NORRIS, Sir John (c.1671-1749), of Benenden, Kent, and St. Paul’s, Covent Garden, London
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Family and Education
b. c.1671. m. 30 May 1699, aged 28, Elizabeth (d. 1763), da. of Matthew Aylmer*, 1st Lord Aylmer [I], wid. of Capt. Chester Moore, RN (d.s.p. 1696), 9s. (6 d.v.p) 4da. (1 d.v.p.). Kntd. 25 Nov. 1705.1
Ent. RN 1680, midshipman by 1687, lt. 1689, capt. 1690, r.-adm. 1707, v.-adm. 1708, adm. 1709, c.-in-c. Mediterranean 1710–11, Baltic squadron 1715–27, adm. of the fleet and c.-in-c. 1734–44; envoy, Russia July–Aug. 1717, Denmark May–Aug. 1727; ld. of Admiralty 1718–30; plenip. Sweden May–Oct. 1720, Portugal 1735–7.2
Freeman, Portsmouth 1710.3
Norris’ parentage remains obscure, though on the basis of later family connexions with Ireland it has been suggested that he could have been of Irish extraction. In the first ten or so years of his naval career he served mainly under the command of Captain Clowdesley Shovell*, who was probably the first to recognize qualities in the young Norris that merited advancement. During the 1690s he saw service as a captain under admirals Russell (Edward*), Rooke (Sir George*) and Aylmer, the last of whom was to become his father-in-law, and he was present at most major naval engagements in those years. He won Russell’s particular admiration for his daring pursuit and capture of a French man-of-war in the Mediterranean in January 1695. It was Russell (as Lord Orford and first lord of the Admiralty) who shielded Norris to some extent following his controversial refusal to engage a French squadron during an expedition to Newfoundland in July 1697, and who in the long term may have saved his career, although he was unable to prevent the judgment of misconduct by the House of Lords that resulted in Norris’ being relieved of his commission in July 1699. The episode became something of a cause célèbre, not least for the opportunity it gave of sustaining opposition attacks on Orford’s administration. The possibility that Rooke was foremost among Norris’ accusers is suggested by a report that Norris had stirred up a rumour that the admiral had been blackmailed into signing a commission for one Captain Wyvill. Rooke challenged Norris to a duel which they fought in Spring Gardens in February 1700, Norris coming off worse with a wounded arm. It may well have been Orford who in 1701 encouraged Norris to appeal against the Lords’ verdict and seek reinstatement. Although the general animus against Orford had by no means subsided, prejudicial feeling towards Norris in the Upper House had run its course, so much so that he was heard, exonerated and ordered to be restored within the space of a week at the beginning of March 1701.4
Resuming his duties almost immediately, Norris was back with his old commander Sir Clowdesley Shovell in the Mediterranean fleet by 1703. In 1705 he was appointed flag captain to the joint commanders Shovell and Lord Peterborough in the expedition to capture Barcelona. On conveying to London the despatches for this successful action he was knighted and presented with 1,000 guineas. In March 1707 he was promoted to rear-admiral of the blue, an advancement which he seems to have owed primarily to Secretary Lord Sunderland (Charles, Lord Spencer*) whose patronage he readily embraced. He wrote thanking Sunderland ‘for the great favour your lordship did me in it; I shall ever use my utmost to obey all your lordship’s commands and humbly pray your lordship’s patronage’. Continuing to serve in the senior command with Shovell in the Mediterranean, he took part in the attempt on Toulon, and on his homeward voyage in October was caught in the fierce storm in which Shovell’s flagship was wrecked off the Scilly Isles. He relayed the news of Shovell’s disappearance in a hastily scribbled note to Sunderland: ‘Sir George [Byng*] tells me . . . he has acquainted your lordship of our coming home and in an unfortunate storm, of our falling among the Rocks of Scilly since which our admiral Sir Clowdesley has not been heard of, but I hope in God he may yet be well.’ Shovell’s death ended their long professional association and friendship, though Norris’ prevailing sense of gratitude and obligation to Shovell is plain from the contacts he maintained with the admiral’s family. His longstanding friendship with Byng, however, seems to have become strained from 1708 as a result of Byng’s failure to cripple the Jacobite invasion fleet. Thereafter, Norris could never overcome his suspicion that Byng was a crypto-Jacobite and had deliberately contrived this failure.5
