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Reference group
Major-generals (act. 1655–1657) were a group of senior army officers appointed to take charge of regional government in England and Wales during the Cromwellian protectorate (1653–9). The scheme was first devised in the summer of 1655 by Oliver Cromwell and his councillors, especially John Lambert, following the failed royalist uprising in March led by Colonel John Penruddock in the west of England. The major-generals were charged with preventing future challenges to the protectorate and more generally with establishing godly rule. They were chosen at Whitehall in the late summer, although delays and prevarications meant that they did not receive their commissions until the middle of October in the same year.

Nineteen major-generals and deputy major-generals were appointed in October 1655, ruling over ten regional associations. John Lambert, who was the main architect of the scheme, was given charge of the north of England but, as he was busy in the protectoral council at Whitehall, he acted through two deputies: Charles Howard (Cumberland, Northumberland, and Westmorland) and Robert Lilburne (Durham and Yorkshire). Charles Worsley ruled Cheshire, Lancashire, and Staffordshire until his death in June 1656, when he was replaced by Tobias Bridge. Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire, and Warwickshire were put under the command of Edward Whalley. William Boteler ruled Bedfordshire, Huntingdonshire, Northamptonshire, and Rutland. Cromwell's son-in-law Charles Fleetwood was needed in the protectoral council at Whitehall, and his association was divided between Hezekiah Haynes (Essex, Cambridgeshire, Isle of Ely, Norfolk, and Suffolk), William Packer (Hertfordshire and Oxfordshire), and George Fleetwood (Buckinghamshire). London, Westminster, and Middlesex were controlled by the old soldier Philip Skippon, although, as he was also a Whitehall councillor, he appointed a deputy, Sir John Barkstead. Kent and Surrey were under Thomas Kelsey; Berkshire, Hampshire, and Sussex under William Goffe, and the entirety of the south-west (Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, Somerset, Dorset, Devon, and Cornwall) was controlled by Cromwell's brother-in-law John Disbrowe. Finally, James Berry was put in charge of an association comprising Herefordshire, Shropshire, Worcestershire, and Wales, with Wales being divided between two deputies, John Nicholas (b. c.1620, d. after 1682) and Rowland Dawkins.

If the inactive major-generals (Lambert, Fleetwood, and Skippon) are discounted, there were sixteen men who served in this capacity. They were mostly men in their thirties, although Berry, Disbrowe, Lilburne, and Whalley were a few years older, and Charles Howard, the youngest of the group, was in his late twenties. All were men of considerable military experience in the civil wars and the campaigns in Ireland and Scotland, and many were also seasoned politicians, with nine having served as MPs at Westminster. Five (Berry, Fleetwood, Goffe, Lilburne, and Whalley) had signed the death warrant for Charles I in January 1649 [see Regicides].

Most of the group had become wealthy by the mid-1650s, with at least thirteen being recorded as purchasers of confiscated royalist estates, but only three (Fleetwood, Howard, and Lilburne) originally came from rich landowning families. Six (Boteler, Dawkins, Disbrowe, Goffe, Haynes, and Whalley) can be classed as minor gentry before the civil wars, and the remainder were from the middling or lower orders: Berry, for example, was a clerk in an ironworks, Barkstead and Kelsey were tradesmen in London, and Worsley's father was a merchant from Manchester. The lowly status of perhaps half of the sixteen lies behind the contemporary slur that the major-generals were upstarts, and also helps to explain their inability to get the best from the ruling élites in their various regions. The problem was not that the major-generals were strangers to the local gentlemen and nobles—it has been calculated that nine of the sixteen came from the very areas that they later governed—but that they were their social inferiors. Above all, hostility was provoked by the main factor that unified the major-generals: their radical puritanism. The religious views of many went far beyond what even the old parliamentarians were prepared to accept. Disbrowe was an Independent but a friend and patron of Baptists; Berry went further, favouring Fifth Monarchists and Quakers; Goffe was a millenarian Independent; Packer and Boteler had reputations as radicals and zealots. Only two of the sixteen were not completely wedded to the godly cause: Edward Whalley, who seems to have been a religious moderate, and Charles Howard, who had been brought up as a Roman Catholic and now trimmed his sails according to the Cromwellian wind.

