Outside the Houses of Parliament, standing rather boldly with a hand on his sword and the other clutching a Bible, stands a statute of Oliver Cromwell. For a time, Cromwell was the sole interruption in a long line of English monarchs, during which the British Isles were no longer governed by a monarchy but instead by a republican “Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland”. This period of British history, as well as the events leading up to it, are controversial to this day. For some it was the triumph of parliamentary democracy over royal absolutism, for others it was a time when legitimate British government was seized by a despotic military junta. The Irish and Catholics remember Cromwell as a genocidal dictator, while republicans remember him as a hero for liberty.
The English Civil War, the execution of King Charles I, and the establishment of a parliamentary republic — and later a Lord Protectorate under Cromwell — would have great influences on British history for centuries afterwards. It established the principles of Parliamentary sovereignty, the notions of government through the consent of the government, constitutional precedent, and the waning power of the English (and Scottish) monarchs against the growing power of a burgeoning, middle-class driven Parliament.
The Trial and Execution of Charles I
The Battle of Preston in 1648 was the last of the English Civil War, a prolonged period of armed struggle between Parliament and King Charles I over ultimate command of the English government. Cromwell’s New Model Army was victorious over the Royalist levies and militia and marked the end of any meaningful attempt by King Charles’s supporters to resist the might of the English Parliament. King Charles I was held in captivity in Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight and was once again forced into negotiations with Parliament. It soon became apparent that King Charles I would be returned to his throne, albeit with greatly reduced powers, and the New Model Army disbanded. However, Oliver Cromwell and the New Model Army had determined that the King had proven himself too dangerous and tyrannical to be still considered England’s ruler, and refused to let talks proceed any further.
On the 6th of December 1648, the New Model Army under Colonel Thomas Pride marched on Parliament and deposed any sympathetic towards the King in an incident called “Pride’s Purge”. 45 MPs were removed from their seats under arrest, while a further 146 did not take them — whether out of fear or out of protest. What remained was called a “Rump Parliament” of which only 200 out of the usual 507 MPs were permitted by the New Model Army to attend. They were ordered to set up, ostensibly in the name of the English people, a High Court to try Charles I for treason against the people of England, waging war against Parliament, using his powers as King towards his own ends, and numerous other crimes.
The trial itself was highly controversial even amongst Parliamentarians. Thomas Fairfax, a distinguished general for the Parliamentary forces, refused to attend after it became clear that the intent of the trial was to see the King executed. Of the 135 Commissioners appointed to sit on the trial, only 68 actually attended. It was said that when the court was speaking on behalf of the good of all of England, a woman in attendance — possibly Fairfax’s wife — shouted “Nay, nor even for a hundredth!” from the gallery.
King Charles himself believed that no court had any jurisdiction over a monarch and refused to plead to the charges brought against him. He insisted that the trial brought against him was illegal, and had been enacted not through just authority but by brute strength of arms. He asked of the court by what right they had to try him, and by what power he had been called to stand in it. The court proceeded as though he had pleaded guilty, as was the custom, and brought in witnesses to testify against them. All this was conducted in the Painted Chamber rather than the Westminster Hall where the trial was held, and King Charles was offered no opportunity to question the witnesses or hear their testimonies against them.
On the 27th of January 1649, King Charles was found guilty by the court and sentenced to death. He was executed the following Tuesday on the 30th before the Banqueting Hall. Those observing were said to have given a heavy moan upon the King’s death, and many rushed forward to dip their handkerchiefs in his blood to keep as relics. The King was refused a burial in Westminster Abbey and was instead buried in St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle.
The Commonwealth of England
Upon Charles I’s execution, Charles II became the next King of England to royalists within the British Isles, however, he himself was still in Jersey, where he was proclaimed King in the Royal Square in St Helier on the 17th of February, twelve days after Edinburgh had issued a similar proclamation. A third and final civil war broke out between Royalist forces in Scotland and Ireland and the English Parliament, sometimes referred to as the War of the Three Kingdoms. In it, Parliamentarian forces were again triumphant on all fronts, crushing all Royalist opposition and sending King Charles II into exile in France. Narrowly escaping the New Model Army, once by famously hiding amidst the branches of a great oak tree, King Charles II sought support from relatives and connections on the Continent.
