John Lambert, c.1619-1684

Gained a brilliant reputation as a Parliamentarian officer in the Civil Wars and was highly active in Commonwealth politics, leading the last military resistance to the Restoration

Portrait of John LambertJohn Lambert was born into a minor gentry family at Calton Hall in the village of Kirkby Malhamdale in Yorkshire. He was the younger son of Josias Lambert (d.1632) by his second wife, Anne Heber. The Lambert family was of ancient lineage and well established in Yorkshire, but Josias had fallen into debt, perhaps because of a slump in wool prices on which the family wealth depended.

Although Josias struggled to restore the family fortunes, John was probably educated at Cambridge and the Inns of Court. In 1639, he married Frances, the daughter of Sir William Lister, who remained a close and influential helper throughout his career. The Lister connection brought him into contact with leading gentry families of Yorkshire, including the Fairfaxes and the Belasyses.

The Northern Association

On the outbreak of the English Civil War, Lambert joined Parliament's Northern Association army under Ferdinando, Lord Fairfax and quickly rose to the rank of colonel. He fought at the siege of Hull in 1643, and was with Sir Thomas Fairfax at the battle of Nantwich in January 1644. Sir Thomas sent Lambert with a column of troops back across the Pennines to seize Bradford in March 1644. After defeating a counter-attack by Colonel Belasyse, Lambert secured Bradford as a second base for the Yorkshire Parliamentarians, along with Hull.

In April 1644, Lambert joined forces with the Fairfaxes and Sir John Meldrum for an attack on Selby that forced the Yorkshire Royalists to withdraw to York. He was second-in-command of the Yorkshire horse at the battle of Marston Moor (July 1644). Lambert's cavalry were on the Parliamentarian right wing, which was routed by Lieutenant-General Goring, but Lambert and a few steadfast troopers remained with Sir Thomas Fairfax when he forced his way through the Royalist lines to join Cromwell on the victorious Parliamentarian left flank.

When Fairfax was appointed captain-general of the New Model Army in 1645, Lambert took command of the Northern Association. However, he was wounded and defeated at Wentbridge in March 1645 when Sir Marmaduke Langdale rode to raise the siege of Pontefract. Lambert was replaced in the north by Major-General Poyntz. He transferred to the New Model as a colonel of foot in January 1646 and took part in Fairfax's south-western campaign and the siege of Oxford.

Lambert's political involvement began when he worked with Henry Ireton in framing the treaty negotiations at Truro, Exeter and Oxford. He continued his association with Ireton during the political controversies of 1647. Lambert was active in organising the protests against Parliament's plans to disband part of the Army and send the rest to Ireland and in July 1647 he was one of the officers appointed to draw up charges against the Eleven Members, who were driven from Parliament when the Army occupied London. Lambert was also involved in the Army's negotiations with the King, collaborating with Ireton in framing the Heads of the Proposals.

In July 1647, soldiers of the Northern Association, in solidarity with the New Model, seized their commander, the Presbyterian Major-General Poyntz, and sent him to Fairfax as a prisoner. Lambert was ordered back to his old command to replace Poyntz. Already well-known and popular with the northern troops, Lambert quickly restored order and discipline.

Campaigning with Cromwell

On the outbreak of the Second Civil War in 1648, Lambert held Parliament's position in the north against Langdale's Northern Horse and the Scottish Engagers until he was joined by Oliver Cromwell after the defeat of the Royalists in Wales. Lambert was second-in-command to Cromwell at the battle of Preston in August 1648. He was with Cromwell at the siege of Pontefract Castle and remained in command there when Cromwell returned to London in December. Pontefract held out until March 1649, so Lambert played no direct part in the trial and execution of King Charles.

Promoted to Major-General, Lambert went as second-in-command on Cromwell's invasion of Scotland in 1650 against Charles II and the Covenanters. As they rode out of London to cheering crowds at the start of the march, Cromwell famously remarked that the crowds would cheer just as loudly if he and Lambert were going to be hanged. Lambert fought with distinction throughout the Scottish campaign. According to some accounts, he formulated the battle plan that led to the stunning English victory at Dunbar in September 1650. Lambert led the cavalry charge that opened the battle, and doggedly held his position for an hour as the main force advanced to attack the Scots. In December 1650, he defeated the Scottish Western Association army at Hamilton and captured its commander Colonel Ker. When Cromwell fell ill during the spring of 1651, Lambert temporarily took command of all Commonwealth forces in Scotland.

