Sir Henry Vane Facts
The English statesman Sir Henry Vane (1613-1662), who served as governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, led the Long Parliament and the English Commonwealth.
The career of Sir Henry, or Harry, Vane the Younger epitomizes the close connection between New England and English life in the mid-17th century. He also illustrates the combination of devout religious belief and utterly realistic political action which characterized the Puritans in both places.
The elder Sir Henry Vane was a self-seeking courtier of Charles I who acted as a diplomat and joined the Privy Council in 1630. The younger Vane was educated at Westminster School and Oxford. In addition, he studied at Geneva and Leiden and was sent to Vienna to acquire further knowledge of European affairs. On his return to England in 1632, the road to preferment at court was open to him. But at age 15 Vane had had a profound religious experience which made him a devout Puritan and an opponent of royal authority over religion. Therefore in 1635 he sailed for New England.
Eight months after Vane's arrival, and at the age of 23, he was elected governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony because he obviously had the highest social rank. He had already become friendly with the expelled Roger Williams, who aided Vane in pacifying the neighboring Indian tribes. But Vane's support of Anne Hutchinson involved him in a dispute with most of the colony's ministers and conservative lay leaders. They defeated his reelection as governor and so reduced his authority in the colony that he had little choice but to return to England in 1637.
A career at court was still open to Vane, and in 1639 he was named joint treasurer of the navy. His father had become a secretary of state and was a leading organizer of the King's attempt to reduce the Scots to obedience. Both Vanes were returned to the Parliaments of 1640. The younger Vane was an efficient administrator and was influential in maintaining the loyalty of the navy to Parliament. He also rallied the military support of London to Parliament in autumn 1642. Vane first stood out as a leader of Parliament, however, in his mission to the Scots in 1643. Basically, he wanted to negotiate an exclusively political alliance. When the Scots insisted upon religious conditions, Vane secured a saving clause in the treaty whereby the English church settlement should be "according to the Word of God." For the Scots that meant presbytery, but for Vane it meant spiritual liberty or independency. The religious issue was therefore postponed, but the military support of Scotland was obtained for Parliament.
In the summer of 1644 Vane was less successful on his visit to the parliamentary generals outside York. He evidently had secret instructions to win their support for the deposition of Charles I. The generals opposed the move, and a term was thereby set to Vane's leadership of Parliament, to which he had succeeded on the death of John Pym. Vane remained in apparent control until the defeat of Charles at Naseby in 1645; but after the King's flight to the Scots in 1646, the political Presbyterians controlled Parliament until December 1648. Vane's power was eclipsed both because of his opposition to Presbyterianism and because of his indifference to the institution of hereditary monarchy. But he always stood for civilian control of government, so he opposed the growth of army political power in 1647 and 1648. Vane absolutely refused to participate in the army-controlled trial of the King.
Once Charles was executed, however, Vane was willing to continue his service in Parliament. He soon became the leader of the Commonwealth Council of State. Although this government depended upon army support for its power, Vane consistently worked to vindicate its independent and essentially civilian authority. But the army under Oliver Cromwell expelled the Commonwealth government in April 1653. Vane retired to his estate in Lincolnshire. In 1656 the government accused him of fomenting disorder, and he replied in The Healing Question. That pamphlet argued that order would come from a government freely elected by the religious supporters of Parliament, not from military dictatorship. In retaliation he was imprisoned for 4 months.
The death of Oliver Cromwell led Vane to reenter public life. He called on Richard Cromwell to regularize the government by an appeal to popular consent, and he led in the reconstruction of the Commonwealth government in 1659. But the army officers destroyed any possibility of stable government.
After the Restoration, Vane had powerful friends among the restored House of Lords, but the royalists in the Cavalier Parliament brought him to trial because of his leadership in the parliamentary and Commonwealth governments. On the scaffold Vane firmly defended his conduct during the civil war, and he died a martyr to republican government.
Further Reading on Sir Henry Vane
The best work on Vane is Violet A. Rowe, Sir Henry Vane, the Younger (1971). On Vane's thought, a brief but well-documented study is Margaret A. Judson, The Political Thought of Sir Henry Vane the Younger (1969).