The Fifth Monarchists

The "Fifth Monarchy" or "Fifth Kingdom" refers to an interpretation of prophecies in the biblical books of Daniel and Revelation. Four kingdoms or eras in history (interpreted as the Babylonian, Persian, Greek and Roman empires) would be followed by the Fifth Kingdom, which signified the Millennium, the thousand-year reign of Christ on Earth. The Millennium would last from Christ's second coming until the day of judgment.

Millenarian beliefs became increasingly prevalent throughout the civil wars of the 1640s. While many believed that the second coming would be a spiritual revelation, the Fifth Monarchists expected a physical return in which Jesus would reign as king. It would be preceded by the establishment of a godly government on earth (the "Rule of the Saints"). For the Saints to prevail, the old order should be overthrown, by violence if necessary. Fifth Monarchists regarded the civil wars and the beheading of King Charles I in 1649 as a vital prelude to the Millennium.

Allhallows Lane

Origins

T he beginning of the Fifth Monarchist movement is usually dated to December 1651 when the radical preachers Christopher Feake, John Simpson and Henry Jessey held a meeting at the church of Allhallows the Great off Thames Street in London. Disillusioned by the failure of the Rump Parliament to further the godly revolution, and with some radicals already questioning Oliver Cromwell's commitment to the cause, they prayed for a new representative and agreed to a series of measures to promote their objectives. Their claim that the current government should be brought down because it was impeding the establishment of Christ's kingdom provoked immediate hostility from MPs, army Grandees and leading Independents. However, the Fifth Monarchists continued to hold weekly meetings at Allhallows and at other churches and meeting houses, notably at London House, Greyfriars, and St Anne's church, Blackfriars.

The movement was centred on London and spread through southern England during the early 1650s, with a few congregations appearing in East Anglia, Devon and Cornwall. There were also centres of Fifth Monarchism in north Wales resulting from the ministries of the millenarian preachers Vavasor Powell and Morgan Llwyd. In general, the movement did not spread to northern England during the 1650s, with the exception of isolated congregations at Hull, Sheffield, Liverpool and Manchester.

The sect drew its support mainly from urban tradesmen and craftsmen, with a high proportion of cloth workers, whose trade was adversely affected by the civil wars. Journeymen and apprentices were often found among the most volatile congregations. Several Fifth Monarchist ministers had served as officers or army chaplains and many soldiers of the New Model Army were attracted to the movement, with Major-General Harrison as the most prominent. The Commonwealth navy was also a focus of the sect. As well as officers and seamen, the naval commissioners John Carew and Nathaniel Rich were Fifth Monarchists, and the leading naval administrator Sir Henry Vane was sympathetic to the cause.

Parliament of Saints

When Oliver Cromwell dissolved Parliament by force in April 1653, many Fifth Monarchists hailed him as a second Moses, leading God's people to the Promised Land. Congregations around the country issued declarations of support and expressed their hope that Christ's kingdom was dawning. Fifth Monarchist political influence reached its peak with the Nominated Assembly (Barebone's Parliament) that governed the Commonwealth for six months during 1653.

Influenced by Major-General Harrison, the Assembly was constituted in a way broadly similar to the Sanhedrin of the Old Testament. Several of the delegates were from Fifth Monarchist congregations and regarded the Assembly as an indication that the Rule of the Saints had begun. The Anglo-Dutch War (1652-4) was seen as a continuation of the process that had started with the civil wars. The Fifth Monarchists expected the war eventually to engulf the whole of Europe until Rome itself had fallen and the Pope, whom they identified with the Antichrist, was overthrown.

Fifth Monarchists favoured the "radical" faction of the Assembly that sought a thorough reform the legal system and the complete separation of church and state. However, the radicals lost a succession of votes in the Assembly that would have abolished tithes and lifted restrictions on public preaching. By November 1653, Christopher Feake was complaining that the Assembly was no better than the Rump Parliament had been.

Protectorate & Restoration

The abrupt dissolution of the Nominated Assembly and the establishment of Cromwell's Protectorate in December 1653 was seen as a betrayal by the Fifth Monarchists. Feake and Simpson were imprisoned after denouncing Cromwell. Harrison was dismissed from the army and a number of Fifth Monarchist officers resigned their commissions. However, the sect continued to agitate against the Protectorate with pamphlets and petitions throughout the 1650s. There were also frequent rumours of Fifth Monarchist plots to subvert the army and to overthrow the government.

John Simpson and Morgan Llwyd moderated their opinions during the mid-1650s, but other members of the sect remained uncompromisingly militant. In 1657, a Fifth Monarchist plot for an uprising against Cromwell was discovered and the ringleader Thomas Venner imprisoned until the Protectorate ended in 1659. During the political turmoil that followed the fall of the Protectorate, rumours of imminent Fifth Monarchist uprisings contributed to the sense of instability in the nation and to the belief that there could be no settled order unless the King returned.

The Restoration was a devastating blow for the Fifth Monarchists. The regicide Saints Harrison, Jones and Carew were executed in October 1660. Other leaders were imprisoned. Strict censorship and a ban on religious meetings outside the established church quickly drove the movement underground. In January 1661, Thomas Venner led a desperate Fifth Monarchy uprising in London. Venner's Uprising resulted in a street battle with soldiers and about forty deaths. Venner and his followers were rounded up and executed. The failure of Venner's Rising was followed by repressive legislation aimed at the suppression of all nonconformist sects.

Reports of Fifth Monarchist activity continued into the 1680s. A militant group which included Thomas Venner's eldest son took part in Monmouth's Rebellion of 1685.


Sources:

Andrew Bradstock, Radical Religion in Cromwell's England (London 2011)

Bernard Capp, The Fifth Monarchy Men (London 1972)

Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down (London 1972)

English Dissenters: Fifth Monarchists www.exlibris.org