The name of John Mason is little known in 21C England, but that was not the case in the 1620s when he was a most successful Naval administrator and it has never been the case in New Hampshire, USA where he continues to be celebrated as the founder of the state. Mason led a complex life in many endeavours both on his own behalf and as representative of the King but it is unlikely that anyone suspected that would be his future when he was born in King's Lynn, Norfolk in 1586.
Much of the research into John Mason's early life and background was carried out in the 1870s by a Colonel Joseph Chester on behalf of Charles Wesley Tuttle, a member of the Prince Society of Massachusetts, which had commissioned Tuttle to write a biography of Mason. Chester was satisfied that he had located a record of Mason's baptism on December 11th 1586 in the parish register of St Margaret's Church, Lynn Regis; his father, also named John, having probably married Isabel Steed in Yorkshire. Two other children appear in the register but there are no further records of the family in the locality for 17 years after 1589 and Chester suggests that they had moved to Portsmouth.
Further research suggested that John Mason was a student at Magdalen College, Oxford where he matriculated on 25th June 1602, aged 15 years. Records at Oxford state that he gave his home address as being in the county of Southampton, which at the time contained the town of Portsmouth. Mason must however have retained close ties with King's Lynn as the parish register there record him marrying Anne Greene, daughter of Edward Greene, a London Goldsmith, in 1606. It may also have been there that John Mason joined the navy of King James where he seems to have had a meteoric climb through the ranks.
In 1610, when John was only 24 years the king sent him as Captain of an expedition containing two ships of war and two pinnaces to lend assistance to the Bishop of the Isles, Andrew Knox, who was attempting to establish his ecclesiastical authority over the 'barbarous and bloody' people of the Hebrides. As was common at the time Mason agreed to fit out the little fleet at his own expense to be re-imbursed by the Earl of Dunbar, Treasurer of Scotland, on completion of the task. It is possible that he received the commission because he was the only person prepared to offer finance, though we do not know where the money come from. Mason stayed in the Hebrides for fourteen months and on his return he found that the Earl of Dunbar had died without having provided for payment of Mason's expenses which by that time amounted to 2238. Mason's attempts to get reparation for the amount he had expended were to drag on for twenty years.
In the meantime he took drastic means to support himself - he turned to piracy. Establishing a base on the Isle of Rona he lurked between Scotland and Norway capturing trading vessels. He must have had some degree of success since the authorities took him into custody when his ship ran aground on the coast of Caithness. Mason was tried on 12th August 1615, found guilty and stripped of his ships and all goods pertaining thereto.
With his livelihood in ruins he turned to his friend John Scot who introduced him to Sir William Alexander, later Earl of Stirling, who knew of an opportunity that might suit Mason. This was an age when colonialism was taking a firm hold on the minds of business people in London and one company were on the lookout for a Governor of their plantations in Newfoundland, to succeed Guy of Bristol who had resigned. The colony had been founded in 1610 when the King had granted a Charter to develop the land. Mason may have envisaged this posting as a means of enriching himself but once there he set about enhancing an already flourishing economy and to do this he spent six years carefully mapping the island and familiarising himself with the flora and fauna he observed on his travels.
Mason wrote back to his contacts in Scotland, enthusing about the potential business opportunities offered in Newfoundland and encouraging settlers to join him. When he returned to Scotland at the conclusion of his contract he found that his exhortations had fallen on fertile ground. His old associate Sir William Alexander had resolved to undertake the settlement of land now known as Nova Scotia but which he called New Scotland. He obtained a charter in September 1621 thereby beginning a veritable land rush, aided and abetted by The Council for New England which issued patents to John Mason and Sir Ferdinand Gorges, a member of and treasurer to the Council, to develop tracts of land carved out of that part of New England known as Maine.
