Sir Robert Overton

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Historical account written by Geoffe Frowde

Sir Robert Overton was born in Easington in East Yorkshire, on the spur of the land that juts into the North Sea and Flanks the Humber. His family was comfortably off enough to send him to Cambridge at the age of 17 in 1625. There at St Johns College he was fortunate to get to know another Yorkshire man 3 years his junior, Thomas Fairfax. This relationship was to prove important to Overton because Fairfax was destined for a military career. His first step, taken as soon as he graduated in 1629, was to get military experience in the Dutch wars fighting against Spain. Once the English Civil Wars began, Fairfax was appointed to command the Parliamentary Cavalry in Yorkshire in 1642 and by 1645 had been made Commander in Chief of parliament's immensely successful New Model Army.

Overton also made friends with John Milton while at Christ's College, Cambridge. Milton was not a popular undergraduate and was said to behave with the utmost haughtiness. He was nicknamed ‘the lady of Christ's'. Even so, the two friends must have had something in common: perhaps it was that the gentler and more sympathetic side of Overton's nature was attracted by the lonely scholar. Whatever the reason for the friendship it was lucky for the historian because the little we know about Overton's early military career comes from Milton's pen. Much later Milton wrote to Overton as ‘Bound to me these many years past in a friendship of more brotherly closeness and affection both by similarity of our tastes and sweetness of YOUR nature’. Of course they did develop similar views during and after the Civil War but each from his own independent standpoint.

What turned Overton into a Parliamentarian and ultimately a Republican? From Cambridge he went on to study law at Grays Inn in London. We know almost nothing of his life between then and 1642. As a London-educated lawyer he would have absorbed the high discontent of the legal profession at the conduct of Charles I during this time: the pretence to rule by Divine Right, the high taxation, the refusal to consult Parliament, the High Churchmanship and intolerance of the Anglican Church. If Overton had returned to his parish of Easington he would of found this issue to be especially important for the parish was essentially puritan, suspicious of set liturgies and wary of Laud’s intentions. Easington was fixated on simplicity in worship, on the sermon and Bible reading. When Overton (probably reluctantly) decided to take up arms against the King, it was NOT at this stage, of course, to abolish the monarchy but simply to set the proper limits on royal power.

At the start of the war Yorkshire was in turmoil. The North and West of England, as a whole, was for the King - but Yorkshire was a mishmash. It was more Royalist than Roundhead but the next three years would see a complicated sequence of charge and counter charge. York and Hull were the chief prizes: York as the centre of Royal Government in the North, Hull as a depository of the second biggest arsenal of arms, ammunition and cannonry after the Tower of London. The details need not concern us here, except to say that Overton served with the trained bands of East Yorkshire by going immediately to the defence of Hull and was commended for "his much honour and gallantry in that action".

By June 1644 Fairfax had given Overton command of a Foot regiment and he was present at the battle of Marston Moor just to the west of York. Milton wrote to him saying, "When our left wing was put to rout (you) were beheld with admiration making head against the enemy with your brave infantry and repelling his attack amid the thickest carnage". Marston Moor was a complete triumph for Parliamentary troops and especially for the intervention of Cromwell's new Eastern Association cavalry. However, it did not do much to secure North of England for their side.

In the years immediately following 1645 Overton continued his military career in Yorkshire in besieging and reducing the last remnants of Royalist resistance around Pontefract and he was finally awarded his own regiment of Foote in July 1647 in the rank of full Colonel. By February 1648 he was appointed Deputy Governor of Hull and was there throughout the short Second Civil War although his regiment fought in Wales and in the battle around Preston under separate command. There were now indications that he was not in favour with Cromwell and the military hierarchy as before. There were, I think, two reasons for this and both throw light on Overton's character.

During 1647 fundamental differences developed between Parliament and its own army. The war more or less over, Westminster wanted to disband the New Model Army because it was expensive and was a potential threat to Parliamentary independence. But the army refused to go without full arrears of pay and total indemnity for all acts of war committed. Whilst it waited in camps the men became prey to a variety of new social theories spread by Agitators. In this they were egged on by their chaplains. The 'Levellers' began to preach equality of men. They wanted 'one man, one vote', regular guaranteed Parliaments, security of the land turned for the peasant labourer, no more Church tithes.

They also, like most soldiers, put in a request for cheaper beer. Most of this then, was advanced social democracy and unpleasant news for the majority of the officer class, the landed squirearchy such as Cromwell, who immediately moved to arrest, try and execute the leaders. But Overton (who was present at a long articulate army debate at Putney in 1647) listened with attention and sympathy. He had Agitators in his own regiment and he refused to move with any speed against them.

