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Major-General Robert Overton (about 1609–1678) was a prominent English soldier and scholar, who supported the Parliamentary cause during the English Civil War, and was imprisoned a number of times during the Protectorate and the English Restoration for his strong republican views.
As positions hardened during the period before the English Civil War, Robert Overton supported the Parliamentary cause. He was probably influenced by Sir William Constable later to become a regicide.
At the outbreak of the First English Civil War, he tried to join the army of Lord Ferdinando Fairfax, but no official positions were available. He was allowed to fight without any definite rank and distinguished himself in the defence of Hull and at the Battle of Marston Moor.
In August 1645 the governor of Pontefract, Sir Thomas Fairfax, appointed Overton deputy governor of Pontefract. Shortly after this appointment Overton captured Sandal Castle. Overton was acting governor during the siege. During the siege it was reported that he was inconsiderate to Lady Cutler and refused to let Sir Gervaise Cutler be buried in the church.
In the summer of 1647 Overton gained a commission in the New Model Army and in July was given command of the late Colonel Herbert's foot regiment. During the political debates within the New Model Army we was a member of the Army Council and sat on the committee at the Putney Debates.
In March 1648, Fairfax appointed Overton the deputy governor of Kingston upon Hull. There he became friends with the notable Puritan poet Andrew Marvell, but was a very unpopular with the townsfolk. The townsfolk were known to by sympathetic to the Royalist cause and in June 1648 the town Mayor and some of the town council petitioned for his removal.
The sources differ as to his actions during Second English Civil War, Barbara Taft writes that he spent the war in Hull, while Nan Overton West writes that he fought with Oliver Cromwell in Wales and the North of England, that he took the Isle of Axolme and was with Cromwell when Charles I was taken to the Isle of Wight.
He supported the trial of the King in late 1648 and early 1649, but wrote that he only wanted him deposed and not executed. He disagreed with other points of policy of the early Commonwealth government publishing his position in a pamphlet titled "The declaration of the officers of the garrison of Hull in order to the peace and settlement of the kingdom" and accompanying letter to Thomas Fairfax, in early January. The letter makes it clear that he supported actions like Pride's Purge if the "corrupt Commons" stopped the Army's reforms. Barbara Taft writes that the last six pages of the declaration reflect the case made in the Remonstrance by the New Model Army to Parliament, the rejection of which had triggered Pride's Purge:
a speedy end to the present parliament; a succession of free biennial parliaments with an equitable distribution of seats; future kings elected by the people's representatives and having no negative voice; a ‘universal and mutual Agreement, … enacted and decreed, in perpetuum’, that asserts that the power of parliament is ‘inferior only to that of the people’
— Declaration of the Officers of the Garrison of Hull
As divisions within the New Model Army widened during the Summer of 1649, fearing that these divisions would be used by their enemies, Overton issued a letter that made it clear that he sided with the Rump Parliament and the Grandees against the Levellers.
When the Third Civil War broke out in 1650 he accompanied Cromwell to Scotland and commanded a Foot Brigade at the Battle of Dunbar his regiment was also involved in the English Parliamentary victory at the Battle of Inverkeithing (20 July 1651) where Overton commanded the reserve.
When then New Model Army returned to England in pursuit of the invading Royalist Scottish army, Overton remained in Scotland as governor of Edinburgh. He helped complete the subjugation of Scotland and commanded an expedition to reduce the garrison forces in Orkney. On 14 May 1652 a grateful Parliament voted Scottish lands to him with an annual income of him 400 pounds sterling per year. In December 1652, when George Monck's successor Richard Deane was recalled, Monck appointed Overton as Military Commander over all the English forces in the Western Highlands with the rank of Major-General. He was also appointed governor of Aberdeen.
In 1653 he returned to England because of his father's death and succeeded to the family estate in Easington. He also resumed duties as governor of Hull. During 1650 he and his wife had become members of the "church" and in retrospect he considered the execution of Charles I as a fulfilment of Old Testament scripture, and often cited Ezekiel 21:26-27, concerning the humble and God's "overturning" established order. Overton wrote: "the Lord...is forced to shake and shake and overturn and overturn; this is a shaking, overturning dispensation." Some sources claim he was a Fifth Monarchist, but his views seemed to have spanned several of the religious beliefs and political grouping of the day and it is difficult to label him as belonging to any one group.
