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VENABLES, ROBERT (1612?–1687), soldier, born about 1612, son of Robert Venables of Antrobus, Cheshire, by Ellen, daughter of Richard Simcox of Rudheath, entered the parliamentary army when the civil war broke out, and served under Sir William Brereton in Cheshire and Lancashire (Ormerod, Cheshire, i. 658; Discourse of the Civil War in Lancashire, pp. 9, 97). In 1645 Venables was governor of Tarvin, and in October of that year was wounded at the siege of Chester, being then a lieutenant-colonel (Report on the Duke of Portland's Manuscripts, i. 288). In January 1648 Venables was governor of Liverpool. In 1649 he commanded a foot regiment in the army under Cromwell destined for the reconquest of Ireland (Norris Papers, p. 19, Chetham Soc. 1846). He preceded Cromwell to Ireland, landing at Dublin on 25 July 1649, in time to take part in the victory of Rathmines (Borlase, History of the Irish Rebellion, ed. 1743, p. 277). After the storming of Drogheda Cromwell detached Venables to join Sir Charles Coote in Ulster. On his march Venables defeated Colonel Mark Trevor at Dromore, and captured Newry and Carlingford (Carlyle, Cromwell, Letters cvi. cxv.; Carte, Ormond, iii. 475). Belfast surrendered to him early in October, and in December he and Sir Charles Coote defeated Lord Ards near Lisnegarvy, and took Carrickfergus (Borlase, App. p. 24; Aphorismical Discovery of Treasonable Faction, iii. 159). In 1650 Venables assisted Coote to capture Charlemont, and in 1652 forced Colonel Tirlogh O'Neill and Lieutenant-general Farrell to capitulate (ib. iii. 320, 336; Ludlow, Memoirs, ed. 1894, i. 318, 522; Borlase, App. p. 28; History of the War of Ireland by an Officer of Sir John Clotworthy's Regiment, 1873, pp. 88, 99, 117, 133). On 9 Dec. 1651 Irish lands to the value of 1,223l. were ordered him for his arrears of pay (Aphorismical Discovery, iii. 273). In May 1654 Venables left Ireland, and on 9 Dec. following he was appointed general of the forces sent by the Protector to attack the Spaniards in the West Indies (his commission is printed in Thurloe, State Papers, iii. 115). The instructions of the Protector and his council gave Venables the full latitude of choice as to the point to attack, suggesting various places, but declining to tie his hands, and ordering him simply ‘to gain an interest in that part of the West Indies in possession of the Spaniards’ (G. Penn, Life of Sir W. Penn, ii. 28). He was, however, to consult with Penn, the admiral commanding the fleet employed in the expedition, and with two commissioners, Edward Winslow [q. v.] and Gregory Butler, on the method of carrying out his instructions.

The expedition set sail in December 1654, reached Barbados at the end of January, where additional forces were embarked, and arrived at Hispaniola on 13 April. A landing was effected with about eight thousand men some forty miles west of the capital, and the army marched through the woods to attack it. After suffering two disastrous defeats from the Spaniards on 17 April and 25 April, Venables, complaining loudly of the cowardice of his men, decided to give up the attempt, and sailed for Jamaica. That island was reached on 10 May, the chief town occupied with very little fighting, and the governor forced to capitulate on 17 May. The Spaniards retired into the woods and hills, whence they continued their resistance; the expedition was badly equipped with provisions and other necessaries, and sickness decimated the ranks of the army. Penn with part of the fleet sailed home on 25 June, and Venables himself followed in the Marston Moor on 4 July. He had been ill ever since reaching Hispaniola, and by this time was thought to be at the point of death. But, apart from reasons of health, he was anxious to get to England in order to clear himself from responsibility for the failure at Hispaniola, and to represent to the Protector the needs of the colony at Jamaica (Thurloe, vol. iii. passim; Life of Penn, ii. 28–132; Carte, Original Letters, ii. 46–52; Report on the Manuscripts of the Duke of Portland, ii. 90–8). When he arrived at Portsmouth (9 Sept. 1655) he described himself as ‘in a recovering condition,’ but almost a skeleton, and so weak that he could neither stand nor ride (ib. ii. 97). On 20 Sept. he appeared before the council of state, and was immediately committed to the Tower. Penn shared the same fate. On 30 Oct. Venables was released from his imprisonment, on condition of surrendering his general's commission and his command in Ireland (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1655, pp. 327, 343, 402). He obtained no further employment during the protectorate. The main cause of the failure at Hispaniola and the reason for the imprisonment of the two generals was the lack of cordial co-operation on the part of both. The errors committed by Venables himself in the management of his attack were equally fatal, and he never obtained the confidence either of his officers or his soldiers (cf. Penn, ii. 32; Thurloe, iii. 646, 754). His army, however, was composed of very inferior and undisciplined troops hastily got together and badly equipped. His wife, who accompanied him, says in her journal: ‘The success was ill, for the work of God was not like to be done by the devil's instruments. A wicked army it was, and sent out without arms or provisions.’

