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The English Civil War
title england republic

With the death of King Charles I in 1649 England became a republic. It is known as the Commonwealth.

In 1653 Oliver Cromwell became Lord Protector and began what is usually referred to as The Protectorate. Monarchists call this period in history the interregnum.

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The Commonwealth

The Rump Parliament

In December 1648 the Army had surrounded the House of Commons and only allowed in those MPs who supported putting King Charles on trial.

This is known as ‘Pride’s Purge’. The remaining MPs made up the Rump Parliament.

After the execution of King Charles I the members of the Rump Parliament passed a series of Acts transforming the nation into The Commonwealth.

In March 1649 an Act was passed abolishing the office of King.

The office should not be held by one person as experience had shown that a King “… is unnecessary, burdensome, and dangerous to the liberty, safety, and public interest of the people…”

It would be considered treason to try and set up anybody as a King.

An Act abolishing the House of Lords was also passed in March.

This Act stated that they had found “…by too long experience that the House of Lords is useless and dangerous to the people of England…”

Former members of the House of Lords who were loyal to the Commonwealth could still be elected to Parliament.

In May 1649 an Act was passed declaring England to be a Commonwealth.

It was to “…be governed as a Commonwealth and Free State by the supreme authority of this nation, the representatives of the people in Parliament…” and “… without any King or House of Lords.”

The Rump Parliament also passed an Act creating a Council of State to help run the country. The members of this council were mostly Members of Parliament.

The real power at this time lay with the leaders of the Army, which included Oliver Cromwell.

Now that the monarchy had been abolished, Ireland and Scotland were independent of England. They were also considered a threat to the Commonwealth.

In Ireland, Irish Confederate Catholics and English Royalists had formed an alliance. In 1649 Parliament sent an army, under the command of Oliver Cromwell, to crush the Irish Rebellion.

Cromwell returned to England in May 1650. In 1653 the Irish finally surrendered.

Under the terms of the Act for the Settlement of Ireland (1652) Catholic-Irish lands were divided up amongst loyal supporters of the Commonwealth.

In Scotland Charles’ son had been proclaimed as Charles II. Oliver Cromwell defeated the Scottish army at Worcester on 3rd September 1651.

Charles II fled to exile in Europe. Scotland was occupied by Cromwell’s army. General George Monck was appointed military governor.

The Rump Parliament needed to maintain the support of the Army. The Army leaders, including Oliver Cromwell, thought that religious tolerance was important.

In September 1650 Parliament repealed several laws brought in during the time of Elizabeth I, including those covered by the Act of Uniformity (1558). Some Independent churches were allowed.

Everyone, however, still had to pay their tithes (church taxes) to the Church of England. The Rump Parliament also made minor changes to the legal system.

By an Act of November 1650, all legal proceedings were now required to be conducted in English.

All law-books had to be written in English. The Rump Parliament was largely ineffective and only brought about limited reforms.

On 20 April 1653 Oliver Cromwell, frustrated with the lack of reformist legislation, took an armed force to the House of Commons and dissolved the Rump Parliament.

Cromwell believed that the MPs were more concerned with their own state of affairs. “… You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately…In the name of God, go!”

The Barebone’s Parliament

Oliver Cromwell did not want to establish a military dictatorship. In July 1653 Cromwell replaced the Rump Parliament with a Nominated Assembly, a ‘Parliament of the Saints’.

It was nicknamed the ‘Barebones Parliament’ after one of its members, Praise-God Barebone. This Parliament consisted of 144 Members who had been picked by the Army officers based on their “godly” religious ways.

On 12 December 1653 General John Lambert and a group of Army supporters voted to dissolve Parliament.

They had written a constitution for the Republic of the British Isles called the Instrument of Government. This placed control in “a single person and a Parliament”.

On 16 December 1653, Oliver Cromwell became Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland.

The Protectorate

The Instrument of Government

The Instrument of Government was a written constitution which attempted to define the rights and powers of Parliament and the Lord Protector.

The Protectorate was to be governed by the Lord Protector with the assistance of a Council of State. The title of Lord Protector was to be elective and not hereditary.

Oliver Cromwell was nominated as Lord Protector for life.

The Instrument of Government concentrated most of the power with the Executive. That is the Lord Protector and the Council of State.

Many of those who made up the Council were military commanders, so the country was still ruled by the military. Although under the terms of the Instrument the Lord Protector had to call Parliaments.

Legislative powers were to be given to elected members of Parliament.

