HAWKINS, John (1532-95), of Plymouth, Devon and St. Dunstan-in-the East, London.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1558-1603, ed. P.W. Hasler, 1981
Available from Boydell and Brewer



Family and Education

b. 1552, 2nd s. of William Hawkins of Plymouth. m. (1) c.1559, Katharine (d.1591), da. of Benjamin Gonson, treasurer of the navy, 1s.; (2) Margaret (d.1619), da. of Charles Vaughan of Hergest Court, Herefs., s.p. Kntd. 1588.

Offices Held

Freeman, Plymouth 1556; treasurer of the navy from 1577, comptroller from 1589; r.-adm. 1588; v.-adm. 1588.

J.p. Kent from c.1582, q. from c.1583.


Slaver, privateer and admiralty official, Hawkins came from a Plymouth merchant family with gentry connexions. A puritan, he was persona grata to the 2nd Earl of Bedford, and no doubt the two, jointly or separately, but in either case amicably, settled the choice of town MPs. Hawkins himself sat for the borough twice in this period, and his son once in the next. His control over Plymouth was criticised in 1589 by Sir Henry Norris II in words which recall the unproven charges of peculation brought against Hawkins in his capacity as treasurer of the navy:

the mayor and Mr. Hawkins, who carry the greatest sway in the town, under cover of their authority do hinder both the town and country from buying of anything, to the end to bring all things to base prices and then to take them into their own hands.

Hawkins was appointed to a conference with the Lords concerning the maintenance of the navy and the increase of tillage on 21 May 1571. Three days after the beginning of the 1576 session of Parliament, Hawkins and his fellow-burgess for Plymouth, Edmund Tremayne, were licensed to be absent from the House ‘for their necessary affairs’ (11 Feb.); two days later they were both named to a committee concerned with ports.

This biography of Hawkins, the Plymouth MP, cannot attempt to do justice to Hawkins the man who revolutionized ship design in the royal dockyards, and served with distinction under Howard and Drake against the Armada. He died 12 Nov. 1595, at sea off Porto Rico, in the same expedition as Drake and a few weeks before him. He had made his will the previous 3 Mar. appointing Thomas Hughes and Richard Reynell trustees. On 8 Nov. he added a codicil leaving the Queen £2,000 to ‘make your Majesty the best amends’ for what he knew she must lose by the failure of the expedition. The will was proved by the widow 28 Apr. 1596. A contemporary described Hawkins as having ‘malice with dissimulation, rudeness in behaviour and covetousness in the last degree’, but a modern biographer of Drake, Hawkins’s pupil who ‘had outstripped the teacher’, with whom Hawkins was at the last, tragically, at odds, corrects the balance:

Hawkins in his youth had been as bold as any of the privateersmen of his age, but years of service in the dockyards and a good deal of aspersion on his honesty and some amount of personal misfortune had made him cautious. ... The debt of England to him—and it is a vast debt—is that in her great struggle for the right to live in her own way and by her own rules, the ships by which she established that right were better designed, better built, easier to handle and swifter in manoeuvre than any others which sailed the seas.

DNB; J. A. Williamson, John Hawkins; A. L. Rowse, Tudor Cornw. 399; CJ, i. 91, 105; D’Ewes, 187, 247; M. W. S. Hawkins, Plymouth Armada Heroes, 39; HMC Pepys, 65, 173; K. R. Andrews, ‘Economic Aspects of Elizabethan Privateering’ (London Univ. PhD thesis, 1951), p. 227; PCC 26 Drake; A. E. W. Mason, Francis Drake, 413-14.

Ref Volumes: 1558-1603

Author: P. W. Hasler