Me On:

‘Suspected persons’ in Wiltshire during the Cromwellian Protectorate

Following the failed Royalist uprising led by Colonel John Penruddock of Compton Chamberlayne in March 1655,[1] Cromwell placed the country under a system of military rule.[2] Major-General John Desborough, who had put down the rebellion, was put in charge of Wiltshire and its neighbours. On January 1656, the council sent down instructions to Desborough and his commissioners.[3] They should disarm and take bonds from all suspicious persons, Catholics and those who had ever fought for the King, but also those who lived dissolutely, or whose lifestyle seemed far more expensive than their wealth should support. They were to note all innkeepers, who were to send the commissioners lists of their patrons, to close any inn that stood dangerously alone out of town, and to suppress horse races, stage plays and other assemblies that might provide cover for conspiracy. The wording of the bonds that were taken from ‘suspected persons’ was broad, requiring those who entered into them neither to plot against the state, nor to consent to any plot, and to report any conspiracy. Their open-endedness, with no time limit to the good behaviour they exacted, was a grievous concern to the Royalists bound over.[4] Indeed, it was of such concern that some anxious Wiltshire gentlemen still felt it prudent to petition Parliament as late as 1663 to secure the recovery of bonds still then held by one of the commissioners.[5]

To help monitor those from whom they took security, the commissioners were to send lists of their names to the council’s agent in London, Thomas Dunn, for him to register them. The Commissioners were also to inform him when any of these Royalists intended to travel to London. The register of suspected persons for the south-western counties contains over 5,000 names, drawn from the five counties of Devon, Dorset, Gloucestershire, Somerset, and Wiltshire.[6] It is a remarkable list not only for its size but also for the diversity of individuals included. The lords and gentlemen one might expect to find are accompanied by a far greater number of artisans, tradesmen, and labourers. Indeed, so unusual was this that Dunn had to write in April 1656 to one of Desborough’s commissioners in Somerset to reiterate that they were to take security of ‘obscure people… Husbandmen, Weavers, Bakers, and such like…’[7]

Of the 5,000 men listed in the south-western register, only a small proportion – some 376 – were from Wiltshire. Amongst them were one lord, one baronet, two esquires, and 35 gentlemen, as well as one clergyman and a doctor of law. Almost half were engaged in agriculture or husbandry (15 yeomen, 152 husbandmen, one shearer, seven shepherds), whilst 48 were employed in the cloth trade (mainly as weavers or tailors). The remaining 112 men were employed in some 49 trades, which included butchers, carpenters, masons, shoemakers and blacksmiths, but also a coachman, a musician, and a gunsmith. Unsurprisingly, the city of Salisbury returned the largest number of suspects, with 41, and the greatest range of occupations. But perhaps the most surprising aspect about the list is that it is comprised almost exclusively of men from the southern third of the county, with only two men drawn from parishes north of Westbury. Besides Salisbury and its suburbs, three apparent focal points emerge: Warminster and its neighbours; the parishes between Tisbury and Stourton; and the south-east border with Hampshire. Of the parishes to the north of Salisbury, only Stapleford, Amesbury, and Collingbourne Ducis had ten or more suspects.

A map depicting the returns from Wiltshire, distributed by parish.

Map of ‘suspected persons’ in Wiltshire, 1656

How should we interpret these results? To begin with, the absence of returns from two-thirds of the county must be treated as an anomaly. It is not apparent how this happened; it may be that the commissioners in Wiltshire omitted to send returns from these divisions of the county to the central office in London, or that these returns were mislaid or overlooked in the London office. However, even having returns from just the southern third of the county is intriguing, as Penruddock’s rising was confined to this part of the county. By the time that the lists of s were put together, ten months after the rising, many of Penruddock’s confederates had been executed or transported. This perhaps explains why Penruddock’s home parish of Compton Chamberlayne is not one of the focal points. Nevertheless, we might expect support for his cause to be concentrated in the south, especially in Salisbury (where Penruddock had proclaimed the King and taken the sheriff captive), so it is frustrating not to be able to compare this area with returns from the other parts of the county.

