A Monarchy Transformed: Britain 1603 – 1714 by Mark Kishlansky (1996) 5

The Commonwealth 1649-1660

In my life I’ve met plenty of earnest republicans, who think we in the UK should abolish the monarchy because it stands at the apex of the system of power and privilege which entrenches privilege and inequality in British society, that we should disestablish the Church of England – whose only role is to prop up ‘the Establishment’ – and we should abolish the House of Lords, a ramshackle combination of Anglican bishops, hereditary peers and dodgy political nominees given places for ‘services rendered’ to the ruling party.

Anyway, all these steps were carried out 370 years ago, during the English Civil War and Commonwealth, and all modern republicans would do well to study in detail what happened.

Basically, the big constitutional experiment of the English Republic (from the execution of Charles I in 1642 to the restoration of Charles II in 1660) was a failure, because nobody knew what to replace the existing system with and all attempts at a replacement were a) unworkable b) unpopular. And because the Republic came to rely on the abilities and achievements of one man, Oliver Cromwell, and when he died the delicate balance of forces he’d held in place collapsed.

The history of the Commonwealth is a political laboratory in which the people who had overthrown the monarchy, the established church and the House of Lords tried to find an equitable and effective replacement – and failed.

In the end it became clear that the country could only be ruled by a strong leader – Oliver Cromwell – and in the end – and I think this is a crucial point – they offered him the kingship. Even his own supporters, republicans and Puritans, eventually tired of the ceaseless constitutional experiments and said, ‘Listen, just be king’.

Why? Because everyone understood kingship. The entire social and legal system was built around it. Everyone understood where they stood in terms of kingship and its powers, in fact it defined where many, perhaps most, people stood. The existence of the monarchy underpinned their sense of identity and meaning.

To effect a revolution you don’t just overthrow the existing order, you have to train everyone in the new order. You have to indoctrinate them in the new set of values. You have to create new identities for an entire nation.

The French Revolution had a good stab at this by declaring 1790 Year Zero, inventing a new calendar and a new religion of the Rights of Man – although all this was to be swept into the dustbin of history only a few years later upon the rise of Napoleon who, as soon as he could, restored all the trappings and regalia of monarchy, much to most peoples relief.

Only the Russians were brutal enough to realise that a revolution requires not just the overthrow but the extermination of the old system (killing not only the Czar but his entire family, and then imprisoning/executing as many of the old aristocracy as they could get their hands on), and the wholesale indoctrination of the entire population in new ways of thinking, something which, under Stalin, they made a sustained attempt to do.

But the English of Cromwell’s day had nothing like the propaganda tools of those later societies (Stalin’s attempts are indoctrinating an entire society happening almost exactly 300 years after Cromwell) – although they used what they had – Sunday sermons, early newspapers and pamphlets – to maximum effect.

After the execution of King Charles I

While he was still alive, King Charles acted as one clearly identified enemy who served to unify the very disparate factions in the Parliament and New Model Army. After the king was executed in January 1649 these differences began to come out into the open. Cromwell, who had been a leading force in the execution, was away on campaign from the middle of 1649 until 1651, and this allowed factionalism to grow in the Rump Parliament.

Once he had defeated the Royalists at the Battle of Worcester in 1651 – the last battle of the English civil wars – Cromwell returned to London and tried to force the Rump to set dates for new elections, to unite the three kingdoms under one ruling body, and to create a large, tolerant national church.

During the crisis leading up to the execution of the king many moderates had expressed all kinds of reservations, reluctant to kill the king, recoiling from the social and religious radicalism which had bubbled up in the New Model Army. Now the Rump dithered about setting an election. It passed a law allowing liberty of conscience but failed to devise any alternative for the tithes or to dismantle other aspects of the existing religious structure which supported the Anglican church.

In frustration, Cromwell demanded that the Rump establish a caretaker government in April 1653 of 40 members drawn jointly from the Rump and the army and then dissolve itself. But for the umpteenth time, the Rump ignored him, preferring to debate its own bill for setting up a new government.

This endless delay was what prompted Cromwell’s famous step of dissolving the Rump Parliament by force. On 20 April 1653 he entered the chamber accompanied by troopers, sat and listened to the debate for a while, and then stepped to the Mace, and declared:

You are no Parliament, I say you are no Parliament; I will put an end to your sitting.

He seized the ceremonial mace, symbol of Parliament’s power, called it a ‘bauble’ and demanded it be removed. The troops, commanded by Charles Worsley, later one of his Major Generals and one of his most trusted advisers, cleared the chamber. England now had no Parliament and no government.

