Robert Overton, 1609-79
Republican army officer imprisoned without trial for four years during Cromwell's Protectorate, and for eleven years after the Restoration.
The son and heir of John Overton of Easington in south-east Yorkshire, Robert Overton was educated at St John's College, Cambridge, and Gray's Inn. In 1632, he married Ann Gardiner (d.1665), with whom he had ten children.
During the First Civil War, Overton served in Yorkshire under the Fairfaxes, distinguishing himself at the defence of Hull in 1643 and the battle of Marston Moor in 1644. Sir Thomas Fairfax appointed him deputy-governor of Pontefract in August 1645; a few weeks later, Overton succeeded in capturing Sandal Castle in Yorkshire. During the summer of 1647, Fairfax secured a commission for Overton as colonel of an infantry regiment in the New Model Army. He became involved in the political unrest that swept through the army during 1647 and gained a reputation as a radical. When Fairfax appointed him governor of Hull early in 1648, the mayor and corporation petitioned for his removal because of his political and religious radicalism, though Fairfax continued to support him.
During the Second Civil War, Overton's regiment fought under Cromwell in Wales and the north while Overton himself remained at Hull to secure the vital port and the surrounding region against the possibility of a sea-borne invasion by the Royalists. He apparently approved of the King's trial and execution, though he did not serve as a commissioner at the trial. Overton and the officers of Hull issued a Declaration in January 1649 urging Fairfax to remain true to the principles agreed upon after the Putney Debates of November 1647. However, Overton was careful to disassociate himself from the Leveller mutinies that broke out in April and May 1649.
In 1650, Overton went with Cromwell's army of invasion to Scotland and commanded an infantry brigade at the battle of Dunbar. In July 1651, he spearheaded Cromwell's advance into Fife by establishing a bridgehead on the north bank of the Firth of Forth. Major-General Lambert consolidated the position and defeated the Scots at the battle of Inverkeithing, allowing Cromwell's main force to advance on Perth. When Cromwell pursued the Scottish army into England, Overton stayed in Scotland with Lieutenant-General Monck, fulfilling various military and administrative roles. In December 1652, he was promoted to the rank of major-general and appointed commander of Commonwealth forces in western Scotland.
On the death of his father in 1653, Overton succeeded to his family estate at Easington and returned to Yorkshire. He resumed his duties as governor of Hull, which had again assumed strategic importance because of the Anglo-Dutch war. In recognition of his services, Parliament granted him estates in Scotland. He also purchased confiscated Crown lands. Overton supported Cromwell's forcible dissolution of the Rump Parliament in April 1653, but was apprehensive over the establishment of the Protectorate the following December. He openly stated his misgivings at an interview with Cromwell during the spring of 1654, declaring that he would support the Protectorate providing that Cromwell's personal interest did not conflict with the good of the nation.
Persuaded of Overton's integrity, Cromwell approved his return to Scotland to resume his duties under General Monck. However, Overton also visited the conspirator John Wildman in London and kept up a correspondence with him from Scotland. Wildman and other radicals regarded Overton as a potential military leader for an uprising to restore the Commonwealth. He appears to have given tacit approval to a group of discontented officers in Aberdeen who prepared a circular convening a meeting to set out Army grievances against the Protectorate. When General Monck heard of the conspiracy, he sent for Overton to explain himself; when Overton did not come as ordered, Monck had him arrested. In January 1655, he was sent to London and committed to the Tower. No firm evidence of Overton's involvement in any conspiracy was brought forward, but he had lost the confidence of Cromwell and Monck and was held without trial for more than four years. In March 1658, he was moved from the Tower of London to Elizabeth Castle on Jersey.
In February 1659, Overton's wife and sister petitioned the Third Protectorate Parliament to hear his case. The petition was supported by many republicans and accompanied by letters from Overton's old friend John Milton. On 16 March, Overton appeared before Parliament to protest his innocence. His imprisonment was declared illegal and he was released the same day.
After the fall of the Protectorate and the reinstatement of the Rump Parliament in May 1659, Overton was restored to his regiment and the governorship of Hull. He attempted to mediate between the contending factions in the Army high command, issuing a pamphlet called Humble and Healing Advice in November 1659 which called for unity and a peaceful settlement. As the Restoration of the monarchy became increasingly likely, he strengthened the fortifications of Hull and called upon the troops in Yorkshire to stand firm in defence of the "Good Old Cause". However, he was unable to gain enough support to present a serious challenge to General Monck, who named a new governor of Hull and ordered Overton to London, where he obediently arrived on 18 March 1660.
As a notorious republican and religious radical, Overton was viewed with extreme suspicion after the Restoration. He was arrested in December 1660 at the first hint of a conspiracy against the new government. He was imprisoned at Chepstow Castle until January 1664 when he was once again sent to Jersey, where he remained until December 1671. Overton spent his last years with his daughter Anne Broughton and her husband at Seaton in Rutland.
Maurice Ashley, Cromwell's Generals (London 1954)
Barbara Taft, Robert Overton, Oxford DNB, 2004