The Rule of the Major-Generals

The Rule of the Major-Generals was a 15-month period of direct military government during Oliver Cromwell's Protectorate. The failure of the First Protectorate Parliament discouraged Cromwell from further attempts to co-operate with civilian politicians, and a series of Royalist conspiracies that culminated in Penruddock's Uprising in the spring of 1655 convinced him that stringent security measures should be enforced. Cromwell also believed that the failure of the Western Design to the West Indies was a sign of God's displeasure at England's progress, and that a godly reform of the nation's morals was urgently required.

Rule of the Major-GeneralsThe Major-Generals and their regions

During August and September 1655, Cromwell worked with John Lambert, John Disbrowe and Sir Gilbert Pickering to finalise arrangements for the new system. The Major-Generals were formally commissioned on 11 October 1655 and proclaimed on 31 October. The country was divided into 12 regions, each governed by a Major-General who was answerable only to the Lord Protector. The first duty of the Major-Generals was to maintain security by suppressing unlawful assemblies, disarming Royalist "malignants" and apprehending thieves, robbers and highwaymen. To assist them in this work, they were authorised to raise cavalry militias in their regions consisting of volunteers loyal to the Protectorate. The militia was funded by a new 10% income tax imposed on Royalists known as the "decimation tax". It was argued that a punitive tax on Royalists was a just means of financing the militia because Royalist conspiracies had made it necessary in the first place.

The Major-Generals were also empowered to compel Royalists to give in bonds for their future good behaviour, on pain of imprisonment if the bonds were forfeit. Royalists were expected to obtain the local Major-General's permission before they could travel away from home and their movements were carefully monitored. These repressive measures represent a drastic change in attitude by the Protectorate government, which before the 1655 uprising had hoped to reach reconciliation with Royalists.

Assisted by specially appointed commissioners, the Major-Generals were expected to supervise the collection of the decimation tax and to enforce moral reform in their localities. Pastimes like horse-racing, stage plays, cock-fighting and bear-baiting were to be abolished; laws against drunkenness, sexual licentiousness, blasphemy and swearing were to be enforced and unruly alehouses closed. While the discouragement of public assemblies was partly in the interests of national security, Cromwell and the Major-Generals genuinely hoped to reform the morals of the nation by these measures.

Although the Major-Generals fulfilled many of the functions of the old lords-lieutenant of counties, the system was not intended to replace the traditional structure of local government. The Major-Generals and their assistants worked alongside the existing hierarchy of magistrates, sheriffs, constables, town corporations and county committees. In most cases, local administrations co-operated with them, though the fact that they were unelected soldiers rather than members of the traditional ruling élite often caused resentment amongst the gentry. The legality of the system was also called into question.

In the summer of 1656, under the urgent need to raise further funds to maintain the system, the Major-Generals collectively attempted to influence the elections for the Second Protectorate Parliament. During its first session, MPs decisively rejected a bill that would have made the decimation tax permanent and renewed the rule of the Major-Generals. Cromwell himself was aware of the unpopularity of military government and seems to have given tacit support to those who opposed its renewal. The system was abandoned early in 1657 under a new constitution: the Humble Petition and Advice.

While the Major-Generals were successful in law enforcement and in curbing security threats to the Protectorate their attempts at reforming the nation's morals varied from region to region according to the zeal of individual officers, but had no lasting effects. However, the brief period of the Rule of the Major-Generals has cast a long shadow in English history. Military government in combination with forced moral reform has come to symbolise the worst excesses of Puritan repression. The Major-Generals are traditionally represented as tyrannical despots ruling over their regions with an iron fist, though historians in recent times have tended to moderate this view.


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

C.H. Firth, The Last Years of the Protectorate 1656-58 vol. i (London 1909)

S.R. Gardiner, History of the Commonwealth and Protectorate vols iii and iv (London 1903)

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

David Underdown, Royalist Conspiracy in England 1649-60 (New Haven 1960)