‘An unmitigated disaster’

For a long period of time the Major Generals have been considered an unmitigated disaster due to their jack booted tyrannical dictatorship. However, in recent years opinions and views have changed to become more open to portraying the Major Generals not to be the harsh dictators and an unmitigated disaster they were said to be. Indeed far from being dictatorial, they tired to rule through the landed gentry and were part of the process of demilitarization in England and Wales.

The Major Generals were commissioned on October 11th 1655. They were Cromwell’s oldest and most trusted comrades, and were chosen because of their ‘approve fidelity, wisdom and circumspection’. Primary instructions given to the Major General’s were to suppress tumults, insurrections and rebellions, to disarm Catholics and Royalists, and to watch disaffected people. From this it is clear to see the main instruction revolve around security. Additional instructions included to the apprehension of idle and lose person, to look after the impotent poor, to police roads and to promote godliness and virtue. The main driving force behind these can again be seen as security, this is because they felt that their two main aims led hand in hand, parallel to each other, if the promotion of godliness and virtue was a success and they were successful in apprehending those considered idle and loose it would mean their security regime was also working correctly.

The main priority of the Major Generals was to ensure peace and order. They also deployed police in order to deal with the violent reactions to government and local authorities. From this the Major Generals can be seen as a great success as there was no rebellions during the time they were in power, thus meaning they cannot be considered an unmitigated disaster. This can be seen in the Instructions to the Major-Generals, 1555 where its states that they where

‘To endeavour the suppressing all tumults, insurrection, rebellions or other unlawful assemblies’

(Instructions to the Major-Generals, 1655)

This element of security can be furthered, as sporting events such as

‘Horse-races, cock fighting… or any unlawful assemblies’

(Instructions to the Major-Generals, 1655)

Were shut down and banned as it was considered a threat to the regime, as they believed that due to the large number of people attending such sporting events, treason and rebellion may hatch and damage the state. This again shows the Major Generals to be a success and not an unmitigated disaster as they were trying to secure on of their main aims which was, security by putting a stop to such activities they believed were causing threats or problems to their regime.

Moreover, the Major Generals were instructed to observe all disaffected, idle and loose people as they were also consider a threat to the regime. Cromwell and the Major Generals were aware of social security as they were looking after and caring for the republic’s people and those who were considered to be the impotent poor, and by having the idle

‘Compelled to work, or be sent out of the commonwealth’.

(Instructions to the Major-Generals, 1655)

The Major Generals are again portrayed to have had success in their security policy, meaning they cannot be considered an unmitigated disaster.

A letter where, a Major General (Edward Whalley) is reporting to Secretary Thurloe, his employer, therefore, he might express himself differently, which mean he may either may hide or exaggerate things. However, he is writing about certain individuals within his area who he is worried about. In the letter it is clear that Whalley is seeking help to find a document so he is able to remove Boteman,

‘I could desire it might be found to help him out (of) here’.

(Major-General Edward Whalley to Secretary Thurloe, 24 November 1655)

This letter, but also the process Whalley is taking to have this man removed shows the Major General system to be incredibly centralised, as he is looking for direction, orders and support in the tasks they carry out. However, he is a Major General, he should have the power to either have Boteman taken care of or removed himself. Though, he may have felt they were too weak to do so, he may have ne scared of being unpopular or being hurt himself in a response to his actions, or he may have just wanted to carry out his tasks legally. Therefore, showing the Major Generals to be moderate and not the harsh dictators they were considered to be. However, there maybe limitations to this as this is only one Major General and may not be typical. This again shows this element of security, which was one of the Major Generals’ main instructions, and also proves that they were not an unmitigated disaster.

The Major General’s security policy can again be portrayed as one of their most important targets through another report to Secretary Thurloe as it views the consideration of having those idle and loose people transported to the Indies,

‘For the sending away, though but few, would have a great influence upon the rest’

(Major-General Edward Whalley to Secretary Thurloe, 1656)

This may result in them searching for and becoming employed. Though, the downside as Major General Whalley states is that they have now ships and few merchants in this part of the country,

‘All but Lincolnshire, being the Mediterranean of this nation, and few or no merchants in any part of Lincolnshire’.

(Major-General Edward Whalley to Secretary Thurloe, 1656)

However, it shows that both Major Generals and Thurloe were bending over backwards in order to try and help local rulers, in a bid to gain support from the landed gentry. This in turn failed to show the supposed arrogance and harsh nature they were portrayed to be.

