Today in London’s Rebel History: Thomas Venner’s Fifth Monarchist Insurrection

King Jesus, and the Heads Upon the Gate!

“1660:‑ The King had not been many days at Whitehall, when one Venner, a violent fifth‑monarchy man, who thought it was not enough to believe that Christ was to reign on earth, and to put the saints in the possession of the kingdom, (an opinion that they were all unspeakably fond of,) but added to this, that the saints were to take the kingdom them­selves. He gathered some of the most furious of the party to a meeting in Coleman‑street. There they concerted the day and the manner of their rising to set Christ on his throne, as they called it.. But withal they meant to manage the government in his name; and were so formal, that they had prepared standards and colours with their devices on them, and furnished themselves with very good arms. But when the day came, there was but a small appearance, not exceeding twenty. However they resolved to venture out into the streets, and cry out, No king but Christ. Some of them seemed persuaded that Christ would come down, and head them.
They scoured the streets before them, and made a great progress. Some were afraid, and all were amazed at this piece of extravagance. They killed a great many, but were at last mastered by numbers: and were all either killed, or taken and executed.‑”
Bishop Burner, The History of His Own Times.

In January 1661, Thomas Venner led a violent insurrection of fifth monarchists to overthrow the restored Stuart monarchy. According to some reports there were just fifty, or less, of the budding revolutionaries… It’s not how many there are of you, it’s how much madder you are than your enemy…

The Fifth Monarchy movement arose in 1651 in the wake of the English Revolution. The ‘Saints’ were millenarians, who held that the overthrow of king Charles I was only the beginning of a struggle that would end with the events of the Book of Revelations coming to pass, and the kingdom of heaven being built on earth. They held that there should be no king but king Jesus: this was to be the Fifth Monarchy, after the four previous great empires, all seen as rotten and ungodly.

The Fifth Monarchists were not an egalitarian movement, they believed like many of their contemporaries in the reign of the “godly”. However there were significant elements among them who aimed at major reforms, some were moving towards revolutionary beliefs including a number who who saw in the Fifth Monarchy the destruction of all earthly authority, and the levelling of rich and poor. The main plank of the movement that separated them out from the millenarian ideas of the 1640s was the belief that the Second Coming wouldn’t just happen, but had to be ushered in by political and even violent insurrectionary action. (Others however were acting as informers against radical movements like the Levellers… the Fifth Monarchist movement was very much a broad church…)

The Fifth Monarchists aimed at the destruction of tithes, as they supported the national church, which they wanted to dis-establish. They demanded reform of the law, an end to lawyers; freedom for preaching in public places. They attacked army officers who had grown rich on forfeited property from the wars.

About twelve Fifth Monarchists sat in the Barebones Parliament, and forming alliances with other religious radicals, struggled to bring in their reforms. They voted against tithes in November 1653, which their opponents saw as the start of an attack on property, in the tradition of the Munster Anabaptists. The moderates therefore in December resigned their power to Cromwell, who abolished Parliament. Cromwell had been associated with the Fifth Monarchists, and many on the movement had seen him as a kind of mini-Messiah; but from this point he began to repress the movement. (His history of enlisting support from the Levellers to act against the royalists and moderate parliaments, then crushing them, suggested he wasn’t above using the Fifth Monarchists in this way also.)

After the fall of Barebones, the Movement went into opposition… Preachers were arrested, sympathisers in the army were purged or arrested. In 1654, there were rumours of a conspiracy of Levellers, Fifth Monarchists, Commonwealthsmen & even royalists against the government. Followers of Fifth Monarchist preacher Vavasor Powell in Wales prepared for armed insurrection in 1654… Meanwhile, imprisoned preachers Feake & Rogers were preaching through the windows of their cells & subverting their jailers at Windsor.

Thomas Venner and other Fifth Monarchists met and preached in Swan Alley, just off Coleman Street, near Moorgate – then the stronghold of the most radical non-conformists in religion, and a feverish hotbed of political radicalism. [in 1645, women even preached here, against all custom of the time, upsetting the established church hierarchies. Women had “a vocal sub-group…in… Venner’s church”.]

Venner, a cooper, had been sacked in 1655 from his job at the Tower of London – for plotting to blow it up (definitely a case for an employment tribunal there)! In 1657 Venner’s militant Fifth monarchist congregation planned an uprising. They had created a secret organisation of five 25-strong cells, and had obtained maps & telescopes, & studied troop movements. They planned to assemble at Mile End Green, attack the army, and rally to East Anglia where the movement had wide support. Other Fifth Monarchist groups, though, refused to take up arms without a sign from God. Government troops broke up the assembly, arresting 20 rebels & seizing arms and manifestos. A rising near Epping was also broken up. Venner was jailed in the Tower till 1659, the Fifth Monarchy Movement went into a temporary decline.

In 1657 there were an estimated 10-15,000 Fifth Monarchists; in 1661, there were thought to be 5000 in London. Many were apprentices; those who worked in the breweries, silkweavers, and other clothing workers were attracted, as were food workers, and others in industries with little security.

After the death of Cromwell, in the confusion of the rule of his son Richard, and the return of the Rump Parliament, Fifth Monarchists again grew strong, and for a while belief in the impending Millennium revived. But the Restoration of Charles II saw the execution of leading republican army officers and regicides, which included several prominent Fifth Monarchists.

In 1661, Venner’s Congregation’s response to the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy was insurrection. On 6th January, 1661, Venner and fifty followers marched from Swan Alley to St Pauls, published a manifesto which called for ‘King Jesus, and the heads upon the gate.” [meaning the heads of executed regicides, stuck on spikes on London Bridge]. They defeated a band of soldiers sent against them, and retreated to Kenwood in Hampstead. On the 9th, though, they reappeared in the city, they attacked  at Wood Street and Threadneedle Street, forcing the a force of 1200 King’s Life Guards to retreat. They then attempted to storm the Comptor Prison to liberate the inmates in order to join them, but were repulsed in fierce fighting. Venner is said to have killed three men with a halberd in Threadneedle Street.

A force of General Monck‘s men under Colonel Cox pursued them to their last stands in the Helmet Tavern on Threadneedle Street and the Blue Anchor on Coleman Street. Royalist troops broke through the clay roof tiles with musket butts and fired upon the wounded defenders, breaking in through the ceiling. Venner was captured after being wounded nineteen times. Others were shot out of hand.

Some escaped, some twenty-six were killed, Venner & others captured. Venner and twelve others were hanged in Coleman Street, on January 19th, and their meeting house was destroyed.

Fifth Monarchists were involved in numerous plots and abortive uprisings, for the next 20 odd years. Members of the movement co-operated with the eccentric rebel Captain Thomas Blood, and were involved in the republican plots of the 1680s, and the Duke of Monmouth’s 1685 Rising. Thomas’s grandson, Colonel Samuel Venner led the Duke of Monmouth‘s cavalry and was shot and wounded by a sniper in Bridport, but survived until 1712.

Many others abandoned violent millenarianism and settled down into dissenting religious sects or Quakerism.

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