Thomas Harrison, 1616-1660

Zealous army officer who rose to high military and political office; he was a leader of the Fifth Monarchy Men and an unrepentant Regicide

Portrait of Thomas HarrisonThomas Harrison was the second of four children and the only son of Richard Harrison (d.1653), a butcher who became an alderman and was four times mayor of Newcastle-under-Lyme in Staffordshire, and his wife Mary. Thomas was probably educated at a local grammar school, then went to London where he became clerk to Mr Hulk, an attorney at Clifford's Inn.

When the First Civil War broke out in August 1642, Harrison volunteered for Parliament and served as a trooper in the Earl of Essex's lifeguard, which was recruited from among the young gentlemen of the Inns of Court.

Military & Political Career

In 1644, Harrison accompanied Charles Fleetwood when he transferred to the Earl of Manchester's Eastern Association army. He became a major in Fleetwood's regiment of horse, which was noted as one of the most radical in religion in the Parliamentarian army. Harrison was denounced as an Anabaptist by Manchester's Presbyterian officers, but praised as God-fearing and zealous by Oliver Cromwell.

Harrison fought at Marston Moor in July 1644 and was sent after the battle to report Parliament's victory to the Committee of Both Kingdoms. His praise of Cromwell and the Independent faction greatly annoyed the Scots and Presbyterians on the committee. After the second battle of Newbury (October 1644), Harrison strongly supported Cromwell in his dispute with Manchester. He remained in Fleetwood's regiment when it transferred to the New Model Army in 1645 and fought at the decisive battle of Naseby. At the battle of Langport in July 1645, Harrison was observed by the chaplain Richard Baxter to break into a rapturous psalm of praise when the Royalists began to fall back. He was an enthusiastic participant in the slaughter of the Catholic defenders of Basing House, which Cromwell took by storm in October 1645.

In 1646, Harrison was elected to the Long Parliament as recruiter MP for Wendover. He married his cousin Catherine in the same year. They had three children, none of whom survived infancy.

From January to May 1647, Harrison served in Ireland at the request of Viscount Lisle when he took up his appointment as lord-lieutenant. When Harrison returned to England, he became actively involved in the political dispute between the New Model Army and Parliament. He was one of the officers who signed the letter sent to London outlining the Army's grievances on 10 June 1647, and was among those appointed by General Fairfax to negotiate with Parliament's commissioners. When Colonel Sheffield declared his support for the Presbyterians, Harrison was given command of his cavalry regiment. He emerged as one of the most radical of the Army officers, opposing further negotiations with King Charles and denouncing him as the "Man of Blood" when news came of his escape from Hampton Court in November 1647.


During the Second Civil War, Harrison went to join Major-General Lambert's army holding the north against the Engagers. On 18 July 1648, Harrison distinguished himself by holding off an attack by Sir Marmaduke Langdale on Lambert's quarters at Appleby. Harrison personally captured the enemy's colours, but was badly wounded during the skirmish. Although his regiment played a major role in the battle of Preston the following month, Harrison himself was probably not present.

By November 1648, Harrison was back in London. He acted as a mediator between Henry Ireton and John Lilburne in Ireton's negotiations to gain Leveller support for the King's trial. Harrison commanded the military escort that brought King Charles to Windsor and then to London in January 1649. Royalists were outraged that this duty should be entrusted to the fanatical Colonel Harrison. The King believed that Harrison intended to murder him, but was surprised to find him courteous and correct in his behaviour. Harrison sat as a judge at the King's trial. He was a signatory of the death warrant and was commissioned to supervise security at his funeral.

