Thursday, 15 January 2015

The British republic: I The Commonwealth (1649-53)

The putting to death of an anointed king was a shocking event. What was to happen next? The king had been executed by the orders of a minority of parliamentarians against the wishes of the great majority of the people. To its enemies the new republic was a betrayal and a military tyranny. To its supporters such as the poet John Milton, it was a commonwealth liberating, its supporters for achievements which would rival those of Greece and Rome. To others it was the beginning of true godly reformation. 

On 6 February the Commons abolished the House of Lords. In March two acts of Parliament gave statutory force to the abolition of the monarchy and the Lords (this latter was against Cromwell’s wishes). In May an Act of Parliament declared England a Republic or Commonwealth 
‘governed by the representatives of the people in parliament … without any king or House of Lords’. 
From 7 February the government was in the hands of a Council of State of 41 members. It was to elect a new chairman every month and Cromwell acted as the first of these. Socially, the Council was conservative. It included five peers, three judges and two senior lawyers. It was under the overall control of the ‘Rump Parliament’, which consisted of 200 MPs, many of whom were readmitted after their expulsion in December 1648.

The defeat of the Levellers

The conservatism of both the Council and Parliament caused huge disillusionment among the radicals. Had they fought the war simply to reinstate the ruling classes? A Leveller-inspired mutiny was quashed at Burford and on 14 May five ringleaders were court-martialled and shot.
The plaque at Burford church
 commemorating the executed

The Engagement

In January 1650 the Rumpers extended a new loyalty test, the Engagement, to all males over 18. Non-subscribers were barred from office and from legal proceedings. Although the Engagement led to few purges, it caused many agonies of conscience. It demanded more than passive acquiescence to the government and thus raised the whole question of the legitimacy of the Commonwealth.


With the Civil War over, it was a matter of urgency to put an end to the disturbances in Ireland, where Irish Catholics and English Royalists had formed a Confederation. Cromwell was appointed commander of the government’s forces in Ireland and Governor-General. On 15 August he and his forces landed at Dublin.

On 3 September Cromwell arrived at Drogheda, the first major Confederate/Royalist stronghold.On September 10 he delivered a letter to the governor urging surrender. Early on the following morning the assault began, in which his troops soon gained entry to the town.The garrison were killed along with an unknown number of civilians. 

Cromwell then moved to Wexford and began the bombardment on 11 October. Parliamentarians broke into the town while negotiations were on-going, and some 2,000 soldiers and 1500 townspeople were slaughtered. 

In late May 1650 Cromwell returned to England where he was hailed as a conquering general, most notably in Andrew Marvell's poem, and received a formal vote of thanks from the Commons.

With the suppression of the revolt the government was committed to wholesale confiscation of land and ‘ethnic cleansing’. About 30,000 soldiers were able to claim land in lieu of pay. The plan was to confiscate the lands of the Catholics in Ireland and forcibly transport them to Connaught. Although this plan could not be implemented in full, the proportion of land held by Catholics is estimated to have fallen from 70% to 20%. 


Almost immediately Cromwell was involved in a campaign in Scotland. Soon after the regicide the Scots had proclaimed Charles II not simply King of Scots but of Great Britain, France and Ireland. This was a declaration of war on the Commonwealth.

On 23 June 1650 Charles Stuart arrived in Scotland and took the Covenant, which authorised Presbyterian church government across Britain.
A satirical English caricature depicting
Charles' troubles at the hands of the Scots
On 28 June 1650 Cromwell, who was was appointed replacement for Sir Thomas Fairfax began the march north.He was opposed by the wily and seasoned soldier, David Leslie, who retreated to the well-defended line of Leith-Edinburgh, stripping the territory north of Berwick of supplies and forcing Cromwell to rely on provisioning by sea through the port of Dunbar. But Leslie was let down by his political masters, who were in the grip of a fanatical religious ideology. They continually purged his army in order to produce a more godly force and urged him to adopt more aggressive tactics in order to show God’s providence. 

On 3 September Cromwell defeated the Scots at Dunbar. You can see two good accounts here and hereBut he then fell ill and this enabled the Scots to regain the initiative. On 1 January 1651 Charles was crowned King of Scots at Scone. In August  the Scots under Charles Stuart advanced into England. On 3 September, the anniversary of Dunbar, his army was defeated at Worcester. While Charles escaped into exile, barely a dozen Scots reached their homeland.
Boscobel House, Shropshire
where Charles hid from
parliamentary troops
The Scots now found themselves faced with conquest and union on English terms. Cromwell had succeeded where James VI and I had failed – he had united the two kingdoms. In many respects this was beneficial. The power of the landlords was undermined by the removal of feudal tenures, commerce with England was encouraged and prosperity began to return to the Lowlands. Religious toleration was enforced.

The historian Mark Kishlansky has written:
‘The scope of the Commonwealth’s military achievements was breathtaking … In Ireland, the Rump accomplished in three years what English monarchs had failed to do in a hundred, In Scotland Cromwell’s victories erased the humiliating memories of the Bishops’ Wars. The Commonweatlh set afoot plans for a comprehensive union of what was once Charles’s composite monarchy.’ 
To add to the achievement, in 1652 Admiral Robert Blake defeated the mighty Dutch navy. After a range of military fiascos under the Stuarts, England was now a formidable naval power.

A godly Commonwealth?

Progress towards a godly Commonwealth was erratic. In 1650 the Rump abolished compulsory attendance in the established Church. This created the situation that allowed new religious groups like the Baptists and Quakers to to flourish, as well as more extreme movements like the Ranters and Fifth Monarchists to flourish.

It created a commission to propagate true religion in the ‘dark corners’ of the land - the North and Wales and it used the income from confiscated estates to support poor ministers.

In 1650 it passed the Adultery Act, which made adultery a capital offence. Four women (no men!) were executed under the Act. In the same year the Blasphemy Act attempted (unsuccessfully) to suppress the preaching of the extreme sects.

The dissolution of the Rump

For all its successes, the Rump was a victim of the republican dilemma: too conservative for the army and the millenarian sects, but not conservative enough to heal the breach that the king’s execution had created.  It therefore had few friends. Its failure to achieve positive reform – either political,  religious, or legal - strengthened the case for a fresh look at the constitution.

On 20 April Cromwell 1653 gathered troops and dissolved the Rump. One contemporary said, 
‘There was not so much as the barking of a dog in protest.’ 
A few days after the dissolution a wag pinned a notice on the door of the Commons chamber: 
‘This House is to be let, now unfurnished.’
The reasons for Cromwell’s action remain a mystery - previously his policy had been the careful cultivation of moderate opinion. Whatever its cause the dissolution of the Rump had severed the last connection with the ancient constitution and the Long Parliament. Constitutional experiments would have to be tried and they would have to deal with the hostility of various groups from the ‘right’, ‘left’ and centre: royalists, parliamentary moderates, the Levellers.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.