Posts Tagged ‘Thomas Venner’

This article first appeared in London Historians Members’ Newsletter from January 2014. 
By Hawk Norton. 

‘Tis prophecied in the Revelation, that the Whore of Babylon shall be destroyed with fire and sword and what do you know, but this is the time of her ruin, and that we are the men that must help to pull her down?’
John Rogers, 1657

‘A thing that never was heard of, that so few men should dare and do so much mischief.’
Samuel Pepys, 1661

In 1648, the bloody civil wars, which had caused the deaths of around 250,000 English men and women, seemed to have ended. In December the ‘Long Parliament’ was purged by Colonel Pride and replaced by the ‘Rump Parliament’, enabling the trial and execution of King Charles I. The monarchy, the House of Lords and the Anglican Church were abolished and England became a republic. After a successful campaign in Ireland and the defeats of Scottish Royalists at Dunbar and Charles II at Worcester, by 1651 power lay firmly in the hands of Oliver Cromwell and the other leaders of the 70,000 strong New Model Army.

Spurred on by these events, radical social, political and economic reforms had been proposed by fledgling left wing groups such as the Levellers and the Diggers: the people’s sacrifice in the wars surely merited some reward. In a heated debate with Cromwell at St Mary’s, Putney in 1647, the Leveller, Colonel Thomas Rainsborough had declared: ‘For really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore, truly, Sir, I think it’s clear that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government.’ But as a member of the incumbent ruling elite, Cromwell was never going to accede to their revolutionary demands. As these early radical groups were suppressed, one of their number lamented: ‘It seems now, except a man hath a fixed estate in this kingdom he hath no right in this kingdom.’

The period also saw a huge surge in the popularity of radical religious sects. The bible was available to all to be read, interpreted and freely debated and free from the stranglehold of the repressive machinery of the church, the presses poured forth a flood of pamphlets espousing every form of radical religious belief. Many of these sects (and two thirds of preachers in the New Model army) were millenarians, believing in the imminent arrival of the Fifth Monarchy (in succession to the Assyrian, Persian, Grecian, and Roman). As foretold by the Books of Daniel and Revelation, Christ would return to inaugurate a thousand year rule of the saints over an age of peace, prosperity and see an end to priests, lawyers and landlords. This millennium would be followed by the third coming of Christ and the Day of Judgement.


A plethora of 17C non-conformist sects.

The most radical of these sects were the Fifth Monarchy Men whose leaders’ analysis of the biblical prophecies led them to believe in an imminent final showdown between Christ and the anti-Christ (the pope). Among their most prominent spokesmen were fanatical preachers such as John Rogers, Christopher Feake and Vavasor Powell who regularly delivered lengthy and passionate sermons to capacity congregations at London churches, and pamphleteers, such as William Aspinwall and John Spittlehouse, who carried their beliefs to a wider audience. With Feake declaring that in the millennium there would be ‘no difference betwixt high and low, the greatest and the poorest beggar’, their cause was naturally most popular with the lower orders, many of whom were disappointed and angry at the suppression of the Levellers. However, unlike the Levellers, the Fifth Monarchists had no interest in extending parliamentary franchise, or in democracy at all for that matter, and espousing a dictatorship of the godly which they believed would rapidly spread to cover the whole world, were the ultimate Puritan killjoys.

Strongest in London, at the height of its popularity, supporters of the movement probably numbered around 10,000 countrywide with a far smaller hard core whose fanaticism bordered on lunacy. From the government’s point of view, the most important consideration was the level of support within the now dominant institution in the land: the New Model Army. Their supporters included several men of senior rank such as Major-General Harrison, who had delivered Charles I to Parliament to stand trial and, at Cromwell’s behest, evicted the ‘Rump’.


Major-General Harrison.

On March 29th, 1652, ‘Mirk Monday’, a solar eclipse, resulted in the country being thrown into total darkness, an extraordinary event which added to many people’s expectations of the fulfilment of the Fifth Monarchists’ prophecies.

