Magazine article History Today

Killing No Murder: Alan Marshall Recounts the Tale of the Men Who Tried to Assassinate Oliver Cromwell

Magazine article History Today

Killing No Murder: Alan Marshall Recounts the Tale of the Men Who Tried to Assassinate Oliver Cromwell

Article excerpt

LORD PROTECTOR CROMWELL usually chose to go to Hampton Court on Fridays, bent upon spending his weekend in more salubrious surroundings than the noise and pollution of Whitehall. The road to the palace passed through a `narrow, dirty ... passage where coaches use to go but softly' and it was there that his assassins, led by the ex-soldier and Leveller Miles Sindercombe, planned their ambush in the autumn of 1656. Armed with guns loaded with twelve bullets apiece and other lead slugs, they intended was to fire these `strange engines' at the Protector's coach as he passed, hoping to kill the occupant and free England from the `tyrant'. Unaware of the fate contrived for him, Cromwell suddenly decided to give up his weekends in Hampton Court, claiming a multitude of business prevented him from taking in the cleaner air of the countryside. So the opportunity passed and Cromwell was not fated to die at the assassin's hand.

To untangle the plot to murder Cromwell we must begin with Edward Sexby. C.H. Firth noted in 1901 that there was `no more remarkable career in the annals of the New Model army' and it was the renegade Sexby, author of one of the most famous pamphlets of the day on political murder, who became the driving force behind the scheme to kill Cromwell. A gentleman's son and a London apprentice in his youth, Sexby may originally have had family connections with Cromwell and in 1643 he joined Cromwell's regiment as a trooper. He soon came under the influence of the emergent Leveller ideas and made a name for himself as an agitator among the troops, becoming a conspicuous link between the Leveller leaders in London and the army. Sexby proved to be a man of action in other ways. He was involved in the seizure of Charles I at Holdenby House in 1647. He was also prominent at the army debates in Putney Church at the end of October that same year, where as a representative of the ordinary soldier (and not for the last time), he was verbally to cross swords with Cromwell. His political views on Charles I were equally blunt:

   We have been by Providence put
   upon strange things ... We have
   laboured to please a king, and I
   think, except we go about to cut all
   our throats, we shall not please him.

The turbulent years of civil war had opened many eyes to the problems in society, and for a brief period we can hear the questioning voices of men such as Sexby. Unfortunately for the Levellers the events of 1647-49 meant that the movement itself lost whatever base it had in the army and the alternative political strategies it put forward were soon dissipated. Moreover, with Cromwell himself vowing (or so John Lilburne said) to break the Levellers, the unstable movement eventually collapsed. Sexby briefly left the army at this point, only to resurface as a captain in 1649. Following his appointment as governor of Portland in 1650, he was sent to Scotland and in July 1651 he attracted further notoriety when he was cashiered for wrongfully detaining the pay of his men.

It was fortunate that Sexby had already established an altogether more secretive career under the Council of State. For in that same year he was sent to the troubled French city of Bordeaux, a centre for the Fronde, to encourage revolution there. The mission was generally unsuccessful, and on his return to England, Sexby soon became bitterly resentful of the Cromwellian coup d'etat in April 1653. From that point on he was constantly engaged in plotting to raise a rebellion against the `apostate' as he called Cromwell. It is true that some former Levellers retreated into religious passivity, internalising their revolutionary ideology and seeking a godly republic within. John Lilburne, the most troublesome of all the radicals of the 1640s, was eventually to turn to Quakerism, but for Sexby, dissatisfied and stubborn in his beliefs that the Republic had been betrayed by Cromwell, there remained the potential of conspiracy. …

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