HAWKINS, Sir Richard (c.1560-1622), of Plymouth, Devon; later of Slapton, Devon

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1604-1629, ed. Andrew Thrush and John P. Ferris, 2010
Available from Cambridge University Press



Family and Education

b. c.1560,1 ?illegit. s. of Sir John Hawkins† of London.2 m. by 1593, Judith (d. 30 May 1629), da. of Thomas Hele of Exeter, Devon, 2s. 3da.3 suc. fa. 1595;4 kntd. 23 July 1603.5 d. bef. 27 Apr. 1622.6 sig. Richard Hawkyns.

Offices Held

Capt. RN 1585-6, 1588, 1590;7 v.-adm., Algiers expedition 1620-1.8

Freeman, Plymouth 1589,9 member, common council by 1591, mayor 1603-4;10 commr. prize goods, Dartmouth, Devon 1592;11 v.-adm. Devon 1603-10 (sequestered 1606-7);12 commr. piracy, Devon 1603-at least 1607, 1619-20,13 j.p. 1604-d.14

Cttee. Spanish Co. 1605;15 member, Council for Virg. 1607,16 Africa Co. 1618.17


Originally from Tavistock, Devon, Hawkins’ forebears settled in Plymouth in the early sixteenth century. His grandfather, William, the first recorded Englishman to trade with South America, became the town’s wealthiest merchant, serving as mayor and representing Plymouth three times in Parliament between 1539 and 1553. An active privateer, he was also imprisoned in 1545 by the Privy Council on a charge of piracy.18 Hawkins’ famous father, Sir John, likewise made his fortune as a merchant, possibly initiating England’s involvement in the African slave trade, and twice sat for Plymouth in the Commons. As treasurer of the Navy from 1577, he prepared the fleet that withstood the Spanish Armada, and commanded a squadron during that campaign, but earlier in his career he too trod a fine line between privateering and piracy.19

Hawkins, who was reputedly born at Plymouth, was either illegitimate or the product of an undocumented marriage. He himself stated that Katherine Gonson, his father’s first recorded wife and the woman commonly identified as his mother, was actually his step-mother. Whatever the true circumstances of his birth, Hawkins was acknowledged by his father, who had no legitimate children. He apparently remained in his grandfather’s care when Sir John settled in London in the mid-1560s, and once he came of age he received a half-share in his father’s Plymouth house.20 In 1582 he served as second-in-command to his uncle, William Hawkins, during a voyage to the West Indies which apparently included an attack on a Spanish plate fleet. He returned to the Caribbean three years later as captain of a galliot in the government-sponsored raid led by his cousin, Sir Francis Drake†. He also held commands during the Armada campaign, and in his father’s privateering expedition of 1590. In the aftermath of this voyage, he abetted Sir John’s efforts to detain certain prize goods that the Crown had ordered to be returned to their owners.21

In June 1593 Hawkins set out at the head of his own expedition, planning to sail to the East Indies via the Magellan Straits. During the following spring he raided the Pacific coast of South America, but in mid-June he was engaged at sea by much superior Spanish forces. After three days’ fighting, believing himself to be mortally wounded, he surrendered.22 Initially held prisoner at Lima, it took 12 months for news of Hawkins’ capture to reach England. His father, then about to sail to the West Indies, amended his will to provide a £3,000 ransom for his son, but with the curious stipulation that the money should be released only if Hawkins failed to return home by December 1598. Sir John died in November 1595 off Puerto Rico, but the vital bequest was not honoured, and Hawkins was left to fend for himself.23 Brought to Spain in 1597, he briefly escaped from his Seville prison the next year, and was then was transferred to Madrid. From here he vigorously lobbied the English government to secure his release. Negotiations eventually commenced in 1600, but it took two years to agree terms, which included an exchange of prisoners, and possibly payment of a ransom. Before leaving Spain Hawkins, remarkably unbowed by his long ordeal, visited the Court in Madrid to see his erstwhile captors for himself, and finally reached Plymouth again in December 1602.24

Once back in England, Hawkins laid claim to his inheritance. His father had left him an estate worth around £140 per annum, with further properties to follow after the death of his stepmother, Lady Margaret, Sir John’s second wife. Dissatisfied with these terms, Hawkins extracted an additional £4,200 from Margaret, the bulk of which was the sum originally intended to pay his ransom. This concession left him a comparatively wealthy man, but he claimed in the following year that his long imprisonment had cost him £30,000, and the spectre of financial ruin continued to haunt him. As soon as formal discussions began for peace with Spain in 1604, he organized a new trading venture to the West Indies in partnership with Sir Thomas Myddelton I*, but this expedition ended in disaster when the crew of one of his ships was massacred at San Domingo. Hawkins, who claimed that the shareholders thereby lost at least £3,000, promptly requested the Privy Council to seek redress on his behalf, but without success.25

