1647, thirteen officers of the Kentish regiment complain about their commander, Colonel Lilburne

The ancient officers of the Kentish regiment now under the command of Colonel Lilburne. SP 16/539/4 f. 23 (1647)

To the right honourable the Lords and Commons assembled in Parliament.

The humble peticion of the auncient officiers of the Kentish regiment lately under the command of Colonell Weldon but now under the command of Colonell Lilburne since this warr hath been happily ended.


That most parte of your petitioners have served in the Kentish regiment under the command of Colonell Weldon and Lieutenant Colonell Kempson above this foure years last past in which time they have endevour= ed to expresse their affections to the Parliament and Kingdom in this cause with the often hazard of their lives and fortunes.

When it pleased [illegible] the honourable Houses of Parliament to make our sayd Colonell Weldon governor of Plymouth, wee humbly conceive it was very hard measure that our lieutenant colonell might not succeed him in his due place of command hee haveing alwayes approved himself very civill, faithfull, skilful, and valiant, wherby wee have received many great encouragementes from him and good success by Gods blessing, and doe humbly conceive there cannot bee a fitter gentleman imployed in this present expedition for Ireland, by reason hee hath been imployed by the Parliament in that service already, and knoweth the nature of the country and manner of their discipline.

Your peticioners humble request is that our said lieutenant colonel Nicholas Kempson may now succeed in his due place, and command the sayd regiment for Ireland and your petitioners shall bee very ready and willing and to gaine the whole regiment theither and to use their best endeavours for the promoteing that service, and [illegible] as in all dutye bound shall ever pray for your honers etc.

[For the transcribed signatures, see the full transcription here.]

Report by Frank Edwards

The petitioners, officers of the Kentish regiment, expressed their wish no longer to be commanded by Colonel Lilburne but rather by Lieutenant-Colonel Kempson, whom they considered loyal, able and brave and best placed to lead the regiment in Ireland.

The petitioners

Thirteen officers signed the petition (in an apparently random order) and can be identified and grouped according to rank:

  • William Masters (Major)
  • Francis Dormer
  • Robert Fish
  • Christopher Peckham
  • George Weldon (all Captains)
  • Abraham Clark
  • Robert Deedes
  • Francis Welles (all Lieutenants)
  • George Hope
  • James Murray
  • Evan Morris
  • James Rose
  • Levesley Sharples (all Ensigns)[1]

The national background

The petition was submitted at a pivotal moment in the English civil wars. The first phase of the war is generally dated as beginning in August 1642 and ending in May 1646 with the King’s surrender. From January 1647 the King was held in Parliament’s custody. By March 1647, the date of the petition, the war, it appeared, was over; ‘happily ended’ from the petitioners’ point of view with victory for Parliament’s forces.[2]

A key event during the war was the establishment of the New Model Army. In late 1644 Oliver Cromwell and others recognised that to defeat Charles I it was essential Parliament replace its separate, locally-based commands with a single, well-disciplined, national force, to be deployed wherever the military situation required. The New Model Army (that is, the Army, newly modelled), formed early in 1645, was the result. It brought together the three main Parliament forces previously led by the Earl of Essex, the Earl of Manchester and Sir William Waller, under the sole command of Sir Thomas Fairfax. It included twelve ‘regiments of foot’, each of which, on paper at least, contained ten companies of 120 men. The New Model Army was unique in its recruitment, especially of officers, from volunteers.  Many of these saw the struggle against the King in religious terms and their battles on Parliament’s behalf as God’s work – hence the petitioners’ reference to their successes coming with ‘God’s blessing’. The Army’s formation was crucial to Parliament’s victory.[3]

However, despite the defeat of the King, conflicts in the Kingdoms remained. In October 1641 the Irish Rebellion had begun, a reaction to long-term Protestant settlement. The resulting Catholic Confederation, formed in 1642, established a de facto alternative government. Loosely aligned with the Royalist side in the civil war it represented, in 1647, a continuing threat to the largely Protestant forces of Parliament. A second threat, for some, came from the New Model Army. Within its ranks were those who sought social change that went further than many in Parliament wished to countenance. It was also costly to maintain. These two issues came together in a proposal by some in Parliament to disband the Army and establish, in its place, a volunteer force to go to Ireland and secure its reconquest.[4] This, then, was the petitioners’ ‘present expedition to Ireland’.