In July 1651, Lambert achieved a notable victory at Inverkeithing when he crossed the Firth of Forth to disrupt Scottish supply lines in Fife. General Leslie sent Major-General Holbourne and Sir John Browne with 4,000 Covenanters to drive him back, but Lambert destroyed Browne's entire force and secured a vital bridgehead for Cromwell's march on Perth. In August 1651, Lambert commanded the vanguard of Cromwell's army that pursued Charles II and the Covenanters into England, harrying the Scottish rearguard and joining forces with Major-General Harrison at Preston to slow the Scottish advance. On 28 August, Lambert captured Upton Bridge to secure the passage of the River Severn, then took part in Cromwell's attack on Worcester on 3 September 1651.

“Cromwell's Understudy”

With the ending of the civil wars on the mainland of Britain, Lambert became actively involved in civilian politics as well as maintaining his military commands. He was one of the eight commissioners appointed to supervise the settlement of Scotland in October 1651. After the death of Henry Ireton, Parliament nominated Lambert to succeed him as Lord-Deputy in Ireland—but while he was preparing to leave for Ireland in May 1652, Parliament reorganised the Irish administration and voted to abolish the office of Lord-Deputy. Lambert refused the offer of a lesser appointment and Charles Fleetwood went to Ireland in his place. After this, Lambert became an active opponent of the Rump Parliament. Apart from his disappointment over Ireland, he shared the impatience of fellow army officers over Parliament's lethargy in formulating a permanent form of government.

Lambert fully supported Cromwell when he forcibly dissolved Parliament in April 1653. In the constitutional discussions that followed the dissolution, Lambert proposed a small executive council to govern the nation, with powers limited by a written constitution. Lambert's proposal was passed over in favour of the Nominated Assembly or "Parliament of Saints" proposed by Major-General Harrison. Lambert declined a place in the Assembly and worked to undermine it. He collaborated with the moderates who organised the abdication of the Assembly's powers to Cromwell in December 1653. Furthermore, Lambert sent troops to subdue the protests of the radicals and to drive them from the Parliament House. He had already drafted the Instrument of Government—the written constitution that defined Cromwell's powers as Lord Protector—and he came to play a major role in the Protectorate through his energetic participation in key offices and committees. He was widely regarded as the probable successor as Lord Protector in the event of Cromwell's death.

After the failure of the First Protectorate Parliament in 1655, Lambert proposed the imposition of direct military government under the Rule of the Major-Generals. He was appointed Major-General of a large area of northern England, with his seat of government at York, but he preferred to remain at the centre of power in London and delegated the administration of his districts to his deputies Robert Lilburne and Charles Howard. However, a rift was developing between Lambert and Cromwell. They disagreed over the advisability of a war with Spain in 1654; Lambert's position was further undermined by the refusal of the Second Protectorate Parliament to grant taxes to finance the government of the Major-Generals, which led Cromwell to abandon the system early in 1657. The final split with Cromwell was over the terms of the Humble Petition and Advice. Lambert opposed moves towards a wholly civilian form of government and led the Army's opposition to Cromwell's acceptance of the offer of the Crown. He refused to take the oath of loyalty when Cromwell was installed as Lord Protector for life and was ordered to resign his commissions in July 1657. Lambert retired to his house in Wimbledon with his wife and ten children, where he devoted himself to gardening and artistic pursuits.

Lambert and the Republicans

After the death of Oliver Cromwell, his successor Richard summoned the Third Protectorate Parliament, hoping to gain the support of the gentry against the Army Grandees, now led by Major-Generals Fleetwood and Disbrowe. Lambert was elected MP for Pontefract. He supported Richard, but Fleetwood and Disbrowe forced the dissolution of Parliament in April 1659. However, they were unable to prevent the recall of the old Rump Parliament which re-assembled in May 1659 and forced Richard's resignation. Lambert was re-appointed to his commands in the Army. As Parliament's most capable commander, he was sent against the Royalist rebels of Booth's Uprising in August 1659. Lambert's veterans easily defeated Booth's rebel army at Winnington Bridge near Northwich in Cheshire. Lambert avoided unnecessary bloodshed by allowing the Royalists to disperse and forbidding his cavalry from pursuing them.

