Penruddock’s Rebellion – Wiltshire’s Royalist uprising of 1655

on Tuesday, 29 November 2016. Posted in Archives, Military, Wiltshire People

The joy of working at the History Centre is that every day is a learning day with the added pleasure of discovering treasure!

My latest magical tour through the archives has taken me back to one of the most turbulent and important times in our history – the English civil wars, the rule of Oliver Cromwell and the fight to restore the monarchy.

Illuminated chancery document showing Oliver Cromwell, 1655 (2057/D4/81)

I was hooked the moment a beautiful chancery document from 1655 appeared in our office. Archivist Steve Hobbs dug out the document for our recent open day and it had not just one, but two remarkable features: a superb portrait of Oliver Cromwell and a complete Commonwealth Seal showing parliament on the obverse (front) and a map of the Commonwealth – England, Wales and Ireland – on the reverse.

Seal attached to chancery document showing parliament

The illuminated document (2057/D4/81) is part of the Wilton House archive and relates to the estate of the Earl of Pembroke. I was not too concerned with the content (although it was in English as opposed to Latin). It was the portrait and seal that drew me in to a fascinating period in our history and opened up all sorts of questions about how power and authority are conveyed through images as well as words. Here I was, handling (very carefully) a 361-year-old seal and looking at a contemporary portrait of Oliver Cromwell, the ruler of an English republic!

O for Oliver

I would have been happy if this journey into 17th century Wiltshire had stopped there. But it didn’t – it was just the beginning of a voyage of discovery that took me to documents written by a condemned man, heartfelt letters from his wife to Cromwell and then back to a document signed by a king who lost his head.

As the education officer here at the History Centre I look for ways our archives can support learning for all ages. I mentioned the Cromwell portrait and seal of 1655 to an historian friend who has been teaching the English civil wars and interregnum for 20 years. She responded immediately with two words – Penruddock’s Rebellion.

I have to confess that Penruddock and his rebellion had passed me by (my areas of expertise are the 20th century, early medieval and pre-history), and I felt somewhat shamefaced to discover that this short-lived but significant event began in my hometown Salisbury.

So off I went to fill this rather glaring gap in my historical knowledge and was rewarded with a fascinating story and a treasure-trove of documents from our archive and John Penruddock himself. The story is one of plot and intrigue, of secret (or not so secret) societies, and of paying the ultimate price for ones beliefs.

John Penruddock was born in 1619 and lived in Compton Chamberlayne, near Salisbury. He was educated at Blandford School and Oxford University before going on to study law at Gray’s Inn in London. In 1639 John married Arundell Freke and they had two sons and four daughters. John came from a staunchly royalist family and his father, Sir John, was appointed by Charles I to be Wiltshire’s High Sheriff in 1643. One of the first documents I came across was from 1642 (332/264). It was a letter from the king asking his loyal subjects for a £100 loan. Although written by a clerk you cannot miss the royal signature – Charles R – or the regal tone: “We must therefore desire you to forthwith send us the sum of one hundred pounds for our necessary support and the maintenance of our army...”

King Charles plea for £100 (332/264)

John fought for the monarchy throughout the civil wars and through the interregnum. This unwavering loyalty cost the family dearly and ultimately led Penruddock to the scaffold as the leader of a royalist uprising.

Two of Penruddock’s brothers were killed fighting for the king and contemporary documents show the family estate was fined heavily by the Parliamentarians. These documents are part of a bound collection of letters, petitions, warrants and orders in council mostly dating from 1654-1658 (332/265/1-58). They are in various hands – some of them written by John Penruddock and his wife Arundell, while others are contemporaneous copies made by family members and associates. At the heart of this collection is John Penruddock’s own account of his trial for treason having led the 1655 royalist uprising in the West Country. At trial, Penruddock, who had training in the law, initially refused to enter a plea. He argued he could not be guilty of treason as the Protectorate he had rebelled against had no legal standing. Unsurprisingly his arguments failed and he was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered.

6 Trial notes in Penruddock's own hand (332/265/4)
Trial transcript extract

Awaiting sentence in Exeter gaol Penruddock wrote petitions to “His Highness the Lord Protector” Oliver Cromwell in a last ditch attempt to save his life. He also wrote to his wife Arundell urging her to seek mercy from Cromwell.

The couple’s pleas were rejected although the method of execution was changed to beheading. This is recorded in two remarkable documents – a copy of the plea from the prisoners at Exeter gaol asking for clemency, and the death warrant issued by Cromwell.