At first they had supported Cromwell, especially when he had dismissed the self interested Rump. It was replaced with a new assembly of 140 elders, ‘faithful, fearing God and hating covetousness’, nominated by Independent church congregations throughout the country. Though only holding a minority representation, the Fifth Monarchists welcomed this assembly, believing it able to prepare the Commonwealth for the return and rule of Christ. But the ‘Barebone’s Parliament’, named after one of its most prominent members, Praise-God Bairbon, was plagued by confrontation between the moderate majority and the tireless efforts of the radical minority, led by the Fifth Monarchists, to push for wider and faster reform. The Speaker and forty of the moderates lost their nerve and walked out, returning power to Cromwell.

He and the leaders of the army agreed on a new constitution, the ‘Instrument of Government’, creating a Protectorate under Cromwell as Lord Protector. The Fifth Monarchists were bitterly disappointed and Cromwell, now ‘king in all but name’, had completely lost their trust. Feake described him as ‘the dissemblingest perjured villain in the world’ while Rogers prayed to ‘hasten the time when all absolute power shall be devolved into the hand of Christ; when we shall have no Lord Protector but our Lord Jesus’.

Cromwell’s intelligence service, under John Thurloe, was probably the most effective in Europe and monitoring the activities of subversives included sending agents to attend Fifth Monarchist services to relay the content of their sermons back to the government. Favouring liberty of conscience in religion, Cromwell demonstrated remarkable tolerance towards the Fifth Monarchists but, amid rumours of an imminent armed uprising, he was ultimately left with no alternative but to take action. Army officers such as Major-Generals Harrison and Overton were deprived of their commissions and imprisoned, along with Feake, Rogers and various other preachers, for inciting revolt. Cromwell was prepared to release them on the promise of good behaviour, but was met with defiance so had no option but to prolong their captivity. Deprived of its most prominent leaders and effective orators, support for the sect began to dwindle.

The new Parliament was dissolved within five months, having attempted to limit the powers of the Protector, and rapidly gave way to military rule. A Royalist uprising in March, 1656, though easily quashed, resulted in Cromwell dividing the country into eleven military districts to be controlled by Major-Generals, responsible only to Cromwell and his council, enabling him to exert tighter control and keep a close watch on the, now diverse, opponents to his rule. Most alarming to the Fifth Monarchists were rumours that he was planning to take the title of king.

Feake and Rogers were eventually released from captivity in December, 1656. A manifesto entitled ‘A Standard Set Up’ was published outlining their grievances and the nature of the new form of government they proposed. All ‘civil and honest men’ were promised protection and there would be no fixed salaries for ministers of religion, no tithes, no excise and no taxes at all in peacetime. Impressment of men for the armed forces would be abolished and all soldiers who still retained their ‘simplicity and integrity’ were summoned to break away from ‘the apostate and backsliding army’ and enlist under the banner of the Lord Jesus.


A typical pamphlet of the Fifth Monarchists.

In Swann Alley off Coleman Street, a congregation of about eighty Fifth Monarchist fanatics under the leadership of Thomas Venner, began to plan an armed insurrection. On the afternoon of April 9th, 1657, they assembled at a house in Shoreditch with the intention of rendezvousing with other Fifth Monarchist groups on Mile End Green at 9.00pm. But loose tongues had alerted Thurloe to the plot and a troop of horse was dispatched to surround the house where twenty of the conspirators were arrested. A search revealed several hampers of arms and ammunition and ten more were discovered at Swann Alley. The rebels who had evaded arrest planned another uprising for the end of the month but again tip-offs led to their capture. Surprisingly, the conspirators were never brought to trial, but Venner and two others were held in the Tower until the end of the Protectorate.

