LAWSON, George (by 1493-1543), of York and Berwick-Upon-Tweed, Northumb.
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Family and Education
b. by 1493. m. by 1516, Elizabeth (d.1537), at least 2s. 1da. Kntd. 4/12 May 1530.2
Dep. capt. Berwick-upon-Tweed 1514, treasurer and receiver-gen. 1517-d., surveyor of the works by 1520-d.; member, Corpus Christi guild, York 1516, alderman 1527-d., mayor 1530-1; cofferer, household of Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond by 1526-34; j.p. Yorks. (E. Riding) 1531/32, (N. Riding) 1536-d., (W. Riding) 1537-d.; commr. tenths of spiritualities, Yorks. 1535; member, council in the north by 1540.3
For the last 15 years of his life George Lawson was the wealthiest and most powerful alderman of York. Like his fellow George Gale, but to an even greater extent, he owed his ascendancy to his offices under the crown, whereas the other aldermen who sat in Parliament were purely merchants or craftsmen. These two were to York what David Cecil was to Stamford, and it is noteworthy that Lawson should have represented York throughout the Parliament of 1529 and Gale have been his colleague for half of it.
Nothing has come to light about Lawson before 1514 unless he was the man of that name admitted to the Inner Temple on special terms in the previous year. He first emerges clearly as a rising crown servant with responsibilities for garrison supply and fortifications at Berwick-upon-Tweed and Tournai: by 1514 he was deputy to the captain of Berwick, Thomas Lord Darcy, in 1515 he was made master mason there, and in 1516, and again in 1519, he was at Tournai in connexion with the King’s works. When he left Tournai in 1516 the 4th Lord Mountjoy asked Wolsey to send him back ‘for he is old and wise, and hath good sight in such causes’, but he only went there again briefly and spent the rest of his life in the north. Within a dozen years he had become a factotum at Berwick: receiver, treasurer, master of the ordnance, customer and comptroller, bridge-master, master carpenter and master mason.4
Lawson had also become prominent in Yorkshire. His connexion with York went back at least to 1516, when he and his wife joined the Corpus Christi guild there. In 1522 (when he was mistakenly styled Sir George Lawson of London) he declared he had no goods in York, but two years later, as a parishioner of St. Wilfrid’s, he was assessed for the lay subsidy on £200 in goods; on that reckoning he was one of the three richest laymen in York, the richest being Thomas Drawswerd, although he was not even a freeman. That status he acquired, as a merchant, in 1527, at the same time joining the merchants’ guild, and on 17 Dec. of that year he was elected an alderman, one of only three men to be elected during the 16th century who had not held the office of sheriff. This smooth and rapid rise in the city doubtless reflected his importance as a royal official. He had been coming to York regularly since 1523 or earlier to collect money for border defence, and by then he had a house in the city; by 1525 he was also a household officer of the Duke of Richmond at Sheriff Hutton, probably cofferer, as he is known to have been in the following year. If the aldermanship was thus a natural corollary of Lawson’s official standing, the central government either feared or resented its potentially distracting effect on him: the King even ordered the city council to annul his election in view of his ‘many charges and business of ours to do, as well in and about our town and marches at Berwick, as about ... the Duke of Richmond’, but nothing seems to have come of this.5
Lawson did not have to wait long after his election before attaining the summit in York: on 27 Sept. 1529 he was elected one of the city’s Members of Parliament and on 15 Jan. 1530 its mayor. Not much is known of him in either capacity. He was often absent from council meetings during his year of office, although Parliament was not then sitting, and he does not seem to have attended all the parliamentary sessions which followed and which included the single session of the Parliament of 1536, to which he was also returned: he was, however, on occasion used by the city as an intermediary with Cromwell. The King’s ‘great matter’ may have evoked his personal sympathy as his own marriage broke down and by 1532 he and his wife were living apart: he contemplated divorce proceedings but the marriage seems to have survived until his wife’s death.6
During these years Lawson was increasingly used by the crown, stood on close terms with Cromwell, and proved himself ready to swim with the tide of change. He was knighted in May 1530 and from 1532 he began to figure in county administration: in 1533 he was one of the commissioners for administering the oath of allegiance at York. It was he who first broached with Cromwell the scheme by which the 5th Earl of Northumberland was to make over his lands to the crown. He spent much of the year 1533 riding between Berwick and York to collect money for the garrison: he grumbled to Cromwell about the effort and cost involved and after one sojourn at York he suggested that the abbeys in those parts should contribute more to royal needs. He was conspicuously present at a sermon preached by the archbishop against Clement VII and when, as he walked about the minster with John Leland, he noticed a reference to the submission of King John to Innocent III, he cut out the offending sentence and sent it to Cromwell. In 1535 he served on the commission charged with compiling the valor ecclesiasticus in Yorkshire, and in 1534-5 he secured two leases of lands near York for his wife and sons, one of them at Cromwell’s instigation. He put service to the government before solidarity with his colleagues, once writing to inform against three citizens of York, one a fellow-alderman, who had under-assessed themselves to a subsidy. His only setback during these years was his dismissal by Richmond in 1534 as cofferer, a step which caused the King to reprove the duke and to secure the continuance of Lawson’s yearly fee of £20.7
