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Real and Practicable, not Imaginary and Notional: Sir Henry Vane, A Healing Question, and the Problems of the Protectorate*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 July 2014

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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.

Research Article
Copyright © North American Conference on British Studies 1996

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I am indebted to Clive Holmes, Blair Worden, and especially Derek Hirst, for their valuable comments on earlier drafts of this paper.


1 The attempt to achieve “healing and settling” of the divisions and disorders left by the civil wars and constitutional changes pervaded the early years of the Protectorate; its importance is clearly visible in Cromwell's first speech to Parliament in Sept. 1654, when he expounded at some length the theme that they were met to secure “the great end…Healing and Settling.” See Carlyle, Thomas, ed., The Letters and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell, 2 vols. (New York, 1863) 2: 89ffGoogle Scholar (hereafter cited as Letters and Speeches).

2 The reaction to Hispaniola has been discussed most fully in Worden, Blair, “Oliver Cromwell and the Sin of Achan,” in History, Society and the Churches, ed. Beales, Derek and Best, Geoffrey (Cambridge, 1985), pp. 125–45Google Scholar.

3 A Declaration of His Highness inviting the people of England and Wales to a Day of Solemn Fasting and Humiliation on March 28 1656.

4 See the monumental works of Pocock, J. G. A., especially his Introduction to The Political Works of James Harrington (Cambridge, 1977)Google Scholar and The Machiavellian Moment (Princeton, 1975)Google Scholar.

5 Gardiner, S. R., History of the Commonwealth and Protectorate, 3 vols., (London, 1901), 3: supp. ch., pp. 20, 21Google Scholar; Woolrych, Austin, Introduction to The Complete Prose Works of Milton, vol. 7, ed. Ayers, Robert (Newhaven, 1980), pp. 1920Google Scholar.

6 SirVane, Henry, A Healing Question propounded and resolved upon the occasion of the late publique and seasonable call to humiliation, in order to the Love and Union of the Honest Party, and with a desire to apply Balsome to the wound before it become incurable (May 1656)Google Scholar, reprinted in Somers Tracts, ed. Scott, Walter, 13 vols. (London, 1809–15), 6: 304–14Google Scholar.

7 For example, the Fifth Monarchist author of The Protector (so called) in part unvailed (Oct. 1655), mourned “the divisions of the people of God…and the glory which formerly was upon England being departed” due to Cromwell's apostacy but professed readiness to recognize “all that are godly under what form soever” (pp. 64, 87); the Cromwellian Animadversions upon a Letter…sent to His Highness by certain Gentlemen…in Wales…by one whose desire…is to Preserve Peace and Safety by removing Offence and Enmity (Jan. 1656) criticized the Fifth Monarchists for declaring “an irreconcileable Enmity” with “no possibility of repenting…no way left for healing or agreement” and ignoring the common godliness that they shared with Cromwellians—“both of you are brethren, children of the same Father., the same repentance and faith” (pp. 49, 50).

8 Thus A Grounded Voice, or some Discoveries…for the consideration of the whole Army (Nov. 1655), exhorted the “well affected people” to “unite themselves together” only in order to “proceed against [Cromwell] as a murderer” (pp. 6–7); John Moore used the rhetoric of unity with the sole object of inducing “all the good people., cheerfully and cordially to submit” to Cromwell (Protection Proclaimed…wherein the government established is proved to be of Divine Institution and the great stumbling block of thousands of Christians (in respect of his Title) removed [Nov. 1655], p. 5)Google Scholar.

9 Gardiner, , History of the Commonwealth, p. 18Google Scholar.

10 The concept of the sovereign people as a limited, recognizable group committed to the cause owed much to the arguments of the Rump's propagandists, though Vane's emphasis on godliness distinguished his description from Nedham's insistence that any who “by a contribution of their purses, strength and counsels” had “all along asserted [liberty] without the least stain of Apostacie” were “to be reckoned among the People” (Mercurius Politicus No. 73, Oct. 23-30, 1651).

11 Active participation in regicide was not required to share these hopes of 1649, or Vane himself would have been excluded from the good party, since he avoided any involvement in the proceedings against the king.

12 Zagorin, Perez, A History of Political Thought in the English Revolution (London, 1954), p. 154Google Scholar.

13 Such criticisms of the Army may be traced to the disillusionment of Presbyterians and Levellers in 1647–49; by 1656 the Fifth Monarchists found them most appropriate: see A Grounded Voice, passim; The Protector in part Unvailed, pp. 37, 58–59.

14 Animadversions upon a Letter, pp. 79, 68–69.

15 The importance of the polemical purpose of A Healing Question does not diminish its significance in the history of godly republicanism: Vane clearly envisaged, and sought to persuade his readers to establish a new kind of republic.

