Robert Venables, c.1613-87
A veteran of the English Civil War and the Irish service, his military career ended in disgrace with the failure of the Western Design expedition in 1655.
The son of a gentry family from Antrobus in Cheshire, Robert Venables volunteered for service in the Parliamentarian army in 1642. He served under Sir William Brereton in Cheshire and Lancashire throughout the First Civil War, rising to the rank of lieutenant-colonel in Brereton's own regiment and fighting with distinction in the defence of Nantwich in 1644. Despite being badly wounded, Venables played a prominent role in directing the long-drawn out siege of Chester, and was a signatory of the articles of surrender in February 1646.
Brereton recommended Venables for the post of governor of Chester, but Parliament appointed him commander of a force sent to reduce remaining Royalist outposts in north Wales. Venables retained his army commission and was also active as a civil commissioner in Cheshire during 1647-8. In December 1648, he was summoned to army headquarters in London and appointed chairman of a committee of junior officers called to discuss procedure for bringing the King to trial.
In April 1649, Venables was promoted to colonel. The Council of State commissioned him to raise a new regiment in Cheshire for service in Ireland. He joined Colonel Michael Jones at Dublin in July 1649. Venables' regiment took part in Jones' spectacular victory over the Marquis of Ormond at the battle of Rathmines the following month and then marched north with the main contingent of Cromwell's army. Venables led the second storming of the breach at Drogheda on 11 September 1649, and his troops seized the drawbridge across the River Boyne, thus allowing the Parliamentarians to cross into the northern part of the town and slaughter the Royalist defenders.
After the capture of Drogheda, Cromwell sent Venables with two regiments of foot and two of horse to join forces with Sir Charles Coote in Ulster. Dundalk, Newry, Carlingford and Belfast surrendered to Venables as he marched to join Coote. In June 1650, Coote and Venables defeated the Ulster Confederates at the battle of Scarriffhollis. In August, Charlemont, the last Confederate stronghold in Ulster, surrendered to them. However, Venables spent a further four years in Ireland, embroiled in bitter guerilla warfare against the Irish "tories" in Connacht and Ulster who continued to resist the English occupation. He was involved in the implementation of the harsh Act of Settlement before returning to England in May 1654 to lobby for arrears of pay on behalf of his troops.
Venables' return to England coincided with the secret preparations for Cromwell's Western Design expedition against Spanish territories in the West Indies. Cromwell had admired Venables' tenacity on the Irish campaign of 1649 and recommended him as commander of land forces for the Caribbean venture. Venables shared command with General-at-Sea William Penn, as well as with a body of civilian advisers.
The expedition sailed in December 1654 and arrived at Barbados in January 1655. Given a free choice of target, the joint commanders chose to attack Hispaniola, but by this time Penn and Venables were quarrelling. It had also become apparent that the expedition was inadequately supplied and that the troops were inferior. The attack on Hispaniola went disastrously wrong. Although Venables successfully directed the capture of the less desirable island of Jamaica as a means of saving face, the expedition could only be regarded as a failure. Seriously weakened by dysentery, Venables followed Penn back to England, arriving in September 1655. Both commanders were briefly imprisoned in the Tower of London for abandoning their posts and were then stripped of their commands.
The disgrace of the failure of the Western Design ended Venables' career under the Protectorate. He was rumoured to favour the Restoration and was appointed governor of Chester by General Monck in February 1660. However, he was soon replaced owing to his reputation for independency in religion. Venables retired to Cheshire and lived quietly with his second wife Elizabeth in a loveless marriage. In 1662, he published a successful book on angling: The Experienced Angler. He died at Wincham in Cheshire in 1687.
C.H. Firth, Robert Venables, DNB, 1899
C.H. Firth & G. Davies, The Regimental History of Cromwell's Army (Oxford 1940)
John Morrill, Robert Venables, Oxford DNB, 2004
The Experienced Angler 1825 edition of Venables' angling textbook, www.archive.org