HARRISON, THOMAS (1606–1660), English parliamentarian, a native of Newcastle-under-Lyme in Staffordshire, the son of a butcher and mayor of that town, was baptized in 1606. He was placed with an attorney of Clifford’s Inn, but at the beginning of the war in 1642 he enlisted in Essex’s lifeguards, became major in Fleetwood’s regiment of horse under the earl of Manchester, was present at Marston Moor, at Naseby, Langport and at the taking of Winchester and Basing, as well as at the siege of Oxford. At Basing Harrison was accused of having killed a prisoner in cold blood. In 1646 he was returned to parliament for Wendover, and served in Ireland in 1647 under Lord Lisle, returning to England in May, when he took the side of the army in the dispute with the parliament and obtained from Fairfax a regiment of horse. In November he opposed the negotiations with the king, whom he styled “a man of blood” to be called to account, and he declaimed against the House of Lords. At the surprise of Lambert’s quarters at Appleby on the 18th of July 1648, in the second civil war, he distinguished himself by his extraordinary daring and was severely wounded. He showed a special zeal in bringing about the trial of the king. Charles was entrusted to his care on being brought up from Hurst Castle to London, and believed that Harrison intended his assassination, but was at once favourably impressed by his bearing and reassured by his disclaiming any such design. Harrison was assiduous in his attendance at the trial, and signed the death-warrant with the fullest conviction that it was his duty. He took part in suppressing the royalist rising in the midlands in May 1649, and in July was appointed to the chief command in South Wales, where he is said to have exercised his powers with exceptional severity. On the 20th of February 1651 he became a member of the council of state, and during Cromwell’s absence in Scotland held the supreme military command in England. He failed in stopping the march of the royalists into England at Knutsford on the 16th of August 1651, but after the battle of Worcester he rendered great service in pursuing and capturing the fugitives. Later he pressed on Cromwell the necessity of dismissing the Long Parliament, and it was he who at Cromwell’s bidding, on the 20th of April 1653, laid hands on Speaker Lenthall and compelled him to vacate the chair. He was president of the council of thirteen which now exercised authority, and his idea of government appears to have been an assembly nominated by the congregations, on a strictly religious basis, such as Barebone’s Parliament which now assembled, of which he was a member and a ruling spirit. Harrison belonged to the faction of Fifth Monarchy men, whose political ideals were entirely destroyed by Cromwell’s assumption of the protectorate. He went immediately into violent opposition, was deprived of his commission on the 22nd of December 1653, and on the 3rd of February 1654 was ordered to confine himself to his father’s house in Staffordshire. Suspected of complicity in the plots of the anabaptists, he was imprisoned for a short time in September, and on that occasion was sent for by Cromwell, who endeavoured in a friendly manner to persuade him to desist. He, however, incurred the suspicions of the administration afresh, and on the 15th of February 1655 he was imprisoned in Carisbrooke Castle, being liberated in March 1656 when he took up his residence at Highgate with his family. In April 1657 he was arrested for supposed complicity in Venner’s conspiracy, and again once more in February 1658, when he was imprisoned in the Tower. At the Restoration, Harrison, who was excepted from the Act of Indemnity, refused to take any steps to save his life, to give any undertaking not to conspire against the government or to flee. “Being so clear in the thing,” he declared, “I durst not turn my back nor step a foot out of the way by reason I had been engaged in the service of so glorious and great a God.” He was arrested in Staffordshire in May 1660 and brought to trial on the 11th of October. He made a manly and straightforward defence, pleading the authority of parliament and adding, “May be I might be a little mistaken, but I did it all according to the best of my understanding, desiring to make the revealed will of God in His holy scriptures a guide to me.” At his execution, which took place at Charing Cross on the 13th of October 1660, he behaved with great fortitude.
Richard Baxter, who was acquainted with him, describes Harrison as “a man of excellent natural parts for affection and oratory, but not well seen in the principles of his religion of a sanguine complexion, naturally of such a vivacity, hilarity and alacrity as another man hath when he hath drunken a cup too much, but naturally also so far from humble thoughts of himself that it was his ruin.” Cromwell also complained of his excessive eagerness. “Harrison is an honest man and aims at good things, yet from the impatience of his spirit will not wait the Lord’s leisure but hurries me on to that which he and all honest men will have cause to repent.” Harrison was an eloquent and fluent expounder of the scriptures, and his “raptures” on the field of victory are recorded by Baxter. He was of the chief of those “fiery spirits” whose ardent and emotional religion inspired their political action, and who did wonders during the period of struggle and combat, but who later, in the more sober and difficult sphere of constructive statesmanship, showed themselves perfectly incapable.
Harrison married about 1648 Katherine, daughter and heiress of Ralph Harrison of Highgate in Middlesex, by whom he had several children, all of whom, however, appear to have died in infancy.
See the article on Harrison by C. H. Firth in the Dict. of Nat. Biog.; Life of Harrison by C. H. Simpkinson (1905); Notes and Queries, 9 series, xi. 211.