Parliament was to be called at least once every three years and could not be dissolved for a minimum of five months, without its own consent.

There was to be only one Parliament for England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. Scotland and Ireland were to send thirty Members each to represent them in Parliament.

The other nations would be represented by four hundred MPs. The Lord Protector would be given twenty days to raise objections to any Bill passed.

Parliament did not have to act on these objections and could pass the Bill anyway.

The Instrument of Government also called for religious tolerance. Those that professed ‘faith in God by Jesus Christ’ were to have the freedom to worship.

Roman Catholics and any others who wanted the return of Popery and Prelacy (bishops) were excluded from this.

As Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell wanted to bring about the ‘healing and settling’ of the nation after the turmoil of the Civil Wars.

The first Protectorate Parliament met on the 3rd September 1654. Many of the Members that had been elected had also served in the old Rump Parliament.

They spent most of their time trying to turn the Instrument of Government to their own advantage or arguing about its content.

The size and political influence of the Army as well as the cost of maintaining it were particular sources of contention.

Parliament was dissolved by Cromwell on the 22nd January 1655, five lunar months after it had first been called. It had passed no new laws.

Army Rule

The Royalist uprising led by Sir John Penruddock in March 1655 resulted in England being divided up into regions, each under the command of a Major-General, who was responsible for law and order.

Oliver Cromwell brought in a decimation tax to finance the raising of local militia for each of these districts. This was an income tax of 10% on wealthy Royalists.

There was still a fear of further uprisings. Royalists (and Catholics) were to be disarmed. Bonds had to be paid to secure their good behaviour and that of their servants.

Permission had to be sought from the Major-Generals if they wished to travel. Unlawful assemblies were to be broken up to prevent Royalists or other conspirators gathering together in large numbers.

They were also charged with keeping the highways safe from robbers and highway men.

Puritan England

The Major-Generals each with the assistance of a commissioner were to enforce Puritan moral standards on the people of England.

The Long Parliament had already brought in new laws concerning religious worship in England. In 1645 it brought in A Directory for the Public Worship of God.

This stated the only holy day according to scripture was the Lords Day. Other ‘Festival days’ were not to be continued as they were not holy days.

This included Christmas, Easter and Whitsuntide. Puritans mostly objected to what they saw as the immoral behaviour and Popish ceremony that surrounded these ‘Festival days’.

Further legislation was passed to ban other activities that encouraged immorality, such as stage-plays.

Cock-fighting was declared an illegal assembly because it tended to lead to public disturbances and was usually accompanied with drunkenness, swearing, arguing and gambling.

Laws were passed to try and raise the moral standards of the nation. Adultery was to be punishable by death.

Swearing and cursing would result in a fine. Blasphemy was punished with imprisonment.

This Puritan legislation was already in place before the rule of the Major-Generals, but it had not been thoroughly enforced. The role of the commissioners was to ensure that it was now carried out properly.

Oliver Cromwell saw the Major-Generals and their commissioners as securing “the peace of the nation” and for “…the supressing of vice and the encouragement of virtue.”

The strongest opposition was to the way vice was supressed and virtue encouraged. The laws had already had an impact on ordinary people and their everyday lives.

Nearly all forms of entertainment had been banned and traditional celebrations could not be held.

Their enforcement under military authority served only to increase discontent with and opposition to the Protectorate and its strict Puritan values.

The Humble Petition and Advice

In September 1656 Oliver Cromwell called the Second Protectorate Parliament. Many had had enough of Army rule and the strict enforcement of the Puritan legislation.

There were also questions of legality concerning the commissions of the Major-Generals and the decimation tax used to finance the local militias.

In March 1657 Oliver Cromwell was presented with the Humble Petition and Advice. This document set out terms for a new constitution and had been written by Cromwell’s civilian supporters.

Parliament would now consist of two Houses. The ‘other House’ would be made up of between forty and seventy persons nominated by the Lord Protector and then approved by the House of Commons.

The role of Lord Protector was still not hereditary but Cromwell was able to appoint the person who would succeed him on his death.

Oliver Cromwell is offered the Kingship

Part of this new written constitution was the offer of the crown to Oliver Cromwell.

Some thought that England would have greater political stability if there was a King and so be less likely to end up in another civil war.

They also hoped it might lessen the chances of the country being ruled by the military again. They did not want Charles II on the throne so instead they offered the Kingship to Oliver Cromwell.