He hailed Cromwell's dissolution of the Rump Parliament in June 1653, but he subsequently became disenchanted and suspicious of Cromwell as Lord Protector. Although his letters to Cromwell remained cordial, during the early years of the Protectorate he seems to have become more and more disenchanted with the Lord Protector and the speed of reform. Cromwell informed him that he could keep his position in the army so long as he promised to relinquish his command when he could no longer support the policies of the Protectorate.
In September 1654 Overton returned to his command in Scotland. In December 1654, Overton was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London for his part in the "Overton Revolt". It was alleged that a verse in Overton's handwriting, found amongst his papers:
- A Protector! What's that? Tis a stately thing
- That confesseth itself the ape of a King;
- A tragical Caesar acted by a crown,
- Or a brass farthing stamped with a kind of crown;
- A bauble that shines, a loud cry without wool,
- Not Perillus nor Phalaris, but the bull;
- The echo of Monarchy till it come,
- The butt-end of a barrel in the shape of a drum;
- A counterfeit piece that woodenly shows,
- A golden effigies with a copper nose;
- The fantastic shadow of a sovereign head,
- The arms-royal reversed, and disloyal instead;
- In fine, he is one we may Protector call,
- From whom the King of Kings protect us all!"
He was accused of planning a military insurrection against the government and plotting to assassinate Monck. It is not clear how involved he was in the plot, because he was good friends with Monck at the time and would have been unlikely to have been involved in a plot to kill him. But whatever his real position he was considered to have been too lenient with his "disaffected officers" in sanctioning their meetings and there was evidence that he held meetings with John Wildman, an incorrigible Leveller plotter, who would use anyone in order to bring down the Protectorate. Later while in the Tower of London, wrote to others informing them of Wildman's plans. A fellow prisoner in the Tower at that time wrote of Overton, "He was a great independent, civil and decent, a scholar, but a little pedantic."
In 1655 Cromwell was convinced enough of his guilt to have him removed as governor of Hull and to confiscate the lands granted to him by Parliament in Scotland handing them back to Earl of Leven the owner before they were confiscated by Parliament.
Overton remained imprisoned in the Tower until in March 1658 when he was moved to Elizabeth Castle on the island of Jersey. Barbara Taft mentions that "It is not unlikely that respect for Overton's ability and fear of his appeal as an opposition leader played a major role in his imprisonment." After Cromwell's death and the re-installation of the Commonwealth, Grizelle, his sister, his wife Anne, her brother, and many Republicans, presented his case to Parliament, on 3 February 1659, along with letters from Overton's close friend John Milton. Overton and John Milton probably became acquainted early on in St Giles in Cripplegate, where they moved and lived for a time. Milton considered Overton a scholar and celebrated him and his exploits in his "Defensio Secundo" by writing: "...bound to me these many years past in friendship of more than brotherly closeness and affection, both by the similarity of our tastes and the sweetness of your manners." Milton also included Overton in his list of "twelve apostles of revolutionary integrity."
On 16 March 1659, Parliament ordered Overton released from prison after hearing his case, pronouncing his imprisonment illegal. Overton's return was called "his greatest political triumph; a huge crowd, bearing laurel branches, acclaimed him and diverted his coach from its planned path." In June 1659 he was restored to his command and further compensated for his losses. Charles II wrote him promising him forgiveness for past disloyalty and rewarded him for services in effecting the restoration. Overton was appointed governor of Hull and again was unpopular, many referring to him as "Governor Overturn," because of his association with the Fifth Monarchists who used the phrase liberally. This perception was reinforced by the sermons of John Canne, a well known Fifth Monarchist preacher in Overton's regiment at Hull. On 12 October 1659 he was one of seven Commanders in whom Parliament vested the government of the army until January 1660.
By early 1660, Overton's position started to diverge from that of Monck, as he did not support the return of Charles II, but he and his officers refused to aid Generals Lambert and Fleetwood He sought to mediate and published an exhortation to them to maintain the Lord's cause, entitled "The Humble Healing Advice of R.O." His ambiguity of conduct and letters to troops in Yorkshire caused Monck much embarrassment, and as a result, Monck had Lord Thomas Fairfax order him to take any order Monck gave.
