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6  Revolution and Counter-revolution 1647 - 1660

Political Counter-Revolution, 1647-48

The precarious victory of the radical 'Independent' faction in the House of Commons in 1645 permitted the enactment of some decisive war measures. Conservative aristocrats were excluded from the military command, and a national army, the 'New Model Army', was formed under the leadership of Sir Thomas Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell. But as the War was being won, the nation was becoming tired of the emergency measures which it had been forced to bear — high taxation, arbitrary bureaucracy and so forth. In the autumn of 1646 a series of bye-elections produced a majority in the House of Commons for the more conservative 'Presbyterians'.

     In the spring of 1647 Parliament attempted to disband the Army while only paying part of its great arrears of pay. This brought about the revolt and politicization of the Army. Over the past year the so-called 'Leveller' party had emerged in London and the Army. The soldiers and junior officers now elected representatives called 'agitators' to put their demands to the civilian authorities and the Army command. Through these agents, and under Leveller inspiration, they not only called for the payment of all their arrears but also adopted a programme for the broadening of the Parliamentary franchise and other democratic reforms. The Army leaders, while taking a more conservative line, decided to 'stay in the saddle' by putting themselves at the head of this movement.

     The Presbyterian-controlled Parliament retreated in the face of this pressure, even conceding the Army's demand that it expel eleven of its most conservative members. But late in July a 'counter-revolutionary' mob of London apprentices, watermen and seamen marched on Parliament. They had the backing of the City government, by now back in conservative — Presbyterian — hands. The mob brought with them a petition calling for the unconditional restoration of the King and the re-admission of the excluded MPs. After besieging the Lords, they actually invaded the House of Commons. Keeping their hats on — a great insult to their social superiors — they demanded that the Commons register approval of their petition, insolently shouting 'Vote! Vote!'. The Presbyterian majority approved of the petition's contents, if not of the manner in which it was presented, and Parliament adopted it as a resolution. London was now in the hands of militant counter-revolution. A contemporary observer noted that, under the inspiration of the Army's example (but with opposing intent) 'the prentices, watermen and seamen [were] governing all in effect by their agitators'. [1]

     These actions provoked the Army to march on and occupy London. The Presbyterians caved in and the measures were revoked. But no further drastic action was taken against the conservatives at this time. Later in the year, Cromwell and the other Army leaders got the better of the radicals in the Army ...

     There had been a remarkable turn-around in the watermen's political attitudes since the beginning of the Revolution. It may be speculated that disillusionment with their early experience of 'democracy' had contributed to this change. Not all watermen shared these attitudes, as we shall see. Nevertheless the events of 1647 set the pattern for the following year.

     Although imprisoned by Parliament after the Civil War, Charles was still regarded as king by most Parliamentarians. Overt republicanism was still something of an 'underground' idea. Parliament, and now the Army command, were involved in continuing negotiations with him for a political settlement, but as usual Charles was reluctant to compromise. Besides, Charles now saw that he might take advantage of the dissentions in the enemy camp. The Scots had been Parliament's allies in the War. But this friendship had broken down as a result of, amongst other things, Scots disillusionment with the Parliamentarian failure to adopt the strict Presbyterianism that had been one of the conditions of the Scottish alliance. Charles played the game both ways by entering into secret negotiations with the Scots. In July 1648 the Scots invaded England once more, this time against Parliament. There was also an ill-co÷rdinated series of local Royalist revolts in England and Wales. Divided they fell. While Cromwell defeated the Scots, the local revolts were mopped up by other Parliamentarian forces.

     Two revolts that were potentially threatening, at the time, were those in Kent and in the Navy in May to June. Both endangered the Parliamentarian nerve-centre of London by their sheer proximity. Moreover the two revolts were close to one another, and the Kentish revolters helped the Navy rebels. As it turned out, the revolt in Kent was soon put down. The Navy revolt was provoked by the appointment of the landman and ex-Leveller leader Colonel Rainsborough as commander of the Navy. The crews of nine ships revolted, a smallish proportion of the naval forces, but the authorities were alarmed by the ease with which this had happened, and feared that discontent on board other ships might lead it to become more widespread. Only timely action by them prevented this happening. The revolt occurred in the Downs, the Navy's base in the Thames estuary, and the sailors soon declared their support for the Royalist cause. For a time the threat loomed of a blockade or even bombardment of London, but eventually the tide, so to speak, turned against the mutineers and they sailed for Holland.