At the same time that he tried to revive his finances through the West Indies trading venture, Hawkins sought to rebuild his career in England. It was probably at around this time that he wrote an account of his ill-fated Pacific voyage, in which he set out his credentials as a naval expert, but the imminent peace with Spain apparently persuaded him to delay publication.26 Knighted in July 1603, he was elected mayor of Plymouth that autumn. By then, he had also become vice-admiral of Devon, in succession to the disgraced Sir Walter Ralegh†, a post that brought him an unwelcome degree of notoriety. His new office was not straightforward in execution. Hawkins was now responsible for collecting Admiralty dues and suppressing piracy on a stretch of coast running some 80 miles eastwards from his home town. This logistical challenge meant that many suspected pirates eluded his grasp, and it was frequently difficult to assemble enough firm evidence to secure convictions. In addition, he was obliged to collaborate with rival jurisdictions. Despite his official title, the north Devon ports of Barnstaple and Ilfracombe formed a separate vice-admiralty, under the authority of the earl of Bath. Tensions between the two vice-admirals reached such a height that in February 1605 Nottingham was obliged to issue fresh patents clarifying their respective roles. Successive mayors of Dartmouth also asserted their own local privileges in the face of Hawkins’ authority, and deliberately obstructed his officers. Moreover, when major cases did come to trial in Devon, the vice-admiral counted as just one of many local justices; in June 1608 Hawkins had to ignore an Admiralty order concerning a particular pirate because his fellow magistrates insisted on trying him themselves. Some suspects foiled him by obtaining royal pardons, while the correct handling of goods confiscated from alleged privateers, particularly foreign ones, was complicated by England’s shifting diplomatic priorities.27

Even so, Hawkins rapidly attracted accusations of corruption. He clearly hoped to make money from his office, as he paid lord admiral Nottingham £300 for a moiety of the rights and profits of the vice-admiralty. His patent allowed him to compound with offenders, a useful option when the evidence against them was doubtful, and he took full advantage of this. However, he was widely believed to drop charges in return for bribes, and some of his deals were certainly lucrative. In November 1603 Josias Goodwyn was released without charge after Hawkins confiscated £40 or £50 in gold from him. In the following year he secured a windfall of £100 when one Captain Fall, an alleged privateer, agreed to hand over his ship. Far from denying that he had made such profits, Hawkins complained in 1610 that what he had gained by such means was more than cancelled out by his official expenses, and that it was all accounted for with the lord admiral.28 This attitude made him particularly unpopular with foreign merchants who sought to recover their stolen goods. In October 1603 Hawkins allowed William Hull to escape with a prize ship after allegedly accepting more than £500 from him. Four months later, the vessel’s French owner, Jean Guerrin, obtained a Privy Council order for Hull’s arrest, but Hawkins failed to act on it. Later in 1604, another Frenchman, Guillaume Bouillon, complained to the Council that Hawkins had taken possession of a large quantity of his goods, refused to release most of them, and was indeed sheltering some of the pirates responsible. When challenged by the government, however, Hawkins insisted that Bouillon had recovered most of his cargo, and had in fact hampered efforts to bring the culprits to justice. The Council opted not to pursue the matter further.29

As a serving mayor, Hawkins was ineligible to stand for Parliament, but in February 1604 he returned himself regardless as Plymouth’s senior Member after taking the precaution of concealing his corporation role on the indenture.30 During the first session he was nominated to four legislative committees, their topics including free trade, the preservation of fish fry, and the restitution in blood of lord admiral Nottingham’s kinsman, Thomas Howard, the future earl of Arundel (2 and 24 Apr., 14 May). Hawkins was the first Member named on 24 Apr. to scrutinize a bill on beer cask manufacture, but the measure proceeded no further. He was also appointed to attend a conference with the Lords on the Union (14 April).31 He apparently missed the session’s final weeks, as he was paid only 87 days’ wages, and was already back in Plymouth by 6 July, the day before Parliament was prorogued.32