On 4 March 1660, a day after Lambert's arrest, Monck ordered Overton to surrender his command to Fairfax and come to London. Overton planned a stand, but he must have seen that defeat would have been inevitable. Hull's disaffection for him and some division among the garrison caused him to allow himself to be replaced by Thomas Fairfax's son, Charles Fairfax. The Garrison in Hull began the English Civil War as the first town to resist Charles I and was among the last to accept his son Charles II. After 1642 no monarch would set foot in Hull for over 200 years.
Overton was an independent and a republican. He was regarded, perhaps falsely, as one of the Fifth Monarchists, and at the first rumour of insurrection was arrested and sent to the Tower of London in December 1660, where Samuel Pepys went to see him and wrote in his diary that Overton had been found with a large quantity of arms, which Pepys recorded that Overton said he only bought to London to sell.
Overton was briefly at liberty in the Autumn of 1661. Realising that he might be re-arrested at any moment he spent the time arranging his financial and personal affairs he issued a series of deeds to make provision for his mother, his wife and family and to avoid confiscation of his property by the Crown. Most of his properties were sold to his family, to his sons Ebenezer and Fairfax and his daughter Joanna, and close friends. The last documents were executed on 7 November 1661 and on 9 November 1661 he was sent to Chepstow Castle. He managed a short interval of freedom but was again arrested on 26 May 1663 on "suspicion of seditious practices and for refusing to sign the oaths or give security." As Andrew Marvell, the English Satirist, wrote in a letter to John Milton, "Col. Overton [was] one of those steady Republicans whom Cromwell was unable to conciliate and was under the necessity of security."
In 1664 the government sent him to Jersey, the second time he had been imprisoned there and this time it was to be for seven years. During this time he was allowed out and about on the island which was not uncommon for high-ranking political prisoners. Overton spent the years of his incarceration in Mont Orgueil Castle on Jersey Island trying to establish his freedom. He wrote a 370 page manuscript of letters, meditations and poetry to his beloved wife's memory and about religious subjects. The manuscript "Gospell Observations & Religious Manifestations &c.", He remain a prisoner on Jersey until early December 1671 when he was released to his brother-in-law by a warrant that was signed by Charles II. He returned to England and lived his last years with or near his daughters and probably two sons in Rutland.
Overton’s will is dated 23 June 1678, aged 69, Nan Overton West records that he was buried on 2 July 1678 in Seaton churchyard, overlooking the Welland Valley and Rockingham Castle while Barbra Taft writes that he was buried in New Church Yard, Moorfields in London.
Overton was born at Easington Manor in Holderness, Yorkshire in about 1609. His father was John Overton (~1566-1654) and his mother Joan (née Snawsell). He was the eldest of five children: Robert, Frances, Germaine, Griselle (Griselda) and Thomas. His education was completed at Gray's Inn where he was admitted on 1 November 1631.
Overton marrid Anne Gardiner (a Londoner, born about 1613) at the Church of St. Bartholomew the Less in Smithfield, London on 28 June 1632. They had twelve children, Samuel, John, Robert, William, Jeremie, Fairfax and Ebenezer and daughters: Alatheia, Dorcas, Elizabeth, Anne and Joanna  John (baptized at St Giles Cripplegate, London, 17 July 1635) and Joanna (born 1650). John was his eldest son, married Constance the daughter of Sir Francis Monkton of Howden, Knight. They had children Constance, Jane, Marie and Ann. John fell from grace when he left his wife and went on to marry Mary or Margaret Monckton, who was the daughter of Sir Francis and Margaret Monckton of Kent. They went on to have several more children. "This is unclear. Did he marry someone before or after Constance Monkton?"The Easington estate was passed to John when Robert was imprisoned for the second time, to stop it being sequestered by the crown. Two leases to John dated 1 November 1661 and 7 November 1661, put the estate in lease to John for 99 years, and the ultimate benefit of Ebenzeer (Benjamin) and Fairfax, the only other two sons alive at that time. That is why John is not mentioned in his father's will.