Barebone’s Parliament, 1653

Nine days after the forced dissolution of the Rump, on 29 April Cromwell set up a small Council of State of thirteen members, responsible for foreign policy and administration of the country. The council debated what form a new English constitution should take. Major-General Thomas Harrison called for a sanhedrin of ‘saints’, a sanhedrin being an assembly of either twenty-three or seventy-one elders, appointed to sit as a tribunal in every city in the ancient Land of Israel, as recorded in the Bible.

Harrison was a Fifth Monarchist, who believed that the overthrow of the king signalled the imminent Second Coming of Jesus. Cromwell didn’t share these beliefs but liked the idea of an assembly of men chosen for their upright, religious credentials.

The Council raised the suggested number to 140 – 129 from England, five from Scotland and six from Ireland. The Council nominated all the new MPs themselves, with some informal consultation with independent congregations around the country.

At the opening of the assembly on 4 July 1653, Cromwell gave a speech lasting two hours reviewing the events which had led up to it, highlighting God’s Providence in the course of events, and emphasising that the nominated representatives now had divine sanction to govern the nation.

The Nominated Assembly, sometimes known as the Parliament of Saints, was quickly nicknamed Barebone’s Parliament after one of its members, Praise-God Barebone, a leather seller, Fifth Monarchist and lay preacher from Fleet Street in London.

Cromwell tasked them with finding a permanent constitutional and religious settlement (Cromwell was invited to be a member but declined). But almost immediately the assembly, despite being hand-picked by the narrow group of the Council of State, began to fall out over big issues, namely:

  1. reforming tithes, objected to by many sects on the grounds that they were a remnant of Catholicism, that they supported a professional rather than voluntary clergy, and that their economic burden fell unequally: everyone agreed they were bad, but no-one could devise a workable replacement
  2. the trial of professional trouble-maker John Lilburne, which split opinion
  3. reform of the legal system, with Fifth Monarchists arguing that only laws contained in scripture should be reflected in the temporal legal system while moderates pushed for practical reform

Fierce argument over bills to abolish the Court of Chancery, regulate legal fees, and speed up settlement of cases in the Court of Admiralty added to the splitting of the assembly into factions. Attendance dropped from 140 to 100 to as few as 70 towards the end of its brief existence.

On 6 December the defeat of new proposals to reform tithes led a majority of moderates to give up. They wrote a letter and physically carried it down the road to Cromwell in Whitehall, asking for the Assembly to be dissolved. Faced with its simple refusal to carry on, Cromwell was forced to agree.

The Protectorate: 1653–1658

After the dissolution of the Barebones Parliament, John Lambert put forward a new constitution known as the Instrument of Government, closely modelled on a document called the Heads of Proposals which had first been drawn up by the Army in 1647.

The Instrument made Cromwell Lord Protector for life to undertake ‘the chief magistracy and the administration of government’. Cromwell was sworn in as Lord Protector on 16 December 1653, with a ceremony in which he was careful to wear plain black clothing, rather than any monarchical regalia.

But Cromwell did start signing his name ‘Oliver P’, P being an abbreviation for Protector, in the style of monarchs who use an R after their name to mean Rex or Regina – and it soon became the norm for others to address him as ‘Your Highness’. When you reflect on this, you realise that apparent backsliding like this from ‘republican principles’ take place because people need to know what they’re doing. They had all been raised in a very hierarchical model of society (and religion). Everybody, including Oliver, needed to know where they stood.

As Lord Protector, Cromwell had the power to call and dissolve parliaments but was obliged under the Instrument to seek the majority vote of a Council of State to do so. Nevertheless, Cromwell’s power was buttressed by his continuing popularity among the army. As the Lord Protector he was paid £100,000 a year, a vast sum.

Cromwell had two key objectives as Lord Protector. The first was ‘healing and settling’ the nation after the chaos of the civil wars and the regicide, which meant establishing a stable form for the new government to take.

Although Cromwell declared to the first Protectorate Parliament that ‘Government by one man and a parliament is fundamental’, in practice social priorities took precedence over precise forms of government. Cromwell was never interested in forms and details. The precise constitutional arrangements, were, Cromwell declared, ‘but … dross and dung in comparison of Christ.’

