The Action Party

During the early years of Cromwell's Protectorate, the exiled Charles II commissioned a group of six conspirators known as the Sealed Knot to co-ordinate underground Royalist activity in England. However, the group became inactive following the arrest of two of its leaders in May 1654 and Charles began negotiating with a second more militant group of conspirators, known as the Action Party. Unlike the Sealed Knot, the Action Party was willing to work in alliance with Presbyterians and disaffected radicals to bring down the Protectorate government. Its principal members were: Sir Thomas Peyton, Sir Humphrey Bennett, Edward Grey, Richard Thornhill and John Weston, all of whom were middle-ranking country gentlemen in contrast to the aristocrats of the Sealed Knot. A sixth member was Sir Thomas Armstrong, a soldier who had served against Cromwell in Ireland and was a close friend of John Weston.

During the latter half of 1654 and the early months of 1655, the Action Party made preparations for a series of co-ordinated Royalist uprisings around the country. Prominent Royalists were recruited to lead insurrections in their localities, including Sir Philip Musgrave in the North, Sir John Grenville in Cornwall and Lord Byron in the Midlands. The Action Party also attempted to recruit Presbyterians and disaffected Parliamentarians. Lord Willoughby of Parham, Sir William Waller and even Sir Thomas Fairfax were among those regarded as potential supporters, but in practice, only a few dedicated Royalists were prepared to commit themselves to the uprising.

The Action Party's plans were badly disrupted by the efficiency of John Thurloe's intelligence network. In December 1654, Thurloe's agents infiltrated a London arms ring directed by Major Henry Norwood that was supplying weapons to Royalists in the provinces in preparation for the uprising. Norwood was arrested early in January 1655 along with several other conspirators, including Richard Thornhill, a leader of the Action Party. Thornhill's arrest was followed by the arrests of Bennett, Grey and Weston in February 1655, leaving Sir Thomas Peyton and Sir Thomas Armstrong as the only Action Party leaders still at large.

The Action Party was also hampered by a resumption of the activities of the Sealed Knot after its leaders were released from prison in October 1654. Whereas the Action Party wanted to instigate the uprising at the earliest possible opportunity, the Sealed Knot regarded their plans as premature and advised caution. Representatives of both groups attended the King and tried to convince him to follow their recommendations. The insurrection was postponed several times during the early months of 1655. It finally ended in ignominious failure with Penruddock's Uprising of March 1655. Both the Sealed Knot and the Action Party were discredited by the failure of the uprising. The subsequent tightening of security measures within the Protectorate under the Rule of the Major-Generals curtailed activity by Royalist conspirators in England for the next two years.

With most of its original leaders imprisoned or in retirement, a new Action Party began operations during 1657. It was characterised by the emergence of a militant younger generation of Royalists, the most energetic of whom was John Mordaunt, second son of the Earl of Peterborough. Royalist strategy centred around Charles II's alliance with Spain. The Royalists planned to overwhelm the Protectorate with a Spanish invasion of England supported by a series of simultaneous uprisings across the country. However, the 1657 conspiracies were even more poorly co-ordinated than those of 1654-5. Furthermore, Royalist plans were betrayed to the authorities by Sir Richard Willys, a member of the Sealed Knot. Early in 1658, the Marquis of Ormond travelled secretly to London to assess the likelihood of the uprisings taking place. Although he was optimistic of success, the design was called off in March 1658 after a squadron of Cromwell's navy destroyed the transport vessels that were waiting to convey the Spanish invasion force to England. A conspiracy for an isolated uprising in London was discovered by Thurloe's agents and suppressed in mid-May 1658.

The failure of the conspiracies of 1657-8 was followed by widespread arrests and the reconvening of the High Court of Justice for the trials of the ringleaders, several of whom were executed. John Mordaunt was arrested and brought to trial, but by great good fortune he was acquitted. Mordaunt became a key figure in the Great Trust and Commission, which superseded both the Action Party and the Sealed Knot in 1659.


C.H. Firth, Last Years of the Protectorate vol. ii (London 1909)

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

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