The year 1655 might with reason have been described as the “annus horribilis” of Oliver Cromwell's Protectorate. January saw the dissolution of his first Parliament, which had signally failed to ratify the Instrument of Government, the constitution imposed by the Army in December 1653. This undermined the already dubious constitutional basis of the government's ordinances, resulting in legal challenges and even recalcitrance among some of the judges. The policy of “healing and settling” had gained at best a grudging acquiescence from the political nation, and the determined enemies of the Protectorate sought to exploit its instability. Former allies of the Army, such as the commonwealthsman John Wildman and the Fifth Monarchists, continued to publish bitter condemnations of the regime designed to incite rebellion; in March, Royalist plotting culminated in Penruddock's abortive uprising. Instability and disaffection at home coincided with military disaster abroad: July brought news of the failure of Cromwell's “western design,” the expedition against the Spanish island of Hispaniola. This was the first major defeat suffered by the New Model, and was received by Cromwell and many of the godly as an indication of divine displeasure.
In August, Cromwell abandoned “healing and settling” for more military counsels, appointing Major Generals to provide security by raising a new militia, financed by punitive taxation of the Royalists, and by imposing godly order on the localities. Despite the initial optimism of the Major Generals, it was plain by the beginning of 1656 that they could not finance the new militia, and that their efforts to impose reform were far from uniformly effective.