A rebel to the last, and a man who led the last resistance to the Restoration, his vision of the Rule of the Major-Generals – although it didn’t work, in the end – was a massively progressive piece of thinking away from the idea of one absolute monarch, towards dividing England into military districts ruled by Army Major Generals who answered only to Cromwell. The 15 major generals and deputy major generals—called “godly governors”—werecentral not only to national security, but Cromwell’s crusade to reform the nation’s morals. The generals not only supervised militia forces and security commissions, but collected taxes and ensured support for the government in the English and Welsh provinces. Commissioners for securing the peace of the commonwealth were appointed to work with them in every county. While a few of these commissioners were career politicians, most were zealous puritans who welcomed the major-generals with open arms and embraced their work with enthusiasm. However, the major-generals lasted less than a year. Many feared they threatened their reform efforts and authority. Their position was further harmed by a tax proposal to provide financial backing for their work, which the second Protectorate parliament—instated in September 1656—voted down for fear of a permanent military state.
I think when we look at that proposal, we have to see past the words “military state” and see just what he had in mind: an unprecedented move away from the arbitrary whims of one unrepresentative individual, unconnected to the districts he governed. Lambert was opposed to the idea of a civilian government, as well as to a monarchy, but there is no indication, ever, that he was interested in personal advancement for his own ends, or in the military dictatorship that Cromwell is often suspected of. My guess is that Lambert was a man who’d seen civilian government in action, seen royal rule, and seen Army discipline – and he preferred Army discipline. It worked. You knew where you were, and where to go if it went wrong. It was a fundamentally-flawed, unpopular vision, and in the end it failed. But when you consider that prior to the Civil Wars there’d never been any other system of goverment but rule by a monarchy, to even look at functional alternatives was a massively progressive move. Yay Lambert.
John Lambert was born on 7th September 1619, at Calton Hall, in the parish of Kirkby-Malhamdale in Skipton. He was the younger son of Josias Lambert (d.1632) by his second wife, Anne Heber. The Lambert family was of ancient lineage and well established in Yorkshire, but Josias had fallen into debt, perhaps because of a slump in wool prices on which the family wealth depended.
Josias struggled to restore the family fortunes, but seems to have failed. John was probably educated at Cambridge and the Inns of Court, although he never practised law. In 1639, he married Frances, the daughter of Sir William Lister, who remained a close and influential helper throughout his career.
On the outbreak of the English Civil War, Lambert joined Parliament’s Northern Association army under Ferdinando, Lord Fairfax and quickly rose to the rank of colonel. He fought at the siege of Hull in 1643, and was with Sir Thomas Fairfax at the battle of Nantwich in January 1644. Sir Thomas sent Lambert with a column of troops back across the Pennines to seize Bradford in March 1644. After defeating a counter-attack by Colonel Belasyse, Lambert secured Bradford as a second base for the Yorkshire Parliamentarians, along with Hull. In April 1644, Lambert joined forces with the Fairfaxes and Sir John Meldrum for an attack on Selby that forced the Yorkshire Royalists to withdraw to York. He was second-in-command of the Yorkshire horse at the battle of Marston Moor (July 1644). Lambert’s cavalry were on the Parliamentarian right wing, which was routed by Lieutenant-General Goring, but Lambert and a few steadfast troopers remained with Sir Thomas Fairfax when he forced his way through the Royalist lines to join Cromwell on the victorious Parliamentarian left flank.
When Fairfax was appointed captain-general of the New Model Army in 1645, Lambert took command of the Northern Association. However, his political involvement began when he worked with Henry Ireton in framing the treaty negotiations at Truro, Exeter and Oxford. He continued his association with Ireton during 1647, being active in organising the protests against Parliament’s plans to disband part of the Army and send the rest to Ireland and in July 1647 he was one of the officers appointed to draw up charges against the Eleven Members, who were driven from Parliament when the Army occupied London. Lambert was also involved in the Army’s negotiations with the King, collaborating with Ireton in framing the Army’s Heads of the Proposals.
In July 1647, soldiers of the Northern Association, in solidarity with the New Model, seized their commander, the Presbyterian Major-General Poyntz, and sent him to Fairfax as a prisoner. Lambert was ordered back to his old command to replace Poyntz. Already well-known and popular with the northern troops, he quickly restored order and discipline. On the outbreak of the Second Civil War, he continued to hold the North until the fall of Pontefract Castle in 1649, so that he did not hold any direct role in the trial and execution of Charles I.
With the ending of the civil wars on the mainland of Britain, Lambert became actively involved in civilian politics as well as maintaining his military commands. He was one of the eight commissioners appointed to supervise the settlement of Scotland in October 1651. After the death of Henry Ireton, Parliament nominated Lambert to succeed him as Lord-Deputy in Ireland—but while he was preparing to leave for Ireland in May 1652, Parliament reorganised the Irish administration and voted to abolish the office of Lord-Deputy. Lambert refused the offer of a lesser appointment and Charles Fleetwood went to Ireland in his place. After this, Lambert became an active opponent of the Rump Parliament. Apart from his disappointment over Ireland, he shared the impatience of fellow army officers over Parliament’s lethargy in formulating a permanent form of government.
Lambert fully supported Cromwell when he forcibly dissolved Parliament in April 1653. In the constitutional discussions that followed the dissolution, Lambert proposed a small executive council to govern the nation, with powers limited by a written constitution. Lambert’s proposal was passed over in favour of the Nominated Assembly or “Parliament of Saints” proposed by Major-General Harrison. Lambert declined a place in the Assembly and worked to undermine it. He collaborated with the moderates who organised the abdication of the Assembly’s powers to Cromwell in December 1653. Furthermore, Lambert sent troops to subdue the protests of the radicals and to drive them from the Parliament House. He had already drafted the Instrument of Government—the written constitution that defined Cromwell’s powers as Lord Protector—and he came to play a major role in the Protectorate through his energetic participation in key offices and committees. He was widely regarded as the probable successor as Lord Protector in the event of Cromwell’s death.
