John Rawson, 1st Viscount Clontarf

John Rawson, 1st and only Viscount Clontarf (c.1470–1547) was an English-born statesman in sixteenth-century Ireland, who was one of the mainstays of English rule in the colony. He was the last Prior of the Kilmainham house of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem; they were a fighting order of monks and Rawson himself was an experienced soldier who took part in the Siege of Rhodes (1522). Despite taking holy orders, he was not celibate, and he fathered several illegitimate children. At the Reformation, with no apparent reluctance, he surrendered all his Order's properties to the English Crown in return for a pension and the title of viscount.


He came from a family which had long been settled at New Fryston in the West Riding of Yorkshire. His father, Richard Rawson, moved to London, where he became an alderman and a warden of the Mercers' Company.[1] John's mother Isabella Craford died in 1497. He had four brothers:

  • Nicholas Rawson, who was master of the free chapel at Gressenhall, Norfolk.[2]

Early career

John Rawson joined the Order of St. John of Jerusalem in 1497.[3] He is next heard of undertaking a diplomatic mission to Rome and Venice in 1510. In 1511 he was appointed Prior of Kilmainham; this was a position of considerable political power, entitling him to sit both in the Irish House of Lords and on the Privy Council of Ireland. In 1517 he became Lord Treasurer of Ireland.[4]

Siege of Rhodes 1522

The seat of the Order of St John of Jerusalem was Rhodes, and as the Ottoman Empire moved to seize the island, Rawson was summoned to its defence. In 1519 he was given leave to go to Rhodes for three years, but the increasingly unstable political situation in Ireland caused Henry VIII to revoke his leave, and he ordered Rawson to return to Ireland in 1520 to advise the Lord Deputy.[5] In 1522 he evidently obtained leave at last to go to Rhodes, as he is listed among the knights who were present there. Rhodes surrendered in December of that year and Rawson returned to Ireland and was reappointed to his previous offices. In 1525 he went abroad again and spent some time in Italy; in 1527 he was appointed commander of the Order's light infantry. However Henry VIII apparently felt unable to dispense with his services and was able to secure his reappointment as Prior of Kilmainham: he was also reappointed Treasurer of Ireland .[6]

Later career

He was one of the dominant members of the Irish Privy Council, and was said to form part of an "inner council of three" within the full Council, the other two being the Lord Chief Justice of Ireland, Patrick Bermingham, and John Alen, Archbishop of Dublin. He was described as "an able man and chief supporter of the government", and lived in considerable state. He quarrelled with the Lord Deputy, Sir William Skeffington, and worked unsuccessfully for his recall. During the rebellion of Silken Thomas, he was one of the few leading political figures who remained loyal to the English Crown and his lands were plundered as a result (he was more fortunate than his colleague Archbishop Alen, who was murdered). In 1535 he was suggested as a possible Lord Chancellor of Ireland but was passed over. He quarrelled with Skeffington' successor as Lord Deputy, Viscount Grane, and was one of those responsible for bringing about his downfall and execution for treason in 1541.[7]

Surrender of Kilmainham Priory

Henry VIII decided to dissolve the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, and after lengthy negotiations Rawson in 1541 surrendered the Priory of Kilmainham in return for a payment of 500 marks and the title of Viscount Clontarf.[8] The Order's house at Kilteel, County Kildare, was granted to Thomas Alen (a cousin of Archbishop Alen), who had married Rawson's natural daughter, Mary: the impressive medieval tower house at Kilteel has survived to the present day. Lord Clontarf was by now an old and sick man, and he died in 1547; the title died with him.

See also Clontarf Castle.

Private life

He does not seem to have taken his vow of celibacy at all seriously, since he had at least three illegitimate children (little seems to be known of their mothers). The children were:


  1. Cokayne, G. E. The Complete Peerage Reprinted Gloucester 2000 Vol.III, p. 334
  2. Dodd, A. & Smith, A. Memoir of Sir John Rawson: Knight of Rhodes, Prior of Kilmainham, Viscount Clontarf The Gentleman's Magazine, Vol. 201 (1856), p.179-180
  3. Cokayne, p. 334
  4. Cokayne, p. 334
  5. Pollard, Albert Frederick "John Rawson" Dictionary of National Biography1885-1900 Vol.47, p. 337
  6. Pollard, p.337
  7. Pollard p.337
  8. Cokayne, p.334
  9. Pollard, p.337
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