     Royalist watermen were implicated in both the Kentish revolt and the naval mutiny. [2] Nowell Warner, the King's bargemaster, was at the forefront. A native of Greenwich, he was well-placed to intervene in both revolts. In July the government, hearing that Warner 'and one Mr Arthur' were 'great promoters of disaffection' amongst the seamen, ordered their apprehension and the seizure of the arms they held. At the same time it received news that the seamen and watermen were planning to come to Parliament in great numbers under guise of petitioning, and with 'pinnaces and longboats armed', to intimidate it. It ordered the City government to take care to prevent such disorders. [3]

     In the event a petition, in the name of the watermen, was peacefully presented to the House of Lords. It was similar in tone and content to the petition of 1647. The petition stated that the watermen, 'twenty thousand in family', were 'all undone and like to perish by reason of his Majesty's absence from us'. It called for the unconditional return of the King. The Lords thanked the watermen for their concern, assuring them they had not been wanting in their efforts to bring negotiations with the King to a successful conclusion. [4]

     The petition still survives in the archives of the House of Lords. As a rough count shows, it has about two thousand names attached to it, a figure which would represent at the very least half the watermen. However, there are no signatures or marks on the document, and thus there is no guarantee that all those whose names are appended approved (or even knew) of their inclusion. [5] (In addition some of the names are repeated several times.) We should also note the existence of the faction calling itself 'the well-affected watermen' in 1648-49 (though we know nothing of its size), to realize that by no means all the watermen were royalist by the later 1640s. (Note also the attitude of some Greenwich watermen, who hooted and pelted defeated Kentish rebels when they fled into the town. [6])

     Be that as it may, many prominent watermen were for the King. First among the names were Nowell Warner and Robert Bursey, both Greenwich men, who were thus probably the petition's organizers. It is surprising to see how many of even the post-revolutionary rulers' names were on the petition. Bursey had been a ruler in 1642, as also Hugh Dutton (who was nevertheless a royal waterman). ... [7]

     After the execution of the King in 1649, the republican regime ordered that the watermen named on the petition be noted for prosecution. [8] It seems, however, improbable that the government would have undertaken the prosecution of such a multitude of people.

The Watermen Under the Commonwealth, 1649-58

The willingness of the majority in Parliament to continue negotiating with the King, in spite of his objuracy on key constitutional issues, caused a radical section of the Independents to lose patience with them. In December 1648 Colonel Thomas Pride, acting for the Army and the Parliamentary radicals, barred a large number of moderate MPs from Parliament. Others withdrew of their own accord. This coup, subsequently termed 'Pride's Purge', paved the way for the trial and execution of the King (January 1649). A republic, the 'Commonwealth', was established, led by the now Independent-dominated residual or 'Rump' Parliament. The House of Lords was abolished in March. A Council of State was set up as the executive arm of government, with Oliver Cromwell as its first president. Cromwell was not yet, however, the dominant political leader of the nation.

     But the failure of the Rump to implement constitutional reforms led to its overthrow in a new military coup, this time instigated by Cromwell himself, in March 1653. After the failure of a nine-month experiment in government by a group of religious radicals, a 'Protectorate' was established, with power now shared between a Lord Protector (Cromwell), a new Council of State and a new Parliament (the latter being purged of royalists and other unsuitable persons). After an attempted royalist uprising in 1655, the country was put under military rule, and divided up into regions, each governed by a major-general. But in 1657 Cromwell ended this experiment too, and a new constitution, with a strengthened Protectorship, was inaugurated. It has been described as 'a monarchy without a monarch', [9] but Parliament gained greater powers too.

(a) The State's Watermen
After the execution of the King, the royal watermen were dismissed and paid off. [10] A few, however, were re-employed as watermen to the Commonwealth Council of State, and subsequently to Lord Protector Cromwell.

     The bulk of the State's watermen were new appointees. Some of them, of course, may have previously served the officers of the Parliamentarian regime, but in 1649 they officially replaced the royal watermen. Initially a bargemaster and twenty-one watermen were assigned to the Council of State. [11] The numbers of watermen were gradually increased as the 1650s wore on; to twenty-five in 1655 and twenty-nine by 1658. [12] In 1650 an assistant bargemaster was appointed. [13] The bargemaster's salary was first fixed at £60 per annum, 'as his predecessors had', but this was later raised to £80 a year. [14] His deputy was to receive £20 per annum, and the rest of the watermen, £4. [15] The salaries were payable quarterly. Richard Nutt was the bargemaster, and Thomas Washborne his deputy.

