Venables was a lieutenant-colonel in the parliamentary army and was wounded at the siege of Chester in 1645. He was appointed governor of Liverpool in 1648 and then served with success in Ireland from 1649 until 1654. Venables was sent as joint commander with Admiral William Penn on the Caribbean expedition against the Spanish in the West Indies in 1654. The English forces were routed at the Siege of Santo Domingo in 1655, but managed to successfully take the Spanish colony of Jamaica for England later in the same year. On his return to England he was sent to the Tower of London for failing to wrest the larger prize of Hispaniola from Spanish control, and cashiered in October the same year. Venables was briefly appointed governor of Chester in 1660. After the Restoration he bought the estate of Wincham, retired from public life, and remained a nonconformist. He published a treatise on fishing, The Experienced Angler, in 1662.
Robert Venables was the son of Robert Venables of Antrobus, Cheshire and Ellen Simcox, daughter of Richard Simcox of Rudheath. The Venables were a cadet branch of a family that could trace their ancestry back to the Norman Conquest.
Venables entered the parliamentary army when the Civil War broke out, and served as a captain under Sir William Brereton in Cheshire and Lancashire. In 1644 he distinguished himself in the defence of Nantwich, and in 1645 he was governor of Tarvin. In October of that year he was wounded at the siege of Chester, being then a lieutenant-colonel. In 1646 he commanded a mopping up operation in North Wales which was sent to reduce the remaining royalist garrisons in the Principality.
During 1647 and 1648 he was active as a civil commissioner trying to get his and his men's arrears paid. In January 1648 Venables was appointed governor of Liverpool, a position he held during the Second English Civil War.
Cromwellian conquest of Ireland
In 1649 he was promoted to full colonel and commanded a foot regiment in the army under Oliver Cromwell, destined for the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland. He preceded Cromwell to Ireland, landing at Dublin on 25 July 1649, in time to take part in the victory of Rathmines.
After the storming of Drogheda—in which his regiment played a key role in preventing the retreating Royalists from raising the drawbridge to the north side of the town, assuring Cromwell's speedy victory and the massacre that followed it— Cromwell, who headed south towards Wexford, promoted Venables to major general of Ulster and Governor of Derry, and sent him in command of a detachment, to join Sir Charles Coote in Ulster. On his march Venables defeated Colonel Mark Trevor and Hugh, Lord Ards at the battle of Dromore, and captured Newry and Carlingford. Belfast surrendered to him early in October, and in December he and Sir Charles Coote defeated Hugh, Lord Ards at the Battle of Lisnagarvey , and took Carrickfergus.
On 21 June 1650 Venables assisted Coote to defeat the army of Bishop Heber McMahon at the Battle of Scariffhollis and to help in the failed assault of Charlemont, after which the garrison of the town surrendered with terms on 14 August. He was also involved in the campaign against the Earl of Clanricarde, the commander of the last Irish Confederate field army, who fled to France in December 1650. Over the next two years Venables fought a counter insurgency war against tories in the bogs of north Connaught and south-west Ulster, eventually forcing Colonel Tirlogh O'Neill and Lieutenant-general O'Farrell to capitulate.
On 9 December 1651 Irish lands to the value of £1,223 were ordered him for his arrears of pay, but that did not cover all his arrears and he was active in trying to get backpay for both himself and him men. In 1653 he was busy drafting regulation to impose the draconian 1652 Act of Settlement, but not so busy as to find time to oppose the imposition regulations that would have seen the reintroduction of enforced Presbyterianism in Ulster, presumably because like many in the New Model Army he was a Congregationalist.
The Protectorate and the West Indies expedition
In May 1654 Venables left Ireland, and on 9 December following he was appointed general of the forces sent by the Protector Oliver Cromwell to attack the Spanish in the West Indies. The instructions of the Protector and his council gave Venables the full latitude of choice as to the point to attack, suggested various places, but declined to tie his hands, ordering him simply "to gain an interest in that part of the West Indies in possession of the Spaniards". He was, however, to consult with Sir William Penn, the admiral commanding the fleet employed in the expedition, and with two commissioners, Edward Winslow 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 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.
Venables 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 to clear himself from responsibility for the failure at Hispaniola, and to represent to the Protector the needs of the colony at Jamaica. When he arrived at Portsmouth on 9 September 1655, he described himself as "in a recovering condition", but almost a skeleton, and so weak that he could neither stand nor ride.
On 20 September he appeared before the Council of State, and was immediately committed to the Tower of London. Penn shared the same fate. On 30 October Venables was released from his imprisonment, on condition of surrendering his general's commission and his command in Ireland, and obtained no further employment during the protectorate.
The historian C.H. Firth, writing in the DNB in 1889, was of the opinion that 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. 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". In the opinion of the historian John Morrill, writing in the ODNB in 2004, "[Venables] was over-promoted and under-supported in a high-profile fiasco in the Caribbean that cost him his reputation. He had to live out his life as a disgraced man with a sharp-tongued wife who disapproved of all he stood for".
When George Monck, the English military governor of Scotland, came into England at the head of his troops, he appointed Venables governor of Chester. Initially Edward Hyde, a close advisor to Charles II of England while the latter was in exile, was in favour of the appointment, but on taking advise from the local Cheshire Royalists, pressed successfully for his dismissal because of the worries expressed over Venables religious Independency.
