Penruddock's Uprising, 1655

During the early years of Cromwell's Protectorate, Royalist conspirators planned an uprising against the government to restore the monarchy by force. Initially, it was hoped that an insurrection in England could be co-ordinated with Glencairn's Uprising in Scotland but it proved impossible to organise the scattered groups of English Royalists and the insurgency in Scotland was decisively defeated by Protectorate forces in July 1654. A group of conspirators known as the Sealed Knot was commissioned by the exiled Charles II to co-ordinate underground Royalist activity in England and began operations in 1654. However, the Sealed Knot proceeded cautiously and made little progress. A more militant group known as the Action Party emerged during the latter half of 1654 and made preparations for a series of co-ordinated Royalist uprisings around the country organised through six regional associations headed by prominent local Royalists. Attempts were also made to recruit Presbyterians and Parliamentarians who were disillusioned with the Protectorate régime.

By early 1655, the two conspiracy rings were offering conflicting advice to the King and the projected uprising was postponed several times during the early months of 1655. The Sealed Knot declared that the time was not right for an uprising, but the Action Party protested against further delay and requested Charles' authority to proceed. In the resulting confusion, the western Royalists were not notified of a vital change of plan. A contingent of armed Wiltshire and Somerset cavaliers made its way to a rendezvous at Salisbury scheduled for 13 February. The conspirators dispersed as soon as they realised that the uprising was postponed, but they had drawn attention to themselves and the authorities were alerted. In the following weeks, a number of leading western Royalists were arrested, including Colonel Walter Slingsby, Colonel Francis Wyndham and Sir John Grenville.

Finally, 8 March 1655 was selected as the day for the uprising. The Earl of Rochester crossed to England on 19 February to head the insurgents and Charles moved from Cologne to Middelburg in the Netherlands in the expectation of crossing over when the uprising gathered momentum. However, details of the conspiracy were known to the government through John Thurloe's network of spies and intelligencers. In London, an arms distribution network was broken early in 1655 and several key conspirators were arrested. The subsequent reinforcing of the Tower of London and other garrisons precluded the possibility of a successful insurrection in London or the surrounding counties yet Rochester and other Royalist agents believed that there was still enough support in the provinces to proceed. On 27 February, Rochester left London for Yorkshire, which was expected to be the decisive region, amid rumours that Sir Thomas Fairfax intended to declare his support.

On the evening of 8 March, a force of between 100 and 300 Royalists assembled on Marston Moor near York with the Earl of Rochester at their head. The insurgents expected sympathisers in York to open the city gates to them. When it became clear that the plan had failed, Rochester was unable to prevent panic from spreading among his followers. The insurgents fled in all directions, abandoning their weapons on the moor. The uprising in other regions was no more successful. About 80 Royalists gathered at Morpeth in Northumberland with the intention of capturing Newcastle but they fled when a body of troops from Berwick coincidentally passed nearby. Another group of around 200 gathered at Rufford Abbey in Nottinghamshire intending to march north to rendezvous with the Yorkshire Royalists. This group also quickly dispersed when it became clear that support for the insurrection was negligible. A planned rising in Cheshire came to nothing and an attempt to take Shrewsbury Castle was foiled.

Royalists in the south, under the leadership of Colonel John Penruddock, planned to occupy Winchester in Hampshire on 8 March and to seize magistrates who were conducting the county assizes. The plot seemed so well-organised that Rochester sent Sir Joseph Wagstaffe, who had accompanied him from the Continent, to join Penruddock as a military adviser. When the Winchester garrison was reinforced as a routine precaution, however, Penruddock and Wagstaffe hesitated. They decided to change the location and timing of their plan when they learned that the magistrates were moving on to Salisbury to continue the assizes on 12 March.

Map of Penruddock's Uprising 1655Penruddock's Uprising 1655

During the night of 11 March, several hundred mounted insurgents assembled at Clarendon Park, three miles south-east of Salisbury. Penruddock and Wagstaffe led their troops into the town before dawn the next morning. The rebels occupied the market square, commandeered horses and released from gaol any prisoners who agreed to join them. The High Sheriff of Wiltshire and the judges who were conducting the county assizes were arrested in their beds. Wagstaffe wanted to hang them immediately as representatives of the hated Protectorate, but Penruddock and others intervened to save their lives. After proclaiming Charles II, Penruddock's insurgents rode out of Salisbury at about 8 o'clock in the morning of 12 March, taking the High Sheriff, still in his nightshirt, as a hostage.

The rebel force of around 400 men marched westwards through Blandford, Sherborne and Yeovil calling upon the Royalists of Dorset and Somerset to rise up and join them. Very few responded. Meanwhile, government garrisons in the surrounding counties were mobilised and Cromwell appointed John Disbrowe Major-General of the West, with orders to suppress the uprising. On 14 March, before Disbrowe could take any effective action, Penruddock's force reached the town of South Molton in Devon, where a troop of horse from Exeter commanded by Colonel Unton Croke caught up with them. After a desultory street fight, the insurgents broke and fled and the long-anticipated Royalist uprising was over.

Sir Joseph Wagstaffe succeeded in making his escape, but Penruddock and other ringleaders were taken prisoner. They were subsequently tried for treason before a jury at Exeter. Penruddock argued that opposing Cromwell could not constitute treason as the Protector's power had not been legally sanctioned by Parliament. However, he was found guilty and sentenced to death. Of a total of thirty-three insurgents condemned to death, twelve were executed, including Penruddock who was beheaded at Exeter on 16 May. The others were transported to Barbados, along with most of the other insurgents taken prisoner at South Molton.

The Earl of Rochester fled south from Yorkshire in disguise. He was arrested at Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire, but escaped by bribing an innkeeper in whose charge he had been left. After many adventures, he succeeded in rejoining Charles II at Cologne. Sir Joseph Wagstaffe also escaped to the Continent.

Although the Royalist uprising proved ineffective, it had a profound effect on security measures within the Protectorate. Widespread arrests followed and Cromwell's attitude hardened. Tighter restrictions were imposed upon known Royalists and they were obliged to pay the "decimation tax" to finance a new militia to supplement the regular army. Six months after Penruddock's Uprising, Cromwell introduced direct military government in England and Wales under the Rule of the Major-Generals.


Christopher Durston, John Penruddock, Oxford DNB, 2004

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

Peter Newman, Atlas of the English Civil War (London 1985)

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