MONSON, Sir William (c.1567-1643), of South Carlton, Lincs., Charterhouse, London and Kinnersley, Surr.

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. c.1567, 3rd but 2nd surv. s. of Sir John Monson of South Carlton by Jane, da. of Robert Dighton of Little Sturton; bro. of Sir Thomas. educ. Balliol, Oxf. May 1581, aged 14; MA 9 July 1594; G. Inn 8 Aug. 1594. m. 1595, Dorothy, e. da. of Richard Wallop of Bugbrooke, Northants., wid. of Richard Smith of Shelford, Cambs., 3s. 9da. Kntd. at Cadiz by Earl of Essex ?22 June 1596.

Offices Held

Privateer capt. 1587; on pinnace Charles 1588; sailed with Earl of Cumberland 1589-95; in command Rainbow Apr. 1596; flag-capt. Cadiz expedition 1596; Islands voyage 1597; in command Defiance 1599; v.-adm. to Richard Leveson . 1602-3; adm. Narrow Seas July 1604-Jan. 1616; v.-adm. of fleet 1635; member, council of war May 1637; commr. to investigate Dutch naval activities 1639.

J.p.q. Lincs. (Lindsey) 1601.


From Balliol Monson ran away to sea, ‘led thereunto’, he later wrote, ‘by the wildness of my youth’. Between 1585 and 1587 he engaged in privateering, but from 1588, when he first served in a Queen’s ship, he was to interrupt his service in the Royal Navy only by voyaging with the Earl of Cumberland. On his second voyage with Cumberland in 1591 Monson was captured, and he remained a prisoner, first in the galleys and then in Lisbon castle, until July 1592. He was at sea again with Cumberland in 1593, but his father’s death towards the close of that year, which brought him some property in Lincolnshire, and a return of the ill-health which had troubled him in 1590 appear to have inclined him for a time to life ashore. In the summer of 1594 he took his MA at Oxford and entered Gray’s Inn, and early in the following year he married a widow who brought him a stepson and perhaps some property. A possibility of his succeeding (Sir) John Hawkins. as treasurer of the navy did not materialize, and after a final voyage with Cumberland in 1595, leading to a quarrel which put an end to their association, Monson’s appointment to the command of the Rainbow in the spring of 1596 marked the beginning of 20 years’ almost continuous service with the Royal Navy.1

It also marked the beginning of Monson’s attachment to the Earl of Essex. He was to be the Earl’s flag-captain on the Cadiz expedition, and he received his knighthood from Essex probably on the morrow of the city’s capture. He sailed again with Essex on the Islands voyage of 1597, and it was Cumberland’s hostile comments on his conduct during that expedition which led Monson to challenge Cumberland to a duel, apparently without result. Although Monson was not to be implicated in the decline and fall of Essex, he seems to have suffered some interruption of employment in 1600-1; and his return to the Parliament of 1601 signalled a fresh allegiance. His new patrons were the Howards. For his professional prospects he looked chiefly to Charles Howard I, Earl of Nottingham, the admiral, and his son-in-law Sir Richard Leveson, with both of whom he had served at Cadiz; it was they who were to bring him fresh activity, as Leveson’s vice-admiral in 1602-3, and to occasion the greatest of his naval exploits, the capture of the carrack St. Valantine, which earned him and Leveson ‘great commendation both for courage and advice’. His return to Parliament he owed to Thomas, Lord Howard de Walden, whose marriage to Catherine, eldest daughter of (Sir) Henry Knyvet, had given him, on Knyvet’s death in 1598, control of the borough of Malmesbury. Neither Monson nor his fellow-Member, Sidney Montagu, had any personal connexion with that borough, and apart from Sir Robert Cecil, to whom both could have looked for support, no one was in a position to procure their return save Thomas Howard. There was to be much discussion of sea affairs in that Parliament, but Monson is not known to have contributed to it.2

With the accession of James I Monson’s prospects must have appeared bright. Even if he had not been, as one source claims, in touch with James beforehand, Robert Cecil was his friend, and he might hope to advance in step with his elder brother Thomas, who, under the patronage of Henry Howard, Earl of Northampton, was rising at court. In fact Monson did obtain the command of the Channel squadron, which he retained for 11 years; but in the years 1613-15 Sir John Digby, the ambassador in Spain, obtained and transmitted evidence that Monson was among those who had been since 1604 in receipt of Spanish pensions. Damaging as it was, this revelation might have had less consequence but for the circumstance that in January 1616, when the final proof was received, Cecil and Northampton were both dead, the remaining Howards were in disgrace in consequence of the Overbury affair, and Monson’s brother Thomas was in the Tower as a suspected accomplice in that murder. Monson’s imprisonment in the Tower, which lasted from January to July 1616, was generally believed to be connected with the same episode. His own explanation of it, that he had incurred enmity by his advocacy of naval reforms, his arrest of Arbella Stuart, and his hostility to the Dutch, is unconvincing; a set of questions put to him relate only to the pension and to subversive activities into which it might have drawn him. Whatever Monson’s culpability, it was James’s devotion to the Spanish alliance which saved him from worse disaster. His only punishment was the loss of his command.3

Nearly 20 years were to pass before Monson, then in his late sixties, was given his next and last command; in 1635 he sailed as vice-admiral in the fleet under Lindsey. After that he retired to the estate at Kinnersley near Reigate which he had had since at least 1624 and where his neighbours included his patrons the Howards. Although he was appointed to the council of war established in May 1637, the preoccupation of his closing years was the compilation of the ‘Tracts’ which he had begun about 1624. It is upon these, in which he combined naval history with an exposition of policy, strategy and administration, that his fame rests.

Monson died intestate in February 1643 and was buried at St. Martin-in-the-Fields on the 13th of that month. Administration was granted to his second son William. Besides Kinnersley, he possessed land in Kent and the manors of Croft and Skegness in Lincolnshire. The bulk of his property went to his eldest son John, a Catholic who died in 1645 and whose daughter Anne, the wife of Sir Francis Throckmorton, sold Kinnersley in 1666. The second son, William, went to court and gained an Irish viscounty of which he was deprived, together with his freedom, as one of the surviving regicides at the Restoration. Since this William’s son was childless, and the admiral’s third son Francis died young and unmarried, the male line failed.

Ref Volumes: 1558-1603

Author: S. T. Bindoff


Except where stated otherwise, this biography is based upon Naval Tracts of Sir William Monson (Navy Recs. Soc. xxii, xxiii, xliii, xlv, xlvii).

  • 1. DNB; Collins, Peerage, vii. 241.
  • 2. CSP Dom. 1595-7, pp. 275, 283, 285-6, 484; 1598-1601, p. 463; 1601-3, pp. 102, 152, 208, 210, 220, 298; HMC Hatfield, vi. 355; ix. 427; xii. passim; HMC Sackville, i. 49-52; HMC De L’Isle and Dudley, ii. 328.
  • 3. HMC Hatfield, xvi. 329, 331-2, 346; xvii. 146-8, 297-8, 306-7, 411-12, 415-16, 417, 517-18, 522; xviii. 148-50, 150-2; HMC Downshire, ii. 113; iv. 223-47; HMC De L’Isle and Dudley, iii. 150, 190; iv. 276; Lansd. 139, f. 94.