Sir Henry Vane (the younger), 1613-62

A leading Parliamentarian and statesman of the Commonwealth—he opposed Cromwell's Protectorate but was executed at the Restoration.

Portrait of Sir Harry VaneHenry Vane was the eldest son of Sir Henry Vane (1589-1655), a courtier who became secretary of state to King Charles I. The younger Vane is often known as Harry Vane to differentiate him from his father. He attended Westminster School and was expected to pursue a career as a courtier or a diplomat. In his mid-teens, however, Vane experienced an intense spiritual awakening that caused him to repent his sins and dedicate himself to seeking God and Christ. He made a firm inner resolve to follow the dictates of his conscience in all matters from that time forward.

After attending Magdelen College, Oxford, Vane went on a tour of Europe, visiting Paris, Geneva and Leiden. In 1631, his father secured for him an appointment as aide to the English ambassador at the court of the Emperor Ferdinand II in Vienna, where he gained experience in diplomacy and an insight into European politics.

Vane in Massachusetts

When he returned to England in February 1632, Vane was graciously received by King Charles. He was expected to advance rapidly at court, but he objected to the ceremony and ritual of the Laudian church that prevailed there. In particular, he was adamant in his refusal to kneel to receive the sacrament, despite the attempts of his father and various clergymen to persuade him to conform. In 1635, Vane resolved to go to America to seek freedom to worship according to his conscience. King Charles granted him a license to stay in New England for three years.

Arriving in Massachusetts in October 1635, Vane was welcomed by the Puritan colonists, who recognised his religious sincerity and appreciated his background and connections. He was admitted a member of the church at Boston and became a freeman of the colony in March 1636. Vane put his diplomatic skills to use to intervene in a quarrel between the former governors John Winthrop and Thomas Dudley. His prestige grew to the extent that he was elected governor of Massachusetts in May 1636.

During Vane's governorship, escalating tension between English settlers and local tribes erupted in the Pequot War, which was the first major clash between native tribes and European settlers in North America. In association with Roger Williams, however, Vane assisted in securing friendly relations with the Narragansetts. He also assisted Williams in negotiations for the purchase of Rhode Island from the Indians as a refuge for religious separatists.

Vane's involvement in religious disputes among the colonists brought him into conflict with John Winthrop and led to his political downfall in the elections of May 1637. He returned to England in August 1637, having learned valuable lessons about the difficulties of reconciling religious idealism with practical politics.

Vane was regarded as a reformed character on his return to England. Through the influence of his father and the Earl of Northumberland, he was appointed treasurer of the navy. In April 1640, he was elected to the Short Parliament but was preoccupied with his duties at the admiralty and took no active part in the proceedings. He was knighted by King Charles on 23 June 1640 and married Frances Wray eight days later; the marriage settlement made him a wealthy man.

The Long Parliament

In November 1640, Vane was elected to the Long Parliament as MP for Hull where he emerged as a leading opponent of the King. In the "Root and Branch" debates of 1640-1, Vane advocated the abolition of Episcopacy in the Church of England to be replaced by diocesan commissions of clergymen and laity. He also became involved in the prosecution of the Earl of Strafford by allowing John Pym to copy some private notes in the possession of his father that apparently confirmed Strafford's intention to raise an Irish army for the King to use in England. Pym's dramatic revelation of this transcript sealed Strafford's fate at his trial in April 1641. Vane justified the betrayal of his father's trust by pleading that it was his duty to God and the nation to reveal the design.

The First Civil War

Vane threw himself wholeheartedly into Parliament's cause during the First Civil War, regarding the war as the only way to safeguard the nation's liberties and religion. In 1643, he was appointed to lead the delegation sent to Edinburgh to negotiate the Solemn League and Covenant. The Scots were unwilling to enter a military alliance unless Parliament pledged to reform the English church along Presbyterian lines, but Vane qualified the clause to read that reform would be carried out "according to the Word of God"—which could be interpreted in different ways.

After Pym's death in December 1643, Vane and his colleague Oliver St John came to be regarded as the leaders of the "War Party" in Parliament. Vane manoeuvred to replace the Committee of Safety with the more powerful Committee for Both Kingdoms in February 1644 and regularly acted as its spokesman. In June 1644, he personally conveyed orders from the committee to the commanders of the allied Scottish and Parliamentarian armies at the siege of York, directing them to abandon the siege and march to counter Prince Rupert's campaign in Lancashire. The generals disagreed with the plan, and Vane was flexible enough to acknowledge that they were right. It has also been suggested that the real purpose of Vane's journey to York was to gain the support of the generals for a plan to depose King Charles, but that they unanimously rejected the scheme.

In the autumn of 1644, Vane was prominent in advocating the reorganisation of Parliament's army and removing the Earl of Essex from command, resulting in the Self-Denying Ordinance of December 1644 and the formation of the New Model Army in 1645. Vane was active in raising finances from the City for the final campaigns of the First Civil War. After hostilities had ended, he was acknowledged as a leading architect of Parliament's victory over the King.

Negotiations with the King

In 1646, as the Presbyterian faction grew more powerful in Parliament, Vane's influence declined. During the struggle between Parliament and the Army in 1647, his support for Cromwell and the Grandees earned him the mistrust of the Levellers as well as the Presbyterians. As negotiations for a settlement with the King proceeded, a rift also developed between Vane and the Grandees. Despite King Charles' deliberate provocation of the Second Civil War, Vane opposed any move to alter the fundamental constitution of the nation. He was one of the fifteen commissioners who attempted to reach a settlement at the Treaty of Newport and he voted to continue negotiations with Charles even after the Newport talks had broken down. The Army took matters into its own hands with Pride's Purge in December 1648. Vane was not among the MPs excluded in the purge, but he withdrew from the House of Commons in protest. He refused to sit as one of the King's judges and disassociated himself from the regicide.