The Army argued that they had not fought to remove one King in order that they could replace it with another one. If Cromwell became King this might cause Charles Stuart (Charles II) to try and reclaim his throne again.

After six weeks deliberation Cromwell declined the offer. He told Parliament that much blood had been shed during the Civil War over the issue of Kingship.

It was God’s providence that had set aside the title of King and he wasn’t going to go against the will of God. It’s also probable that Cromwell did not wish to antagonise the Army or lose their support.

In January 1658 Parliament met again. Oliver Cromwell dissolved, what was to be his last Parliament, in less than two weeks. The House of Commons was still divided by fundamental political differences.

There was much opposition to the new constitution of the Humble Petition. Staunch republican MPs disagreed with the whole idea of a Protectorate and wanted to see a return to the Long Parliament and the Commonwealth.

One group argued that there must be a ‘balance of property’. They believed that a lasting commonwealth would never be established unless property and land were more equally distributed amongst the population.

Some disagreed with the amount of power invested in one man, the Lord Protector; it seemed too similar to the Royal rule they had fought to remove.

The role of the ‘other house’ was also questioned. Cromwell angered by the squabbling and lack of meaningful action dissolved Parliament stating “Let God be the judge between you and me”.

Oliver Cromwell died of illness on 3rd September 1658. He was buried with much ceremony in Westminster Abbey.

Richard Cromwell Lord Protector

Richard Cromwell succeeded his father as Lord Protector. Richard was not a military commander and lacked the support of the Army which he needed to rule successfully.

In January 1659, Parliament was called. Richard Cromwell needed money to pay significant debts. Parliament was more interested in curtailing the power of the Army and reducing its size to cut costs.

The Army wanted more political influence and a greater say in how the country was to be governed. Parliament was dissolved and in May 1659 Richard Cromwell resigned as Lord Protector.

The Protectorate was abolished and power given back to the old Rump Parliament. The Royalists nicknamed Richard ‘Tumble-down Dick’.

Richard Cromwell did not suffer any punishment for holding the title of Lord Protector, even after the Restoration.

He went into exile in Europe and returned to England after about twenty years. He died in 1712 at the age of 85.

Return of the King

King Charles II

There was no clear leadership in the newly re-instated Commonwealth. Political order broke down. Different groups and factions were at odds over how the country should be governed.

The Army and the Rump Parliament each tried to gain authority. The nation was against a return to military rule. There were calls for new elections, even the reinstatement of the Long Parliament.

In February 1660, General George Monck marched on London with regiments of the New Model Army. Monck had been made the military Governor of Scotland by Oliver Cromwell.

He took control of the political situation. Those Members of Parliament that had been excluded during Pride’s Purge were readmitted to the Rump Parliament.

On 16 March 1660 the Long Parliament was officially dissolved. New elections were called for and a Parliament was to be held on 25 April 1660 at Westminster.

This was known as the Convention. It wasn’t strictly a Parliament as it had not been called by the Monarch.

It consisted of a House of Commons and a House of Lords. It contained a large proportion of moderate MPs and Royalists.

In April 1660, Charles II issued the Declaration of Breda in which he made a series of promises over what he would do upon restoration of the Crown.

These included backdating Army pay, religious freedoms and the issuing of a general pardon (except to those named by Parliament). He promised that he would submit to any decisions Parliament made in this settlement.

With the political anarchy that had ensued at the end of the Protectorate people were willing to return to the old structures of Parliament and Monarchy. They certainly did not want to see a return to military rule.

In May 1660 the Convention declared Charles II the lawful King and invited him back to claim the throne.

On 25 May Charles II arrived at Dover.

Cromwell’s body is exhumed

On 29 August 1660 Charles II gave his Royal Assent to the Indemnity and Oblivion Act. This Act called for a general pardon except for those persons who had taken part in the regicide of King Charles I.

They were to be tried for Treason and the murder of the King.

Fifty-nine of the commissioners, who had sat in judgement upon King Charles at his trial, had put their signatures and seals to the death warrant.

These men along with others who had participated in the trial or the execution of Charles I were named as regicides.

Oliver Cromwell, as the third signatory to the Death Warrant of Charles I, was named as a regicide. His body was exhumed from Westminster Abbey and posthumously executed.

Cromwell’s body was hung in chains at Tyburn. His head was then set on a spike outside Westminster Hall and his body thrown in a pit.

Henry Ireton and John Bradshaw were also posthumously executed in this way. The date of this ‘execution’ was 30 January 1661, the anniversary of the beheading of King Charles I.