Harry Vane


Harry Vane, originally named Henry after his father, was born into English nobility and was educated at Westminster School. While not religious as a child, he experienced a conversion to Puritanism around age 14. His father, distraught by his choice in religion, encouraged him to forget his faith in order to acquire a court position under King Charles I, but Harry refused, choosing instead to sail to the New World in search of religious tolerance. Vane arrived in Boston in 1635, and within a month he had been admitted as a full member of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He took a judicial position before being elected governor in 1636, but his former job had not prepared him for the decisions he would face as leader, and his time in office was disastrous. Vane was elected shortly after Anne Hutchinson’s arrival in Boston, and he agreed strongly with her philosophy of Antinomianism, but the colony was divided over the issue. Later that year, Vane was forced to return to England, and while he was away war broke out between the settlers and the Pequot Indians. Upon his return in April 1637, Vane sanctioned the colonial militia to continue the war, and by the time of its conclusion, the Pequots had been completely wiped out. Vane did not win re-election, and shortly afterward, Anne Hutchinson was exiled from the colony. Harry left once more for England.

New England
Upon his return, Vane procured, with the help of his father, a position as treasurer of the Royal Navy, and in 1640 he was knighted by King Charles. That same year, he married Frances Wray, and after the wedding he was given his father’s property holdings, including Raby Castle. His political connections allowed him to serve in both the Short and Long Parliaments, where his sound judgment and persuasive speeches won him many admirers, and he proved instrumental in the execution of the Earl of Stratford in 1641. In retaliation, Charles deprived both the elder and younger Vane of their court positions.

By 1642, Parliament had broken completely away from the king, and Vane was returned to his role as treasurer, where he was able to rouse significant support against the Royalists. He also sat in on the Westminster Assembly of Divines formulated to reform the Church the England, and during the meeting he acted as an essential conciliatory figure. After this success, he was made a leader of Parliament and a chief member of the Committee of Both Kingdoms. In 1644 he worked with Oliver Cromwell to set up a “Grand Committee for the Accommodation” with the aim of reaching religious agreement among the members of the Westminster Assembly, but in the process he exposed himself as an Independent, leading to a serious rift among those gathered.

In 1646, the first phase of the English Civil War ended, but this time of peace only ushered in religious debates and hostile legislation. Vane began working closely with Oliver Cromwell, and the two led the government army in a mutiny against the Presbyterian leaders, who had removed all Independents from Parliament. Eventually those ousted were restored to their former positions, but soon even members with the same values had begun to argue concerning the fate of the king and the people. Soon these disagreements erupted into the Second English Civil War. Vane believed strongly that England would only be happy without a king, and he argued this position to much disagreement. Nevertheless, King Charles was executed in 1649, and the Parliament soon established a Council of State led by Cromwell. Unfortunately, the two parties did not work well together, and this caused a rift between Cromwell and Vane. The commonwealth was soon disbanded, but Cromwell continued to rule as Lord Protector, and Vane effectively retired among rumors that he was preparing a rebellion against his former friend. He published two books, Retired Man’s Meditations and A Healing Question, and the second, seen as an attack on Cromwell, resulted in Vane’s arrest and imprisonment.

Following Cromwell’s death in 1658, his son Richard succeeded him, but the boy lacked his father’s political sense and tactical skill. During the next Parliamentary election, the young Cromwell attempted to prevent Vane from acquiring a position, but Harry won the vote and soon formed an alliance with the Wallingford House party, who sought to limit military influence in political matters. Cromwell responded by dissolving Parliament, but within days he was forced to abdicate his position and the assembly was soon restored. Vane was appointed to the new council of state, and he served as the commissioner for the appointment of army officers. A committee of safety was formed, of which Vane was an active member, but it only lasted until December of that year, and after its dissolution Harry was placed under house arrest. He remained there for a short time but eventually returned to government proceedings, where he took advantage of the disorder in Parliament to promote his own ideas. The Long Parliament finally dissolved in 1660, Charles II was proclaimed king, and Vane was arrested and imprisoned. After being transferred to Scilly for a time, he was returned to London, where a trial declared him guilty of high treason. He was beheaded on June 14, 1662, and after his death he was declared a martyr for his cause.

Key events during the life of Harry Vane:

Converted to Puritanism.
Sailed to Boston.
Anne Hutchinson arrived in Boston.
  Elected governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
  Recalled to England for a short time.
  War between Boston settlers and Pequot indians.
Moved to England following Anne Hutchinson's banishment.
Married Frances Wray.
Helped impeach and execute the Earl of Strafford.
First English Civil War.
First meeting of the Westminster Assembly of Divines.
Established a 'Grand Committee for the Accomodation.'
Second English Civil War.
Execution of Charles I.
  Establishment of Oliver Cromwell's Commonwealth.
Third English Civil War.
Published the A Healing Question, which led to his arrest.
Death of Cromwell.
Cromwell's son dissolved Parliament, which returned a month later.
Charles II was proclaimed king.
Beheaded for high treason.

Other Resources

Story Links
Book Links
Story of Harry Vane  in  This Country of Ours  by  H. E. Marshall

Short Biography
Anne Hutchinson Female preacher who was exiled from the Plymouth colony, and later with Roger Williams, founded Rhode Island.
John Winthrop Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Oliver Cromwell Military leader of Parliament who headed the Commonwealth government after death of Charles I.
Charles I Second Stuart king. His quarrels with Parliament led to civil war and his execution.
Charles II Restored to the throne after death of Cromwell. Presided over the great fire and plague of London.