The petitioners’ regiment

The petitioners’ regiment was a ‘regiment of foot’, raised in Kent in January 1644 and commanded from the outset by Colonel Ralph Weldon. It was part of Sir William Waller’s forces and in April 1645 was swiftly accepted into the New Model Army. Demonstrating the value of Parliament’s new, more mobile fighting-force, the regiment, under the leadership of Colonel Weldon, saw immediate service in the west country, some 200 miles from its county of origin.  It assisted with the relief of the siege of Taunton in May, and the taking of Bridgewater in July. In August and September, it engaged in the siege and capture of Bristol (in the course of which Lieutenant-Colonel Kempson led part of the regiment in an assault on Portishead Fort). From Bristol the regiment moved to Tiverton which was taken by storm in October. In the winter of 1645-46 it assisted in the siege of Exeter. These various campaigns were without doubt, as the petitioners recalled, to ‘the hazard of their lives and fortunes’. The regiment suffered losses, particularly at Bristol. Two of its Captains died, one in the siege of Exeter.[5]

In December 1645 Weldon was appointed Governor of Plymouth, taking up his post by the spring of 1646.[6] In his stead, as regimental colonel, Fairfax appointed Robert Lilburne, a Durham man (and brother of the Leveller, John Lilburne) who had begun his service in the Parliamentary ranks in the force commanded by the Earl of Essex.[7]

Robert Lilburne
Portrait miniature of Robert Lilburne, watercolour on vellum, painted by Samuel Cooper, 1650. Copyright V&A.

Of our petitioners, Masters, as a Major, was an officer at regimental level, the Captains, Lieutenants and Ensigns were company officers.[8]  They described themselves as ‘ancient officers’ and the records show that for some, at least, this was valid. Major Masters and Captains Dormer and Peckham served in the regiment from its time in William Waller’s army, as did the petitioners’ favoured successor to Colonel Weldon, Lieutenant-Colonel Kempson. The association of Kempson and Masters went back further – both served in William Springate’s regiment in 1643 which preceded William Waller’s army. Shortly before the petition was submitted the regiment had seven Captains in post. Four of these signed the petition; of these two had seen long service.[9]

No records exist for more junior officers in post prior to March 1647.

It was the practice, then and since, to describe a regiment by reference to its commanding officer. The petitioners thus served, strictly, first in ‘Colonel Weldon’s Regiment’, then in ‘Colonel Lilburne’s’. In describing their unit as ‘the Kentish regiment’ the petitioners were, perhaps, distancing themselves from a commanding officer they objected to. They were also, no doubt, reflecting the regiment’s pre-history, prior to the formation of the New Model Army, a history some of them shared (and Lilburne did not) and of which, no doubt, they were proud.

The antipathy towards Robert Lilburne

Robert Lilburne’s appointment as Colonel to replace Weldon in due course ‘created much dissatisfaction amongst the officers’, as evidenced by the petition.[10] How is this dissatisfaction to be explained?

One factor will be Lilburne’s position as an outsider, with no background in the origins of the regiment and no shared experience in the recent military campaigns in the west country. In addition, for Kempson there may have been resentment at being passed over for promotion.  Lilburne might always have struggled to earn acceptance within the regiment, therefore, but his position was made more difficult by the issue of service in Ireland.

For some, the proposed campaign in Ireland, staffed by volunteers, was simply a cover for disbanding the New Model Army, and doing so, moreover, without any guarantees on arrears of pay or indemnities for actions taken in the course of service. As divisions between some sections of the Army and some parts of Parliament grew through the spring and summer of 1647, Robert Lilburne ‘emerged as a leading figure’ amongst those who pressed for resolution of the Army’s grievances and opposed service in Ireland in the meantime. He helped draft an Army petition urging parliament not to send the Army to Ireland before its wage arrears were paid and was ordered to appear before the Commons to answer charges that he was turning soldiers against service in Ireland.[11]

Lilburne’s opposition to service in Ireland reflected his wider concerns about the Army’s position in 1647 and is explicable in these terms. His views were presumably known to the petitioners in March 1647. What is less explicable is why Kempson and the petitioning officers took a different stance. For Kempson, one motive may have been his prior association with Ireland; his knowledge, as the petition noted, of ‘the nature of the country’. No evidence has been found as to what this earlier service was but Kempson may have wished to develop his association with Ireland; he had indeed settled there by the end of the decade.[12]  A second motive, for him and the officers who supported him, may have been a sense that taking the fight to Ireland was a continuation of the just cause they had pursued in England. A final, more prosaic factor, may simply have been a calculation that service in Ireland was the best way of ensuring a continuing income and career.

