A former Ironside who became one of the most severe of the Major-Generals, he was deprived of his commands for refusing to modify his criticisms of the Protectorate government.
A devout Baptist, William Packer enlisted in the Eastern Association army early in the First Civil War. By 1644, he was a lieutenant in Oliver Cromwell's regiment of Ironsides. As a religious radical, Packer clashed with the Presbyterian Major-General Crawford, who had him arrested for disobedience. Cromwell intervened to have him released, which resulted in the bitter dispute between Cromwell and Crawford over Cromwell's toleration of sectarians in his regiment.
On the formation of the New Model Army in 1645, Packer became a captain in Fairfax's regiment of horse. He was with Fairfax at Maidstone and Colchester in 1648, and remained loyal to the Grandees during the Leveller mutinies of 1649, during which he played a leading role in the suppression of the mutineers. In 1650, he was major of Cromwell's regiment on the Scottish campaign. He led the regiment in two flank attacks that decided the outcome of the battle of Dunbar and accompanied Cromwell on the victorious Worcester campaign in 1651.
During the early 1650s, Packer was associated with the London congregation of the Fifth Monarchist John Simpson. Packer was himself a noted lay preacher and received a licence to preach from the Council of State in July 1653. However, he broke with the Fifth Monarchists when he refused to denounce the establishment of Cromwell's Protectorate. He was appointed a "Trier" to examine candidates for the clergy in 1654 and was a member of the Committee for the Propagation of the Gospel in Wales.
During the Rule of the Major-Generals (1655-7), Packer deputised for Charles Fleetwood as military governor of Hertfordshire and Oxfordshire. Packer emerged as one of the most severe of the Major-Generals. He denounced the celebration of Christmas in 1656 and is said to have violently assaulted a Royalist gentleman who appeared before him drunk. He argued against granting freedom of worship to the Quakers and was criticised by George Fox for his severity.
Packer was elected to the Second Protectorate Parliament as MP for Woodstock in Oxfordshire, but he become disaffected over the adoption of the Humble Petition and Advice and the instigation of the new Upper House, which he regarded as too similar to the former House of Lords. After the abrupt dissolution of Parliament early in 1658, Cromwell held a series of discussions with disaffected officers. Packer refused to modify his views. Although he had served alongside Cromwell since the early days of the First Civil War, the Protector regretfully deprived him of his commands, along with five junior officers. Packer complained bitterly that his former "dear friend" had dismissed him without any trial or right of appeal.
After Oliver's death, Packer was elected to the Third Protectorate Parliament in 1659. A petition was circulated calling for his dismissal and he was unseated despite giving a speech in which he expressed his profound sense of betrayal by the Cromwellian régime and regret for some of his own actions as a Major-General. Packer supported John Lambert against the Commonwealthsmen and was a member of the Committee of Safety after Lambert forcibly dissolved the Rump Parliament in October 1659. When Parliament was restored two months later, however, Packer lost all power and was ordered to leave London. He was arrested when Lambert escaped from the Tower in April 1660 so was unable to participate in the last desperate attempt to rally military opposition to the Restoration.
Packer was regarded with extreme suspicion by the government of Charles II. He lost all the lands he had purchased during the 1650s and was imprisoned during 1661-2. His subsequent history and the date of his death are unknown.
Christopher Durston, Cromwell's Major-Generals (Manchester 2001)
C.H. Firth, revised by D. N. Farr, William Packer, Oxford DNB, 2004
C.H. Firth, The Last Years of the Protectorate 1656-1658, vol. ii (London 1909)