Hugh Peter, 1598-1660

Puritan preacher and army chaplain whose close association with the Parliamentarian cause resulted in his execution as a traitor after the Restoration.

Portrait of Hugh Peters The son of a merchant of Fowey in Cornwall, Hugh Peter was educated at Cambridge and became a devout Puritan around 1620. He was ordained into the Anglican church in June 1623. Under the patronage of the Earl of Warwick, he became curate at Rayleigh in Essex.

Around 1625, Peter married Elizabeth Reade, a widow much older than himself, with adult children. Peter also preached regularly at the church of St Sepulchre in London, but had his license to preach revoked and was imprisoned for six months after leading his congregation in praying for Queen Henrietta Maria to forsake her idolatrous Catholicism. He moved to the Netherlands and in 1633 became a pastor at Rotterdam until pressure was put upon the English churches in the Netherlands to conform to the doctrines espoused by Archbishop Laud.

In July 1635, Peter accompanied Sir Henry Vane to New England, along with his stepdaughter Elizabeth and her new husband John Winthrop (1606-76). Peter became minister at Salem, Massachusetts, in December 1636. Although he became involved in religious disputes against Vane, Peter proved to be a popular minister. He was involved in the civil administration of Salem and became one of the first governors of Harvard College. Following the death of his first wife, Peter married Deliverance Sheffield in 1639.

Peter returned to England in 1641 as an agent of the Massachusetts government, but became active in supporting Parliament against the King in the expectation of securing a godly reformation of the English church. Peter was a chaplain in the Earl of Essex's army and in the New Model, where his services were valued by Cromwell and Fairfax. His preaching inspired the soldiers and drew many recruits to the cause. Peter frequently acted as an Army spokesman at Westminster both in delivering reports and in requesting money or aid. Many of his reports were published, and he was a prolific writer of accounts of the actions he saw on campaign. Peter intended returning to America with the ending of the First Civil War, but he became involved in the struggle between the Army and the Presbyterians in 1647. He championed the Independents in the Army and supported the soldiers' refusal to disband. During the Second Civil War, he accompanied Cromwell on his campaign in Wales and at the battle of Preston, after which he was present at the capture of the Duke of Hamilton.

Peter was one of the few clergymen to support the Army's occupation of London and Pride's Purge, which led to the trial and execution of King Charles in 1649. He fell ill and did not attend the execution but his absence resulted in a persistent rumour that he was the masked executioner who had beheaded the King.

During Cromwell's invasion of Ireland in 1649, Peter was given the honorary rank of colonel and was responsible for managing the transportation of men and supplies across the Irish Sea. After another period of illness, he was appointed governor of Milford Haven and worked closely with the Commission for the Propagation of the Gospel in Wales.

Peter remained active in public affairs throughout the Commonwealth. He was appointed chaplain to the Council of State in 1650 and had influence on various committees concerned with religious, legal and social reform. He preached to the soldiers after Cromwell's great victory at the battle of Worcester in 1651. Despite his misgivings regarding the establishment of the Protectorate, Peter remained loyal to Cromwell. His participation in affairs of state declined during the 1650s, partly due to ill health, though he was invited to Dunkirk after its capture in 1658 to assist in the spreading of Protestantism in Flanders. Peter's last great public act was to preach Oliver Cromwell's funeral sermon in November 1658 on the text Joshua 1:2, "Moses my servant is dead".

Although he had played no direct role in the trial and execution of King Charles I, Peter's reputation and strong association with the Cromwellian régime resulted in his arrest at the Restoration on charges of treason. Almost universally reviled, he was hanged, drawn and quartered at Charing Cross on 16 October 1660. During his final imprisonment, he wrote A Dying Father's Last Legacy to an Onely Child to his daughter, who had visited him every day in prison.


C.H. Firth, Hugh Peter, DNB, 1895

Carla Gardina Pestana, Hugh Peter, Oxford DNB, 2004