Sir Arthur Hesilrige, 1601-61

Fiery republican soldier and politician who fought for Parliament, quarrelled with Cromwell and inadvertently initiated the Restoration of the Monarchy.

Portrait of Sir Arthur HeselrigeArthur Hesilrige was the eldest son of Sir Thomas Hesilrige (also spelt "Haselrig", "Hazelrig", Haselrigge", &c.), baronet, of Noseley in Leicestershire. His mother was Frances, daughter of William Gorges of Alderton in Northamptonshire. He attended Magdalene College, Cambridge, and was admitted to Gray's Inn in 1623. When his father died in 1630, Hesilrige inherited his baronetcy and extensive estates in the Midlands.

Hesilrige held radical political and religious views and was an outspoken critic of King Charles' Personal Rule. He was brought before the court of High Commission several times for non-payment of fees and taxes and was briefly imprisoned in the Tower of London. After his first wife died, Hesilrige married Dorothy Greville, the sister of Lord Brooke, in 1634. Through Brooke, he came into contact with the network of Puritan critics of King Charles headed by Lord-Saye-and-Sele.

Fighting for Parliament

Hesilrige was elected one of the knights of the shire for Leicestershire in both the Short and Long Parliaments where he was associated with John Pym and the opponents of the King's government. He played a leading role in the impeachment of Lord Strafford and proposed the bill of attainder by which Strafford was condemned to death. Hesilrige was also active in instigating the Root and Branch Bill, aimed at the abolition of bishops, and the Militia Bill, which tried to wrest control of the armed forces from the King. Regarded as one of the King's leading opponents, Hesilrige was among the Five Members whom the King attempted to arrest in January 1642.

When the First Civil War broke out, Hesilrige raised a troop of horse and fought at Edgehill under Sir William Balfour. During the latter part of 1642, Hesilrige served as second-in-command to Sir William Waller on his campaign in southern England, during which he was an enthusiastic participant in the desecration of the cathedrals at Winchester and Chichester.

In 1643, Hesilrige campaigned with Waller on the Welsh border but his cavalry troop suffered severe losses at Ripple Field. He returned to London where he raised a new regiment of horse which, unusually for the civil wars, he equipped as armoured cuirassiers. Hesilrige's regiment became known as the "Lobsters" and formed the heavy cavalry in Waller's army. He rejoined Waller in time to take part in the battle of Lansdown in July 1643, but the Lobsters were routed at Roundway Down eight days later. Hesilrige himself was wounded in both battles and almost died from the injuries he sustained at Roundway Down. He continued to serve with Waller, and in March 1644, commanded the left wing of horse in the Parliamentarian victory at the battle of Cheriton.

After participating in the second battle of Newbury in October 1644, Hesilrige supported Oliver Cromwell's criticism of the Earl of Manchester's generalship. When Parliament adopted the Self-Denying Ordinance, Hesilrige resigned his commission in the army and became a political leader of the Independent faction in the House of Commons.

Hesilrige returned to military duties in December 1647 when he was appointed governor of the strategically-important city of Newcastle amid rumours that a Scottish army was being raised for the invasion of England. He retained control of Newcastle throughout the Second Civil War. In August 1648, Hesilrige recaptured Tynemouth Castle from Henry Lilburne, who had defected to the Royalists.

Commonwealth & Protectorate

Despite his republican sympathies, Hesilrige disapproved of Pride's Purge in December 1648 and declined to sit as a judge at the King's trial. He stayed away from London until after the King's execution then resumed his seat in Parliament in February 1649. Hesilrige became a leading figure in the Commonwealth and a member of the Council of State. He remained a powerful figure in Northumberland and Durham and amassed a large fortune through dealing in sequestered Royalist estates and former church lands. He was often accused of corruption and of abusing his position for personal gain, notably by John Lilburne who claimed that Hesilrige was a worse tyrant than the Earl of Strafford had been.

During the early 1650s, Hesilrige's influence in Parliament grew. He became a leader of the opposition to the Council of Officers as tension mounted between Parliament and the Army over the political and religious settlement of the nation. Hesilrige flaunted his personal wealth by acquiring a notoriously ornate coach and dressing his servants in velvet. He further provoked the radicals by persuading Parliament to abandon a debate on poor relief in February 1653 and by scornfully dismissing Cromwell's scheme to appoint an interim government of godly men to replace the discredited Rump Parliament. It may have been Hesilrige's initiative to continue the parliamentary debate over the new representative that provoked Cromwell into forcibly expelling the Rump Parliament on 20 April 1653.

Hesilrige broke completely with Cromwell after the expulsion of the Rump. He was not appointed to the Nominated Assembly and vehemently opposed Cromwell's elevation to the office of Lord Protector in December 1653, refusing to pay taxes not sanctioned by Parliament. In 1654, he was elected MP for Leicestershire in the First Protectorate Parliament during which he emerged as one of the severest critics of the Protectorate government. He withdrew from Parliament after refusing to subscribe to the "Recognition" of the Protectorate insisted upon by Cromwell. In 1656, Hesilrige was elected to the Second Protectorate Parliament but he was one of the members excluded from sitting in the first session by the Council of Officers. He refused Cromwell's offer of a seat in the new Upper House but was re-admitted to the Commons for the second session of parliament in January 1658. Hesilrige was involved in the drafting of a petition calling for the abandonment of the Protectorate and the restoration of the Commonwealth that led Cromwell to dissolve Parliament in February 1658.

Fighting for the Republic

After Oliver's death in September 1658, Hesilrige refused to support his successor Richard Cromwell. In the early sessions of the Third Protectorate Parliament, Hesilrige attempted to delay discussion of the Act of Recognition of the new Protector in the hope that Richard's authority would be compromised. When Richard was forced to recall the Rump Parliament in May 1659, Hesilrige hoped finally to establish a civilian republican government. His uncompromising efforts to bring the army under civilian control antagonised the military leaders and tended to alienate them from Parliament.

Hesilrige unwittingly set in motion the train of events that led to the Restoration by calling for the impeachment of Colonel Lambert—with the result that Lambert threw an armed guard around the Palace of Westminster, ejected Parliament and dissolved the Council of State. Hesilrige was one of nine members of the Council who refused to accept the dissolution and appealed to General Monck for support against Lambert and the military junta that had seized power.

While Monck prepared to march south in December 1659, Hesilrige went to secure the naval base at Portsmouth for Parliament where he was greeted warmly by the republican governor, Nathaniel Whelan. Forces sent by the junta to besiege Portsmouth were persuaded to join with the garrison and declare for Parliament. Hesilrige returned to London at the end of December with three regiments to support the reinstatement of the Rump Parliament, which met again on 26 December. During the brief final revival of the Commonwealth, Hesilrige was the unofficial leader of Parliament. He was re-appointed to the Council of State and Army Commission and believed that he had finally achieved his goal of a civilian-led republican government in England.

Hesilrige realised too late that Monck intended to recall Charles Stuart and is said to have dropped his opposition to the Restoration when Monck promised that his own life would be spared. Nevertheless, he was excepted from the Act of Indemnity and imprisoned in the Tower of London in May 1660. He died there in January 1661 before he could be brought to trial. He was succeeded in his family estates by his son, Thomas Hesilrige.


C.H. Firth, Sir Arthur Heselrige or Haselrig, DNB, 1891

Godfrey Davies, The Restoration of Charles II, 1658-60 (San Marino 1955)

Christopher Durston, Sir Arthur Hesilrige, Oxford DNB, 2004

Stuart Reid, All the King's Armies (Staplehurst 1998)

Blair Worden, The Rump Parliament (Cambridge 1974)