The South Aisle of the All Saints Church in Easington contains The Lady Chapel. Above the Altar is a monument dated 1651 which was placed there by Maj. Gen. Robert Overton in memory of his parents, "the deceased but never to be divided John Overton and his wife Joan"
- Overton West, Nan; "The Overtons: 700 Years. With Allied Families from England to Virginia, Kentucky, and Texas." Copyright 1997 by Nan Overton West, 4822 72nd Street, Lubbock, TX 79424. Library of Congress Card #91-65569. Published by H.V. Chapman & Sons, 802 North 3rd, Abilene, TX 79601.
- Taft, Barbara. Overton, Robert (1608/9–1678/9), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 accessed 16 August 2007. Robert Overton (1608/9–1678/9): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/20975
- Jay Wiley, Jay & Grogono, Sally Person Sheet on Maj. Gen. Robert Overton On line notes on which this article is based
- Nan Overton West References Page 119
- Nan Overton West References Page 94
- Nan Overton West References Page 96
- Barbara Taft ODNB citing E. Ludlow, The Memoirs of Edmund Ludlow, ed. C. H. Firth, 2 vols., 1894, 1.65 and John Milton Complete Prose Works, 4, pt 1, 676
- Barbara Taft ODNB
- Nan Overton West References page 60: Poulson used a diary of Nathan Drake, a royalist defender of Pontefract Castle and a political foe of Overton ref
- English dissenters: levellers
- Full title: "Remonstrance of his Excellency Thomas Lord Fairfax, Lord Generall of the Parliaments Forces. And of the Generall Councell of Officers Held at St. Albans the 16. of November, 1648"
- Barbra Taft citing The Declaration of the Officers of the Garrison of Hull, 1 March 1649, 4, 15,16
- Nan Overton West References Page 60
- Ezekiel 21:26-27: "Thus saith the Lord GOD; Remove the diadem, and take off the crown: this shall not be the same: exalt him that is low, and abase him that is high. I will overturn, overturn, overturn, it: and it shall be no more, until he come whose right it is; and I will give it him."
- reference for the poem Cromwell had a big red nose as well as a wart.
- Notes for Maj. Gen. Robert Overton
- House of Commons Journal Volume 7 29 July 1659
- House of Commons Journal Volume 7 13 July 1659
- Mentions a well known Fifth Monarchist preacher in Robert Overton regiment at Hull called John Canne
- House of Commons Journal Volume 7 12 October 1659 Seven Army Commissioners
- Nan Overton West References Pages 98 and 99
- Pepys on Robert Overton Sunday 16 December 1660
- Nan Overton West References Page 100
- Nan Overton West References page 100, The manuscript is now held by the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections of Princeton University
- Nan Overton West References Page 112: another source states Overton was held captive on Jersey until 1668
- Some genealogical sources claim that Robert Overton died in December 1679 in Barbadoes, West Indies. See My Southern Family and Subject: The Overton family. The second source claims that the information comes from the genealogical library of the LDS Church filed by six different persons, but is unverified. No URL to date which claim that Overton died on Barbadoes has been placed on this page with a verifiable source
- Nan Overton West. Bibliography Pages 84 and 122
- Person Sheet Nan Overton West. References pages 84 and 85
- Nan Overton West. References pages 84 and 85
- Nan Overton West. References pages 62 and 100
- Ann Gardiner Nan Overton West. References pg 85
- Ann Gardiner Nan Overton West. References pp. 85 and 122
- "Maj.General Robert Overton". Genealogical-gleanings.com. Retrieved 2014-02-11.
- Nan Overton West. References page 52
- Noble, Mark. The lives of the English regicides: and other commissioners of the pretended High court of justice, appointed to sit in judgement upon their sovereign, King Charles the First, Volume II, J. Stockdale, 1798, pp. 110–117
- Plant, David. Robert Overton, Soldier, Republican, 1609-79 British Civil Wars website
- Summers, Claude J. and Pebworth, Ted-Larry (eds). The English Civil Wars in the Literary Imagination, ISBN 0-8262-1220-4 includes "A most humane foe" by Andrew Shifflett,
- Mentions a well known Fifth preacher in Robert Overton regiment at Hull called John Canne
- Picture of Overton and Mont Orgueil Castle on the Isle of Jersey