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​Colonel Robert Overton

Robert Overton was an Army officer who spent many years in prison during the Civil Wars.  He was governor of Hull and played a prominent role in Cromwell's invasion of Scotland.

Overton was born in 1609, in Easington Manor near Hull, and was educated at St John's College, Oxford.  He married Ann Gardiner in 1632, and the couple had ten children.

Overton first came to promenance in the First Civil War, where he fought in Yorkshire.  He was noticed by Sir Thomas Fairfax after defending Hull in 1643, and fighting at Marston Moor in 1644, and was rewareded with the Governorship of Pontefract in August 1645.  He continued his success bycapturing Sandal Castle in Yorkshire shortly afterwards.  When the New Model Army was formed, Fairfax managed to arrange for Overton to be commissioned a colonel in one of its infantry regiments, but then was caught up in the unrest which swept the army in 1647.  He became governor of Hull in early 1648, but the mayor petitioned for him to be replaced because he was now known as a political and religious radical.  Despite these objections, he remained in his post with Fairfax's support.

When war broke out again in 1648, Overton's regiment went to Wales and fought under Cromwell while Overton himself remained in command of the vital port.  He apparently approved of the execution of King Charles in 1649, although he was not one of the signatories to his death warrant.  At around the time of the King's death, Overton issued a Declaration urging Fairfax to back the principles of the Putney debates, just over a year earlier.  However, he dissociated himself from the Leveller mutinies which swept the army later in 1649.

The following year Overton accompanied Cromwell in his invasion of Scotland; he commanded an infantry brigade at the battle of Dunbar in September 1650, and led the advance to Fife the following summer.  Cromwell eventually defeated the Scots and pursued their army into England.  Overton remained behind as an administrator, and was promoted to major general in December 1652.  He commanded the Commonwealth forces in western Scotland.

Overton's father died in 1653, and he returned to Yorkshire to resume his duties as governor of Hull.  With the recent outbreak of the Anglo-Dutch war, it was again a port of vital importance.  Overton was by now a prominent and successful leader - he had been granted estates in Scotland as a reward for his services and had also been buying up confiscated crown lands.

When Cromwell forcibly dissolved the Rump Parliament in April 1653, Overton backed him, but he was uneasy about the establishment of a Protectorate in December 1654.  He told Cromwell about his misgivings, but assured him that as long as his personal interest didn't conflict with the nation's, Overton would support him.  Cromwell, satisfied with his integrity and loyalty, approved Overton's return to Scotland to serve under General Monck.

However, Overton also visited the conspirator John Wildman around this time, and kept writing to him from Scotland.  Radicals saw Overton as a potential figurehead for a rising against the Protectorate which aimed to restore the Commonwealth.  When Overton was linked to a group of Aberdeen radicals, General Monck sent for him to explain himself, but Overton failed to appear.  Monck had him arrested and sent to the Tower of London in January 1655.  There was no firm evidence of his involvement, but Cromwell and Monck no longer trusted him and Overton stayed in prison for another four years without trial.

He was moved to Elizabeth Castle on Jersey in 1858, and the following year his wife and sister petitioned Parliament for his release.  Many of Overton's friends and comrades supported him, including his friend John Milton.  On 16 March 1659, he protested his innocence before Parliament - they agreed that his imprisonment had been illegal and ordered him released immediately.

The Protectorate fell in May 1659 and the Rump Parliament was restored.  Overton was re-appointed to command his old regiment and sent back to Hull as governor.  He adopted a more conciliatory stance and tried to mediate between warring factions in the army.  As it became more and more likely that the monarchy would be restored, Overton called on his men to defend the "Good Old Cause", but he couldn't challenge the much more powerful General Monck, who took over as governor of Hull and ordered Overton to London.

Overton was viewed with suspicion as a radical when he arrived in March 1660.  Once the monarchy was restored, he was arrested at the first hint of a plot in December 1660.  He was imprisoned at Chepstow Castle before being moved to Jersey; he was not released until 1671.  He spent the last years of his life in quiet retirement with his daughter and son-in-law at Seaton, in Rutland.  He died in 1678.

Overton's career shows some of the complexities of the Civil Wars.  He fell foul of many different factions; despite being one of Cromwell's staunchest supporters he ended up imprisoned for his radical beliefs.  Once the government which had imprisoned him fell, their successors suspected him and imprisoned him again.  He lived a successful life with a distinguished, if unremarkable career, but like so many others he found himself caught up in the swirling morass of interests, factions and plots which wracked Britain for so many years during the Wars.

Information drawn from the BCW project's Biography of Colonel Robert Overton.

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