16 A collection of the state papers of John Thurloe, ed. Birch, T., 7 vols. (London, 1742), 5: 122Google Scholar (hereafter cited as Thurloe); A Letter from a Person in the Country to his friend in the City, giving his judgment upon a book entituled A Healing Question (Aug. 1656), p. 1Google Scholar.

17 The Protector…, in Part Unvaried, p. 42.

18 See for example the Army's Declaration of June 14, 1647.

19 [Nedham, Marchamont], A True State of the Case of the Commonwealth…in reference to the late-established Government by a Lord Protector and Parliament (1654), p. 28Google Scholar.

20 The humble petition of several Colonels to Oliver Cromwell (Oct. 1654); R. G., A Copy of a Letter from an Officer of the Army in Ireland to his Highness, p. 22.

21 Fleetwood to Thurloe, Jan. 17 1655, Thurloe, 3: 112–13Google Scholar.

22 Wildman, , A Declaration of the Free born people of England now in Arms against the Tyranny and Repression of Oliver Cromwell (March 1655)Google Scholar.

23 A Word for God, or a Testimony on Truth's behalf from several Churches…against the Tyranny and Oppression of Oliver Cromwell (Dec. 1655), p. 4Google Scholar.

24 Moore, , Protection Proclaimed, p. 1Google Scholar.

25 The apparent altruism of this statement is illusory: it was clearly the interest of the good party as a whole to establish a permanent settlement safeguarding their sovereignty. Self denial was required only of the Army, who would be obliged to share their de facto authority with the rest of the good party.

26 Cromwell to Parliament, 12 September 1654, reprinted in Letters and Speeches, 2: 115Google Scholar. Nedham similarly presented the Instrument as means to end the subjection of law to military force which was so “dangerous and inconsistent with the Freedom of the people” (A True State of the Case of the Commonwealth, p. 22).

27 Richardson, Samuel, An Apology for the Present Government (1654), p. 6Google Scholar.

28 See for example Wentworth's first speech as Lord President of the Council of the North in December 1628: “To the joint individual well being of sovereignty and subjection do I here vow all my cares…some distempered minds have of late very far endeavoured to divide…the two, as if their ends were distinct,” reprinted in Kenyon, J. P., The Stuart Constitution, 1603–88 (Cambridge, 1966), p. 16Google Scholar.

29 For the threefold balance, see A True State of the Case, p. 51.

30 See Marvell, , The First Anniversary of the Government under His Highness the Lord Protector (1655), lines 49–98Google Scholar: “such was that wondrous order and consent, When Cromwel tun'd the ruling instrument…The Commonwealth then first together came, And each one enter"d in the willing frame.” For the significance of this language, see Wallace, John, Destiny His Choice: The Loyalism of Andrew Marvell (Cambridge, 1968), pp. 116–18Google Scholar.

31 For Nedham's view, see A True State of the Case, especially pp. 3, 28–40.

32 The Instrument had promised liberty for all who professed faith in God by Jesus Christ, and lived peaceably, except Catholics and episcopalians. The refutation of A Healing Question strongly defended the government's record in this respect, maintaining that there was “so large a latitude in matters of conscience…that no man hath reason to repine” (A Letter from a Person in the Country, pp. 2–7).

33 Attacks on the Protectorate inflaming such fears include Wildman's Declaration, R. G.'s letter, pp. 2–3, A Word for God, pp. 3–4. Defenses of the regime sought to allay this anxiety by demonstrating that the original objectives of the cause had been fulfilled (see Moore, , Protection Proclaimed, p. 1Google Scholar; A True State of the Case, pp. 3, 5, 28, 40).

34 Fleetwood to Thurloe, Jan. 3 1655, printed in Thurloe, 3: 70; Cromwell's Declaration.

35 Davis, J. C., “Religion and the Struggle for Freedom in the English Revolution,” The Historical Journal 35 (September 1992): 523CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

36 Goodwin is quoted in ibid., p. 515.

37 Ibid., p. 530.

38 Richardson, , An Apology, p. 6Google Scholar.

39 Davis, , “Religion and the Struggle for Freedom,” p. 514Google Scholar.

40 The Clarke Papers, ed. Firth, C. H., 4 vols. (London, 18911901), 1: 264Google Scholar.

41 An humble Representation and Address of several Justices of the Peace, Ministers of the Gospel and Churches, as advertised in Mercurius Politicus No. 296, Feb.7–14, 1656.

42 This statement obviously echoed Hebrews 12: 28–29—”let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear: For our God is a consuming fire.”