     Having decided that it would have watermen in the manner of the King, the government also elected to have barges in the royal style. The Master of Ceremonies recommended

That two barges may be had, one of state and rich, with arms and other ornaments, and a second, for more ordinary occasions, the bargemasters and watermen also to wear livery. [16]
This requirement was met in practice simply by commandeering the old royal barges. [17]

     Bargemaster Nutt was responsible for transporting visiting dignitaries. In the years 1653-57 the Genoan, Venetian, Spanish and Swedish ambassadors partook of his services. [18]

(b) Royalist Conspirators?
In November 1654 the waterman Thomas Bray was caught carrying four barrels of gunpowder in his boat, 'for which he will give no satisfactory account'. [19] This discovery led to a revealing naval investigation. Powder, shot and other supplies were found to have been embezzled from the naval stores at Chatham. Several seamen were involved, and also another waterman, Christopher Hill, who had received a great deal of stolen munitions over the past three years. Hill pleaded his ignorance of the source of the gunpowder, saying he believed it came from enemy ships taken as prizes. [20] But a witness claimed that Hill had made several thousand pounds from the trade, a vast fortune for a waterman. [21]

     There may have been more to the affair than simple dishonesty. The winter of 1654-55 was a time of revived royalist conspiracy. The Sealed Knot and the Action party tried to take advantage of the seamen's discontent, which came to a head in October 1654. But the sailors were pacified with generous pay rises. [22] When Penruddock finally staged his uprising in Wiltshire in March 1655, it was a fiasco. But it is interesting to speculate that watermen were once again involved in the King's (now Charles II's) cause, and were perhaps supplying the royalists with the Cromwellian state's own munitions. Thomas Bray and Christopher Hill knew each other, being neighbours in Greenwich. Hill had been a royal waterman and a signatory to the royalist petition of 1648. [23]

The Watermen at the End of the English Revolution, 1659-60

The puritan Protectorate was maintained by the will of its leader, Oliver Cromwell. The early days of godly reform under the Commonwealth had gradually given way to disillusionment and the godly government had become increasingly a holding operation. When Oliver died in 1658 he was suceeded by his easy-going son Richard. Richard Cromwell had no enthusiasm for the task, and in March 1659 he was overthrown by the hitherto-loyal Protectorate generals, Fleetwood and Lambert. The military men could think of no better solution than to reinstate the Rump Parliament. Anarchy began increasingly to raise its head. Popular disturbances and religious radicalism began to re-emerge. In October Lambert and other dissatisfied army leaders overthrew the Rump and attempted direct military rule. Their regime lasted two months before itself being overthrown by another military leader, the moderate general George Monck.

     In the summer of 1659 the City government was expressing concern about the 'abuses' committed by the 'low watermen' of the Thames. We are not told the exact nature of these 'abuses', but in November the Court of Aldermen also heard complaint about the Thames lightermen, who were working with unlawful 'Engines and Instruments' to the damage of the river and its stocks of fish. The latter had now 'grown so rude and insolent that the water bailiff and other officers of Justice have been beaten off to the great peril of their lives, and cannot execute their warrants'. The Aldermen decided to ask the military authorities for some soldiers to assist the bailiff. No further complaint was heard of the lightermen. But, as late as January 1661, the Aldermen were still hearing of the 'daily mischiefs' of the 'low watermen'. [24]

     After Lambert's October coup, Monck, the leader of the Parliamentarian forces in Scotland, marched south to restore law and order. But the military regime was collapsing of its own accord, and with it the radicalism of the English Revolution. Monck was not himself an overt monarchist, but the trend was now increasingly in a conservative direction. Firstly the Rump was restored, and then the 'Presbyterian' MPs, who had been expelled in 1648, were allowed back. They had never been republican, and after their return they dominated the Parliament. Some of the military, motivated in part by arrears of pay, went over to the new regime. Colonel Nathaniel Whetham, commander of the Portsmouth garrison, was the first to do so. He was a republican who, though employed by the Cromwellian regime, nevertheless disapproved of military dictatorship. He did not wish for the return of a king, and opposed the re-admission of the Presbyterians. Whetham, allying himself with some of the watermen, wrote a petition in their name in support of the Rump.

