Soldiers of the Apocalypse

In 1661, a group of religious fanatics plotted to butcher Charles II and summon 'King Jesus' down to Earth. Robert Hutchinson tells the story of the Fifth Monarchist insurgency

In the central image, leading Fifth Monarchists are executed on 19 January 1661 following the bloody failure of their uprising. Their leader, Thomas Venner, was hanged, drawn and quartered. (Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)

For four bloody days in 1661, London was terrorised by a suicidal band of Christian zealots attempting to seize England’s capital city in the name of King Jesus. The diarist Samuel Pepys was awakened at 6am on Wednesday 9 January by panic-stricken shouts “that the fanatics were up in arms in the city… I found everybody [with] arms at their doors. So I returned (though with no good courage and that I might not look afraid) and got my sword and pistol [for] which I had no [gun] powder.” He therefore decided to remain indoors that day.

Pepys was prudent: a terrifying slaughter was going on in the heart of the city. A group of armed religious insurgents were rampaging through the narrow streets, defeating efforts by hastily summoned troops to eliminate them. Their fanaticism was bolstered by their belief that bullets could not harm them.

These insurrectionists called themselves ‘Fifth Monarchists’ or ‘visible Saints’, and combined religious and political objectives with radical fundamentalism, derived from narrow interpretations of religious texts.

Their confidence in an imminent apocalyptic ‘Fifth Monarchy’ came from prophecies in the biblical books of Daniel and Revelation. Four empires (the Babylonian, Persian, Greek and Roman) would precede the ‘Fifth Kingdom’, the thousand-year reign of Christ on Earth, lasting from his Second Coming till the Last Trump. This would be heralded by the establishment of a worldwide godly government, the ‘Rule of the Saints’.

The year 1666 held special significance for Fifth Monarchists because of its similarity to Revelation’s ‘Number of the Beast’ (666), which indicated the end of earthly rule by carnal human beings. But first, existing corrupt governments must be overthrown by violence, which is why Samuel Pepys and his fellow Londoners found themselves under attack on 9 January 1661.

Death to lawyers

Having flickered into life in England’s capital in the 1650s, Fifth Monarchism spread like wildfire through southern England into north Wales, East Anglia, Devon and Cornwall. Many Civil War veterans were adherents, including Major General Thomas Harrison, parliamentarian hero of the battles of Knutsford and Worcester in 1651. Several were in Oliver Cromwell’s own Ironsides regiment; another was one of his personal life guard. Cromwell’s navy was also a hotbed.

These men’s political manifesto demanded the destruction of the monarchy and nobility and the privileged classes, especially lawyers. Once the old order had been swept away, the Saints’ theocracy would rule a society where godliness determined status. The judicial system would use the Bible’s Mosaic Code, with offences against God rather than the community. Property belonging to the ‘ungodly’ would be confiscated and distributed to the poor.

Conversion to the Fifth Monarchists’ cause had an immediate impact. When her dog jumped on her bed, one woman was struck speechless with terror, believing that Satan had come to claim her. An 11-year-old girl dreamt of a “burning lake” and saw the “Devil with all his chains”. At least nine members of 20 Fifth Monarchist congregations in London considered attempting – or did attempt – suicide.

Following his victory over royalist forces and the execution of King Charles I, many Fifth Monarchists hailed Oliver Cromwell as a second Moses, who would lead God’s people to their promised land. Their political influence peaked in the Nominated Assembly of 1653 (a ‘parliament’ dominated by army officers), but when this was dissolved and Cromwell was declared ‘lord protector’ of England, Ireland and Scotland, the Saints found themselves increasingly marginalised. Cromwell’s new government was anathema to them, and the erstwhile ‘Second Moses’ was suddenly top of their hitlist.

John Thurloe, Cromwell’s spymaster, warned that Saints held five clandestine meetings in London to organise Cromwell’s  overthrow in April 1657. Their leader was a Devon-born cooper called Thomas Venner.

The Fifth Monarchists planned to attack a troop of cavalry, then march on East Anglia, where they hoped rebels would rally to their flag. A bomb was also to be detonated in the cellar of a London house. The crusade was to start at Mile End Green on the evening of 9 April 1657, but it immediately turned into a fiasco.