Within Reliquiae Baxterianae, 1696 are the memoirs of Baxter, who was a Parliamentarian during the Civil War. Though, this may have reliability issues due to it being written a long time after the event, and also because he was a Parliamentarian. Within the extract, Baxter criticises Berry, even thought he personally knew him and used to be good friends. Moreover, even though, Berry’s reign was short and modest he was still hated by the gentry because of his social class, he was looked down upon due to his lower social status, Baxter also believes that it would have been a better idea for Cromwell to appoint Berry at a different post in another part of the country,

‘But hated and scorned by the gentry that had known his inferiority, so that it has been better for him to have chosen a stranger place.’

(Reliquiae Baxterianae, 1696)

However, they hypocritically crept up to him due to his power. Therefore, although the Major Generals had a problem due to class, they were still respected due to their high amounts of power, meaning they were listened to, again showing they were not an unmitigated disaster.

Another report to Secretary Thurloe from William Goffe, suggests that a leveller is causing potential trouble towards the regime. However, Major General Goffe responds in a friendly manner, very different to being a military dictator, which they are regularly connected to,

‘I dismissed him for the present, apprehending if I should have done otherwise, they would have made their advantage of it.’

(Major-General William Goffe to Secretary Thurloe, 1656)

He also justifies he actions, that if he would have arrested the individual it would have caused further problems Once more proving the Major Generals were no an unmitigated disaster.

In addition, another important aim and instruction that the Major Generals were given by their, appointee, Oliver Cromwell, was to bring both England and Wales to godliness. However, they suffered in their struggle in bringing the two countries, England and Wales to desired proportion of godliness that Cromwell both wanted and expected. This was mainly due to the vast areas the Major General’s had to patrol, they had to ensure security and collect the Decimation Tax, which meant there was little time left to target Godliness. However, their security system was a great success as the Royalists were unable to move without the Major Generals knowing it.

The English Republic, 1649-1660 in 1982, T Barnard wrote about his views regarding the decimation tax,

‘Unpopular in itself, failed to pay the costs of the new militia’.

(T. Barnard, The English Republic, 1649-1660, 1982)

Barnard was one of the first revisionists and holds a different opinion compared to the generalisation of the Major Generals, due to his text being secondary it should be balanced and hold hindsight over the issue. It again suggests that even though the decimation tax was unpopular, it wasn’t force upon people as some people were exempt from paying it, which shows the Major Generals to be considerate rather than the harsh dictators they are said to be. It also states that they had to deal with many problems that halted or hindered the Major Generals’ authority such as the lack of local connections or social status. However, even with this in place, the Major Generals were able to continue to use their power and carry on with their instructions. Barnard also states that a certain Major General, Worsley, was unique due to his range of work in local aid,

‘Worsley also sought to improve poor relief, to provide work and to control the prices and distribution of vital commodities’.

(T. Barnard, The English Republic, 1649-1660, 1982)

Though, this may have bounced off the other Major Generals as the reactivated some of the social and economic laws. This led to immoral ministers being rooted out and being replaced by more thorough preachers and those who were considered idle were prevented from entering unknown districts. In addition it led to the poor being helped, hospitals sheltered the aged and ill, wages and prices of goods became fixed and markets were regulated to stop deception. Although there maybe be limitations within this document, as it mainly provides information regarding to one Major General, it clearly showed that as a regime, Oliver Cromwell’s Major Generals were a reasonable success, thus meaning they cannot be considered to be an unmitigated disaster.

In relation to Catholics, Royalists, Republicans, 5th Monarchists and Levellers, the Major Generals were instructed to disarm such people,

‘All others who are dangerous to the peace of the nation, be disarmed’

(Instructions to the Major-Generals, 1655)

This was because they were considered a great danger to Cromwell’s religious policy. However, this could also refer to security, because by disarming those who were opposed to both Cromwell and the Major Generals, they could rule without any opposition and this part of their instruction, security can be considered a success for the Major Generals.

Cromwell wanted the Major Generals to promote godliness and virtue amongst those living throughout England and Wales. This meant putting an end to and discouraging ungodliness, he did this by placing

‘Laws against drunkenness, blaspheming and taking the name of God in vain’.

(Instructions to the Major-Generals, 1655)

This could again be connected with their security policy as ungodliness and drunkenness could encourage treason and rebellion. It was believed by Oliver Cromwell that if people were godly, they would in turn support the regime he promoted. Though, this godliness policy clearly failed, as they were unable to unite religion throughout the country. Though it could be said that how could the Major Generals possibly become morale police, overlooking everyone’s social activities with such large areas to regulate.