But Cromwell was no social revolutionary. Despite the revolutionary nature of the government, his thinking was socially conservative. Cromwell declared, ‘A nobleman, a gentleman, a yeoman; the distinction of these: that is a good interest of the nation, and a great one!’

His first Protectorate parliament proceeded to make small-scale reforms in the legal system, but these were outweighed by the broader attempts to restore order to English politics and affairs. Direct taxation was reduced slightly and peace was made with the Dutch, ending the First Anglo-Dutch War.

Cromwell secured the submission to his rule of England’s colonies in America. One of his notable acts was intervening to curb Puritans who were usurping control over the Maryland Colony by confirming the former Roman Catholic proprietorship and enforcing an edict of tolerance there. It’s interesting to learn that of all the English dominions, Virginia was the most resentful of Cromwell’s rule, and Cavalier emigration there increased during the Protectorate, laying the foundation for the elaborately courtly style of behaviour you find in novels about the Old South generations later.

Cromwell convened the first Protectorate parliament on 3 September 1654. He declared that ‘healing and settling’ were the ‘great end of your meeting’. However, the Parliament was quickly dominated by those pushing for more radical, republican reforms. After some initial gestures approving appointments previously made by Cromwell, the Parliament began to work on a radical programme of constitutional reform. Cronwell, a conservative by nature, balked at many of these changes but, rather than enter into endless meetings with constitutional lawyers, simply dissolved it on 22 January 1655.

Cromwell’s second objective for his Protectorate was spiritual and moral reform. He aimed to restore liberty of conscience and promote both outward and inward godliness throughout England. During the early months of the Protectorate, a set of ‘triers’ was established to assess the suitability of future parish ministers, and a related set of ‘ejectors’ was set up to dismiss ministers and schoolmasters who were judged unsuitable for office. The triers and the ejectors were intended to be at the vanguard of Cromwell’s reform of parish worship.

The Major Generals

After the dissolution of the first Protectorate Parliament, Cromwell tried another constitutional experiment. A Royalist uprising was planned for locations around the country early in 1655. In most places it was a damp squib with few if any civilians rallying to the handful of rebels, but the rising led by Sir John Penruddock in the West succeeded in seizing Salisbury for a few days, before being crushed by a troop of the New Model Army.

Since the uprising had been planned for centres all round the country it made sense to reinforce New Model garrisons everywhere. This led Cromwell’s adviser, General John Lambert to suggest going one step further and dividing England into military districts each ruled by army major-generals who answered only to him.

Map of the major generals and the regions they administered (source: BBC Bitesize)

Thus Cromwell appointed 15 major-generals and deputy major-generals each to rule a region of England and Wales. They were called ‘godly governors’ and charged not only – were central not only with maintaining national security, but forwarding Cromwell’s crusade to reform the nation’s morals.

The generals not only supervised militia forces and security commissions, but collected taxes and ensured support for the government in the English and Welsh provinces. Commissioners for securing the peace of the Commonwealth were appointed to work with them in every county.

While a few of these commissioners were career politicians, most were zealous puritans who welcomed the major-generals with open arms and embraced their work with enthusiasm. However, the major-generals lasted less than a year. Many commissioners feared they threatened their reform efforts and authority. Their position was further harmed by a tax proposal by Major General John Desborough to provide financial backing for their work, which the second Protectorate parliament – convened in September 1656 – voted down for fear of creating a permanent military state.

Ultimately, however, the fall of the major-generals was due to Cromwell’s failure to support his men in their conflicts with the commissioners. Their activities between November 1655 and September 1656 had, however, reopened the wounds of the 1640s and deepened antipathies to the regime.

Historians agree that the Major-Generals were tremendously unpopular and left a legacy of hostility towards standing armies which has, arguably, saved Britain from ever coming near the possibility of a military dictatorship.

Cromwell and the Jews Cromwell was aware of the Jewish community’s involvement in the economic success of the Netherlands, by the 1650s England’s leading commercial rival. This, and Cromwell’s principled tolerance of the right to private worship for those outside Puritanism, led to his personal encouragement of Jews to return to England in 1657, over 350 years after their banishment by Edward I, in the hope that they would help speed up the recovery of the country after the disruption of the Civil Wars.

Cromwell offered the crown

In 1657 a cohort of Cromwell’s closest advisers, frustrated by the repeated failures of their constitutional experiments, offered Cromwell the crown as part of a revised constitutional settlement. He agonised for six weeks over the offer. He was attracted by the prospect of stability it offered but finally, in a speech on 13 April 1657, he made clear that God’s providence had spoken against the office of King.