Venables obtained nothing at the Restoration. In 1664 he was informed against as concerned in what was known as the Farnley Wood Plot, but the charge met with no belief. He sheltered William Veitch when he was in hiding in England after the Pentland Rising, and seems to have remained a nonconformist. He died in July 1687, aged 75.
Author of a book on fishing
In 1662, Venables published 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, duodecimo. 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". There were five printed editions during Venables' lifetime, the last in 1683. There was a further edition in 1827 with a life of Venables prefixed in it.
Shortly after the Restoration he bought the estate of Wincham in Cheshire, where his descendants were still settled in 1900. His portrait, the autobiography of his second wife, and some manuscripts relating to the West Indian expedition were still there in 1900.
Children of Robert Venables and Elizabeth Rudyard of Antrobus Hall:
- Frances Venables (1638-1666), married Thomas Lee of Darnhall Hall, Cheshire. Lee was the grandson of Sir Richard and Lady Elizabeth Lee.
- Mary Marie Venables (1639-c.1680), married Richard Venables of Agden.
- Thomas Venables (c.1640-c.1675), married Elizabeth Lee of Darnhall Hall, Cheshire.
- Robert Venables (1643-c.1645)
- John Venables (1645-c.1650)
- Anne Venables (1647-1699), married Thomas Parker of Weston Coney.
- Peter Venables (1649-c.1656)
- Plant, David (25 June 2008). "Robert Venables, c.1613–87". The British Civil Wars and Commonwealth website.
- Lee 1903, p. 1336.
- Venables, Robert (1825) . The Experienced Angler.
- Firth 1899, p. 205.
- Morrill 2004.
- Bottero 2005, p. 17.
- Firth 1899, p. 205 cites Ormerod , Cheshire, i. 658; Discourse of the Civil War in Lancashire, pp. 9, 97.
- Firth 1899, p. 205 cites Report on the Duke of Portland's Manuscripts, i. 288.
- Firth 1899, p. 205 cites Norris Papers, p. 19, Chetham Soc. 1846.
- Firth 1899, p. 205 cites Borlase, History of the Irish Rebellion, ed. 1743, p. 277.
- Firth 1899, p. 205 cites Caryle, Cromwell, Letters cvi. cxv.; Carte, Ormond, iii. 475)
- Historical Manuscript Commission 1899, pp. 44,45.
- Firth 1899, p. 205 cites Borlase, App. p. 24; J. T. Gilbert Aphorismical Discovery of Treasonable Faction, iii. 159.
- Firth 1899, p. 205 cites Gilbert Aphorismical Discovery, 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.
- Firth 1899, p. 205 cites Gilbert Aphorismical Discovery, iii. 273.
- "His commission is printed in Thurloe's State Papers, iii. 115. (Firth 1899, p. 205)
- Firth 1899, p. 205 cites G. Penn , Life of Sir W. Penn, ii. 28.
- Firth 1899, p. 205 cites 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.
- Firth 1899, p. 205 cites Report on the Manuscripts of the Duke of Portland, ii. 97.
- Firth 1899, p. 205 cites Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1655, pp. 327, 343, 402.
- Firth 1899, p. 205 cites cf. Penn, ii. 32; Thurloe, iii. 646, 754.
- C.H. Firth dismisses as fiction the story told in the life of Dr. John Barwick, that a royalist lady 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 (Firth 1899, p. 205 cites Life of Dr. John Barwick, ed. 1724, pp. 165, 184).
- Firth 1899, p. 205 cites 25 February 1660; Clarke MSS.
- Firth 1899, p. 205 cites (Life of Dr. John Barwick, pp. 431, 451, 522)
- Firth 1899, p. 205 cites Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1663–4, p. 512.
- Firth 1899, p. 205 cites McCrie, Memoirs of Veitch and Brysson, 1825, p. 23; Autobiography of Henry Newcome, ii. 207.
- Firth 1899, p. 205 cites Notes and Queries, 3rd ser. v. 120.
- Firth 1899, p. 205 cites Chetham Miscellany, iv. 3, 9.
- Townshend & Venables 1872, p. 5[verification needed]
- Bottero, Wendy (2005). Stratification: social division and inequality (illustrated ed.). Routledge. p. 17. ISBN 0-415-28178-4.
- Morrill, John (2004). "Venables, Robert (1612/13–1687)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/28181.
- Historical Manuscript Commission, ed. (1899). Report on the Manuscripts of F. W. Leyborne-Popham, Esq., of Littlecote, Co. Wilts ... H.M . Stationery off. pp. 44–45.
- Townshend, Lee Porcher; Venables, Mrs. Elizabeth Aldersey Lee (1872). Some Account of General Robert Venables, of Antrobus and Wincham, Cheshire (with an Engraving from His Portrait at Wincham): Together with the Autobiographical Memoir, Or Diary, of His Widow, Elizabeth Venables. Chetham society. p. v.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Lee, Sidney, ed. (1903). "Venables, Robert". Dictionary of National Biography. Index and Epitome. Cambridge University Press. p. 1336.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Firth, C.H (1899). "Venables, Robert". In Lee, Sidney. Dictionary of National Biography. 58. London: Smith, Elder & Co. p. 205. Firth's sources:
- 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.
- Venables, Robert; Firth, C. H. (1900). The narrative of General Venables, with an appendix of papers relating to the expedition to the West Indies and the conquest of Jamaica, 1654–1655. London, New York and Bombay: Longmans Green & Company.
- Firth, C.H; Davies, G (1940). The Regimental History of Cromwell's Army. Oxford.