In 1624 Mason returned to England and with his wife and children settled in Portsmouth. The house he bought still exists and is now known as No. 11 High Street, though at the time it was referred to as The Spotted Dog or The Greyhound. The following year King James died, and his successor Charles immediately embarked on a war with Spain putting the Duke of Buckingham in charge. A fleet under Sir Edward Cecil, later Viscount Wimbledon, set sail from Plymouth in 1625 with Mason, who had been appointed Commissary General, as Captain of the 200 ton ship 'Helen'. It is not entirely clear how John Mason secured this high post in the navy but it may well have something to do with his cousin Robert who had been the Duke of Buckingham's secretary prior to the Cadiz expedition. It is entirely possible that Robert brought his cousin's administrative skills to the Duke's attention. The expedition to Cadiz was a disaster due largely to the poor arrangements for victualling the fleet. As Commissary General, Mason had been responsible for provisions but he was totally exhonerated by Cecil who recommended him as being 'an honest, sufficient and careful officer'.
The fallout from the expedition affected every port along the south coast as ships from the fleet limped home, but none moreso than Portsmouth. The ships contained half starved men, riddled with disease who seemed to have little prospect of ever being paid for their endeavours but that wasn't the only problem for the town. There was already poverty ashore, due mainly to the loss of contracts for new ships which went to the Thames dockyards instead; the influx of these seamen just added to the misery. John Mason was a first hand witness to the dire state of the townspeople in general and the dockyard in particular. The King meanwhile seemed oblivious to the pleas for help emerging from Portsmouth until in 1627 he declared war on France at which point he belatedly recognised the importance of his base in Portsmouth.
Once again Buckingham was placed in charge and he proposed an assault on La Rochelle to relieve the beseiged Huguenots. He desperately needed someone to handle the administrative work for the expedition and his choice fell naturally on the local man John Mason who was promoted to Treasurer and Paymaster of the army. Mason proved to be an able administrator. He managed to billet 6000 soldiers in Portsea without undue fuss from the residents, he obtained enough money from the exchequer to pay the householders and innkeepers promptly, arranged for all the soldiers clothing to be onboard the correct transports and ensured that each man found his right berth. This efficient management went further in that when the sailors returned to port they were surprised to find they were paid almost immediately, a previously unheard of provision.
The expedition to La Rochelle left Portsmouth on Sunday 24th June 1627 and though the town was beseiged for nearly four months the English were eventually obliged to retreat. Buckingham's reputation as a master tactician was in tatters but the consequences for Portsmouth were surprisingly beneficial as the king, his commissioners and Buckingham himself came to fully appreciate the importance of keeping the town and dockyard properly protected and provisioned. Buckingham used his considerable power to ensure the fortifications around both town and dockyard were strengthened and that a new dock was built but this was not enough for the townspeople to forget the ignominous outcome of his assault on La Rochelle. He attempted to restore his position by persuading the king to let him launch another raid on La Rochelle but this time he found the local forces rather less than enthusiastic.
Once again John Mason was called in to organise the campaign, but the task stretched him to the limit. He was responsible for the forces in both Plymouth and Portsmouth and on his first trip to the former the degree of corruption and mutinous air he discovered shocked him deeply. Such was the man however that even with all his available financial resources exhausted he still managed to achieve a degree of success in the west country. In Portsmouth it was a different matter as he simply did not have the funds to pay the sailors' outstanding dues. The men, however, chose not to blame Mason but instead took their complaint directly to Buckingham whom they confronted as he attempted to leave Portsmouth on 17th August 1628. Buckingham could probably have dealt with the matter diplomatically but instead chose to meet it head on, with the inevitable alienation of the sailors. The extreme efforts expended over several months was having it's toll on Mason's health and for the first time in his life he retired temporarily due to sickness.
In January 1628 John Mason returned to the fray determined to get the army finances put on a proper footing, naval affairs having been passed to a man named Coke. To achieve this he asked that all monies be routed through himself and that the men would be paid according to their appearance on a roster. This would ensure that not only would the men receive their pay but that the king would have a reliable record of the number of men in his army. Though an admirable aim it was doomed to failure in the prevailing atmosphere of 'laxity and corruption'. The problems were beginning to mount for Mason and though he succeeded in billeting most of the soldiers outside Portsmouth it was nevertheless extremely crowded within the town walls.