Cavalry troopers attacked as the Saints mustered, arrested 20 and seized a substantial cache of arms, hundreds of copies of their manifesto and almost £6,000 in cash. The rebels, it was discovered, had enough weapons for 25,000 men, planned to cut Cromwell’s throat and slaughter the entire nobility. Their leader was immediately thrown into prison.

Muskets and swords

Such a body blow would have proved fatal for many revolutionary movements. Not the Fifth Monarchists. In fact, by 1661 their numbers had swollen to an estimated 30,000 in England and Wales. The extremists among them needed a leader, and the charismatic Thomas Venner – who had been freed in 1659 – again fitted the bill.

On Sunday 6 January 1661, 50 Saints gathered at Venner’s meeting house to collect weapons and armour for the coup d’état: blunderbusses, muskets, swords and halberds.

Venner promised they would be invulnerable to bullets as they were to strike the final blow for ‘King Jesus’. Those opposing them should be killed. Their objective was to destroy “the powers of the Earth” in England: Charles II, his brother James, Duke of York, and General George Monck, Duke of Albermarle. The first strike would be against that symbol of the Anglican church: St Paul’s Cathedral.

Bizarrely, the heavily armed party called at the home of a bookseller called Johnson in St Paul’s churchyard to ask for the cathedral’s keys. When they were refused, they broke in.

The rebels then challenged a passerby: “Who are you for?” When he replied “God and King Charles”, he was shot through the heart and fell dead on the cobbles.

After repulsing 72 musketeers who had been dispatched to quell the affray, the Fifth Monarchists marched onto Aldersgate and, in St Giles’ Cripplegate, killed a constable. They then hid in Kenwood, near Hampstead Heath, but were driven out of the woods by troops.

Samuel Pepys heard of the insurrection the next morning: “A great stir in the city by the fanatics, who killed six or seven men, but all are fled. My lord mayor and the whole City had been in arms, above 40,000.” London was now in lockdown. Returning from Twelfth Night celebrations, Pepys was “strictly examined” at “many places… there being great fears of these fanatics”.

The Saints returned to the City at dawn on Wednesday 9 January. Venner repeated his pledge that “No weapons employed against them would prosper, nor a hair on their heads be touched”. (Government troops also believed the Saints had magic or poisoned bullets as “It was observed that all they shot, though ever so slightly wounded, died”.)

Venner, wearing a steel morion helmet, and carrying a halberd, took some Fifth Monarchists to the Comptor gaol in Wood Street and demanded that its prisoners be freed “or else [the gaolers] were dead men”. But, with all available forces in London now mobilised – including 700 Life Guard cavalry and Albemarle’s infantry regiment – the net was tightening around the Fifth Monarchists. And when a cavalry detachment charged at them, Venner fell badly wounded and his two lieutenants were killed.

Ten Saints then broke into the Blue Anchor ale house near the city walls for a last stand. Musketeers fought their way up the stairs, broke through a barricaded door and shot six, as soldiers sniped through holes in the roof tiles. Twenty-two Saints died in the street fighting, and another 20 were taken prisoner. Venner killed three soldiers and sustained 19 wounds before his capture. A woman was detained dressed “all in armour”.

Pepys was astonished at how so few desperate men could bring London to a standstill. “These fanatics that have done all this – routed all the Trained Bands; put the king’s Life Guards to the run, broke through the city gates twice – are… in all about 31.”

The surviving rebels were tried for high treason on 17 January at the Old Bailey. Venner was one of two men hanged, drawn and quartered; the others were hanged and then beheaded.

Hanged or transported

Unfortunately for Charles II, the Fifth Monarchist cause didn’t die with Venner. In fact, the king’s secret service spent much of the following decade trying to defeat numerous conspiracies hatched by the Saints and their nonconformist allies. In 1662 there was

a plot to kidnap the king and his brother in an attack on Whitehall Palace on All Hallows’ Eve. The Tower was to be seized and a sergeant and a gunner at Windsor Castle were suborned as a first step to capturing that too. Three years later, there was another Fifth Monarchist plan to kill Charles II and set London ablaze.