Promoted to vice-admiral in January 1708, Norris was posted as second-in-command to Sir John Leake*. It was while serving in the Mediterranean in May that he was elected for Rye, almost certainly by prior invitation from Prince George, the lord warden of the Cinque Ports. Though not at heart a parliamentarian, Norris was naturally identified with the Junto Whigs through his attachment to Lord Orford: thus Lord Sunderland, in analysing the returns, could regard his election as a Whig gain. In 1709 he commanded a patrol in the Baltic, and was promoted to full admiral in November when his father-in-law took over command of the fleet. Early the next year he was given the Mediterranean command, and in the September general election he was returned again for Rye. For his services in assisting the military operations in Spain, the Habsburg claimant, Archduke Charles, promised him a dukedom and a pension of 4,000 ducats ‘for ever’. The dukedom was never conferred, but, as Norris’ will shows, the pension was paid regularly. In October 1711 the Tory ministry relieved him of the Mediterranean command and employed him no more. This, however, allowed him to devote more time to Parliament, where he was bound to find proceedings on the progress of the war of special interest, and where he supported the Whig opposition. On 7 Dec. 1711 he voted with his party in favour of the ‘No Peace without Spain’ motion. That he also paid attention to more specialized items of parliamentary business, at least on naval matters, is evident from the tellership he performed on 16 Apr. 1712 on a question about a specific exemption from a bill allocating additional revenues for the upkeep of Greenwich Hospital. He voted on 18 June 1713 with his Whig brethren against the French commerce bill, while on 18 Mar. 1714 he voted against the expulsion of Richard Steele. Needless to say he was also marked as a Whig in other lists of the House drawn up in 1713 and 1715.6
Appointed in March 1715 by the new Whig regime to lead the Baltic fleet, Norris spent most of the remainder of his life in the naval high command. The complex situation which prevailed in the Baltic area during George I’s reign involved him in diplomatic as well as strategic activity. None the less, by the end of the 1720s he was clearly restive that Walpole (Robert II*) had obtained no reward or promotion for him, and with his son John†, joined Pulteney’s (William*) opposition, thereby losing his place on the Admiralty Board. His estrangement from Walpole lasted until the beginning of 1734, when he was appointed admiral of the fleet and commander-in-chief. He remained in office until March 1744 when his outrage at the Admiralty’s intrusive attempts to direct strategy in the renewed hostilities against the French provoked him into resignation.
Norris died on 13 June 1749, and was buried at Benenden in Kent, a short distance to the north-west of his Rye constituency, where, before his purchase of nearby Hemsted Park in or soon after 1718, he had owned a house since 1708. The monument erected in the town to his memory extolled his professionalism in the highest terms by declaring ‘there never breathed a better seaman, a greater officer, a braver man, a more zealous well-wisher to the establishment, nor consequently a truer Englishman, than this Sir John Norris’.7
Ref Volumes: 1690-1715
Author: Andrew A. Hanham
Unless otherwise stated, this biography is based on the DNB entry, and on D. D. Aldridge, ‘Admiral Sir John Norris’, Mariner’s Mirror, li. 173-83.
- 1. St. Paul’s Covent Garden (Harl. Soc. Reg. xxxiii), 112, 115, 120, 126, 131, 144, 155, 160, 171, 176, 186; PCC 193 Lisle.
- 2. Br. Dip. Reps. (Cam. Soc. ser. 3, xlvi), 3, 99, 111–12, 142.
- 3. R. East, Portsmouth Recs. 374.
- 4. Luttrell, Brief Relation, iv. 506, 540, 616, v. 22, 24, 25; Northants. RO, Montagu (Boughton) mss 48/36, James Vernon I* to Duke of Shrewsbury, 22 Feb. 1699[–1700].
- 5. Add. 61587, ff. 136, 188.
- 6. Boyer, Anne Annals, vii. 179–90; NLW, Penrice and Margam mss L597, Edward Southwell* to (Sir) Thomas Mansel I*, 11 May 1708.
- 7. Hasted, Kent, iii. 83.