John Disbrowe (Desborough), 1608-80

Leading Parliamentarian army officer and politician, he was Oliver Cromwell's brother-in-law and the first of the Major-Generals to be commissioned

Portrait of John DisbroweJohn Disbrowe was born at Eltisley in Cambridgeshire, where he was baptized in November 1608. He was the second son of James Disbrowe (d.1638) a prosperous landowner, and his wife Elizabeth. Disbrowe initially practised as an attorney which he combined with farming an estate that he inherited from his father.

In 1636, Disbrowe married Jane Cromwell (d. 1656), the sister of Oliver Cromwell. Their marriage produced a daughter and seven sons. Disbrowe married again in 1658 after Jane's death, but the name of his second wife is not known.

Parliamentarian Officer

On the outbreak of civil war in 1642, Disbrowe was appointed quartermaster in the cavalry troop raised by his brother-in-law Oliver Cromwell, and later became a captain in Cromwell's regiment of Ironsides. He rose through the ranks of the Eastern Association and the New Model Army, building a reputation as a courageous and godly soldier. As a major in Sir Thomas Fairfax's regiment of horse, he fought with distinction at Naseby and Langport in 1645, then accompanied Cromwell to the siege of Oxford in 1646.

Disbrowe was active in the disputes between Parliament and the Army in 1647, supporting the grievances of the soldiers and acting as an intermediary between the Council of Officers and Parliament's commissioners. In May 1648, with the Second Civil War imminent, he was sent to suppress a Royalist uprising at Bury St Edmunds, then in June he joined Fairfax at the siege of Colchester. After Colchester's surrender, Disbrowe was appointed governor of Yarmouth in Norfolk where he remained throughout the political crisis of the winter of 1648-9, thus avoiding any direct involvement in the trial and execution of King Charles I.

In September 1649, Disbrowe was given command of Cromwell's former regiment and sent to guard the west of England against the threat of Royalist insurrections. He held the rank of major-general by August 1650. Disbrowe marched north to take part in the battle of Worcester in September 1651, then returned to the south-west as his troops hunted the fugitive Charles Stuart, who passed close to him at Shaftesbury in October.

Commonwealth & Protectorate

Disbrowe supported Cromwell's expulsion of the Rump Parliament in April 1653 and was appointed to the Council of State comprising seven officers and three civilians (the "Decemvirate") that took over the government of the nation until July 1653, after which he was co-opted as a member of the Nominated Assembly. Disbrowe sat on the committee for law reform and was appointed a commissioner of the admiralty and a general-at-sea in December 1653, but his naval duties were administrative and he never went to sea. He opposed the religious radicals in the Assembly and played a leading role in its dissolution and the subsequent establishment of Cromwell's Protectorate. In 1654, Disbrowe was elected to the First Protectorate Parliament as MP for Cambridgeshire.

As an admiralty commissioner, Disbrowe was appointed head of the committee responsible for organising the Western Design in August 1654. He quarrelled with the expedition's military leader Robert Venables, who later accused him of providing inadequate supplies for the expedition and thus sharing responsibility for its failure.

During the Royalist insurrections that culminated in Penruddock's Uprising in March 1655, Disbrowe was appointed Major-General of the western counties, with wide-ranging civil and military powers to suppress the uprising. His implementation of military authority in co-operation with civilian local government officials became a model for the Rule of the Major-Generals established in October 1655. Disbrowe was the first of the Major-Generals to be commissioned, with responsibility for the counties of Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Gloucestershire, Somerset and Wiltshire. From his headquarters at Salisbury, he emerged as a zealous persecutor of Royalists in his region. Although he was generally sympathetic to the religious sects, Disbrowe refused to release the Quaker leader George Fox from imprisonment at Launceston because the Quakers were so troublesome and disruptive of the social order. As MP for Somerset in the Second Protectorate Parliament, however, Disbrowe spoke against imposing the death penalty in the debates over the punishment of James Nayler.

Disbrowe advocated the use of military force to keep the Protectorate in power. In December 1656, he introduced into Parliament a proposal to make the 10% decimation tax on Royalists a permanent means of financing the authority of the Major-Generals. Opposition to military government crystallised around Disbrowe's bill and it was rejected by Parliament in January 1657, effectively bringing the Rule of the Major-Generals to an end. Despite his close involvement with the Cromwellian régime, Disbrowe strongly opposed the offer of the Crown to Cromwell and it is probable that Disbrowe's unwavering opposition contributed significantly to Cromwell's eventual rejection of the offer. In July 1657, Disbrowe was appointed to the Protectorate privy council, and in 1658 he accepted a seat in Cromwell's Upper House.

The End of the Protectorate

After Oliver's death, Disbrowe initially supported the succession of Richard Cromwell. However, he quarrelled openly with Edward Montagu, a fellow-member of the Protector's council who had favoured offering the Crown to Oliver and a return to civilian forms of government. Disbrowe accused Montagu of plotting to have him kidnapped and perhaps murdered, but was unable to substantiate the allegation. In April 1659, Disbrowe joined with Lieutenant-General Charles Fleetwood in trying to bring Richard's Protectorate under military control. Disbrowe himself confronted Richard and demanded that he dissolve Parliament and entrust himself to the army. Richard was forced to comply, but the plan miscarried when, influenced by the republican Commonwealthsmen, the soldiers demanded the return of the Rump Parliament and Richard's resignation.

Disbrowe lost all influence during the political chaos of 1659-60 and was derided by Royalists as an unsophisticated rustic. Like Lambert, Fleetwood and other leading Roundheads, he was later attacked by name in Hudibras, Samuel Butler's famous satire on puritanism.

At the Restoration, Disbrowe was barred from holding any public office or position of trust. He went to the Netherlands but was ordered to return to England in 1666 on suspicion of involvement in republican plots against Charles II. He was released after spending a year as a prisoner in the Tower of London, then retired to Hackney, where he died in 1680.


Maurice Ashley, Cromwell's Generals (London 1954)

Christopher Durston, Cromwell's Major-Generals (Manchester 2001)

Stephen K. Roberts, John Disbrowe, Oxford DNB, 2004