With King Charles I executed and King Charles II absconded, the Rump Parliament did away with the monarchy entirely by passing an Act Declaring England to be a Commonwealth, which later included Scotland, Ireland and the Anglo-Scottish colonies and territories of the Atlantic. The Act was resisted by the colonial governments of Bermuda, the Bahamas and Virginia, who continued to hold allegiance to King Charles II. Parliament, in retaliation, declared the governments of those colonies to be outlaws and prohibited trade with them. They also allowed English privateers freedom to seize vessels in breach of this act. For their continued support of the House of Stuart, King Charles II would later dub Virginia “the Old Dominion”.
The New England colonies, largely composed of dissenting churches, received word of the Puritan-dominated Commonwealth enthusiastically and did their utmost to enforce its law upon the rest of English North America.
The Commonwealth was effectively a republic, however, it also held many hallmarks of a military dictatorship. The Monarchy, the Privy Council and the House of Lords were all abolished, with the Rump Parliament becoming the sole, all-powerful source of legislature. It established an English Council of State to fill in the executive role of the King and Privy Council, however, the new Commonwealth government was largely dominated by Oliver Cromwell and the New Model Army. At the Council of State’s first meeting, Oliver Cromwell held the chair.
For reasons that are still of some debate amongst historians, Cromwell eventually dissolved the Rump Parliament forcibly by sending troops into the Westminster Hall and removing the MPs present. A brief “Barebone’s Parliament” or “Assembly of Saints” was established in its stead, drawing on 140 MPs elected across England, Scotland and the newly conquered Ireland. The new Parliament was rooted heavily in the Puritan and Congregationalist beliefs of Cromwell and the New Model Army, with Thomas Harrison drawing inspiration from the Sanhedrin and desires to speed the Second Coming of Christ by creating a government appointed by “godly men”. An invitation was sent to church congregations across the British Isles to name nominees, however, it’s not clear how extensive the recruitment was.
The Barebone’s Parliament quickly dissolved into in-fighting between the various factions and sects that composed it. Fifth Monarchists, for example, declared that no law should be passed that was not rooted in Scripture, while other factions sought to enact more progressive reform of English laws and politics. Most of the Barebone’s Parliament objected to tithes, yet no clear alternative for revenue could be determined. The Parliament quickly attracted ridicule for its ineffectiveness, and Cromwell soon began to lose patience. As the Barebone’s Parliament descended further and further into disarray, Cromwell elected to utilise the old wisdom that if you wanted a job done well, it was better to do it yourself.
With the backing of his supporters within the Parliament, Cromwell dissolved the Barebone’s Parliament and had himself declared Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England on the 16th of December 1653.
The English Protectorate
Ostensibly the Lord Protector was similar to the English monarch but with more closely defined powers. Cromwell could call and dissolve Parliaments but required a majority vote from the Council of State. The position was to be elective, although it also held a life term.
From the offset, the position was troubled, as Cromwell commanded great support from the New Model Army after years of leading it through the Civil Wars and the Irish Conquest. With such backing from England’s standing army and prudent guarding of his power, Cromwell was already setting himself up as a military dictator of the English Commonwealth. The first Parliament of the Protectorate ran into disagreements between the constituents and Cromwell, and the latter dissolved the Parliament as soon as he was able without any bills being passed. For a brief time, in response to a royalist uprising, Cromwell divided the country into military administrated zones overseen by military governors. This was not only to ensure loyalty to the new regime but also to pursue Cromwell’s own Puritan crusade against any remaining vestiges of Popery or royalism within the Commonwealth. Lack of financial backing and growing unpopularity amongst the populace convinced Cromwell to disband them in 1656.