Cromwell died on September 3rd, 1658, the anniversary of his victories at Dunbar and Worcester. Such a coincidence, combined with the ferocious storm that occurred that night, led many to believe that he had sold his soul to the devil in return for absolute power. The Fifth Monarchists had already made plans to mount a coup on his death to be led by Major-Generals Harrison and Lambert. These came to nought and he was peacefully succeeded as Protector by his son, Richard. Lacking the capabilities of his father and the respect of the army, ‘Tumbledown Dick’ was swiftly nudged aside. Against the background of a political vacuum, a bad harvest, rising prices, arrears in soldiers’ pay and rioting in London, it became clear that the best means of avoiding a total breakdown of order would be the restoration of the monarchy.

To enable his restoration, Charles agreed to the ‘Declaration of Breda’, elements of which included a general pardon to all of his subjects apart from those that Parliament should see fit to exempt, religious freedom for all that didn’t threaten the peace of the kingdom, and payment of soldiers’ arrears and their acceptance into the king’s service. The declaration paved the way for the King’s triumphant return to London on May 29th, 1660, his 30th birthday. He was welcomed at Blackheath by the lord mayor and 120,000 of his subjects and escorted to Whitehall Palace.


Charles II’s triumphant return to London.

Charles soon sought vengeance on the fifty-nine regicides who had signed his father’s death warrant. These included two Fifth Monarchists, Harrison and John Carew, who were arrested, tried at the Old Bailey and sentenced to death. Samuel Pepys recorded in his diary on October 13th, 1660: ‘I went out to Charing Cross, to see Major-General Harrison hanged, drawn and quartered; which was done there, he looked as cheerful as any man could do in that condition. He was presently cut down, and his head and heart shown to the people, at which there was great shouts of joy. It is said, that he said that he was sure to come shortly at the right hand of Christ to judge them that had now judged him; and that his wife do expect his coming again. Thus it was my chance to see the King beheaded in White Hall, and to see the first blood shed in revenge for the King at Charing Cross.’

John Rogers had fled to Holland before the Restoration, but Thomas Venner and his co-conspirators had been released, in an act of clemency by Richard Cromwell, in February, 1659. They had immediately resumed their Fifth Monarchist activities, still using Swann Alley as their base and now the Restoration stirred them to plan a second uprising. They produced a pamphlet entitled ‘A Door of Hope or A Call and Declaration for the gathering together of the first ripe Fruits unto the Standard of our Lord KING JESUS’. This was similar to their previous manifesto but embellished with references to the new king, describing him as ‘a profest enemy, a rebel and traytor to Christ’ and warning of the danger of England being conquered by ‘Popery’.

Warned of an imminent rebellion, the Government arrested several suspects and began conducting searches. Aware that the net was closing, on the following Sunday, January 6th, Venner assembled his supporters at the meeting-house in Swann Alley and told them that the time of the Fifth Monarchy had arrived. That evening Venner led about sixty well armed men down Cheapside shouting ‘King Jesus, and the heads upon the gate!’ (in reference to the exhibited heads of the executed regicides). They broke into St. Paul’s intending to use the cathedral as a fortress and posted sentries at the doors. When one of them demanded of a passer-by who he was for and received the reply, ‘King Charles’, the sentry declared that he was for King Jesus and shot him dead.

Receiving news of the disturbance, the City authorities sent a company of the trained bands to suppress it but the ferocity of the rebels’ resistance quickly drove them back. Venner now marched his men through the City to Bishopsgate from where they crossed Moorfields, marched along Chiswell Street, and re-entered the City at Cripplegate. Rumours of the imminent arrival of a troop of horse caused them to retreat to Beech Lane where, encountering further opposition, they marched north to Hampstead and eventually took shelter for the night in Ken Wood, Highgate, a locality that had long held support for their cause.