Whatever the reasons, service in Ireland, a divisive matter in Parliament, was a divisive matter in the regiment too and the petition seeking Lilburne’s replacement by Kempson was the result.

The outcome of the petition

The petition had no impact. There is no record of any specific discussion within Parliament in response and Kempson was not appointed Colonel. Lilburne was replaced, but not until December 1647 and then by Sir Arthur Hesilrige.[13]

Ten of the twelve identified petitioners did volunteer for service in Ireland (the exceptions were Major Masters and Captain Deedes). Kempson also volunteered. Given Lilburne’s opposition their proposed service could not be as part of his regiment and a new regiment of around 300 men was formed.[14] Kempson was promoted to its head as Colonel. Many of the petitioners also secured advance: Peckham became a Lieutenant Colonel; Dormer a Major; Clark, Welles and Sharples Captains; Hope, Morris and Murray Lieutenants. There is a fleeting reference to ‘Kempson’s regiment’.[15]  These developments prompted, in turn, resentment towards Kempson who was accused by some of using ‘very unfair means’ to encourage foot soldiers to enlist.[16] The project was, in any event, short-lived and the regiment disbanded as quickly as it was formed, without, it seems, ever seeing service in Ireland.[17]  (An English army did re-secure Dublin for Parliament in the summer of 1647; between 1649 and 1650 a further force led by Cromwell completed the defeat of the Irish Rebellion.[18])

Kempson and the petitioners who volunteered for service in Ireland effectively severed their relationship with Lilburne’s regiment, as did Masters and Deedes, even though they had not volunteered. By August 1647 the regiment was officered by a substantially new set of men; none of the petitioners or Kempson remained in post.[19]

Subsequent events

By the end of 1647 Ireland was the least of Parliament’s concerns. The petitioners’ optimism that the war was ‘happily ended’ proved misplaced when, in November the king temporarily escaped but was recaptured and imprisoned on the Isle of Wight, where he agreed with the Scots to launch an invasion of England. The second phase of the civil wars began, culminating in the King’s re-defeat and capture, his trial for treason and, in January 1649, his execution.

What of those referred to in the petition and the petitioners?

Robert Lilburne, before he was replaced as Colonel of the regiment, had become Governor of Newcastle. He went on to command a northern-based regiment of horse and remain active in Parliament’s cause. He was one of those chosen to try the King and one who signed his death warrant. As a regicide he was a marked man after the restoration in 1660.  Tried for treason and found guilty, his sentence of death was commuted to life imprisonment. He died in prison in 1665.[20]

Nicholas Kempson, thwarted in his ambitions to secure leadership of the petitioners’ regiment and to see service in Ireland appears to have suffered no lasting damage from his opposition to Lilburne or the complaints against him from foot soldiers. He was given leave to ‘transport himself beyond the seas … with such of his soldiers who are willing to go with him’.[21] In February 1648 Fairfax certified that Kempson (or Kempston), still bearing his newly acquired rank of Colonel, had behaved ‘faithfully and valiantly’ in ‘all services against the enemy’.  In March he was licensed to travel to France with 300 men.[22]  As noted above, he subsequently settled in Ireland.

The Abraham Clerke, one of many chosen in January 1648 ‘to constitute a committee for the militia of Tower Hamlets’, is likely the petitioner Abraham Clark, a Lieutenant under Lilburne and proposed Captain in Kempson’s short-lived regiment.[23]

Of the other petitioners and their military careers after they left Lilburne’s regiment, nothing is known.

In conclusion

This petition opens a brief window into the workings of just one of the New Model Army’s regiments, at a significant point of the civil war. It shows, also, how the issue of Ireland was divisive at both a national and local level.