During the following year Hawkins’ problems as vice-admiral continued. In May he was summoned before the Admiralty Court in London to answer complaints about his handling of a Spanish cargo captured by Dutch privateers, though he was cleared of any impropriety.33 Meanwhile, he also found himself at odds with Plymouth’s corporation, withholding an annuity bequeathed to the town by his father, and challenging the legality of the borough charter, presumably in relation to management of the port.34 Hawkins doubtless attended the opening of the 1605-6 parliamentary session, as he received four days’ wages in isolation, at the usual rate of 6s. 8d. a day. He returned to Westminster in the following January, but left no mark on the Commons’ proceedings until 4 Mar., when he was granted leave to depart.35

His anxiety to return home may well have been linked to the mounting protests against his behaviour as vice-admiral. Matters came to a head in May or June 1606, when the lord admiral’s secretary, Humphrey Jobson, arrived in Plymouth with a commission to investigate Hawkins’ conduct. The vice-admiral, who claimed that he was the victim of a conspiracy by his local enemies, including James Bagg I* and John Harris I*, retaliated by arresting Jobson before racing to London to plead his case. Bagg in turn urged Nottingham to dismiss Hawkins, and in August the vice-admiral was suspended from office, pending further inquiries. An Admiralty Court hearing shortly afterwards failed to resolve the situation. Jobson, undeterred, persisted with his investigation well into the autumn. Meanwhile Hawkins tried to convince the Privy Council that Bagg, who was now joint acting vice-admiral, was himself guilty of colluding with pirates in his capacity as a Plymouth customs official.36

This dispute was still raging when, like Bagg, Hawkins resumed his seat as a Plymouth Member for the 1606-7 session of Parliament. Prior to the Christmas recess he received only one nomination, to scrutinize the free trade bill (26 November). He supplied evidence on 20 Feb. in support of ‘one Hawkins’, a servant of his kinsman Sir Warwick Hele*, who had been arrested in breach of parliamentary privilege. Thereafter, he was named to three legislative committees, concerned with a Devon school’s funding, disorderly clergy, and badly behaved sailors (25 Feb., 9 Mar., 1 May). Hawkins was appointed on 3 Mar. to consider relief measures following the major floods around the Bristol Channel. He no doubt welcomed his involvement in another committee, established on 28 Feb. to examine a petition from London merchants ‘touching the cruelties and wrongs of the Spaniard’, and also served on its subcommittee (26 March). Although not recorded as receiving leave to depart, he once again missed the session’s final weeks, as he was paid wages only up to 6 May. From this sum of £45 6s. 8d., the corporation deducted £6 to cover three years’ unpaid rents.37

Hawkins’ urgent return to Devon was most likely prompted by the lifting of his suspension from office around early May 1607. However, his reputation did not fully recover. During the previous winter, Jean Guerrin had resumed his efforts to obtain compensation for his losses in 1603, and Guillaume Bouillon also returned to the fray in early 1607. In March that year, much to Hawkins’ fury, a royal commission found in favour of one of these Frenchmen, though the financial consequences of this verdict are not known.38 Nottingham clearly remained concerned about Hawkins’ behaviour, as in February 1608 he appointed Jobson and Bagg as surveyors of admiralty affairs in Devon and adjacent counties. In response, Hawkins became increasingly paranoid. In September 1608 he refused to cooperate with an Admiralty commission into piracy in all maritime shires, convinced that the Devon inquiry was a fresh attempt to discredit him personally. When Guerrin sued him in Star Chamber in May 1609, once more alleging that he colluded with pirates, Hawkins complained to the lord treasurer (Robert Cecil†) that he was ‘continually assailed by malice favoured by authority’. Following a judicial ruling, the case was transferred to the Admiralty Court. Hawkins had never denied receiving stolen goods from William Hull in 1603, and it was apparently on the basis of this early transgression that he was finally found guilty. In early March 1610 he was stripped of his vice-admiralty, and sentenced to imprisonment.39

For once, luck was on Hawkins’ side. The first parliamentary session of 1610 was now underway, and he successfully petitioned the king for his imprisonment to be suspended, pleading his privilege as a Member of the Commons.40 However, he was not entirely free from harassment, as on 14 June he also requested privilege for one of his servants, ‘taken by my lord admiral’s warrant’. Hawkins was named to three committees, to scrutinize bills on ordnance exports, funds for the poor, and the 5th earl of Derby’s title to the Isle of Man (17 Mar., 25 May, 19 June). He also joined many other Members on 5 June in taking the oath of supremacy. Following the prorogation in July, Hawkins’ custodial sentence came into effect. It is not known whether he pleaded privilege again in order to attend the Parliament’s final session at the end of the year.41