43 Richardson, Samuel, Plain Dealing or the unvailing of the Opposers of the Present Government (Jan. 1656), p. 18Google Scholar. For other examples, see Animadversions, p. 76; A Grounded Voice, p. 4; A Word for God, p. 2.

44 The passage that Vane quotes here, from Psalm 46: 5, also adorned the Armada jewel and was used by the Royalists for the frontispiece of Eikon Basilike. It is not clear whether these associations are coincidental or intentional.

45 The Scriptural references here are to 2 Peter 1: 9, and Joshua 6: 18, 7: 1. Vane's readers would certainly have recognized the parallel with Peter's condemnation of the apostates who through covetousness were again entangled in and overcome by worldly pollutions.

46 This letter, dated Dec. 18, 1654 and signed by nine men, was intercepted by the government, and is printed in Thurloe, 3: 2930Google Scholar.

47 William Bradford to the Lord Protector, March 4, 1657, printed in Original Letters and Papers of State…addressed to Oliver Cromwell, ed. Nickolls, J. (London, 1743), p. 77Google Scholar.

48 See, for example, A Word for God, pp. 2,6; R. G.'s letter, p. 21.

49 Diary of Thomas Burton, ed. Rutt, John, 3 vols. (London, 1828), 1: xxvGoogle Scholar; Cromwell to Parliament, Sept. 12 1654, in Letters and Speeches, 2: 120Google Scholar.

50 An excellent example of this abstract and impersonal approach is the bland introduction to the attack on the seizure of power by a faction with armed force: “when a liberty is taken by any particular member or a number of them…to…engross the office of sovereign rule…and to impose themselves as the competent public judges of the safety and good of the whole, without their free…consent… and to lay claim to this as those that find themselves possessed of the sword…” (p. 311).

51 Worden, , “Oliver Cromwell and the Sin of Achan,” pp. 138–39, 136Google Scholar. For the same reason, Woolrych's assessment of Vane's aims, quoted above, must be judged inadequate.

52 Zagorin, , A History of Political Thought, p. 154Google Scholar.

52 A Word for God, pp. 2, 6; R. G.'s letter, pp. 3, 14.

54 Vane's silence on the later years of the Rump was clearly tactical, and did not necessarily criticize its failure to fulfil the hopes of 1649. He was deeply implicated himself in the politics of 1649–53; specific praise of the Rump might be read as self-promotion, and could alienate those convinced of the Rump's corruption. Specific criticism would alienate the republicans, who believed that the Rump would have brought a lasting settlement if it had been given time. Vane's attempt to recreate the unity of 1649 required the submergence of subsequent divisions.

55 Ludlow insisted that the Long Parliament was only “interrupted by the sword,” not dissolved. This attitude was shared by other Rumpers, including Bradshaw, Scot and Haselrig. See The Memoirs of Edmund Ludlow, 2 vols., ed. Firth, C. H. (Oxford, 1894), 1: 357–58, 389Google Scholar; 2: 15, 64, 73.

56 Vane's readers would instantly have recognized the allusions to the apostles' rejection of legalism and assertion of the spiritual liberty secured under the new covenant in passages such as Romans 7: 6, 2 Corinthians 3: 6, Colossians 2: 17, Hebrews 8: 5, 10: 1.

57 For earlier uses of this argument, see The Armies Vindication (1649), pp. 78Google Scholar; N. W., A Discourse concerning the Engagement (1650), p. 8Google Scholar; Hunton, Samuel, The Army Armed and their just Powers stated (Aug. 1653), p. 4Google Scholar; A True State of the Case, p. 28.

58 The Protector…in part Unvailed, p. 14.

59 ibid., p. 10.

60 The Protector…in Part Unvailed, letter to the reader, title.

61 Prominent contemporaries making this charge included Richard Baxter, who asserted that Vane's ideas “were so cloudily formed and expressed that few could understand them” (The Autobiography of Richard Baxter, ed. Keeble, N., [London, 1974], p. 73)Google Scholar, and Gilbert Burnet, who complained that Vane spoke with “so peculiar a darkness” as to be incomprehensible (The History of My Own Times, 6 vols. [Oxford, 1823], 1: 279)Google Scholar.

62 A Letter from a Person in the Country, p. 8.

63 For examples, see respectively Wildman's Declaration, A Word for God, and the three colonels' petition.

64 Vane to Richard Cust, 16 Jan. 1654, printed in Cust, E., Records of the Cust family of Pinchbeck, Stamford and Belton in Lincolnshire, 1479–1700 (London, 1898), p. 219Google Scholar.

65 Henry Cromwell to Thurloe, 6 Feb. 1656, printed in Thurloe, 4: 509Google Scholar. Henry's information was derived from one Mr. Weaver, who had written “very hotly” against Vane.

