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OVERTON, ROBERT (fl. 1640–1668), soldier, son of John Overton of Easington in Holderness, Yorkshire, born about 1609, was admitted to Gray's Inn on 1 Nov. 1631 (Poulson, Holderness, ii. 377; Foster, Gray's Inn Register, p. 194). At the beginning of the civil war he took up arms for the parliament, served under the Fairfaxes, and distinguished himself in the defence of Hull and at the battle of Marston Moor (Ludlow, Memoirs, ed. 1698, i. 78; Milton, Works, ed. Bohn, i. 293). In August 1645, when parliament made Sir Thomas Fairfax [see Fairfax, Thomas, third Lord Fairfax] governor of Pontefract, he appointed Colonel Overton his deputy. In September Overton reduced Sandal Castle (Report on the Portland MSS. i. 279). Ferdinando lord Fairfax [q. v.] urged his son to find a command for Overton in the regular army (23 March 1647), but Sir Thomas, while expressing his desire ‘to bring so deserving a man into the army,’ was not able to do so till the summer of 1647. About July 1647 Overton succeeded to the command of the foot regiment late Colonel Herbert's, and shortly afterwards became also governor of Hull. In June 1648 the mayor and corporation of Hull petitioned for his removal; but Fairfax strongly supported him, and he was also backed by a section of the townsmen (Portland MSS. i. 468, 478; Rushworth, vii. 1021). In the second civil war Overton's regiment fought under Cromwell in Wales and in the north, while its colonel guarded Hull, and drove the cavaliers out of the Isle of Axholme.

Overton took no part in the king's trial, but thoroughly approved of that measure. As early as February 1648 he had expressed the view that it would be a happy thing if God would please to dispossess the king ‘of three transitory kingdoms to infeoff him in an eternal one’ (Fairfax Correspondence, iii. 11). Both his regiment and the garrison of Hull sent addresses in support of the army leaders; but Overton clearly disagreed on several points with the policy of the new government (A Declaration of the Garrison of Hull, 4to, 1649). In 1650 Overton accompanied Cromwell to Scotland, commanded a brigade of foot at the battle of Dunbar, and was made governor of Edinburgh after its occupation by Cromwell (September 1650; Nickolls, Letters and Papers of State addressed to Cromwell, 1743, fol. p. 24; Carlyle, Cromwell, letter cxl.) His regiment formed part of the force sent over to Fife in July 1651, and he commanded the reserve at the victory of Inverkeithing (ib. letter clxxv.; Heath, Chronicle, pp. 505, 539). Remaining with Monck in Scotland when Cromwell followed Charles II into England, Overton helped to complete the subjugation of Scotland, and commanded an expedition which reduced and garrisoned the Orkneys (Tanner MSS. Bodleian Library, lv. 170). On 14 May 1652 parliament voted him 400l. a year inScottish lands as a reward for his services (Commons' Journals, vii. 132). When Deane, Monck's successor, was recalled from Scotland, he appointed Overton to command all the English forces in the west of that country (30 Dec. 1652; Clarke MSS. xxiv. 86). It was to Overton, as governor of Aberdeen, that Sir Alexander Irvine appealed when he was excommunicated by the presbytery of Aberdeen (Spalding Club Miscellany, iii. 205).

In 1653 Overton, who had now succeeded to the family estate at Easington, returned to England, and again became governor of Hull. Deeply imbued with the views of the fifth monarchy men, and dissatisfied with the slow progress of the work of reformation under the rule of the parliament, he hailed with enthusiasm Cromwell's forcible dissolution of that body. He wrote at once to Cromwell approving the act, and promising his support and that of his garrison (More Hearts and Hands appearing for the work … being two Letters … from Colonel Robert Overton, Governor of Hull … and the Officers of the said Garrison, 1653, 4to). But the dissolution of the Little parliament and the assumption by Cromwell of the post of Protector filled him with doubts and suspicions. He declared his dissatisfaction to Cromwell, telling him that if he saw he did design to set up himself and not the good of the nation, he would not set one foot before another to serve him. ‘Thou wert a knave if thou wouldst,’ answered Cromwell; and, in the end, Overton retained his commission on the promise to deliver it up when he could not conscientiously serve the Protector any longer (Thurloe, iii. 110). In September 1654 he returned to his command in Scotland, but in December was arrested and sent prisoner to England on the charge of intending to head a military insurrection against the government. Overton's own indiscreet conduct in sanctioning meetings of the disaffected officers under his command certainly gave ground for suspicion. The enemies of the government regarded him as a probable leader, and used his name freely in their plots. Charles II wrote to him to promise forgiveness for past disloyalty, and rewards for service in effecting a restoration (Cal. Clarendon Papers, ii. 344). The levellers expected that he would seize Monck, take command of the army in Scotland, and march into England to restore the Commonwealth. An examination of the evidence leads to the conclusion that he was innocent, but it is not surprising that he was believed to be guilty. The Protector held him as deliberately faithless to his promise, and treated him with great severity (Carlyle, Cromwell, Speech v.; Clarke Papers, Camden Soc. ii. 241). His supposed accomplices in Scotland were court-martialled and cashiered; but Overton himself was never formally tried. After about two years' rigorous imprisonment in the Tower he was transported to Jersey, and confined in Elizabeth Castle there till March 1658 (The Sad Suffering Case of Major-general Robert Overton, by J. R., 1659, 4to; Thurloe, iii. 67, 147, 185, 217, 279; Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1658–9, p. 259). On 3 Feb. 1659 Grizell Williamson, Overton's sister, presented a petition to Richard Cromwell's parliament on behalf of her brother, and that body ordered that he should be brought to London to have his case heard. On 16 March, after hearing Overton, it voted his immediate release, and pronounced his imprisonment at Jersey illegal (Burton, Parliamentary Diary, iii. 45; iv. 120, 150; Commons' Journals, vii. 614).

