HAWKINS, William (c.1495-1554/55), of Plymouth, Devon.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1509-1558, ed. S.T. Bindoff, 1982
Available from Boydell and Brewer



Oct. 1553

Family and Education

b. c.1495, s. of John Hawkins of Tavistock by Joan, da. of John or William Amadas of Launceston, Cornw. m. Joan, da. and h. of Roger Trelawny of Cornw., 2s. inc. John.3

Offices Held

?Commr. subsidy, Tavistock 1515, 1523, Devon 1524; receiver, Plymouth 1524-5, mayor 1532-3, 1538-9.4


William Hawkins, father of Sir John Hawkins, sea-captain and treasurer of the navy, was probably born in Tavistock, but by the mid 1520s, at latest, he had settled in Plymouth. He may have been master of the Great Galley during the war of 1512, but the first certain references to him concern his receivership of Plymouth in 1524-5 and his sale of guns and other wares to the town in 1528. During the next 30 years he became the richest merchant there, exporting large quantities of tin and cloth to the Continent and importing goods from France, Spain and the Mediterranean. In four great voyages of 1530, 1531, 1532 and 1540 he extended his trading activities to the west coast of Africa and Brazil, being probably the first Englishman to perform this triangular voyage. In 1536 he suggested to Cromwell that the King should finance him on further voyages of this kind and should take a share of the profits through the customs, but the proposal does not seem to have been adopted.5

After 1540 the outbreak of war with France made peaceful trading precarious and privateering profitable and Hawkins, with his friends James Horswell and John Elyot, was busily engaged in fitting out ships to take prizes from the French. His lack of scruple over the origin and fate of his prizes led him into repeated trouble with the Privy Council, and in 1545 he was imprisoned for a spell, but he was too valuable to be dispensed with: in 1549 he was employed to strengthen the fortifications of Plymouth haven, and in the following year he supplied victuals for the navy.6

Hawkins’s position at Plymouth was not one of unchallenged supremacy but after 1539, when the four year-old faction struggle in the town ended in triumph for the party led by him and Horswell, he was always one of the municipal leaders. He was first returned as a Member in 1539 with Horswell and was paid his parliamentary wages. He was also reimbursed for a payment of 4s.8d. made to Speaker Hare ‘to have our bill pass for the tenements decayed here in this town’; nothing else is known about this bill, but Plymouth was included in the Act for re-edifying towns westward (32 Hen. VIII, c.19) passed later in the Parliament. Re-elected in 1547, he received an additional amount to cover payments to the serjeant-at-arms and ‘the porter of the Council door’ and his own expenses when he remained in London on town business for two-and-a-half weeks after the session ended. On his last appearance in the House in the first Marian Parliament he was noted as one of those who ‘stood for the true religion’, that is, for Protestantism. Shortly after the dissolution of this Parliament the town of Plymouth was said to be preparing to resist Philip of Spain if he sought to land there, and Hawkins’s suing out of a general pardon on the following 2 May may have been prompted by his implication in some of the subversive activity which took place in Devon at that time.7

Hawkins had then only a short time to live, for the issue of this pardon is the last reference found to him. No will or inquisition is known, and the sole indication of the date of his death is a deed of 8 Feb. 1555 which refers to it as having taken place recently. His only known landed property was the manor of Sutton Vautort in Plymouth which he had bought in 1544 for 1,000 marks from Sir Hugh Pollard.8

Ref Volumes: 1509-1558

Author: Roger Virgoe


  • 1. Plymouth receivers’ acct. bk. 1539-40.
  • 2. Ibid. 1547-8; Hatfield 207.
  • 3. M. Lewis, Hawkins Dynasty, 17 giving estimated date of birth. J. A. Williamson, Sir John Hawkins, 4; Trans. Dev. Assoc. xv. 246; Hasted, Kent: Hundred of Blackheath, ed. Drake, p. xxii; Vis. Lond. (Harl. Soc. cix, cx), 93; Vis. Cornw. (Harl. Soc. ix), 229; DNB. A William Hawkins of Tavistock d. on 20 May 1534 leaving s. and h. William, aged 40 and more, C142/56/75.
  • 4. Statutes, iii. 174; LP Hen. VIII, iii, iv; Plymouth receivers’ acct. bk. 1524-5; R. N. Worth, Plymouth, 213.
  • 5. LP Hen. VIII, i, xi; Plymouth receivers’ acct. bk. 1528-9; Williamson, 6-19; J. W. Blake. Europeans in W. Africa, ii (Hakluyt Soc. ser. 2, lxxxvii), 263, 269, 299-301.
  • 6. LP Hen. VIII, xix; APC, i. 167, 177, 210, 220, 544; ii. 243, 263, 379; G. Connell-Smith, Forerunners of Drake, 135-6, 182-3.
  • 7. Williamson, 20-26; LP Hen. VIII, viii, xi, xii, Plymouth receivers’ acct. bk. 1539-40, 1545-6, 1547-8, 1548-9, 1549-50; acct. of William Hawkins merchant made 32 Hen. VIII; Bodl. e Museo 17; CPR, 1553-4, p. 434.
  • 8. Trans. Dev. Assoc. xv. 247-8.