In 1657, after his successes against the Dutch and Spanish, Cromwell was offered the Crown by Parliament, and after some consideration ultimately refused, famously comparing resurrecting the Kingdom as being like rebuilding Jericho. Instead, he was reinstated as Lord Protector, with vastly increased powers, and was inaugurated in a ceremony in Whitehall that bore striking resemblances to a coronation. Despite refusing the Crown, Cromwell continued to act and conduct himself as a monarch in all but name, even having a Crown and Orb depicted on his seal, and he nominated his own son, Richard Cromwell, as his successor upon his death. His regime continued to lack genuine legitimacy and consent and was largely enforced by the New Model Army.
Cromwell died at the age of 59 in 1658, 3rd of September, possibly from septicemia, and was buried in state at Westminster Abbey in a ceremony modelled on that of James I. His son, Richard Cromwell, succeeded at planned, however from there the Protectorate faltered. Richard Cromwell lacked the support and reputation of his father and was incapable of commanding the same level of control over Parliament and the New Model Army. Losing control over the country, Cromwell the Junior resigned as Lord Protector the following year in May, leaving the Commonwealth with no clear leadership.
A solution was needed, and quickly, and would soon be found just across the English Channel…
The Return of the King
The collapse of the Protectorate led to a brief resurgence of political turmoil within England, as forces and factions struggled over the pieces. The Rump Parliament was restored on the 6th of May 1659, and the New Model Army began to lose its influence over the English Government. After another brief and relatively bloodless struggle, the Long Parliament was restored under George Monck, Cromwell’s Governor of Scotland, on the 24th of December. Monck had at that point had kept his true loyalties and motives close to his chest, sending signals of support to Parliamentarians, royalists and Cromwellian supporters all. Marching unopposed his army from Edinburgh to London, he disbanded the army raised by Charles Fleetwood against Parliament and entered quickly into negotiations with Charles II upon being elected MP.
The Long Parliament dissolved itself on the 16th of March and reconvened as the Convention Parliament. It was a “free parliament”, owing no oaths of loyalty to either the Commonwealth or the House of Stuart, however, the majority of its membership were Royalists. With the new Parliament behind him, Monck began making arrangements for Charles II’s return to England.
The exiled King of England and Scotland had spent the intervening years hoping for support in an invasion of his former homeland to retake his birthright, yet such support never came. France and Holland, Charles’s first choices for allies in this venture, soon came to an accord with the Commonwealth and forced him to flee to the Spanish Netherlands, where again Spain seemed rather uninterested in assisting a beggar king to regain his throne. He gathered a small, ill-equipped army about him and waited, hoping that an opportune moment would arise for him to act and retake what was rightfully his. As Cromwell’s body cooled and the Commonwealth began to fight over the pieces, Charles realised that the time to seek his restoration had arrived.
He had already sent letters to various figures within England, including Monck, enticing them to join him in restoring the monarchy. Initially demurring until he had a better position, Monck agreed to receive and advise the King’s terms on his restoration, which eventually culminated in the Declaration of Breda. Among other things, it promised a full pardon for all those not directly responsible for the regicide of Charles I, religious tolerance, and the retention of the army under the Crown.
Charles II left the Continent on the 23rd of May 1660 and landed in Dover on the 25th. Four days later, on his 30th birthday, King Charles II entered London to the great jubilation of the populace, some of whom regarded his return as a divinely ordained miracle that confirmed God’s establishment and blessing of the English monarchy. Parliament declared the 29th of May to be a national holiday, dubbed “Oak Apple Day” in reference to the tree where the King hid himself from the New Model Army so many years before, and King Charles was finally crowned in Westminster Abbey the next year, April 21st 1661. The Cavalier Parliament convened that year in May and was again heavily Royalist in its makeup.
With the backing of the country behind him, King Charles II was safe to begin rebuilding the country and to ensure the terrors of the English Civil War could never be repeated.