Venner's Uprising, 1661

Thomas Venner wielding a halberd
18th century depiction of Thomas Venner wielding a halberd

Thomas Venner was the leader of a Fifth Monarchist congregation at Swan Alley, off Coleman Street in London. In 1657, Venner plotted an uprising against Cromwell's Protectorate but the conspiracy was infiltrated by government agents and Venner was imprisoned for two years.

The restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1660 seemed to bring the aspirations of the radical sects to an end. Many feared that the return of the Stuarts was an indication that God had abandoned their cause. Venner, however, was inspired by the defiance of the executed Fifth Monarchist regicides and proclaimed it as a test of the truly faithful.

Venner and his followers adapted their plans of 1657 to bring down the restored monarchy. A supply of armour and weapons was gathered. The rebels' manifesto, A Door of Hope, was probably written by Venner's son-in-law William Medley, who had also written the 1657 manifesto, A Standard Set Up. The new declaration justified armed insurrection to advance the kingdom of Christ and railed against the re-emergence of the Saints' old enemy the Cavaliers. Venner appealed to all republicans and sectarians to unite against the new tyranny.

The Epiphany uprising began on 6 January 1661 when Venner and about fifty armed followers broke into Saint Paul's cathedral. They proclaimed Christ as king and challenged passers-by to declare their allegiance. A man who declared for King Charles was shot and killed. This gave the alarm to the guards at the Exchange, and four files of musketeers were sent to dislodge them from St Paul's. The Fifth Monarchists stood firm and forced the guards to flee, causing further alarm in the City. The lord mayor of London, Sir Richard Browne, called out the Trained Bands, but before they could be mustered, Venner's company drew off. After forcing their way out of the city through Aldersgate, the Fifth Monarchists lay low in woods near Highgate. A detachment of cavalry was sent the next day to flush them out but failed. Meanwhile, anyone suspected of sympathising with the rebellion was arrested and imprisoned.

The rebels returned to the city early in the morning of 9 January. An attempt was made to liberate the prisoners in the Wood Street comptor but a company of Trained Bands advanced to engage them. Venner's men held their ground in the ensuing firefight until Major Cox led another company to reinforce the Trained Bands. After several men had been killed on both sides, the rebels withdrew towards Leadenhall, apparently splitting into smaller groups.

While skirmishing continued in the streets, the City authorities mobilised the Trained Bands and auxiliaries. The city gates were locked and guarded so that no-one could enter or leave. Companies of Colonel Monck's regiment of foot stationed in London advanced to attack the rebels in Bishopsgate Street. Even Monck's veterans were held at bay for a time, but the Fifth Monarchists were gradually overwhelmed. One group of ten made a stand in a nearby tavern. While some soldiers battered down the door, others climbed onto the roof and smashed in the tiles to fire directly into the room where the rebels were huddled; all but two were killed. Eventually, twenty-two rebels were killed and twenty taken prisoner. The city forces lost a similar number. Venner himself is said to have killed three soldiers with a halberd and sustained nineteen wounds before he was captured.

The surviving Fifth Monarchists were brought to trial at the Old Bailey. Venner was found guilty of treason and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered along with one of his lieutenants, Roger Hodgkin. Nine others were sentenced to be hanged. Venner was executed on 19 January 1661 near the Fifth Monarchist meeting house in Swan Alley. The meeting house was ordered to be demolished. The government was badly shaken by the uprising and ordered the arrest of hundreds of sectarians and republicans. The Baptists issued a repudiation of Venner's actions; the Quakers issued their peace testimony, affirming non-violence under all circumstances. However, the Restoration government banned all religious meetings outside the established church as a result of Venner's uprising..


Champlin Burrage, The Fifth Monarchy Insurrections (English Historical Review vol. xxv, 1910)

Bernard Capp, A Door of Hope re-opened (Warwick 2008)

Richard L. Greaves, Thomas Venner, Oxford DNB, 2004