Rule of the Major-Generals

The Rule of the Major-Generals, from August 1655 – January 1657,[1] was a period of direct military government during Oliver Cromwell's Protectorate.[2] England and Wales were divided into ten regions;[3] each governed by a major-general who answered to the Lord Protector.

The period quickly "became a convenient and powerful symbol of the military nature of the unpopular Interregnum state".[4]


The Rule of the Major-Generals was set up by Cromwell by his orders to the army, and was not supported by parliamentary legislation. His goal was threefold: to identify, tax, disarm and weaken the Royalists, who he saw as conspirators against his rule. Second, as an economical measure because the military budget had been cut. The major generals would take control of incumbent civilian administrations, and not require an expansion of local military forces. Thirdly, he sought "a reformation of manners" or moral regeneration through the suppression of vice and the encouragement of virtue, which he considered much too neglected. Historian Austin Woolrych, using 21st century terminology, said the Puritans did not consider it inappropriate to "employee senior military officers as vice squad chiefs".[5]

In March 1655 there were ineffectual but concerted Royalist uprisings in England.[6] In late July news of the defeat of the expedition to Hispaniola (commanded by William Penn and Robert Venables), reached London in 1655. Cromwell felt that this defeat was God punishing him for not trying to make England a more religious, godly place.[7][8] So in August a scheme was proposed to introduce the Rule of the Major-Generals, but prevarication and other delays put back the introduction to October of that year.[6]

Like Cromwell, the Major Generals were committed Puritans (Congregationalist reformers with Calvinist leanings). Part of their job was to try to make England more godly. They clamped down on what they considered to be rowdy behaviour (such as heavy drinking, music, dancing and fairs). They even tried to stop Christmas celebrations. Not surprisingly, the rule of the Major Generals was not popular.[7]

Historical legacy

Patrick Little wrote an article on the Major-General (2012) in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. In it he states that:

The religious zeal of the major-generals, coupled with their attempt to impose godly rule on England and Wales, has given them a lasting reputation as po-faced puritans and killjoys, and this reputation has attached itself to the Cromwellian regime as a whole. Few have addressed the subject without emotion ... Others have traced back to this period the English love of freedom and hatred of standing armies and military rule. Modern historians tend to portray the major-generals either as the gauleiters of the Cromwellian military state or as misguided religious zealots.[6]

The Major-Generals and their regions

There were ten regional associations covering England and Wales administered by major-generals. Ireland under Major-General Henry Cromwell,[lower-alpha 1] and Scotland under Major-General George Monck were in administrations already agreed upon and were not part of the scheme.[9]

James BerryAppointed in 1655Herefordshire, Shropshire, Worcestershire and WalesJohn Nicholas in Monmouthshire;
Rowland Dawkins in Carmarthenshire, Cardiganshire, Glamorgan, Pembrokeshire.
William Boteler (Butler) Bedfordshire, Huntingdonshire, Northamptonshire and Rutland Zealous and uncompromising in his hostility to his religious and political enemies, Boteler was a severe persecutor of Quakers in Northamptonshire; in 1656 he advocated that James Nayler should be stoned to death for blasphemy. Boteler was also aggressive in his persecution of Royalists in his area, unlawfully imprisoning the Earl of Northampton for failing to pay his taxes.
John Desborough Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Gloucestershire, Somerset and Wiltshire  
Charles FleetwoodAppointed in 1655Buckinghamshire, Cambridgeshire, Essex, Hertfordshire, Isle of Ely, Norfolk, Oxfordshire and SuffolkGeorge Fleetwood (a distant kinsman) in Buckinghamshire;
Hezekiah Haynes in Essex, Cambridgeshire, Isle of Ely, Norfolk, Suffolk;
William Packer as military governor of Hertfordshire and Oxfordshire
Owing to his other responsibilities on the Council of State, day to day matters in his region were overseen by Fleetwood's three deputies.[9]
William GoffeOctober 1655Berkshire, Hampshire and Sussex  
Thomas Kelsey Surrey and Kent  
John Lambert Cumberland, County Durham, Northumberland, Westmorland and YorkshireCharles Howard in Cumberland, Northumberland, Westmorland;
Robert Lilburne in County Durham, Yorkshire
Owing to his other responsibilities on the Council of State, day to day matters in his region were overseen by Lambert's two deputies.[9]
Philip Skippon Middlesex; including the cities of London and WestminsterSir John BarksteadSkippon was by now elderly, and on the Council of State, so most of the day to day matters in his region were largely undertaken by Barkstead.[9]
Edward Whalley Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire, Warwickshire, 
Charles Worsley;
Tobias Bridge
1655June 1656;
June 1656January 1657
Cheshire, Lancashire and Staffordshire Appointed in October 1655 Worsley was extremely zealous in carrying out his instructions. No one suppressed more alehouses, or was more active in sequestering royalists, preventing horse-races, and carrying on the work of reformation. Worsley died on 12 June 1656,[10] and Tobias Bridge replaced him.


  1. Henry Cromwell was nominally under the Lord Deputy of Ireland, Charles Fleetwood, but Fleetwood's departure for England in September 1655 left Cromwell the ruler of Ireland for all practical purposes.
  1. Little 2007, p. 15.
  2. Bremer & Webster 2006, p. 452.
  3. Royle 2006, p. 698.
  4. Durston 2001, p. 231.
  5. Woolrych 2004, p. 625.
  6. Little 2012.
  7. The National Archives.
  8. Durston 2001, p. 21.
  9. Royle 2006, pp. 698, 699.
  10. Firth 1900, p. 33.


  • Bremer, Francis J.; Webster, Tom (2006), "Major-Generals", Puritans and Puritanism in Europe and America, ABC-CLIO, p. 452, ISBN 978-1-57607-678-1
  • Durston, Christopher (2001), Cromwell's Major-Generals: Godly Government During the English Revolution, Manchester University Press, p. 21, ISBN 978-0-7190-6065-6
  • Little, Paterick (1 January 2007), "Putting the Protector back into the Protectorate", BBC History Magazine, 8 (1): 15
  • Little, Patrick (2012), "Major-generals (act. 1655–1657)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.), Oxford University Press, doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/95468(Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  • Royle, Trevor (2006) [2004], Civil War: The Wars of the Three Kingdoms 1638–1660, Pub Abacus, ISBN 978-0-349-11564-1
  • Woolrych, Austin (2004), Britain in Revolution: 1625-1660, Oxford UP


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