Generals promote a moral high road’

WHEN the Major Generals were commissioned on the 11th October 1655, effectively the Commonwealth, under the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell, became a military dictatorship. The plans had been drawn up by John Lambert, John Disbrowe, Sir Gilbert Pickering

WHEN the Major Generals were commissioned on the 11th October 1655, effectively the Commonwealth, under the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell, became a military dictatorship. The plans had been drawn up by John Lambert, John Disbrowe, Sir Gilbert Pickering and Cromwell himself.

The orders were proclaimed on October 31, and their rule would last for 15 months.

The country was divided into 12 regions, each governed by a Major General, who was answerable only to the Lord Protector.

In a country that had suffered a civil war and the execution of the reigning monarch, these men were granted sweeping powers. Security was paramount and the Major Generals were empowered to deal with criminals, quell any disorderly assembly and to ensure that all Royalists were kept under close scrutiny.


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Underlying the scheme was Cromwell's pursuit of a more Godly and Puritan society, therefore the role of the Major Generals was also to promote a moral 'high road'. Reforms came in the banning of cock fighting, bear baiting, stage plays and horse racing.

Laws were passed to stop drunkenness, bad language in public and bawdy behaviour. Ale houses with bad reputations of encouraging such immoralities were closed down. All in all a Seventeenth Century form of our ASBOs.

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Working alongside the more traditional forms of local government, to keep the peace the Major Generals were allowed to raise cavalry militias in their own regions, these men would of course have to be loyal to the Protectorate.

To pay for this 'army' a Decimation Tax was placed on all known Royalists. This was set at 10 per cent of their income and authorised on the premise that the Royalists had started the war in the first place.

In East Anglia and Oxfordshire, the job of Major General was given to Charles Fleetwood, who was married to Cromwell's daughter, Bridget.

He was a member of the Council of State and so the day-to-day running of this huge area was placed in the hands of his brother George Fleetwood, William Packer (a soldier who rose through the ranks of the New Model Army) and Hezekiah Haynes.

Haynes was given the command of Essex, Cambridgeshire, the Isle of Ely, Norfolk and Suffolk.

He was a devout Puritan who had been born in the region, but had emigrated to New England in 1633 to escape the Laudian persecution. Here he became governor of Massachusetts and then Connecticut.

Hezekiah returned to England when the civil war broke out to fight for the Parliamentary army.

He became a major of horse in the New Model Army. Deeply religious and committed to the cause of moral reformation, the task was simply too great in such a wide area.

It was Haynes' responsibility to collect the Decimation Tax, to reform the church, ensure the old traditional holidays were abandoned, and manage local elections and to prevent Royalist insurrection.

In September 1656, 96 owners of ale-houses were brought before Haynes in Great Yarmouth charged with running businesses that allowed disorder, anti-Sabbatarianism and immoral behaviour. The entire town comprised only 10,000 people and most of those charged had been before the courts before.

The whole scheme was simply unworkable. The rule of the Major Generals was deeply hated and people complained vehemently about the interference.

They were quite happy with their traditions and holidays and merry making and resistant to change.

No wonder reports suggest that Hezekiah Haynes was often ill and not able to carry out his task.

Cromwell himself was aware of the unpopularity of military government; under mounting pressure from MPs to accept the Crown he abolished the Major-Generals and the Decimation Tax in January 1657.

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