Commonwealth and Protectorate

Despite his objections to the King's trial and execution, Vane returned to Parliament early in 1649 and was elected to the Council of State. He took special responsibility for supplying Cromwell's army in Scotland with money and supplies and he maintained a close correspondence with Cromwell regarding home and foreign politics.

Vane's diplomatic skills were used to advantage in negotiations with foreign governments as the Commonwealth struggled for recognition in Europe. In January 1652, he was one of the commissioners sent to Scotland to implement political union with England under the Commonwealth. He was also appointed to the Admiralty Committee, which took over the office of Lord High Admiral. Vane was one of the special commissioners appointed to review naval administration during the first Anglo-Dutch War. His management of the navy was recognised as making an important contribution to the eventual defeat of the Dutch.

In 1651, Vane published his first major written work: Zeal Examined, in which he advocated liberty of conscience in matters of religion and the complete separation of Church and State. He opposed all moves towards an established national church and argued against any restrictions to freedom of worship. Vane's religious views brought him into conflict with Cromwell, who favoured an ordained clergy and did not share Vane's tolerance of the extreme sects. Vane and Cromwell also clashed over the future government of the Commonwealth. Vane proposed a Parliament consisting of four hundred members with the sitting members of the Long Parliament retaining their seats. Cromwell and the Army wanted an entirely new Parliament, and criticised Vane's scheme for promoting the self-interest of MPs. The quarrel culminated with Cromwell's forced dissolution of Parliament in April 1653, after which Vane withdrew from government.

Vane, young in yeares, but in sage counsell old,
Then whome a better Senatour nere held
The helme of Rome, when gownes not armes repelld
The feirce Epeirot & the African bold,
Whether to settle peace or to unfold
The drift of hollow states hard to be spelld,
Then to advise how warr may best, upheld,
Move by her two maine nerves, Iron & Gold
In all her equipage; besides to know
Both spirituall powre & civill, what each meanes,
What severs each, thou 'hast learnt, which few have don
The bounds of either sword to thee wee ow.
Therefore on thy firme hand religion leanes
In peace, and reck'ns thee her eldest son.

John Milton's sonnet to Sir Henry Vane, written in 1652

In 1655, Vane published The Retired Man's Meditations, a complex spiritual work in which he sought to reconcile the fragmented religious movements of the Commonwealth. The following year, he produced A Healing Question, written in response to Cromwell's call for a national fast to consider the continuing troubles of the nation. Vane outlined the principles of civil and religious liberty and proposed a convention to write a national constitution—a method that was followed in America after the War of Independence. However, Vane was summoned to appear before the Council of State to answer for his implied criticisms of the Protectorate in July 1656. He was imprisoned at Carisbrooke Castle until December, which prevented him from standing for election to the Second Protectorate Parliament.

The End of the Republic

After Oliver's death, Vane stood for election to the Third Protectorate Parliament called by Richard Cromwell in January 1659. The government blocked Vane's candidacy for Hull and Bristol, but he was finally elected for the "rotten borough" of Whitchurch in Hampshire. He worked closely with Sir Arthur Hesilrige and the republicans in seeking to depose Richard and reinstate the pre-Protectorate Commonwealth. The old Rump Parliament was restored in April 1659 and Richard resigned the following month. Once again, Vane became a leading figure in the administration. He was re-appointed to the Council of State, was made a commissioner of the navy and sat on various important committees. In addition, he became almost solely responsible for foreign affairs, following a moderate policy aimed at remaining on peaceable terms with other nations.

Although military rule had become deeply unpopular, Vane acknowledged the importance of the army in upholding the Commonwealth régime. Wherever possible, he acted as a mediator between Parliament and the army leaders. He was appointed one of seven commissioners responsible for the nomination of officers and attempted to replace Cromwellians with sound republicans. However, he clashed with Hesilrige, who wanted the army excluded from the settlement of the nation, and his close association with John Lambert brought him under suspicion of attempting to establish a new dictatorship.

When Lambert forcibly dissolved Parliament in October 1659, Vane was the only civilian official trusted by the military junta that seized power, yet he was reluctant to serve on the Committee of Safety and declined all diplomatic or administrative duties except those relating to the admiralty, for which he held valid commissions from Parliament. In December 1659, Vane and his colleague Richard Salwey led a delegation that tried unsuccessfully to dissuade Vice-Admiral John Lawson from blockading London in support of the Commonwealth. The threat of a naval blockade forced the junta to recall the Rump Parliament on 24 December. Vane's association with the junta effectively ended his career. He was expelled from office and banished from London in January 1660.

After the Restoration, Vane was one of the twenty non-regicides who were excluded from the Act of Indemnity. He was brought to trial in June 1662 charged with high treason. He conducted a skilful defence in which he asserted the supreme power of Parliament, which is said to have prompted Charles II to remark that Vane was "too dangerous a man to let live". He was found guilty of treason and sentenced to death. Rather than the usual traitor's death, Vane was beheaded at Tower Hill on 14 June 1662, his courage and dignity on the scaffold greatly impressing observers.


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

C.H. Firth, Sir Henry Vane the younger, DNB 1899

S.R. Gardiner, History of the Commonwealth & Protectorate vol. iv (London 1903)

Ruth E. Mayers, Sir Henry Vane the younger, Oxford DNB, 2004

With thanks to William Owens of Boston MA, for clarification of Vane's career in Massachusetts.


A Healing Question, 1656 —Vane's tract expounding civil and religious liberty

Vane's speech against Richard Cromwell, 1659

Vane's defence at his trial for high treason, 1662

Milton's sonnet addressed to Sir Henry Vane

Henry Vane: America's First Revolutionary by Sean Gabb