Instead, Cromwell was ceremonially re-installed as Lord Protector on 26 June 1657 at Westminster Hall, sitting upon King Edward’s Chair, which was moved specially from Westminster Abbey for the occasion. The event in part echoed a coronation, using many of its symbols and regalia, such as a purple ermine-lined robe, a sword of justice and a sceptre (but not a crown or an orb). But the office of Lord Protector was still not to become hereditary, though Cromwell was now able to nominate his own successor.

Cromwell’s new rights and powers were laid out in the Humble Petition and Advice, a legislative instrument which replaced the Instrument of Government. This new constitution echoed many aspects of the old constitution, including a house of life peers (in place of the House of Lords). In the Humble Petition it was called ‘the Other House’ as the Commons could not agree on a suitable name.

But the Humble Petition and Advice did not provide for the vetting of members of the House of Commons and when it assembled in 1658 many of those who had been excluded in the first session, retook their seats and immediately began attacking the new settlement – rather as, every time Charles I reconvened Parliament, it picked up its fierce criticism of him exactly where it had left off.

So on 4 February 1658, Cromwell again dissolved Parliament. During 1658 Cromwell increasingly took on the trappings of traditional monarchy, notably creating three peerages: Charles Howard was made Viscount Morpeth and Baron Gisland in July 1657 and Edmund Dunch was created Baron Burnell of East Wittenham in April 1658.

Death and legacy

On 3 September 1658 Oliver Cromwell died, aged 59, exhausted by his efforts to create an honest, godly, English society. The Lord protectorship passed to his son, Richard, who had none of his father’s qualities and struggled to hold together the rival political, religious and military factions of the regime. Nine months later he was gone.

So Cromwell:

  • overthrew monarchy, the House of Lords and the Church of England
  • tried to hold free and fair elections
  • nominated a parliament of the righteous
  • divided the country into administrative units run by army generals in co-operation with civilian commissioners
  • tried to institute freedom of religious belief
  • tried to resist the forceful offer of the monarchy from his closest supporters
  • supervised but then was forced to dissolve two elected parliaments

It’s easy to interpret Cromwell as a religious fanatic, a hypocrite and, from an Irish point of view, as a genocidal bigot. But he can also be seen as a man into whose lap fell a unique, once-in-history opportunity to utterly redraw the constitution of England, something he tried to do again and again – and failed.

In May 1660 Charles II was restored to the throne and with him came the House of Lords, the Church of England and its bishops. The ten-year experiment to devise some other way of ruling this country had failed. Many of the best minds of the time joined in the attempt, but none of could concoct a system which a) could win the support of even a minority of the nation b) could come up with solutions to the numerous issues which confronted them (funding of the church, ownership of church land, reform of the law, management of international affairs, and so on).

Abolishing the monarchy and the House of Lords and disestablishing the Church of England would, even today, in a sense, be relatively easy, a few acts of Parliament would achieve it. But:

  1. What, exactly, would you replace them with? that’s the catch
  2. And would whatever you replace them with be in any better position to tackle and solve the intractable social problems which confront us, than Barebones Parliament or the Major-Generals were to tackle the pressing problems of Cromwell’s day?

The restoration of Charles II was greeted with wild enthusiasm, and he has gone down in history as one of the most popular English monarchs and what did he represent, on a popular level? Booze and boobs. Drinking, gambling and mistresses.

What the Restoration proved once and for all is that England is not a nation of high-minded, earnest intellectuals just gagging to be reformed by high-minded Puritans. It is a nation of Sun-readers, who follow the football, like a flutter on the horses, a pie and a pint on a Friday night, and the chance to dress up and go on the pull at the local nightclub every Saturday night. It is a nation of overweight shopaholics with an average reading age of 11.

So when I argue with high-minded and (generally) very well-educated republicans, I ask them, ‘Who do you think you would be abolishing the monarchy and the House of Lords for? Apart from your high-minded Guardian-reading friends? Do you think this nation of party animals, obese alcoholics and lager louts will thank you for your efforts? You’re offering a society with no more coronations, no more royal weddings, no more tittle tattle about Megan and Catherine. Do you expect the people of this great nation to thank you for that?’

Old Olly wasn’t jolly, whereas Charles II had at least thirteen mistresses and 21 illegitimate children. Which one did ‘the people’ prefer, then as now? It is a lowering and dispiriting fact, but it is a fact which all leftists and liberals should acknowledge and start from.


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