It has one other aspect of interest. It is worth highlighting just what the officers of the Kentish regiment did in submitting their petition. In pressing the case for their Lieutenant-Colonel, Nicholas Kempson, they challenged the authority of Robert Lilburne, the regiment’s existing leader, and questioned the wisdom of the Army leadership in appointing him. They went not to Thomas Fairfax as the head of the New Model Army, but to Parliament, the highest body in the non-Royalist England of 1647. They were a significant number of officers, including a majority of the regiment’s then Captains. They acted, not conspiratorially, but overtly. Looked at in this way, the petition is a form of open rebellion; it is not something necessarily expected in a well-disciplined, highly effective fighting force. However, if these officers could, with enthusiasm, take up arms against their King, why would they hold back from speaking out against their commanding officer? This is England at a time of ‘hectic and exhilarating freedom’,[24] and the petition stands, also, as a small reflection of this extraordinary tumult.

The exercise of such freedom carried its own risks, of course, particularly if linked with an urge to reshape society as a whole.  Relations between Parliament and the Army and between officers and men within the Army grew increasingly fractious through 1647, culminating in a mutiny. The mutinous soldiers were, in fact from Lilburne’s regiment, heading north to join him in Newcastle and then in defiance of orders, turning back towards London. At Ware, in Hertfordshire, the ringleaders were arrested and court martialled and one, Private Richard Arnold, shot on the spot.[25]

It has been suggested that one factor in the revolt was that the new officers appointed to the regiment ‘had very little control over their men’.[26]  An additional factor may have been the petition submitted by the regiment’s previous officers some eight months earlier, the example it provided and the conclusions it invited. If officers had the freedom to challenge established authority, did this not extend to the rank and file too?


[1] For confirmation of the signatures attached to the petition: Sir Charles Firth and Godfrey Davies, The Regimental History of Cromwell’s Army Volume II (1940), ‘The Regiment of Weldon, Lilburne, and Hesilrige’, pp. 451-461; Malcolm Wanklyn, Reconstructing the New Model Army Volume 1: Regimental Lists April 1645 to May 1649 (2015), pp. 47, 58, 69, 79, 89, 116-117.

[2] For concise accounts of the broad events of the civil war: Christopher Hill, A Century of Revolution (2002), pp. 109-116; Blair Worden, The English Civil Wars 1640-1660 (2009), chapters 2 and 3; for a fuller account: Michael Braddick, God’s Fury, England’s Fire (2009).

[3] Firth and Davies, pp. xiv-xviii; Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down, (1975), pp. 57-63; Worden, p. 68.

[4] Braddick, pp. 166-68; Worden, p. 87.

[5] Firth and Davies, pp. 452-53.

[6] Firth and Davies, pp. 453.

[7] Coward, Barry. “Lilburne, Robert (bap. 1614, d. 1665), regicide and deputy major-general.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 23 Sep. 2004;  https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-16655.

[8] Keith Roberts, Cromwell’s War Machine: The New Model Army 1645-1600 (2005), p. 131.

[9] Wanklyn, pp. 47, 58, 69, 79, 89; ‘Nicholas Kempson’ and ‘William Masters’ in Stephen K. Roberts (ed.), The Cromwell Association Online Directory of Parliamentarian Army Officers (2017), British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/no-series/cromwell-army-officers.

[10] Firth and Davies, p.453.

[11] ‘Lilburne, Robert’, ODNB.

[12] ‘Nicholas Kempson’, The Cromwell Association Online Directory of Parliamentarian Army Officers.

[13] Firth and Davies, p. 459.

[14] ‘On April 26 1647’, John Rushworth, ‘Historical Collections: Parliamentary proceedings, April 1647’, in Historical Collections of Private Passages of State: Volume 6, 1645-47 (1722), pp. 444-475. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/rushworth-papers/vol6/pp444-475.

[15] ‘List of Officers, &c. for Ireland’, ‘House of Lords Journal Volume 9: 28 May 1647’, in Journal of the House of Lords: Volume 9, 1646 (1767-1830), pp. 209-224. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/lords-jrnl/vol9/pp209-224.

[16] Firth and Davies, p. 454; ‘On April 20, 1647’ and ‘On April 21, 1647’, Rushworth, ‘Historical Collections’ in Historical Collections of Private Passages of State: Volume 6, 1645-47.

[17] Firth and Davies, p.455.