66 Henry Cromwell had recently succeeded in depriving the Baptist officers of power in Ireland, and now feared the advance of the Quakers. For his views and activities, see Barnard, T. C., Cromwellian Ireland (Oxford, 1975), pp. 106–11Google Scholar.

67 A Transcript of the Registers of the Worshipful Company of Stationers (London, 1913)Google Scholar, entry for May 28, 1656.

68 The Proceeds of the Protector (so-called) and his Council against Sir Henry Vane…A late Eminent Member of the Council of State… Together with his Testimony delivered in Writing to the said Protector (Oct. 1656), p. 4Google Scholar.

69 Thomas Brewer's name appears, often together with Henry Hills and Giles Calvert, on official publications of the Army and the Council of State between April and October 1653; his publications thereafter included Mr Vavasor Powells Impartial Trial—Not Guilty (March 1654); Anna Trapnel's A Legacy for Saints (July 1654); A Faithful Discovery of a treacherous design of Mystical Antichrist (Dec. 1654), and Vane's own The Retired Mans Meditations (July 1655).

70 Examples in each category include the three colonels, the radical Fifth Monarchist preachers Feake and Simpson, and John Wildman. The perpetual imprisonment of Overton might seem to belie the usual mildness of the Protector, but the evidence of his involvement in the conspiracy of January 1655 had given Cromwell reason to believe that he was untrustworthy.

71 Thurloe to Henry Cromwell, June 16, 1656, in Thurloe, 5: 122Google Scholar.

72 Thurloe to Henry Cromwell, Aug. 16, 1656, in ibid., p. 317; Mercurius Politicus No. 324, Aug. 21–28, 1656; Calendar of State Papers, Domestic Series 1656–57 (London, 1875), p. 101Google Scholar, entry for 4th Sept. 1656; Proceeds of the Protector, pp. 1, 2, 4.

73 Thurloe, 5: 122; A Letter from a Person in the Country, p. 17.

74 Whalley to Thurloe, 9 Aug. 1656, Lilburne to Thurloe, 9 Aug. 1656, printed in Thurloe, 5: 296Google Scholar. Vane's electoral campaign was well planned, promoting the candidacy of various friends and relatives, but was defeated by more conservative opponents of the Protectorate. See Holmes, Clive, Seventeenth-Century Lincolnshire (Leeds, 1980), pp. 214–15Google Scholar.

75 Englands remembrancers, or a word in season to all Englishmen about their election of the members for the approaching Parliament (August 1656), reprinted in Thurloe, 5: 268–71Google Scholar.

76 ibid., pp. 268, 270, 271, 268.

77 The writs of return for the first Protectorate Parliament were indentures consenting to the government. As these failed to prevent the republican agitation of the first week, Cromwell's speech of the 12 September 1654 pointedly reminded M.P.s of their commitment, and required their express assent to an additional Recognition. See his Letters and Speeches, esp. pp. 110, 119, 125–26.

78 One government agent described it as a “scandalous printed pamphlet…vilifying His Highness and persuading the people to choose” M.P.s who would “involve the nation in a new war” (Clarke Papers, 3: 68), For the concern to suppress it, see Thurloe, 5: 272, 342–43Google Scholar.

79 Thurloe, 5: 342Google Scholar.

80 Charles Baines to Abraham Smith, 12 Sept. 1656, in ibid., p. 407. This letter reported the arrest of Harrison and Rich as well as Vane. Okey, Alured, and Lawson were also imprisoned (Clarke Papers, 3: 70, 106Google Scholar).

81 For Vane's evidence of this encouragement, see above, p.

82 Proceeds, pp. 1, 6.

83 Ibid., p. 8.

84 Ibid.

85 Vane to Thurloe, 20. Dec. 1655, Thurloe, 4: 329Google Scholar.

86 Proceeds, p. 7.

87 See for example Murray Tolmie, who maintains that saintly republicanism “never transcended the limitations of its origin in the expedient decisions of December 1648 and January 1649. Tied to the Rump and to the…Army, it lacked any intellectual depth and any clear conception of institutional form…republican saints…had no firmly conceived vision of the secular state” (The Triumph of the Saints [Cambridge, 1977], p. 190)Google Scholar.

88 A Healing Question, p. 315. 1659 saw an upsurge of interest in all kinds of republicanism. The works of Harrington, for example, were widely publicized: consecutive numbers of Mercurius Politicus carried prominent advertisements for Oceana and for The Art of Law-giving…Shewing…A Model of Government fitted unto the present state of England (Nos. 570 and 571, June 1659, pp. 493, 489)Google Scholar.