In the wake of Penruddock's rising the major-generals' primary task was to provide security against future unrest. To this end they were given wide powers to disarm Roman Catholics and to prevent meetings of disaffected gentry at horse races and other gatherings; and they commanded newly raised militia units paid for by a ‘decimation’ tax levied from the estates of local royalists. They were also given the job of imposing ‘godly’ rule across the country, upholding law and order, and punishing drunkenness, blasphemy, and other moral failings. The major-generals' twofold role was ambitious, and in many ways beyond the capabilities of an early modern state, even one backed with considerable military force. It can be argued that they were successful in securing the regime, as there was no further rebellion during the protectorate, but there are also strong indications that the royalists were very weak and disorganized throughout this period. However, the imposition of godly rule was an unmitigated failure. The traditional local élites reacted to the major-generals with hostility, seeing them as heavy-handed and even illegal. As a result the expected co-ordination between the new rulers, their assistants (the ‘commissioners for securing the peace of the commonwealth’), and such traditional bodies as the justices of the peace rarely materialized, and it proved increasingly difficult to raise the decimation tax that supported the whole scheme.

The level of anger generated by the experiment can be seen most obviously in the parliamentary elections in the autumn of 1656. Instead of being able to manage these elections to ensure the return only of MPs loyal to the protectorate, there was massive opposition to the ‘swordsmen and decimators’ and their candidates, and the new parliament was dominated instead by conservative country MPs and members of the presbyterian interest. Although these MPs were not necessarily opposed to the protectorate, they were determined to reduce the level of military interference in government, whether central or local. In December 1656 the introduction of the Militia Bill—which sought to reorganize the militia units raised by the major-generals, and to increase the tax that supported them—was greeted with anger by ordinary MPs, and in January 1657 the Commons voted it down. This vote effectively destroyed the major-generals' scheme, although the militia units continued to be a presence in some counties until the summer of that year. Furthermore, the defeat of the Militia Bill is usually linked with the introduction in February 1657 of a new, civilian, constitution, known as the remonstrance (the forerunner of the ‘Humble petition and advice’), which included the offer of the crown to Oliver Cromwell as head of a state protected from the dominance of the army.

The religious zeal of the major-generals, coupled with their attempt to impose godly rule on England and Wales, has given them a lasting reputation as po-faced puritans and killjoys, and this reputation has attached itself to the Cromwellian regime as a whole. Few have addressed the subject without emotion. David Hume described their rule as ‘arbitrary’ (Hume, 4.511–12); Sir Charles Firth branded them ‘despotic’ (Firth, 430); and for John Buchan the scheme was ‘the most intolerable experience England ever had’ (Buchan, 459). Others have traced back to this period the English love of freedom and hatred of standing armies and military rule. Modern historians tend to portray the major-generals either as the gauleiters of the Cromwellian military state or as misguided religious zealots. The latter seems closer to the truth. As Christopher Durston concluded in his important study of the scheme:
the quintessential feature of the rule of the Major Generals was not that it was army rule, nor that it was London rule, but rather that it was godly rule, and it was as such that it was decisively rejected by the great majority of the English and Welsh people. (Durston, 232)


Patrick Little

Sources  

C. Durston, Cromwell's major generals: godly government during the English revolution (2001) · I. Roots, ‘Swordsmen and decimators: Cromwell's major generals’, The English civil war and after, 1642–1658, ed. R. H. Parry (1970) · A. Woolrych, ‘The Cromwellian protectorate: a military dictatorship?’, History, 75 (1990) · A. Fletcher, ‘Oliver Cromwell and the localities: the problem of consent’, Politics and people in revolutionary England, ed. C. Jones, M. Newitt, and S. Roberts (1986) · J. Buchan, Oliver Cromwell (1934) · C. H. Firth, ‘Cromwell and the crown, part 1’, EngHR, 17/67 (1902), 429–42 · D. Hume, The history of Great Britain, 4 vols. (1766) · Thurloe, State papers · Bodl. Oxf., MS Rawl. A 29–48