Hawkins’ punishment was in fact relatively short-lived, and in March 1611 rumours circulated that he would soon ‘be even with all his enemies’. Three months later he sued his successor as vice-admiral, Sir Richard Cowper, alleging numerous abuses of office, though if he expected to be restored to office he was mistaken. Despite this setback, Hawkins remained a Devon magistrate. Moreover, with a subsidy assessment of £20 in April 1611, he was easily Plymouth’s wealthiest resident, despite his earlier financial difficulties, which tends to suggest that his detractors’ allegations of wholesale financial impropriety were justified. By now Hawkins had acquired a country estate at Slapton, a few miles from Dartmouth, but a life of rural gentility held little appeal for him.42 In 1614 he welcomed the East India Company’s suggestion that he lead an expedition to the Pacific via the Magellan Straits, though nothing ultimately came of this. Two years later, he was reportedly captured by Turks in the Mediterranean while delivering Newfoundland fish for sale in Italy, but the facts behind this account remain obscure. In 1617 he was again briefly considered as commander of an East India Company fleet, and he continued to be consulted on the Pacific route to India.43

The government finally acknowledged Hawkins’ naval skills again in 1620, when he was appointed vice-admiral of the fleet that was to be sent to the Mediterranean to attack the Barbary pirates. Nominated by the expedition’s admiral, Sir Robert Mansell*, who regarded him as ‘a very grave, religious and experienced gentleman’, he sailed that autumn with the guarantee that he would assume full command if Mansell was killed or incapacitated. Hawkins was commended in dispatches for his actions during the attack on Algiers in May 1621, but the campaign achieved little, and he arrived home in July after part of the fleet was recalled.44 In the aftermath of this adventure, he revived his plans to publish an account of his 1593-4 voyage, intending to dedicate it to Prince Charles. However, this task was still unfinished in April 1622, when he attended the Privy Council in connection with the pay still owed to the members of Mansell’s expedition. On 27 Apr. the newsletter-writer John Chamberlain, reported that Hawkins, ‘finding his reckonings come short of that he expected, of mere grief and discontent sunk down before the lords and died the next day’.45 The precise date of this fatal stroke is not known, but Hawkins described himself as ‘sick and weak in body’ when he wrote his will on 16 April. Confident that he would ‘be made partaker of eternal life and happiness in the kingdom of heaven with God’s elect’, he bequeathed his property at Plymouth and Slapton to his wife Judith for life, providing she paid his eldest son John £20 a year, and double that if he attended university or the inns of court. A small estate in Hampshire was left to his younger son, while he designated dowries totalling £590 for his three daughters. However, these latter sums were largely conditional on the government settling its debts from the Mansell voyage. The will was proved by Judith on 13 June, and Hawkins’ book was published later that year as his Observations ... in his Voyage into the South Sea. None of his descendants is known to have sat in Parliament.46