After the failure of the First Protectorate Parliament in 1655, Lambert proposed the imposition of direct military government under the Rule of the Major-Generals. He was appointed Major-General of a large area of northern England, with his seat of government at York, but he preferred to remain at the centre of power in London and delegated the administration of his districts to his deputies Robert Lilburne (the Leveller leader John’s elder brother) and Charles Howard. However, a rift was developing between Lambert and Cromwell. They disagreed over the advisability of a war with Spain in 1654; Lambert’s position was further undermined by the refusal of the Second Protectorate Parliament to grant taxes to finance the government of the Major-Generals, which led Cromwell to abandon the system early in 1657. The final split with Cromwell was over the terms of the Humble Petition and Advice. Lambert opposed moves towards a wholly civilian form of government and led the Army’s opposition to Cromwell’s acceptance of the offer of the Crown. He refused to take the oath of loyalty when Cromwell was installed as Lord Protector for life and was ordered to resign his commissions in July 1657. Lambert retired to his house in Wimbledon with his wife and ten children, where he devoted himself to gardening and artistic pursuits.
After the death of Oliver Cromwell, Lambert – now elected MP for Pontefract – supported Cromwell’s successor, his son Richard, but the Major-Generals Fleetwood and Disbrowe forced the dissolution of Parliament in April 1659. However, they were unable to prevent the recall of the old Rump Parliament which re-assembled a month later and forced Richard’s resignation. Lambert was re-appointed to his commands in the Army. As Parliament’s most capable commander, he was sent against the Royalist rebellion led by Sir George Booth in August 1659. Lambert’s veterans easily defeated Booth’s rebel army, and he avoided unnecessary bloodshed by allowing the Royalists to disperse and forbidding his cavalry from pursuing them.
Parliament voted Lambert a £1,000 jewel as a reward for his services, which he used to pay his troops. His officers took up Fleetwood’s submission to Parliament that Lambert should be re-appointed to the rank of major-general, along with calls for godly reform, a Senate to limit the House of Commons and for no officer to be cashiered without a court martial. However, the republicans remained suspicious of Lambert’s motives, and in September 1659, there were moves to have him dismissed. In an attempt to assert its authority over the Army, Parliament revoked the commissions of nine senior officers, including Lambert, in October 1659. The Council of Officers responded by resolving to expel Parliament and on 13 October, regiments loyal to Lambert encircled the approaches to Parliament and prevented MPs from sitting.
The Committee of Safety was reinstated to rule as an interim government and Lambert was restored to the rank of major-general. Meanwhile, Hesilrige appealed to other army generals to support Parliament against Lambert and his followers. General Monck, commander-in-chief in Scotland, declared that he was ready to uphold Parliament’s authority. Lambert marched north against Monck with around 12,000 troops, reaching Newcastle in mid-November 1659 where he was delayed for several weeks while the Committee of Safety negotiated with Monck’s representatives for a peaceful solution to the crisis.
In southern England, Arthur Hesilrige seized the Portsmouth garrison and demanded the return of Parliament. The republican vice-admiral John Lawson sailed the Channel fleet to Gravesend and threatened to blockade London, while riots broke out in the city against the military régime. In mid-December, the Committee of Safety dissolved itself and Fleetwood was obliged to recall the Rump Parliament. Lambert tried to march south in an attempt to regain control of the situation but his unpaid troops were reluctant to fight. When Lord Fairfax declared his support for Monck, Lambert’s forces disintegrated. Offered a general indemnity, Lambert submitted and was placed under house arrest. In March 1660, he was ordered to London to appear before the Council of State. Unable to meet the impossibly high security of £20,000 that was demanded of him, he was imprisoned in the Tower of London.
Lambert made a desperate attempt to resist the approaching Restoration. He escaped from the Tower in April 1660 and issued a proclamation calling on all supporters of the “Good Old Cause” to rally on the battlefield of Edgehill on Easter Day 1660 from where he planned to advance on Oxford and to join forces with rebels from the south and west. The response to Lambert’s call-to-arms was sporadic. Edmund Ludlow plotted an uprising in Wiltshire, cavalry units from the Midlands and Yorkshire rode to join him, several garrisons declared for Lambert and uprisings of civilian republicans were reported in Somerset, Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire. However, before Lambert could gather all his forces, however, he was confronted near Daventry on Easter Day, 22 April 1660, by troops sent by Monck under the command of Colonel Ingoldsby, a regicide who hoped to win a pardon by recapturing Lambert. When Ingoldsby prepared to attack, Lambert’s small army defected or fled. Lambert was ignominiously taken prisoner by Ingoldsby himself when his Arab charger became bogged down in a muddy field. The following day he was brought back to London. After being forced to stand beneath the Tyburn gallows, he was returned to the Tower.
Aged 40 at the Restoration, Lambert spent the rest of his life in prison. He was brought to trial alongside Sir Henry Vane in June 1662, accused of high treason. Although sentenced to death, Lambert appealed to the King’s mercy and the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. He was moved from the Tower to Castle Cornet on Guernsey, and finally to Drake’s Island in Plymouth Sound. Frances Lambert took a house in Plymouth and visited him when permitted, but after her death in 1676, Lambert lapsed into insanity. He died in February 1684 at the age of 64, having spent the last 24 years of his life in prison.
A tragic, lonely end, for a man who deserves to be better known.