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|Sir John Mennes|
Portrait of Mennes by Anthony van Dyck.
1 March 1599|
18 February 1671|
HMS Red Lion
He was also considered a wit. His comic and satirical verses, written in correspondence with James Smith, were published in 1656.
He figures prominently in the Diary of Samuel Pepys; Pepys, who reported directly to Mennes at the Navy Office, thought him an incompetent civil servant but a delightful social companion.
He was the third son of Andrew Mennes of Sandwich, Kent, and Jane Blechnden, and grandson of Matthew Mennes, Mayor of Sandwich. Educated at his local grammar school in Sandwich, and Corpus Christi College, Oxford, Mennes went to sea and in 1620 saw action off Dominica fighting Spanish warships. In 1628 he was given command of the HMS Adventure and later he commanded the HMS Garland, HMS Red Lion, HMS Vanguard, HMS Convertine, HMS Nonsuch and HMS Victory. In August 1641 he took Queen Henrietta Maria to safety in Hellevoetsluis in the Netherlands and was knighted by King Charles I for doing so and in July 1642 he refused to accept the parliamentary takeover of the fleet.
In 1643, once the King had lost the Navy, he transferred to the Army and became a general of artillery and in 1644 he became Governor of North Wales. In 1650 he left England to join the exiled Court abroad. He supported Charles II's ill-fated attempt to retake England the following year. Over the next decade he was said to have been employed regularly as a secret agent, although inevitably his activities leave little trace.
Mennes and Samuel Pepys
In November 1661, following the Restoration of the monarchy, he was commissioned Vice Admiral and Commander in Chief in the Narrow Seas, and Captain of the Henry and commander of the Fleet taking the Earl of Peterborough to occupy English Tangier. This appears to have been his last active Commission. Before the voyage, he had been appointed Comptroller of the Navy. Samuel Pepys, who as Clerk of the Acts reported directly to Mennes, described him as "ill at ease" in this role (which in fairness to Mennes has been described as "impossibly burdensome") and when exasperated by Mennes' incompetence, as he all too frequently was, would refer to him in his Diary as a "coxcomb", "dolt", "dotard" and "old fool". Outside office hours, however, Pepys admitted that Mennes, with his skills as a poet and mimic, was the best of company. Pepys describes a memorable evening when Mennes and John Evelyn engaged in a mimicry contest; Mennes with great generosity admitted that Evelyn was the winner. Pepys's kindest judgment on him (when he was wrongly thought to be dying in 1666) was that he was a "good, honest, harmless gentleman, but not fit for office". Dissatisfaction with Mennes became general, and sporadic efforts were made by his colleagues to have him removed, without success. It is generally thought that he owed his survival to the increasingly bitter attacks on the Navy Board in the House of Commons: the King was reluctant to sacrifice Mennes, as this might have led to an all out attack on the administration of one of the most important Departments of State. Even Pepys was prepared in 1670 to defend Mennes in public before the House of Commons as a man of great integrity who had worn out his health in the service of the Crown.
He died in London in 1671, aged 71, while still in the post of Controller. The bulk of his estate passed to his nephew Francis Hammond.
His poetry was published in a collection entitled Musarum Deliciæ or the Muses's Recreation, in 1656. Mennes's verses appear to have been written for amusement in correspondence with Dr. James Smith, whose replies were also included. Both were light and satirical in tone. The publisher, Henry Herringman, stated that the poems had been collected by him from "Sir John Mennis and Dr. Smith's drolish intercourses." Another anthology called Wit Restored was published in 1658. This contains verse letters from Smith to Mennes, "then commanding a troop of horse against the Scots." Another piece was written to Mennes "on the Surrender of Conway Castle."
A satirical poem on John Suckling's feeble military efforts at the Battle of Newburn is attributed to Mennes. Mennes was himself satirised by John Denham, whose poem about Mennes going from Calais to Boulogne to "eat a pig" is mentioned by Samuel Pepys in his diary.
According to Thomas Plume Mennes told him that he had once met William Shakespeare's father John Shakespeare, describing him as a "merry cheeked old man" who said of his son that "Will was a good honest fellow, but he durst have cracked a jest with him at any time." As Katherine Duncan-Jones points out, this is impossible, since Mennes was two years old when John Shakespeare died. She thinks Plume may have been recording an anecdote related by Mennis taken from his father.
In 1641 he married Jane Liddel (died 1662); she may have been his second wife. They had no children. In his later years, according to Pepys, his widowed sister Mary Hammon or Hammond (died 1668), mother of Francis, kept house for him. In addition to his nephew Francis he had at least two nieces to whom he left legacies; his niece Elizabeth Hammond was his executrix.
- John Mennes at Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
- Tanner, J R (1903). A Descriptive Catalogue of the Naval Manuscripts in the Pepysian Library. 1. The Navy Records Society. pp. 314, 383.
- The Diary of Samuel Pepys
- Robert Bell, Lives of the most eminent literary scientific men of Great Britain, Longmans, 1839, p.56.
- Kate Pogue, Shakespeare's Family, Greenwood, 2008, p. 24.
- Katherine Duncan-Jones, Ungentle Shakespeare: Scenes from His Life, Cengage Learning EMEA, 2001, p.8