Wife's plea for mercy
Death warrant

The prisoners’ plea is annotated following execution to show who was beheaded, hanged or deported. Two small faces appear next to the names of John Penruddock and Hugh Grove while seven names are marked with a cross. Next to this list is a key with the faces indicating “persons beheaded” while the crosses mark those “persons hanged”.

Annotated plea document

So how had Penruddock ended up on the executioner’s scaffold in May 1655?

In 1649, following defeat in the civil wars, Charles I was executed. England was declared a Commonwealth to be ruled by Parliament and a Council of State while in Scotland Charles’ son was crowned Charles II. The young king and his supporters plotted insurrection. Their attempt in 1651 met with dismal failure at Worcester and Charles was forced to flee to the continent, but he kept in touch with his loyal supporters in England.

By 1653 an increasingly powerful and impatient Oliver Cromwell dismissed the “Rump parliament”, telling MPs “you are no Parliament” and “In the name of God, go!” The Commonwealth became a Protectorate with Cromwell at its head.

Throughout 1653 and 1654, royalist plans for insurrection continued but the plotters were divided and indecisive, not helped by the fact that their movement, the Seal Knot, and Charles II court in exile were both infiltrated by agents of Cromwell’s spymaster John Thurloe. Key royalists were arrested and uprisings averted.

By the end of 1654 plans were again being made for a national uprising. Once again the plotters hesitated, not least because Cromwell recalled thousands of troops from Ireland and reinforced key garrisons.

John Penruddock meanwhile was gathering support in Wiltshire and waiting for the signal to act. The uprising was planned for 6 February 1655 but then postponed for a week. The 13th February came and went without action or word from the King’s trusted agent Daniel O’Neill.

Another date was set – 8th March. This was it. Newcastle, Shrewsbury, Portsmouth and Plymouth were key targets. But on the night the Sealed Knot failed to act. In Wiltshire all was quiet. In neighbouring Hampshire the plan to enter Winchester and seize the judges sitting at the Assizes failed to happen because of a last minute reinforcement of the local garrison.

Although the national uprising failed to materialise, John Penruddock was about to secure his place in history. The Winchester Assize was due to move to Salisbury and so it was that on the night of 11th March that Penruddock mustered around 60 horsemen. He met at Clarendon Park with Thomas Mompesson who brought another 40 or so men from the city. They were joined by around 100 royalists from Dorset.

In the early hours of Monday, 12th March this small band of cavaliers rode into Salisbury. They entered Market Place, put guards on the doors of the local inns, commandeered all the horses they could find and freed prisoners from the gaol. They dragged the Assize judges Chief Justice Rolle and Baron Nicholas and the Wiltshire High Sheriff Colonel John Dove from their beds.

Penruddock proclaimed Charles II before setting off for Blandford with the sheriff as hostage. The rebels’ numbers had almost doubled but this was largely due to the release of prisoners from the gaol. The good people of Salisbury chose to stay in their beds.

In Blandford Penruddock again proclaimed Charles II King and again received little local support. He and his troops continued to Shaftesbury and Sherborne before heading for Yeovil where they rested. Colonel Dove was released before the royalist rebels headed west.

By Wednesday Penruddock was in Devon and hoping to make it to Cornwell where he could expect a more sympathetic reception. But Cromwell’s army was giving chase. Troops had marched from Bath to Devizes and then on to Salisbury before heading for Shaftesbury. But it was a single troop of cavalry from Exeter – around 60 men – under the command of Captain Unton Croke that brought an end to Penruddock’s Rebellion.

Penruddock and his men, now numbering less than 200 due to desertion, stopped in the small Devon town of South Molton and it was here that they made their last stand. Weary and disaffected they were no match for Croke’s professional troopers and within a few hours Penruddock and his men were defeated and in custody.

But this was the not the end of Penruddock’s story. The four-day rebellion was the final excuse Cromwell needed to introduce military rule, including raising local militias to support the army, all of which was paid for by the “decimation tax” of royalist sympathisers.

From October 1655 to January 1657 England was governed by the generals but it was a deeply unpopular move by Cromwell and in the end he had to listen to Parliament; the Rule of the Major Generals came to end and Parliament offered Cromwell the Crown. He rejected it although his re-installation as Lord Protector looked very much like a coronation.

Ruth Butler, Education Officer


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