When the Pilgrimage of Grace began Lawson was at his house in Lendal, York. The surviving evidence does not tell a clear story, but he seems to have sympathized with the rebels. He had been associated with Lord Darcy as long ago as 1514, and he was on sufficiently good terms with the Percy family for the 5th Earl of Northumberland to have lodged with him at York in 1529. When the crunch came he did not act like a determined supporter of the government. It is true that on 14 Oct. 1536 he and the mayor of York wrote to the King asking for help, but when two days later the Pilgrims were admitted into the city Robert Aske straightway went to stay at Lawson’s house; it was there that Darcy’s steward came to meet him and that other rebel leaders, Sir Thomas Percy among them, dined and perhaps lodged. All that is known of Lawson’s behaviour at this stage is that he warned his friend the minster treasurer to take down Cromwell’s arms from over his door. He told him that he was ill in bed and had not heard Sir Ralph Ellerker (father of the Member of that name) say at dinner in his house that Cromwell was a traitor.8
Lawson went on to attend the rebel council at Pontefract (where he again, perhaps conveniently, fell ill) and in December headed a York delegation to the Pilgrims’ meeting there with the 3rd Duke of Norfolk, but by the end of the month he had escaped from this dangerous situation and was at Barnard castle trying to levy money for Berwick. The government must have decided to take no action against him and his letters to Cromwell early in 1537 show him protesting his loyalty and being reassured: by April he was bold enough to complain to Cromwell that for the first time he had received no New Year’s gift from the King. In June Norfolk advised Cromwell that Lawson was both well thought of in Yorkshire and diligent in the King’s service, an opinion echoed six months later by the council in the north, which testified to his ability to keep order among the citizens of York and his skill as a repairer of the King’s northern castles. He was indeed commissioned to repair Sheriff Hutton and to survey Pontefract and Sandal, and in 1539 he began new works at Berwick. By 1540 he was himself a member of the council in the north.9
Between 1537 and 1539 Lawson helped to take surrender of 29 religious houses in Durham, Nottinghamshire, Northumberland and Yorkshire. With Cromwell’s help he acquired leases of two of them, the Whitefriars at Newcastle and the Augustinian priory at York adjacent to his own house; he had already acquired an interest in two other York religious houses, as steward of St. Leonard’s hospital and bailiff of St. Mary’s liberty. He may have turned the York priory to commercial use, for in 1540 Richard Layton complained to Cromwell that Lawson had recently built ‘a great new garner over against his house’ and was intending to make malt on a large scale. In these last years Lawson was still busy with northern administration, and bemoaning to Cromwell his need for support in his old age. He was not returned to the Parliament of 1539 for York and his presence in the north during its sessions suggests that he had not been elected for a borough for which the Members’ names are lost. His final service was a great effort in 1542 to victual Berwick with enough bread and beer for an army against the Scots. By 6 Feb. 1543 he was ‘very sore sick’ at Berwick and within a week he was dead. There is no evidence that he left a will, but his movables were valued at his death at over £7,500.10
Ref Volumes: 1509-1558
Author: D. M. Palliser
- 1. York Civic Recs. iv (Yorks. Arch. Soc. rec. ser. cviii), 3.
- 2. Date of birth estimated from first reference. LP Hen. VIII, v-viii.
- 3. LP Hen. VIII, i-xviii; Reg. Corpus Christi Guild, York (Surtees Soc. lvii), 186; York archs. B11-17, passim; The King’s Works, iii. 416.
- 4. Cal. I.T. Recs. i. 27; LP Hen. VIII, i-iv, xviii; C. G. Cruickshank, Eng. Occupation of Tournai 1513-19, p. 112; J. Harvey, Eng. Med. Architects, 157.
- 5. LP Hen. VIII, iii iv; Yorks. Arch. Jnl. iv. 172; York pub. lib. R. H. Skaife ms civic officials, ii. 448-50; Reg. Freemen, York, i (Surtees Soc. xcvi), 248; York archs. B11, f. 26v; York Civic Recs. iii (Yorks. Arch. Soc. rec. ser. cvi), 112-13.
- 6. York Civic Recs. iii. 119 to iv. 6; York archs. B11 passim.
- 7. LP Hen. VIII, iv-ix; Elton, Reform and Renewal, 77; York Civic Recs. iii. 170; J.S. Purvis, ‘A Leland discovery’, Antiquaries Jnl. xxxi. 200-1.
- 8. LP Hen. VIII, i, xi-xiv; R. B. Smith, Land and Politics, 186; York Civic Recs. iii. 119.
- 9. York Civic Recs. iv. 16; LP Hen. VIII, xi, xii, xiv; The King’s Works, iii. 294.
- 10. LP Hen. VIII, xii-xv, xvii, xviii; Add. 32650, f. 14; York pub. lib. R. H. Skaife ms civic officials, ii. 448-50; York archs. B13, f. 30v.