On Wednesday January 9th, Venner led about fifty men back to the City, unopposed. Arriving at the Compter Prison on the north side of Poultry they demanded the release of the prisoners but by now the alarm had been raised and they found themselves confronted by another detachment of trained bands. These were repulsed but the arrival of reinforcements forced a retreat along Bishopsgate Street and into Cheapside where they met up with another group of insurgents that had set out from near London Bridge ‘well-accoutred both for musquets, blunderbusses, carbines and halberds, with buff-coats and helmets, both back and brest being thus completely armed’. Turning into Wood Street a furious fight ensued with two more companies of trained bands until the arrival of a detachment of Life Guards forced the rebels to make a fighting retreat towards Cripplegate. By now, two of their leaders had been killed and Venner himself was seriously wounded and they broke up into small groups to attempt an escape. By the time 1,200 further reinforcements arrived from Whitehall they had already been overpowered.


One of the Fifth Monarchists’ leaders, Thomas Venner.

There are several contemporary accounts of the uprising. The differences between them, particularly in the estimates of the numbers involved, clearly demonstrate the level of chaos and confusion it had caused. Pepys wrote in his diary on January 10th: ‘These Fanatiques that have routed all the train-bands that they met with, put the king’s life-guards to the run, killed about twenty men, broke through the City-gates twice; and all this in the day time, when all the City was in armes; are not in all above 31. Whereas we did believe them (because they were seen up and down in every place almost in the City, and had been in Highgate two or three days, and in several other places) to be at least 500. A thing that never was heard of, that so few men should dare and do so much mischief.’

On January 17th, Venner and another nineteen prisoners pleaded not guilty to charges of murder and high treason at Justice Hall in the Old Bailey. Four were acquitted by the jury but the others were found guilty and sentenced to death. On January 19th, Venner and Roger Hodgkin were drawn on a sledge by two companies of trained bands from Newgate Prison to Swann Alley where, having warned the crowd of the approaching time ‘when other judgement would be’, they were hanged, drawn and quartered. As with the regicides, parts of their bodies were displayed on the City gates and their heads mounted on poles on London Bridge. The other condemned men were hanged at various locations in the city and other leading Fifth Monarchists, though having taken no part in the uprising, were rounded up and imprisoned.

Despite these severe punishments and a Royal proclamation banning all unauthorised public meetings, pockets of Fifth Monarchist activity continued for some time, particularly in south east London. But the restoration of the monarchy had also brought the restoration of the Anglican church. The bishops were back, and all members of clergy were required to swear allegiance to the new state church and take an oath of non-resistance. The Five Mile Act barred dissenting ministers from living within five miles of a town. The Bishop of London, declared that ‘Those who will not be governed as men, by reason and persuasion, shall be governed as beasts, by power and force.’

The popularity of fanatical religous sects rapidly declined and though there would be sporadic rumours of further Fifth Monarchist uprisings for several years to come, beset by informers and agents provocateurs, the movement gradually disintegrated, its leaders either executed, dying in captivity, or going to ground. The best demonstration of the extent of their decline is surely the lack of any attempt to utilise the Great Fire of 1666, a year bearing the number of the Beast, as a rallying point for their cause. Yet in 1671, when a cow broke into New Palace Yard, Westminster, amidst the chaos, the cry went up that ‘the Fifth Monarchy Men were up and come to cut the throats of the lawyers’, and in 1684, 5,000 mourners attended the funeral of one of their leaders.

The Fifth Monarchists were very much a product of their time: a period of great turbulence and enormous destruction accompanied by unprecedented religious freedom in an age of superstition. Their biggest problem was that the dour fanaticism with which they pursued their cause, not only lost them the support of many who might otherwise have been attracted to their millenarian doctrine, but also left their leadership totally bereft of the political credibility necessary to achieve anything without the divine intervention which they undoubtedly expected. With the restoration of the monarchy, the general feeling in London must surely have been that if Christ wasn’t going to return at least the King had, and after years of suffering, soul searching and uncertainty, it was time to fall back in line and to lighten up and live a little.

All images used in the above article are scanned from the author’s private collection.

Hawk Norton is a collector of antiquarian and second-hand books, all of which are about London and its history. His remarkable library comprises over 4,000 titles dating back 400 years. All are now for sale at well under market prices. For a price list, email Hawk at hawk@btinternet.com


Read Full Post »