Nevertheless, it is important to remember that when the commissioners drew up these lists, they were ordered to take note of anybody considered suspicious, and not just those who had actively born arms in 1655. We must therefore look beyond Penruddock’s supporters to analyse these returns. Seventeenth-century governments all faced practical difficulties in learning about dissent and dissidents within local communities. Without the levels of bureaucracy employed during later centuries, seventeenth-century regimes were forced to rely upon the personal knowledge (and prejudices) of its officers, or the initiative of informants within an individual community. On that basis, the concentration of suspects within certain parishes might be less a reflection of Royalism than of support for the Protectorate regime, with high numbers of suspects reflecting proximity to an active magistrate or a zealous informant. Of course, individuals were also not above using the divisions of the 1650s to carry on personal rivalries or to promote their own interests. At first glance, the location of the Wiltshire commissioners seems to support this idea, with five of the eleven men resident in Salisbury or parishes close to it. However, none of the other six commissioners lived in the south-west of the county, where the concentration of our suspects was highest, and the inclusion of commissioners from Bromham, Devizes, Grittleton, and Marlborough makes the absence of results from the north and central areas of the county even more inexplicable.

An alternative explanation is that many of the ‘obscure people included amongst the returns were servants of the Royalist gentlemen listed alongside them.[8] An analysis of the returns does appear to suggest a correlation between the presence of gentry and suspects, with higher numbers of noblemen in Warminster, Mere, and Downton, three of the parishes most represented among the returns. However, the larger numbers of gentlemen returned for Dinton and Donhead does not seem to be reflected in larger numbers of suspects from these parishes, while we must ask whether the solitary presence of Richard Kitson of Flamstone House explains the high levels of returns for the parish of Tisbury. One noteworthy absence from this list is Lord Arundell, or indeed any suspects from the parish of Wardour, whose family resided in Hampshire after the destruction of Wardour castle in 1644.[9] Nevertheless, the large numbers of returns from the neighbouring parish of Tisbury, and the cluster of gentry returned in the parishes to the south, might still be explained by their proximity to Wardour. The presence of the Catholic Royalist Lord Stourton further explains why there was such a concentration of returns from the south-west corner of the county. Of course, as we might expect, all of these areas are eclipsed by Salisbury, with the highest numbers of returns, gentlemen, and commissioners in the county.

Ultimately the anomalous nature of these returns, with such small numbers and so uneven a distribution across the county, makes it impossible to draw any firm conclusions from the Wiltshire data alone. More work must now be done to analyse the returns from across all five counties, and also to better understand the reasons behind the inclusion of individuals on one of these lists. Nevertheless, these returns provide an intriguing glimpse into a world of dissent at a level not always visible to the historian of the 1650s.

[1] The best introduction remains Austin Woolrych’s succinct account: A.H. Woolrych, Penruddock’s Uprising 1655 (London, 1955).

[2] For the full history of this period, see Christopher Durston, Cromwell’s Major Generals (Manchester, 2001).

[3] The eleven commissioners had been named in the previous month: A Collection of the State Papers of John Thurloe, ed. Thomas Birch (London, 1742), IV, pp. 287–301, British History Online,

[4] Durston, pp. 130–33.

[5] Commons Journal, VIII, 438.

[6] British Library, Add. MS 34,012, ‘A book containing the names of all such persons as are specified in several lists received from the Deputies of General Disbrow Major General for the Counties of Wilts, Dorset, Devon, Cornwall, Somerset, Gloucester’. Despite its name, there are no entries for Cornwall. A microfilm copy of this document is held by the Wiltshire & Swindon Archives: WSA, X9/1.

[7] British Library, Add. MS 19516, ‘A booke of such letters as from tyme to tyme have been sent from this Office to the Major Generalls of the respective associacions of the severall counties of this nation’, f. 24.

[8] For these purposes, ‘the gentry’ refers to anybody who was referred to as ‘gentleman’, ‘esquire’, ‘knight’, ‘baronet’, or ‘lord’ in these returns. There was a total of 39 men described using one of these terms in the returns from Wiltshire.

[9] Peter Sherlock, ‘Arundell, Henry, third Baron Arundell of Wardour (bap. 1608, d. 1694)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2009 [, accessed 27 Jan 2017]