Nostalgia: Royalists take revenge

In January 1661, about 35 Fifth Monarchists, led by Thomas Venner occupied St Paul's Cathedral during a small-scale uprising which took the government by surprise.
In January 1661, about 35 Fifth Monarchists, led by Thomas Venner occupied St Paul's Cathedral during a small-scale uprising which took the government by surprise.

Contrary to the general, received view, the restoration in 1660 of the monarchy, House of Lords and the Anglican state church was far from universally popular in England or beneficial to all of its people. The king was wise enough to understand that many of his subjects were potential rebels, hence his lenient attempt to pacify them with the generous terms of his Declaration of Breda. Yet some of his most devoted followers could not tolerate their former enemies or resist the temptation to humiliate and punish them. Unfortunately, in January 1661, an event took place in London which provided them with an excuse for taking revenge.

Thomas Venner was a cooper by trade and the leader of one of the many extreme dissenting religious movements, the Fifth Monarchists. Like the Levellers, Ranters and Quakers, they attacked the unearned privileges of the rich and powerful, particularly the land-owning aristocracy, the tithing clergy and what one called “the old, bloody, popish, wicked gentry of the nation”. However, in one respect, as their name indicates, they were unique: they believe that the fifth and final empire in world history, that of Christian saints, was about to succeed the previous four, Assyrian, Persian, Greek and Roman.

The Fifth Monarchists made few converts in the North. They drew their main strength from the cloth-making trades people in the southern towns, especially in Devon and Somerset. Venner’s rising was very small-scale, but it took the government by surprise. About 35 of them occupied St Paul’s until driven to a wood near Highgate by the London trained-band of militia. When they tried to re-enter the city, about half of them were shot down. Of the survivors, the heads of 14 of them, including Venner’s were used to decorate London Bridge.

The Quakers immediately distanced themselves and declared that they were now opposed to violent action in all circumstances. They were too late. Within six weeks at least 4,688 of them were in prison, charged with plotting insurrection. Venner’s rising had been counter-productive: it intensified fear of a rebellion of the radically religious.

A far more serious threat to the royalist regime, yet with similar outcome and consequences, was the misleadingly named Farnley Wood Plot of 1663. Farnley Wood is three miles south-west of Leeds in Batley parish. It was here that a small, motley collection of disaffected republicans and religious dissenters gathered in the autumn of that year. However, their plot was far more widespread and well-supported than this single location suggests: uprisings were also planned in Doncaster, Beverley and, more generally, in the North Riding.

One of the leading plotters was Dr Edward Richardson. In 1662 he had been ejected from the deanery of Ripon and during the following summer he had set up a medical practice for the spawers of Harrogate and Knaresborough. Here he held meetings and wrote a declaration condemning religious persecution and oppressive taxation.

The North Riding conspirators were nearly all ex-servicemen who had served under Fairfax and Lambert and had lost their army commissions at the Restoration. Now they saw that all they had fought and their comrades had died for was denigrated and destroyed.

Some of them had gained estates which had formerly belonged to Royalists. Ralph Rymer had bought Brafferton, once the property of the Catholic Cholmleys; Colonel Henry Pownall had displaced the recusant Meynell family at Hawnby; and Colonel Thomas Lascelles was living in what had been the guest house at Mount Grace. A few more were amongst the 155 ministers in Yorkshire who have been expelled from their parishes.

Their plot was to muster their men on October 12 at Topcliffe bridge, a key crossing of the river Swale near the Great North Road and from there descend on Northallerton. But the conspiracy was betrayed and the high sheriff, Sir Thomas Gower, pre-empted it by arresting nearly 100 suspects two days before the date of the muster. Richardson fled to Holland. Sixteen leaders were hanged, drawn and quartered, their heads displayed on three of York’s city’s Bars. Later, another six West Riding men, from Morley, Batley and Dewsbury, were also executed. Lascelles and Pownall were lucky to escape punishment.

The Yorkshire plot of 1663 allowed the Cavalier Parliament to justify further repressive measures which effectively banned all religious meetings outside the Church of England. Yorkshire’s civil war was truly at an end: there were no more armed conspiracies against the Restoration regime.

Nevertheless, there was still much resentment, particularly at the honours, privileges and offices granted to gentlemen who had suffered for the Royalist cause. For instance, the second Sir Hugh Cholmley of Whitby, whose father had brought so much misery to Scarborough, was given a government contract to build a massive, stone mole at Tangier, England’s first African colony. Between 1663 and 1676 he received half a million pounds from the Treasury, some of it enriching the Whitby workers he employed out there.

In 1662, the Treasury set aside £60,000 to compensate Royalist officers for their past military service. In the same year, Parliament authorised magistrates to award pensions to poor and disabled men or their widows and children who had fought for the Stuarts. By April 1663, in the North Riding alone, 100 annual pensions were granted, averaging two pounds each. At the same time, pensions formerly paid to war widows and “lame soldiers” under the Protectorate were stopped.

The Restoration authorities were also keen to punish past “crimes” committed by civilians against Royalist property. At Pickering, for example, 48 local yeoman were indicted for killing or taking away a thousand rabbits “belonging to the Queen’s Majesty”. In October 1661, at Scarborough, a case was heard concerning the theft of a luggage trunk belonging to a senior Royalist staff officer in the morning of July 4, 1644!

Of the six Yorkshiremen who had signed the death warrant of Charles I, five had died in the 1650s and the only survivor, Thomas Chaloner of Guisborough, escaped into exile. Yet there was one Yorkshire Roundhead who was not permitted to cheat revenge even as a corpse. Everyone knows that the embalmed bodies of Oliver Cromwell and his son-in-law, Henry Ireton, were disinterred, dragged through the streets of London to Tyburn, hanged and beheaded, their bodies thrown into a deep pit there, and their heads impaled on the roof of Westminster Hall. Less well known, is that a similar atrocity was committed on the buried corpse of John Pym, General Robert Blake and Sir William Constable of Flamborough.

[to be continued]