The second reason for Overton's loss of favour is more subtle and ultimately more critical: the influence on him of fifth Monarchy theorists. You might think they were the ultimate lunatic fringe of free church thinking but they were symptomatic of the times. There had been, ran the theory, four great 'monarchies' in world history: the Assyrian, Persian, Greek and Roman - the fifth, foretold in the book of Daniel - was when Christ would come to rule in person. When would this be? Why 1666 - a figure arrived at (believe it or not) by adding up the ages of all the Old Testament 'Partriarchs'. Whilst Overton would not have swallowed the whole theory he did believe, as the old constitutional framework collapsed and Charles was executed, that monarchy in England was at an end. A true REPUBLIC might indeed pave the way for the second coming of Christ but could Cromwell's government provide that transition? Incidentally at this time, Overton appointed a well known 5th Monarchist Chaplin to minister his garrison in Hull. By January 1649 Overton was indeed a convinced republican. Charles I had persistently refused to concede defeat by continuously plotting for survival bringing danger and dishonour to the country. Overton was in favour of Charles’ death, although he was asked to be a member of the 150 strong tribunal set up to try the King, he was retained by duties in Hull. This saved his life when Charles II was restored eleven years later.

Overton's final military campaign was by far his best. In 1650 Oliver Cromwell set out to conquer Scotland which had acted throughout the wars like any foreign independent power, attacking and retreating as it saw opportunity and benefit.

Moreover the Scots had been offended by the crime against a Stuart King. This time Overton wrote to Cromwell and asked to join the campaign. Cromwell responded, a little surprisingly and handsomely, with the offer of a command of a Foot brigade of 3 Regiments and the rank of Major General. A great battle, just outside Edinburgh, took place in September 1650 at Dunbar. Cromwell called it his "crowning mercy". Although Overton's brigade was in reserve, it was called in to intervene and "did repel the stoutest troops the enemy had there".

Afterwards Edinburgh was entered and Overton appointed military governor. From here one can see the solider at his best: firm control over his troops, speed of movement, surprise and well judged strategy. The first priority was pursuit of the enemy across the Forth, pressing on to Perth and Stirling before they could consolidate in the Highlands.

Boats (60 men and 2 cannons apiece) were hired, and the crossing made. But the main Scottish Army turned south. Cromwell followed in pursuit and Overton and General Monck were left to mop up the Highlands. They did so with speed. Dundee, Aberdeen and Inverness were all occupied. Orkney and Shetland submitted. Clan chiefs of the Western Isles came to make their peace. Major General Overton was placed in overall control of the West of Scotland.

But Overton was too honest a man to hide his growing suspicions about Cromwell, even in his better interests. In 1654 Cromwell accepted the title of Protector and new enhanced powers for himself and the council of state. Overton told Cromwell “…if he saw and did design to set up HIMSELF and not the good of the nation, he would not set one foot against another to serve him”. "Thou were a knave if thou would'st" ...replied Cromwell somewhat enigmatically. With this mutual exchange suspicion began to fester: there were rumours of Leveller plots in Overton's command and in 1654 Charles Stuart (now self styled King Charles II) wrote to Overton incorrectly believing him ready to change sides. Overton was summoned to London. There was little doubt about the outcome: January 1655 he was in the Tower of London where he remained for three and a half years and finally was transferred to Elizabeth Castle, Jersey as his health was deteriorating. Only the death of Cromwell in 1658 saved him. A minor triumph for Overton ensued. The rule of Cromwell's son, Richard, was a disaster. The remnants of the Long Parliament returned and the House ordered Overton to appear before it. At the outskirts of the city he was greeted by 2 to 3,000 people, 500 horsemen and 40 coaches. The House ruled Overton to be a free man and restored him to his command in Hull.

Moreover control of the army was deputised to 7 commissioners - and one was Major General Overton. In a real sense power in the country now centred on these commissioners, if they were united. Cromwell's great experiment had failed. Restoration of the Monarchy was in the air but the last person who could have entered on such a course was Overton: he was a Republican to the end and a 5th Monarchist at heart. He was released in 1671 and went to live with his only surviving daughter Anne, who had married Andrew Broughton of Seaton. Major General Robert Overton wrote his own testimony in 1654 "If I be called to seal the course of God and my country with my blood, by suffering death, or by bearing any testimony to the interest of my nation and the despised truths of these times, God is able to support and save me as the sun shine upon me. If I can but keep faith and a good conscience I shall assuredly finish my course in peace".