Ref Volumes: 1604-1629

Authors: John. P. Ferris / Paul Hunneyball


  • 1. Aged c.34 in July 1594: R. Hawkins, Observations in his Voyage into the South Sea ed. J.A. Williamson, xli.
  • 2. H. Kelsey, Sir John Hawkins, 12.
  • 3. Vivian, Vis. Devon, 464, 466; M.W.S. Hawkins, Plymouth Armada Heroes, 136; PROB 11/139, ff. 442v-3.
  • 4. Kelsey, 263.
  • 5. Shaw, Knights of Eng. ii. 116.
  • 6. Chamberlain Letters ed. N.E. McClure, ii. 433.
  • 7. R. Hawkins, xlvi-xlviii.
  • 8. CSP Dom. 1619-23, p. 159.
  • 9. W. Devon RO, W46, f. 303.
  • 10. Cal. Plymouth Municipal Recs. ed. R.N. Worth, 23, 131.
  • 11. R. Hawkins, xlix.
  • 12. HCA 49/106, pkt. A, nos. 52, 76; HCA 14/39, no. 204.
  • 13. C181/1, ff. 69v, 93; 181/2, ff. 52, 348; 181/3, f. 1v.
  • 14. C66/1662; C193/13/1, f. 22.
  • 15. Spanish Co. ed. P. Croft (London Rec. Soc. ix), 101.
  • 16. A. Brown, Genesis of US, 917.
  • 17. T.K. Rabb, Enterprise and Empire, 310.
  • 18. R. Hawkins, xli-xlii; Kelsey, 4-7, 9-10; HP Commons, 1509-58, ii. 322.
  • 19. Kelsey, 12-13, 18, 31, 148, 153, 158, 218, 271, 281; HP Commons, 1558-1603, ii. 280.
  • 20. J. Campbell, Lives of Admirals and other Eminent British Seamen, i. 538; C78/282/6; W.N. Gunson, ‘Who was Sir Richard Hawkins?’, Mariner’s Mirror, lxxx. 77-8; Kelsey, 12, 51, 148.
  • 21. R. Hawkins, xliv-xlviii; CSP Dom. 1581-90, p. 696.
  • 22. R. Hawkins, xlix, liii, lxvii, lxix, lxxiv, lxxvi-lxxviii; CSP Dom. 1595-6, p. 174; 1598-1601, p. 333.
  • 23. R. Hawkins, lxxix; CSP Dom. 1595-7, p. 51; C78/282/6; Kelsey, 263.
  • 24. R. Hawkins, lxxxi; HMC Hatfield, vii. 438-9; viii. 289-91; ix. 150; x. 2, 245; xi. 203, 254-5; xii. 268, 285, 450, 505, 526, 590-1; CSP Dom. 1598-1601, pp. 38, 44, 333, 375, 422; 1601-3, pp. 206-7, 212; Cal. Plymouth Municipal Recs. 22.
  • 25. C78/282/6; Kelsey, 256; HMC Hatfield, xvi. 145.
  • 26. R. Hawkins, lxxxviii, xc.
  • 27. CRES 40/18/10; HCA 13/37, ff. 306v-7; HCA 49/106, ‘pkt. A’, nos. 48, 52; STAC 8/154/19; SP14/34/6; HMC Hatfield, xvii. 44-5.
  • 28. HMC Hatfield, xviii. 312; CRES 40/18/10; STAC 8/154/19-20.
  • 29. STAC 8/154/20; HMC Hatfield, xvii. 5; xx. 10-11.
  • 30. C219/35/1/125.
  • 31. CJ, i. 172a, 183b, 209a, 941b.
  • 32. W. Devon RO, W132, f. 149; HMC Hatfield, xvi. 166.
  • 33. STAC 8/174/6; HMC Hatfield, xvii. 103-4.
  • 34. W. Devon RO, W132, f. 151v; Cal. Plymouth Municipal Recs. 145.
  • 35. W. Devon RO, W132, ff. 155, 157v; CJ, i. 277b.
  • 36. STAC 8/177/9; HMC Hatfield, xviii. 257-9, 309-13; Cal. Plymouth Municipal Recs. 216; HCA 14/39, no. 204.
  • 37. CJ, i. 325a, 338b, 340b, 344b, 346a, 350b, 355a, 366a; W. Devon RO, W132, f. 158.
  • 38. HCA 14/37, no. 179; HMC Hatfield, xviii. 406; xix. 68, 402.
  • 39. HCA 14/37, no. 45; SP14/36/21; HMC 3rd Rep. 56; HMC Hatfield, xxi. 57; E. Coke, 13th Rep. 51-4; CRES 40/18/10; HCA 49/106, ‘pkt. A’, no. 76.
  • 40. HCA 14/40, no. 111.
  • 41. CJ, i. 412b, 432b, 438b, 441a; Procs. 1610, ii. 380; ‘Paulet 1610’, f. 15.
  • 42. Cott. Titus B.VII, f. 471r-v; STAC 8/163/22; E179/101/452; D. and S. Lysons, Devon, 452.
  • 43. CSP Col. E.I. 1513-1616, pp. 288, 291, 306, 320; 1617-21, pp. 58, 62, 81, 149; Carew Letters ed. J. Maclean (Cam. Soc. lxxvi), 50.
  • 44. CSP Dom. 1619-23, p. 159; Cabala sive Scrinia Sacra, 299; T. Rymer, Foedera, vii. pt. 3, pp. 170-1; D.D. Hebb, Piracy and the Eng. Government 1616-42, pp. 84-95, 105.
  • 45. R. Hawkins, lxxxix, 3, 5; Chamberlain Letters ed. N.E. McClure, ii. 433; Campbell, i. 540.
  • 46. PROB 11/139, ff. 442v-3.