     This petition, the 'Humble Address and Congratulation of Many Thousands of Watermen Belonging to the Thames', expressed concern at the return of the excluded MPs. Kings and Lords were a Norman imposition, it said, but the Rump's endeavours for freedom (in 1649-53) had been 'interrupted by that Apostate and Tyrant Oliver [Cromwell], who introduceth a more absolute Monarchy than before'. The Address expressed hope at the return of a 'free Parliament', and stated that it had been signed by most of the watermen. [25] It was presented to Parliament on 31 January 1660, and received the latter's 'hearty thanks'. Three of the rulers for that year, Thomas Price, Augustus Williams and Christopher Parker, had supported and promoted it.

     However, it turned out, many of the names on the petition had been obtained under pretence that the petition was one against Hackney coaches, a fact which infuriated those who had been so tricked. These watermen approached William Prynne, one of the Presbyterian MPs, to write a counter-petition on their behalf disclaiming Whetham's Address. On 2 February a large number of watermen presented the resulting petition to Parliament. [26]

     The return of monarchy was imminent. In March 1660, upon the complaint of some of the watermen, that they were 'hindered and assaulted' by other watermen who had supported the Address, the Court of Aldermen issued orders to suppress the latter. On 22 May, Price, Williams and Parker were expelled from their rulerships for having promoted the Address. [27]



1. The Tower of London Letter Book of Sir Lewis Dyves, Bedfordshire Historical Record Society, vol. 38/9 (1958-59), p.75.

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2. Alan Everitt, The Community of Kent and the Great Rebellion, 1640 - 1660 (Leicester University Press, 1966), p.252; but cf. p.262.

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3. CSPD 1648-49, pp.181, 189, 190, 192.Back to text

4. Lords Journal, X, pp.384, 385; cf. Commons Journal, V, pp.639-40. Back to text

5. A case of name-faking is known in a petition of 1659-60. See below. Back to text

6. Transactions of the Greenwich and Lewisham Antiquarian Society, VI (1983), p.224. Back

7. Lords MSS, Parchment Collection, 18 July 1648. Back to text

8. Commons Journal, VI, p.145 (17 Feb. 1648/9). Back to text

9. Maurice Ashley, England in the Seventeenth Century (Hutchinson edition, 1978), p.111.

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10. . SP 17/21, no fol., towards back of volume, a list of 70 royal watermen who received sums of 20s. 'acquittance' money each, 18 Jan. 1649/50, upon a warrant of 20 Dec. 1649.

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11. CSPD 1649-50, p.298.
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12. CSPD 1655, p.128; CSPD 1657-58, p.265. Back to text

13. CSPD 1649-50, p.481. Back to text

14. CSPD 1649-50, p.474; CSPD 1651-52, p.1. Back to text

15. CSPD 1649-50, pp.426, 481. Back to text

16. CSPD 1649-50, p.117. Back to text

17. HMC, Fifth Report, p.82b; cf. CSPD 1649-50, p.154. Back to text

18. CSPD 1652-53, pp.391, 602, 604; CSPD 1655-56, pp.544, 586; CSPD 1656-57, p.265. Back

19. SP 18/90, fo.84a. See CSPD 1654, p.569. Back to text

20. SP 18/105, fo.215a; /109, fo.185a. See CSPD 1655, pp.446, 488. Back to text


21. *? Back to text

22. David Underdown, Royalist Conspiracy in England 1649 - 1660 (Archon Press, USA, 1971), pp.124-5.

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23. Transactions of the Greenwich and Lewisham Antiquarian Society, VI (1963), p.55; PRO, LC 3/1, fo.12a; SP 17/21 (towards end of volume); Lords MSS, 18 July 1648, parchment collection. See Appendix 3, Bray, Thomas; Hill, Christopher.

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24 . Rep. 66, fos.254b-255a, 281a; Rep. 67, fos.9b, 188b. Back to text

25. BL, Thomason Tracts, 669.f.23(28). Back to text

26. The printed version is A Declaration of All the Watermen ... or, a Hue and Cry After Col. Whitton and His Decoys [*? date].

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27. Rep. 67, fos.56b, 82a. Back to text


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