The Rule of the Major-Generals, was a period of direct military government from August 1655 to January 1657, during Oliver Cromwell's Protectorate. England and Wales were divided into eleven regions, each governed by a major-general who answered to the Lord Protector.
The Rule of the Major-Generals was set up by Cromwell by his orders to the army, and was not supported by parliamentary legislation. His goal was threefold: to identify, tax, disarm and weaken the Royalists, whom he saw as conspirators against his rule. The system was also an economical measure because the military budget had been cut. The major generals would take control of incumbent civilian administrations, which would not require an expansion of local military forces. As well, he sought "a reformation of manners" or moral regeneration through the suppression of vice and the encouragement of virtue, which he considered much too neglected. The historian Austin Woolrych, using 21st-century terminology, said that the Puritans did not consider it inappropriate to "employee senior military officers as vice squad chiefs".
In March 1655, there were ineffectual-but-concerted Royalist uprisings in England. In late July, news of the defeat of the expedition to Hispaniola, commanded by William Penn and Robert Venables, reached London in 1655. Cromwell felt that the defeat was his punishment from God for not trying to make England a more religious, godly place.
In August, a scheme was proposed to introduce the Rule of the Major-Generals, but prevarication and other delays delayed its introduction to October.
Like Cromwell, the Major Generals were committed Puritans, Congregationalist reformers with Calvinist leanings. Part of their job was to try to make England more godly. They clamped down on what they considered to be rowdy behaviour like heavy drinking, music, dancing and fairs. They even tried to stop Christmas celebrations. Their rule was unpopular.
The Rule of the Major General is regarded by a large number of authors as a military dictatorship, with the exception of Austin Woolrych. The argument of Woolrych against such definition is that the Major Generals remained within the boundaries of the law, they had minimal or no long-term influence in local government and their authority only lasted for less than two years.
Patrick Little wrote an article on the Major-General (2012) in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography:
The religious zeal of the major-generals, coupled with their attempt to impose godly rule on England and Wales, has given them a lasting reputation as po-faced puritans and killjoys, and this reputation has attached itself to the Cromwellian regime as a whole. Few have addressed the subject without emotion.... Others have traced back to this period the English love of freedom and hatred of standing armies and military rule. Modern historians tend to portray the major-generals either as the gauleiters of the Cromwellian military state or as misguided religious zealots.
Unlike those countries with the ethos of a thoroughly centralist state, we have long had a gut instinct in [the United Kingdom] against excessive governmental controls. Most historians believe that this stretches back all the way to the 17th Century and the rule of the major-generals under Cromwell and the Protectorate.
There were ten regional associations covering England and Wales administered by major-generals. Ireland, under Major-General Henry Cromwell,[a] and Scotland, under Major-General George Monck, were in administrations that had already been agreed upon and were not part of the scheme.
|James Berry||Appointed in 1655||Herefordshire, Shropshire, Worcestershire and Wales||John Nicholas in Monmouthshire;
Rowland Dawkins in Carmarthenshire, Cardiganshire, Glamorgan, Pembrokeshire.
|William Boteler (Butler)||Bedfordshire, Huntingdonshire, Northamptonshire and Rutland||Zealous and uncompromising in his hostility to his religious and political enemies, Boteler was a severe persecutor of Quakers in Northamptonshire; in 1656 he advocated that James Nayler should be stoned to death for blasphemy. Boteler was also aggressive in his persecution of Royalists in his area, unlawfully imprisoning the Earl of Northampton for failing to pay his taxes.|
|John Desborough||Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Gloucestershire, Somerset and Wiltshire|
|Charles Fleetwood||Appointed in 1655||Buckinghamshire, Cambridgeshire, Essex, Hertfordshire, Isle of Ely, Norfolk, Oxfordshire and Suffolk||George Fleetwood (a distant kinsman) in Buckinghamshire;
Hezekiah Haynes in Essex, Cambridgeshire, Isle of Ely, Norfolk, Suffolk;
William Packer as military governor of Hertfordshire and Oxfordshire
|Owing to his other responsibilities on the Council of State, day to day matters in his region were overseen by Fleetwood's three deputies.|
|William Goffe||October 1655||Berkshire, Hampshire and Sussex|
|Thomas Kelsey||Surrey and Kent|
|John Lambert||Cumberland, County Durham, Northumberland, Westmorland and Yorkshire||Charles Howard in Cumberland, Northumberland, Westmorland;
Robert Lilburne in County Durham, Yorkshire
|Owing to his other responsibilities on the Council of State, day to day matters in his region were overseen by Lambert's two deputies.|
|Philip Skippon||Middlesex; including the cities of London and Westminster||Sir John Barkstead||Skippon was by now elderly, and on the Council of State, so most of the day to day matters in his region were largely undertaken by Barkstead.|
|Edward Whalley||Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire, Warwickshire,|
June 1656–January 1657
|Cheshire, Lancashire and Staffordshire||Appointed in October 1655 Worsley was extremely zealous in carrying out his instructions. No one suppressed more alehouses, or was more active in sequestering royalists, preventing horse-races, and carrying on the work of reformation. Worsley died on 12 June 1656, and Tobias Bridge replaced him.|