Thomas Venner, c.1609-1661
Militant Fifth Monarchist who led uprisings against Cromwell's Protectorate and against the newly-restored King Charles II
Thomas Venner was born around 1609 at Littleham near Bideford in Devon. By 1633, he had moved to London where he worked as a cooper until 1638 when he emigrated to Salem, Massachusetts. Venner was admitted a member of the church at Salem in February 1638 and became a freeman of the town in March. He planned to move to the Puritan colony on Providence Island in the West Indies but this venture failed and in 1644 Venner moved to Boston, where he became a member of the Artillery Company. By this time he was married to Alice (d.1692) and had a son, Thomas. Two more children were born to them in Boston. Around 1648, Venner organised the coopers of Boston and Charlestown into a trading company.
Venner returned to England with his family in 1651. He found employment as a master cooper at the Tower of London and became leader of a militant Fifth Monarchist congregation at Swan Alley off Coleman Street. Like other members of the sect, Venner regarded the establishment of Cromwell's Protectorate as a betrayal of the millenarian cause. In June 1655, he was arrested and briefly imprisoned for discussing Cromwell's assassination and allegedly plotting to blow up the Tower. After his release, Venner became involved in meetings between Fifth Monarchists and disillusioned republicans, including Colonel Okey and Vice-Admiral Lawson, in which joint political action against the Protectorate was discussed. When nothing came of these discussions, Venner planned an insurrection to bring down the Protectorate by force.
Despite discouragement from Thomas Harrison, John Carew and other prominent Fifth Monarchists, Venner and his supporters spent the winter of 1656-7 gathering weapons and armour in preparation for the uprising. A manifesto, A Standard Set Up, was drafted proclaiming their intention to initiate a program of legal reform and redistribution of wealth under a theocratic government of Saints. Venner's rebels assembled at Mile End in 9 April 1657 under a banner depicting a red lion with the motto, "Who shall rouse Him up?" They intended to march into East Anglia to gather recruits, but the conspiracy had been infiltrated by John Thurloe's agents. Government troops seized their weapons and arrested Venner and twenty of his companions as they arrived at the rendezvous. After appearing before Cromwell, Venner was held for two years without trial in the Tower of London.
Venner was released from the Tower in February 1659 as the Protectorate came to an end, to be replaced in due course by the restored Stuart monarchy. Inspired by the last speeches of the executed Fifth Monarchist regicides, he conspired to overthrow the newly-restored Charles II. Venner's Uprising began on 6 January 1661. Proclaiming Jesus as King, Venner and about fifty armed supporters attempted to seize St Paul's. They were driven out of the city by the Trained Bands and took refuge in a wood near Highgate. The rebels evaded a company of horse sent in pursuit, then returned to the city three nights later and tried to storm a prison to liberate the inmates. During a series of firefights with militia and regular soldiers in the streets of London, twenty of the rebels were killed and the rest captured. A similar number of soldiers were killed. Venner himself killed three soldiers but sustained nineteen wounds before being taken prisoner.
Venner was brought to trial at the Old Bailey. He remained defiant and declared that he had acted in accordance with scripture. Although he admitted taking part in the insurrection, Venner claimed that Jesus was its true leader. On 19 January 1661, Venner was hanged, drawn and quartered on a scaffold erected near the Fifth Monarchist meeting house in Swan Alley. Thirteen other insurgents were executed and the meeting house was demolished.
Venner's eldest son Thomas (b.1641) took part in Monmouth's uprising in 1685 as lieutenant-colonel in Monmouth's own regiment. Although wounded during the fighting at Bridport, Venner escaped to the Netherlands.
Bernard Capp, The Fifth Monarchy Men (London 1972)
Richard L. Greaves, Thomas Venner, Oxford DNB, 2004