a native of the town. Whatever his origins, he played an important and stormy part in the local affairs of Dover for the next quarter of a century, holding at one time or another virtually every civic office.3
He was first returned to Parliament in 1559, at a time when a vacancy in the office of lord warden gave the town the chance to elect two local men. While in London he and other barons of the Cinque Ports asserted their traditional right of carrying the Queen’s canopy at her coronation. Shortly after his return from Westminster he became involved in the fierce quarrels in the Dover common council which were a feature of this period: he and Thomas Warren, his fellow-Member, were fined £4 each in July 1559 ‘for their disobedience to the mayor’s commandment’. So bad was the situation that the government set up a commission of inquiry in the same year. Robins’s first term as mayor also reflected this disquiet. According to one local historian the Privy Council appointed William Hannington† as mayor in September 1561 and, on their instructions, he retained the office for a year and a half, but the Dover common council records show that Robins was mayor by 6 Oct. 1562, less than a month after the normal date of election. Unfortunately the council minutes for 1562-3 are badly mutilated. During his mayoralty Robins was returned to Parliament for the second time. He and Warren were paid at least £12 for ‘their Parliament wages’.4
Robins served as a jurat on a number of occasions, the gaps in his attendance being presumably due to his business affairs. In 1577 he sought the office of mayor for the third time, and again trouble followed. The Privy Council wrote to the lord warden:
upon some strife among the inhabitants of Dover for the election of a mayor, their lordships directed their letters to the mayor for the time being, the jurats and commons of the same, advising them to make choice of one Thomas Andrews [II], recommended unto them to be a fit person for that purpose, [but they], contrary thereunto, have proceeded to the election of one John Robins, whereupon hath risen a tumult to the great disquieting of them all.
Robins and some of his supporters, including Thomas Warren, were summoned before the Council to explain their conduct. Eventually a compromise resulted in the election of a third candidate two months later.5
Between his periods of political activity at Dover and in Parliament, Robins seems to have pursued an active career at sea. He owned several ships and was concerned principally with the cross-channel trade to Calais. On at least one occasion, however, he must have ventured further afield. In August 1565 he was summoned before the Privy Council to answer a complaint by the King of Denmark. At that time Denmark was at war with Sweden, and presumably Robins was one of the English merchants who risked Danish displeasure by supplying goods to Sweden at lucrative prices. He also served as a naval captain, as a list of the late 1570s reveals, and in September 1580, when he was not far short of 70, he was commanded by the Privy Council to put himself in readiness to take charge of one of the Queen’s ships.
Earlier, in 1551, he and Hugh Lloyd had been paid £50 compensation for delivering up two French prisoners without ransom as a result of the peace treaty. It is just possible that he was the John Robins who was a merchant based on Exeter in the later years of Henry VIII’s reign. If that is so, he was imprisoned in Spain for two years from 1539 on a charge of trying to export contraband goods.