In January 1649, Harrison was nominated to the Council of State. At first, his nomination was rejected by Parliament because of his extremist views. He finally took a seat on the Council in February 1651. Meanwhile, in 1650 he was appointed president of the Commission for the Propagation of the Gospel in Wales—a body empowered to seize church livings and to fund Puritan missionaries in Wales, where the Anglican clergy had been influential in raising support for the King. Harrison was virtually military governor of Wales and gained a reputation for great severity. Promoted to the rank of major-general in 1651, he commanded the army left to guard England during Cromwell's invasion of Scotland. When Charles II and his Covenanter allies invaded England in August 1651, Harrison marched to head them off from London. He linked up with Cromwell's main force and fought at the decisive battle of Worcester in September 1651.

The Fifth Monarchy

By the early 1650s, Harrison was associated with the Fifth Monarchist sect. He sponsored the radicals Vavasor Powell, John Simpson and Christopher Feake to preach before the Rump Parliament, although their criticisms of the government were not appreciated. In his zeal to establish the rule of the Saints, Harrison secured the expulsion from Parliament of Lord Howard of Escrick for accepting bribes, and of Gregory Clement MP for committing adultery. He grew increasingly hostile towards the Rump for its lethargy in implementing radical reform and played an active role in Cromwell's dissolution of Parliament in April 1653, during which Harrison is said to have personally pulled Speaker Lenthall out of the Chair and ejected him from the Chamber.

In the constitutional discussions that followed the expulsion of Parliament, Harrison proposed a government based upon the Old Testament Sanhedrin of 70 elected "Saints". This model was adapted as the Nominated Assembly ("Barebones Parliament"), which governed England from July to December 1653. Harrison influenced the nomination of several Fifth Monarchists and Welsh Saints to the Assembly, and he sat himself as one of five co-opted members. He headed the radical faction, calling for the abolition of tithes and the excise, and reform of the law. However, Harrison was not an effective politician. He had no patience for committee work or parliamentary debate and his attendance at the Assembly was erratic. Like other Fifth Monarchists, he called for the continuation of the Anglo-Dutch War, believing that it was part of the violent process that had started with the civil wars and the beheading of King Charles, and would lead ultimately to the overthrow of the Antichrist (the Pope) and the reign of Christ on Earth.

In December 1653—less than six months after the inauguration of the Nominated Assembly—moderates voted to surrender its powers to Cromwell. Harrison fiercely opposed the dissolution of the "Parliament of Saints". He refused to acknowledge the Protectorate that was set up in its place and Cromwell reluctantly withdrew his army commission on 21 December 1653.

With his uncompromising Fifth Monarchist beliefs, Harrison came to be regarded as a dangerous opponent of the Protectorate. He was imprisoned four times between 1653 and 1658 on suspicion of involvement in various plots and insurrections. His attempts to seek election to the First and Second Protectorate Parliaments were blocked by the government. After Oliver Cromwell's death, Harrison lived quietly in Staffordshire, supporting neither Richard Cromwell, the Army Grandees nor the republican Commonwealthsmen in the political turmoil that followed. His inactivity may have been the result of declining health brought about by his war wounds and his periods of imprisonment. He made no response to Lambert's last desperate attempt to rally support for the "Good Old Cause" on the eve of the Restoration.

With the return of the monarchy imminent, Harrison was among the first of the regicides to be singled out for punishment. He stood by his principles and made no attempt to escape. Parliament ordered his arrest and he was imprisoned in the Tower of London in May 1660. At his trial in October, Harrison asserted that he had acted in the name of the Parliament of England and by its authority. He was convicted and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered on 13 October 1660 at Charing Cross.

Harrison went bravely to his gruesome death, his religious zeal undiminished to the end. According to one account, whilst being quartered, he struggled to his feet and boxed the executioner's ears. He was regarded as a martyr by the Fifth Monarchists, who believed that he would rise again to judge his judges and restore the rule of the Saints.


Maurice Ashley, Cromwell's Generals (London 1954)

Bernard Capp, The Fifth Monarchy Men (London 1972)

C.H. Firth, Thomas Harrison, DNB, 1891

Ian J. Gentles, Thomas Harrison, Oxford DNB, 2004

Austin Woolrych, Commonwealth to Protectorate (London 1982)