Edmund Ludlow, a Cavalry Officer in the NMA in the Civil War, a Parliamentarian, wrote his memoirs in 1698. He became disillusioned with Cromwell’s regime which led to him becoming Anti-Cromwell. Moreover, these memoirs were written a long time after the events of the Civil War and Cromwell’s Major Generals, when William and Mary were on the throne, thus meaning it was safe to provide real opinions and feelings on the events that occurred with the Major Generals. Within the passage, Ludlow criticises the Major Generals, stating that people suffered from the Decimation Tax,

‘Decimating to the extremity whom they pleased’,

(The Memoirs of Edmund Ludlow, 1698)

Though, it can be said the Major Generals didn’t collect enough, evidence of this can be portrayed through how difficult is was for the Major Generals to assess those who should pay it, meaning it was also very time consuming which caused it to be overlooked. In addition, many managed to become exempt such as commissioners who could even let off their friends and neighbours for not having to pay. Those who chose to pay a large fine or who were of a high social standing to exploit the decimation tax. Therefore, this source can be seen as having reliability problems, this can also be shown through Ludlow portraying them as harsh dictators, which is again untrue. Moreover, Ludlow picks one individual case, ‘a farmer in Berkshire’ who was ‘demanded to pay his tenth’ to try and put his point across about members of the public who he felt were being robbed through the Act of Indemnity. Therefore due to it bias nature and extreme Anti-Cromwell view it may have reliability problems, due to it being limited to one case.

‘…the black legend which grew up around them and their demise…this hostility an be attributed to the fact they were agents of centralisation…to a rather greater degree it stemmed from the fact that they were soldiers…For many contemporaries and later commentators nonetheless became a convenient and powerful symbol of the military nature of the.’

(C. Durston, Cromwell’s major-generals, 2001)

C Durston’s Cromwell’s major-generals, 2001, provides evidence on how much hostility was held against the Major Generals and how they have therefore been referred to as the ‘black legend’. Moreover, it portrays the main reason why they were hated was because they were soldiers, their rule being given the title ‘swordsmen and decimators’ not because of their activities such as shutting down sporting events and ale houses, and this military nature represents and symbolises Cromwell’s military dictatorship, which was an ‘unpopular interregnum state’.

Over the course of the last three and a half centuries, succeeding generations of historians have overwhelmingly concluded that the rule of the Major Generals was ill conceived, unconstitutional, oppressive and deeply unpopular.

French writer and statesman, Francois Guizot described it as

‘One of those necessities inflicted by the justice of God, which reveal the innate viciousness of a government’.

(Francois Guizot, The History of Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution, 1854)

The most common charge levelled against the Major Generals by hostile scholars has been that their administration was unrestrained, unconstitutional and fundamentally un-English. In 1656, William Prynne believed that the Major Generals where not only taxing and decimating but also disofficing, disfranchising and sequestering all men in all counties and corporations at their pleasure.

Many other scholarly critics have attacked the Major Generals on a number of linked but distinct grounds. Some writers have seen them principally as parvenu social upstarts, who were unused and unsuited to exercising authority and whose main preoccupation during their brief period of power was the vindictive persecution of their social betters. In 1694, royalist writer, Roger Coke, labelled the Major Generals as an ‘obscure company of mean fellows’, and who he claimed had

‘Lorded it over the nobility as well as gentry and clergy with an unheard of insolency’.

(Roger Coke, A Detection of the Court and the State of England during the Last Four Reigns and Interregnum, 1694)

Between 1660 and 1800, the Major Generals were decried as ‘Turkish bashaws’ and their militia troops as ‘bands of janissaries’ by commentators from across the ideological spectrum, including the royalists, James Heath, and Edward Hyde, the Tories Laurence Echard and David Hume, and the republicans, Edmund Ludlow and Catherine Macaulay. The dominant theme in the work of all these writers was the powers enjoyed by the Major Generals were vast, alien and arbitrary in nature. The decline of Turkish power during the nineteenth century drained this image of much of its powers, and during the twentieth century hostile historians were forced to employ other negative reference points to condemn the Major Generals’ rule.

Another major strand of criticism has concentrated the unashamedly military nature of their rule. In his History of England published in the 1870s the German historian Leopold von Ranke, created a nightmarish picture of England under the major generals as a military state where ‘every two miles troops were posted’ where roads were constantly being watched by military patrols, and where

‘day and night the soldiers were actively deployed’.

(Leopold von Ranke, The History of England Principally in the Seventeenth Century)

In 1934 one of Cromwell’s biographers, John Buchan, claimed that the rule of the Major Generals was ‘the most intolerable experience England ever had’. Three years later Alfred Wood, the historian of mid seventeenth century Nottinghamshire, declared:

‘it is at least certain that the rule of the sword and the rule of the saints…were burnt into the minds of average, tolerant Englishmen as outrages which must never be permitted to occur again’.