Parliament voted Lambert a £1,000 jewel as a reward for his services, which he used to pay his troops. His officers took up Fleetwood's submission to Parliament that Lambert should be re-appointed to the rank of major-general, along with calls for godly reform, a Senate to limit the House of Commons and for no officer to be cashiered without a court martial. The republicans remained suspicious of Lambert's motives, and in September 1659, Sir Arthur Hesilrige led moves to have him dismissed. In an attempt to assert its authority over the Army, Parliament revoked the commissions of nine senior officers, including Lambert, in October 1659. The Council of Officers responded by resolving to expel Parliament and on 13 October, regiments loyal to Lambert encircled the approaches to Parliament and prevented MPs from sitting.

The Committee of Safety was reinstated to rule as an interim government and Lambert was restored to the rank of major-general. Meanwhile, Hesilrige appealed to other army generals to support Parliament against Lambert and his followers. General Monck, commander-in-chief in Scotland, declared that he was ready to uphold Parliament's authority. Lambert marched north against Monck with around 12,000 troops, reaching Newcastle in mid-November 1659 where he was delayed for several weeks while the Committee of Safety negotiated with Monck's representatives for a peaceful solution to the crisis.

In southern England, Hesilrige seized the Portsmouth garrison and demanded the return of Parliament. The republican vice-admiral John Lawson sailed the Channel fleet to Gravesend and threatened to blockade London, while riots broke out in the city against the military régime. In mid-December, the Committee of Safety dissolved itself and Fleetwood was obliged to recall the Rump Parliament. Lambert tried to march south in an attempt to regain control of the situation but his unpaid troops were reluctant to fight. When Lord Fairfax declared his support for Monck, Lambert's forces disintegrated. Offered a general indemnity, Lambert submitted and was placed under house arrest. In March 1660, he was ordered to London to appear before the Council of State. Unable to meet the impossibly high security of £20,000 that was demanded of him, he was imprisoned in the Tower of London.

Resistance to the Restoration

Lambert made a desperate attempt to resist the approaching Restoration. He escaped from the Tower in April 1660 and issued a proclamation calling on all supporters of the "Good Old Cause" to rally on the battlefield of Edgehill on Easter Day 1660 from where he planned to advance on Oxford and to join forces with rebels from the south and west. The response to Lambert's call-to-arms was sporadic. He was ignored by Hesilrige, Fleetwood and Disbrowe, but the radical colonels Okey and Axtell joined him with a few hundred horse. Edmund Ludlow plotted an uprising in Wiltshire, cavalry units from the Midlands and Yorkshire rode to join him, several garrisons declared for Lambert and uprisings of civilian republicans were reported in Somerset, Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire.

Before Lambert could gather all his forces, however, he was confronted near Daventry on Easter Day, 22 April 1660, by troops sent by Monck under the command of Colonel Ingoldsby, a regicide who hoped to win a pardon by recapturing Lambert. When Ingoldsby prepared to attack, Lambert's small army defected or fled. Lambert was ignominiously taken prisoner by Ingoldsby himself when his Arab charger became bogged down in a muddy field. The following day he was brought back to London. After being forced to stand beneath the Tyburn gallows, he was returned to the Tower.

Aged 40 at the Restoration, Lambert spent the rest of his life in prison. He was brought to trial alongside Sir Henry Vane in June 1662, accused of high treason. Although sentenced to death, Lambert appealed to the King's mercy and the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. He was moved from the Tower to Castle Cornet on Guernsey, and finally to Drake's Island in Plymouth Sound. Frances Lambert took a house in Plymouth and visited him when permitted, but after her death in 1676, Lambert lapsed into insanity. He died in February 1684 at the age of 64, having spent the last 24 years of his life in prison.


Maurice Ashley, Cromwell's Generals (London 1954)

D.N. Farr, John Lambert, Oxford DNB, 2004

C.H. Firth, John Lambert, DNB, 1892

Ronald Hutton, The British Republic 1649-60 (Basingstoke 2000)

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