After the fall of the house of Cromwell, Venables began to promote the restoration of the monarchy. According to a story told in the life of Dr. Barwick, his own horror at the execution of Charles I and the persuasions of a royalist lady early induced him to undertake the overthrow of Cromwell, and he purposed employing the troops raised for the expedition to the West Indies for that object. There is no contemporary evidence of any kind to support this improbable fiction (Life of Dr. John Barwick, ed. 1724, pp. 165, 184). In 1659, however, he was won over to the king's cause, though he cautiously avoided taking part in Sir George Booth's insurrection. When Monck came into England he appointed Venables governor of Chester (25 Feb. 1660; Clarke MSS.) ‘I am very glad,’ wrote Hyde to Barwick, ‘that Colonel Venables is governor of Chester, of whose affections the king hath not the least doubt; yet I have thought to ask you a question concerning him long, whether he be of the Independent party in point of religion; which I have heard constantly averred by some who have great kindness for him; and together with that a great opinion of his parts and understanding which methinks should hardly consist with the other’ (Life of Dr. John Barwick, pp. 431, 451, 522). Venables obtained nothing at the Restoration. In 1664 he was informed against as concerned in what was known as the Yorkshire plot, but the charge met with no belief (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1663–4, p. 512). He sheltered William Veitch [q. v.] when he was in hiding in England after the Pentland rising, and seems to have remained a nonconformist (M'Crie, Memoirs of Veitch and Brysson, 1825, p. 23; Autobiography of Henry Newcome, ii. 207). He died in July 1687, aged 75, or, according to another account, 70 (Heywood, Northowram Register, p. 72).

Venables married, first, Elizabeth, daughter of Thomas Rudyard of Rudyard, Staffordshire; secondly, in 1654, Elizabeth, widow of Thomas Lee of Darnhall, and daughter of Samuel Aldersey (Notes and Queries, 3rd ser. v. 120). Shortly after the Restoration he bought the estate of Wincham, where his descendants are still settled. His portrait, the autobiography of his second wife, and some manuscripts relating to the West Indian expedition are still preserved there (Chetham Miscellany, iv. 3, 9).

Venables published in 1662: ‘The Experienced Angler, or Angling improved, being a general discourse of angling, imparting many of the aptest ways and choicest experiments for the taking of most sorts of fish in pond or river,’ 12mo. To it is prefixed an epistle by Izaak Walton to his ingenious friend the author. ‘I have read,’ says Walton, ‘and practised by many books of this kind … yet I could never find in them that height for judgment and reason which you have manifested in this.’ A fifth edition appeared in 1683, and one, with a life of Venables prefixed, was published in 1827.

[A good life of Venables is given in a note to the Discourse of the Civil War in Lancashire, edited by W. Beaumont (Chetham Soc.), 1864, pp. 97–100; Some Account of General Robert Venables (Chetham Miscel. vol. iv. 1871); Notes and Queries, 3rd ser. v. 120; Ormerod's Cheshire, i. 658; letters of Venables are printed in the Thurloe State Papers and in Carte's Collection of Original Letters, 1739. Narratives of the Jamaica Expedition are printed in Leonard Howard's Original Letters, 1753, pp. 1–21; the Harleian Miscellany, ed. Park, iii. 510; Granville Penn's Life of Sir William Penn, 1833, ii. 28–132; Long's Hist. of Jamaica, 1774; Burchett's Complete Hist. of the most remarkable Transactions at Sea, 1720.]

C. H. F.