The fall of Richard Cromwell and the restoration of the Long parliament was followed by the redress of Overton's wrongs. On 16 June the committee for the nomination of officers voted that he should be restored to his regiment and his other commands, while parliament two days later appointed a committee to examine into his losses, and see how they could be compensated (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1658–9, p. 375; Commons' Journal, vii. 688, 738). Overton was one of the seven commissioners in whom parliament on 12 Oct. 1659 vested the government of the army (ib. vii. 796). His reputation with the republicans, the strength of Hull, and the importance of its magazine made his adherence of great value to either of the contending parties in the army. He and his officers refused to sign the address to parliament which Fleetwood and the English army circulated, nor would they return a definite answer to Monck's appeals to them to co-operate with the Scottish army. Overton sought to mediate, and published an exhortation to both parties to unite in maintaining the Lord's cause (A True Narrative of the Proceedings in Parliament, Council, &c., 1659, 4to, p. 10; The Humble and Healing Advice of Robert Overton, 1659, 4to). The ambiguity of his conduct, his preparations for a siege, and the incendiary letters which he circulated among the troops in Yorkshire, caused Monck great embarrassment. On 4 March 1660 the council of state peremptorily ordered him to observe whatever orders he received from Monck, and six days later to come to London at once (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1659–60, pp. 381, 388; Baker, Chronicle, ed. Phillips, 1670, pp. 700, 713). Overton had undoubtedly intended to make a last stand for the republic, and to frustrate Monck's design for bringing back the king; but the disaffection of the town and the divisions of the garrison obliged him peaceably to give up his government to Colonel Fairfax, and obey the orders of the council (Ludlow, Memoirs, ii. 859, ed. 1698).

The rest of Overton's life was mostly spent in prison. Having neither taken part in the trial of the king, nor sat on the tribunals which condemned the royalist leaders, Overton was not excepted from the Act of Indemnity. But he was regarded as one of the heads of the fifth monarchy men, and on the first rumour of an insurrection among them was arrested and sent to the Tower (December 1660; Heath, Chronicle, ed. 1663, p. 784). On 9 Nov. 1661 a warrant was signed for his conveyance to Chepstow Castle. Apparently he succeeded in obtaining a short interval of freedom; but on 26 May 1663 he was again arrested as ‘suspected of seditious practices, and refusing to take the oaths or give security.’ In January 1664 the government resolved to send him to Jersey, and he was still imprisoned there in February 1668. The date and place of his death are unknown (Hist. MSS. Comm. 11th Rep. pt. vii. pp. 3, 6; Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1663–4 p. 461, 1667–8 p. 229).

Overton married in 1632 Anne, daughter of Jeremy Gardiner of Stratford, Bow, Middlesex (Chester, London Marriage Licences, p. 1002). His eldest son, John, was admitted to Gray's Inn on 11 Nov. 1661, and was probably the author of a work on ‘English Military Discipline’ published in 1672 (Foster, Gray's Inn Register, p. 292). His grandson Robert, who died in 1721, sold the family estate to the Milners of Nun Appleton (Poulson, Holderness, ii. 377).

Overton was a scholar as well as a soldier. Milton celebrates his exploits in the ‘Defensio Secunda,’ and addresses him as ‘bound to me these many years past in a friendship of more than brotherly closeness and affection, both by the similarity of our tastes and the sweetness of your manners’ (Masson, Life of Milton, iv. 602, 607, 621). ‘Civil and discreet,’ ‘a scholar, but a little pedantic,’ is the character given of him by his prisoner, Sir James Turner (Memoirs, pp. 78–82). John Canne, who was Overton's chaplain at Hull, dedicated to him his ‘Voice from the Temple,’ 4to, 1653, and probably exercised considerable influence upon his religious views (Yorkshire Diaries, Surtees Soc. 1875, pp. 143, 422). Overton's letters, many of which are in print among the ‘Thurloe Papers,’ show his disinterested devotion to his cause, and his willingness to suffer for it. ‘If I be called,’ he wrote in 1654, ‘to seal the cause of God and my country with my blood, by suffering death, or by bearing any testimony to the interest of my nation and the despised truths of these times, he is able to support and save me, as the sun to shine upon me. … If I can but keep faith and a good conscience, I shall assuredly finish my course with joy’ (Thurloe, iii. 47).

[Authorities cited in the article.]

C. H. F.