[18] Braddick, p. 530; Hill, Century of Revolution, p. 112.

[19] Wanklyn, pp. 116-17.

[20] ‘Lilburne, Robert’, ODNB.

[21] C. H. Firth (ed.) The Memoirs of Edmund Ludlow, Vol. II (The Clarendon Press, 1894), ‘Appendix 1, Colonel Nicholas Kempson’, p. 443, https://archive.org/details/memoirsedmundlu01ludlgoog/page/n452/mode/2up.

[22] ‘Charles I – volume 516: February 1648’, in William Douglas Hamilton (ed.), Calendar of State Papers Domestic: Charles I, 1648-9 (1893), pp. 12-23. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/cal-state-papers/domestic/chas1/1648-9/pp12-23; ‘Charles I – volume 516: March 1648’, in Hamilton (ed), pp. 23-39. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/cal-state-papers/domestic/chas1/1648-9/pp23-39; Firth, p.443.

[23] ‘Ordinance to constitute a Committee for the Militia of The Tower Hamlets’, ‘House of Lords Journal, Volume 9: 8 January 1648’, in Journal of the House of Lords: Volume 9, 1646 (1767-1830), pp. 643-647. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/lords-jrnl/vol9/pp643-647.

[24] Hill, The World Turned Upside Down, p. 86.

[25] Mark A. Kishlansky, ‘What Happened at Ware’, The Historical Journal, Vol. 25, No.4 (Dec., 1982), pp. 827-839.

[26] Firth and Davies, p. 457.


This report is part of a series on ‘Petitioners in the reign of Charles I and the Civil Wars’, created through a U3A Shared Learning Project on ‘Investigating the Lives of Seventeenth-Century Petitioners’.

One Reply to “1647, thirteen officers of the Kentish regiment complain about their commander, Colonel Lilburne”

  1. A comment from Norah Carlin:

    The timing of this petition seems to have been precipitated by a very recent series of events in Parliament and the army, reflected in its language and content. Parliament’s strategy of breaking up the New Model Army by inviting officers and their regiments to volunteer for service in Ireland was confirmed by the House of Commons on 27 March 1647. A letter from Fairfax reported that at a meeting on 21 March, a number of officers expressed ‘their willingness and readiness to answer the expectations of Parliament’, and promised ‘to improve their best interests with their officers and soldiers, under their respective commands, to go and engage in the service of Ireland’ (Commons Journal, v, p. 127). The House approved, voting to offer back pay to all officers who would similarly volunteer, and an advance on further pay once they were on board for Ireland. Lilburne, who had been the regiment’s colonel since the previous July, was clearly not going to lead them to Ireland, so these officers petitioned for his replacement, and took the opportunity to tell Parliament what it wanted to hear: ‘Your petitioners shall bee very ready and willing [to go] and to gaine the whole regiment theither’ under Kempson. Though this was going over their General’s head they were not denounced as rebels, unlike those soldiers who petitioned against going to Ireland before their arrears were paid and the Army’s grievances resolved.

    The mutiny of Lilburne’s regiment in November 1647 began north of Dunstable, and the reason they gave for turning back was that for the Army to be disbanded or divided was against their engagement the previous June to stay together. A radical pamphlet arguing this, The Case of the Army, had been read to them by agitators en route. The men made their way against orders to the official rendezvous of seven other regiments at Ware, where although the ringleaders of the mutiny were court-martialled and Arnold was shot, the majority submitted to Fairfax, and Cromwell is said to have promised them redress against those officers they complained had abused them. (Kishlansky, ‘What happened at Ware?’; Francis Maseres, Select Tracts Relating to the Civil wars in England (1815), vol. 1, xxxiii-lvii; ‘R.L.’,The Justice of the Army against Evill Doers Vindicated, London 1649, pp. 1-7)

    A year later, as part of the garrison of Newcastle under Haslerige as their colonel with the Baptist preacher Paul Hobson as his major, this regiment was also involved in one of the most strongly worded petitions protesting against Parliament’s treaty negotiations with Charles I, naming the king as ‘the Grand Delinquent’ and principal author of the civil wars. (Norah Carlin, Regicide or Revolution? What Petitioners Wanted, September 1648 – February 1649, London 2020, pp. 128-9).

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