But by the end of Charles’s reign, the imprisonment of their leaders had weakened the Saints’ threat. Their movement was also dying, mainly because the apocalypse had not come. Many Fifth Monarchists fought for the Duke of Monmouth in his uprising against England’s new king, James II and VII, in 1685. Venner’s eldest son, Thomas, a cashiered army officer, was lieutenant colonel in Monmouth’s regiment and was wounded in a skirmish at Bridport, Dorset on 14 June. After Monmouth’s defeat at Sedgemoor, many Fifth Monarchists were hanged or transported. Venner junior escaped retribution having gone to the Netherlands to buy munitions.

The last popular manifestation of belief in the imminent apocalypse was in the unlikely surroundings of Water Stratford in Buckinghamshire. The Reverend John Mason, rector of St Giles’ Church, had accused Charles II of surrendering to the Beast and warned of the Second Coming. In 1694, he had a vision of Christ, who revealed that ‘New Jerusalem’ was to be his parish. The revelation galvanised the neighbourhood. Scores of people gathered in the village, many camping out in tents on a field across the river Ouse, renamed ‘Mount Pleasant’. Henry Maurice, rector of Tyringham, found Mason’s home full of disciples “running up and down”, their prayers “as loud as their throats gave them leave, till they were quite spent and black in the face”.

Mason predicted that after his death, he would be resurrected on the third day and his body carried up into heaven. He died the following month, and was buried on 22 May 1694. His followers refused to believe that he had not risen again: some claimed they had spoken to him after his death. The new rector was forced to exhume Mason’s remains as grisly proof that he really was dead.

This did not persuade his followers and they continued to squat on the ‘Holy Ground’ until they were dispersed by militia 15 years later.

Robert Hutchinson OBE is a historian and fellow of the Society of Antiquaries. His books include The Audacious Crimes of Colonel Blood and The Spanish Armada (both Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

Cooper, soldier, spy

Two leading Fifth Monarchists and a spook who attempted to foil them…

Thomas Venner, 1608–61

The leader of the two abortive Fifth Monarchist insurrections was the barrel-maker Thomas Venner, born in Littleham, Devon. By 1633, he had moved to London, and was associated with ‘Praise-God Barebones’, a charismatic Fifth Monarchist preacher.

Venner emigrated to Salem, Massachusetts, where he was a constable in 1642. He then moved to Boston, serving in the city’s artillery militia, before returning to England in October 1651, with his wife Alice and three children under 10.

Venner was employed until 1655 as a cooper at the Tower of London when he was sacked after being suspected of plotting to blow up the fortress. Venner became chief preacher of a Fifth Monarchist congregation in Swan Alley in the City of London.

After the failure of the rebellion against Cromwell, he was imprisoned until 1659 and executed after the rising of 1661.

Major General Thomas Harrison, 1606–60

Harrison was a Fifth Monarchist leader who opposed Cromwell’s elevation to lord protector, a stance that saw him dismissed from the army and imprisoned four times during the Protectorate.

He was one of the regicides who signed Charles I’s death warrant in 1649 and the first to be executed at the Restoration. On the way to being hanged, drawn and quartered, a spectator taunted: “Where is your Good Old Cause now?” Harrison “clapped his hand on his breast and retorted: ‘Here it is and I go to seal it with my blood.’”

The old soldier warned that “he was sure to come shortly at the right hand of Christ to judge them that had judged him”. Half-dead, Harrison was about to be hacked into quarters but struggled to his feet and boxed the executioner’s ears before being dispatched.

John Thurloe, 1616–68

Thurloe was Cromwell’s secretary of state and, from early 1654, his spymaster, whose network of agents enabled him to destroy every plot to assassinate the lord protector. He was also postmaster general from 1655, which allowed him to intercept letters and monitor sedition by groups like the Fifth Monarchists. In May 1660, on the restoration of the monarchy, he was arrested for high treason but released to become a behind-the-scenes adviser to Charles II’s government on intelligence and foreign affairs.

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A portrait of Thurloe by Thomas Ross was acquired by the Government Art Collection in 2007. It now adorns the office of ‘C’ – the director general of MI6 in the spy agency’s headquarters at Vauxhall Cross.