Mason's place in history was sealed in early August 1628 when he welcomed the Duke of Buckingham to stay as a guest in his house on High Street. This was a tremendous honour as despite all recent events Buckingham was still the most famous man in England and here he was under Mason's roof. Events however began to turn for the worse as on 16th August Buckingham left the house to visit the king at Southwick and encountered a mob demanding their pay. One man made to pull the duke from his carriage whereupon Buckingham leapt out, grabbed the man and dragged him into the house before proceeding on his way. The crowd then threatened to demolish Mason's house if the man were not released. Wisely Mason let him go.
The scene was then all set for a grisly denouemont and on 23rd August it arrived, though not from the most obvious direction. Mingling with the crowd waiting to see the Duke of Buckingham that morning was a young army lieutenant named John Felton. When Buckingham appeared in Mason's hallway Felton thrust a knife into the Duke's chest, killing him almost immediately. Felton's motives seem confused, a mixture of personal sleight born of a failure to get the promotion he felt he deserved and a sense that the country would be a better place without the Duke. Felton was captured immediately and suffered a predictable demise. The king's foreign adventures followed a similar course after an inconclusive voyage arrived too late to save La Rochelle.
Even with the king's foreign adventures over Mason remained inextricably linked with army finance and the town of Portsmouth. He was instrumental in asserting the pre-eminence of the town as the most important naval harbour and was specifically responsible for the restoration of Southsea Castle of which he became Captain in 1634. His interests however were always far wider than Portsmouth could accommodate so it was hardly surprising that he bought another house in Fenchurch Street, London and a third at Deptford, both to further his businesses, principally that of fishing around the Scottish Isle of Lewis. In this endeavour he was treasurer of the development association that included the Duke of Portland, the Earl of Rutland the the Duchess of Buckingham; but the enterprise that meant most to Mason lay in the world across the Atlantic.

As soon as the wars with France and Spain were concluded Mason linked up with his former partner Sir Ferdinand Gorges with whom he pursued ambitions to widen their interests in New England. On the seventh of November 1629 the pair obtained a patent from the Council of New England to develop all of the land of Maine between the Merrimac and Piscataqua rivers, an area that Mason named New Hampshire after his adopted homeland. Mason himself never returned to America, investing instead responsibility for developement of the land to Captain Walter Neale whom he had probably met in the French wars.
In June 1632 Mason was elected a member of the Great Council for New England and shortly afterwards became it's Vice President. The Council often held meetings at Mason's house in Fenchurch Street. Though comprised of "persons of honor and even of blood" the Council was gradually losing it's ability to control events across the ocean. The colony of Massachusetts Bay was just one to show an unheralded degree of independence. The Council reacted by surrendering it's great Charter to the king and dividing the land up between themselves. Mason retained all of his lands in New Hampshire and received governance over a further 10,000 acres on the west side of the Kennebec river which was to be called Masonia.
Captain John Mason did not live long enough to see the land fully developed as in December 1635 he died after a short illness. With his death the estate passed first to his widow and one year old grandson, and then to Captain Mason's daughter Anne, who had married Joseph Tufton, and her surviving children. One of her sons, Robert, changed his name to Mason and inherited the land only to die on September 6th 1688, whereupon New Hampshire passed to the inhabitants thereof.
Such was the esteem in which New Hampshire people held Captain John Mason that in 1873 they paid for a memorial plaque to be placed in the Royal Garrison Church at Portsmouth. A century later they added a second plaque, but this time placed it in the Cathedral of St. Thomas at Portsmouth.
Tim Backhouse
August 2012
"Memoir of Captain John Mason" by Charles Wesley Tuttle
"Captain John Mason and the Duke of Buckingham" by Dorothy Dymond (Portsmouth Paper No.17)
"Heritage of Sea Power" by F.W. Lipscomb