(A. C. Wood, Nottinghamshire in the Civil War (Oxford, 1937))

Many believed that that hostility shown towards the Major Generals was due to the involvement of the army within politics. Godfrey Davies argued in the 1950s that, while their rule had been too short lived to have a permanent effect on the morality of the English state it had

‘lasted long enough to leave behind it an abiding hatred of militarism’.

(Godfrey Davies, The Early Stuarts, 1603-1660, 1952)

Christopher Hill later claimed that as a result of their reactions subsequent generations of English people developed a negative conception of liberty within which ‘freedom means being left alone’. Soon after he declared that they had

‘left behind them in the memory of the ruling class a fixed hatred of standing armies that is one of the most important legacies of the revolutionary decades’.

(Christopher Hill, The Century of the Revolution, 1603-1714, 1961)

For other historians the Major Generals were above all else the agents of centralisation who were resented and opposed primarily because they represented a threat to long-established traditions of local autonomy and self government. Paul Christianson declared in 1976 that their role was

‘the most stringent central invasion of local privileges and customs of the century’.

(Paul Christianson, ‘The causes of the English Revolution: a Reappraisal’, 1976)

Throughout the entire period from 1660 to present, not one historian has been prepared to express any enthusiasm or support towards the Major Generals, though a number of scholars have removed themselves from the dominant chorus of disapproval and have at least attempted to defend some aspects of their rule. The first writer to seriously question the orthodox denigration of the Major Generals was the radical republican, William Godwin. Godwin’s thoughts were based on his extensive study of a range of primary source material including order books of Cromwell’s council and John Thurloe’s state papers. And was therefore by far the most balanced and authoritative study of mid century England in the two centuries that followed the restoration.

The Major Generals have also received some muted and qualified approval from prominent twentieth century historians. In the early 1960s Christopher Hill described as being both efficient and honest. In 1973, Gerald Aylmer similarly argued that their image as ‘military satraps’ and ‘kill-joy puritans’ was inaccurate and should be abandoned.

Moreover, a number of other historians have also distanced themselves from the stream of disparagement of the Major Generals on the grounds that they didn’t possess the exorbitant and unrestricted powers they had first thought.

The Major Generals needed to legitimise their power, which meant they needed an act of Parliament. On Christmas Day 1656, john Desborough introduced a Militia Bill, which was to legitimise the Decimation Tax, therefore ensuring that the Major Generals would be able to carry on. Desborough chose Christmas Day as he knew the House of Commons would be empty and that those who turned up would be strong puritans. Even so, the vote was very close, 88 in favour and 63 against. The closeness gave the opposition confidence and many MPs daw the opportunity to be rid of the Major Generals. The second reading of the Militia Bill was on January 7th, where MPs began to criticize the Majors Generals personally. Significantly Lord John Claypole, Oliver Cromwell son in law spoke against the Major Generals. The third reading later followed on January 20th, and sparked a 9 day debate which became increasingly more aggressive. On January 29th the second Protectorate Parliament voted 88 in favour and 124 against.

The failure of the Militia Bill did not mean the end of The Major Generals but it did mean the end of the Decimation Tax, no money meant they cold not go on. Their status was now ambiguous and they were not supported by the Decimation Tax, and it could be argued that they were working up until the death of Oliver Cromwell in September 1658. It could also be said that Cromwell failed to back the Major Generals and the new Cromwellians made a concerted effort to get rid of them.

The Major Generals security system was a great success, as they disarmed the royalists; they were unable to move without the Major Generals knowing about it. It took until 1658 for the Royalists to build up the network that they had in 1655.

However, seconds only to security was bringing England and Wales to Godliness, though in this they failed. They were unable to build a relationship with the neutral gentry. Moreover they failed to collect enough Decimation Tax and they were unable to control the 1656 election. And although they failed in promoting one of their main instructions, Godliness, they can not be considered and unmitigated disaster due to the successfully endorsing a better security system.

The Major Generals were incredibly significant; they were the agents of a centralized system. They were soldiers and the ‘black legend’ of their military rule continued long after they were gone. They became deeply unpopular because they were unconstitutional and people were unhappy about their moral policing. It was their morale policing that probably finished the Major Generals, but opponents preferred to use the more respectful platform of being against their military dictatorship. There was no precedent for the Major Generals. Nothing like it had ever existed, and nothing like it in this country has existed since.