Battle scene Copyrighted image Credit: Wark Clements

The execution of Charles I in 1649 solved one problem but created many others, namely 'Who would govern?' The 'Divine Right of Kings' decreed that monarchs ruled by the grace of God and that all subjects should obey their monarch as they would God, but when Charles I was executed in 1649, thunderbolts did not rain from the heavens and the skies did not open. Divine Right was blatantly false, but what would take its place? Whom would the people support? And what sort of religious settlement would bring peace to the land? A large part of the following decades would be spent trying to answer these questions.

The Commonwealth

The first priority following the execution of Charles and the establishment of the Commonwealth was to defeat the Commonwealth's continuing military opponents.

The ongoing Irish rebellion was subdued with great ferocity (at Wexford and Drogheda) in 1649- 50, and the Scots, who had proclaimed Charles II their King following Charles I's execution were outmanouevred and crushed at Dunbar on September 3rd, 1650. The following year, Charles II was defeated at the Battle of Worcester and forced into exile (following his celebrated concealment in an oak tree).

The Republic was secure and the army was dominant. Oliver Cromwell was the leading figure in the army.

The Rump

Following Charles' execution, political authority was vested in the Rump and in a Council of State consisting of Rump MPs.

However, after almost a decade of war, the country was drained economically and politically and the Rump was unable to provide effective leadership. There were too many radical groups (Ranters, Levellers, Fifth Monarchists) plus other more conservative groups offering competing visions of the future, and the Rump's activities were hamstrung by a lack of cash and political legitimacy. What was needed was a 'Leviathan' figure to step forward and impose unity on a divided and confused country. Oliver Cromwell fulfilled this role and in April 1653, entered the Commons at the head of a detachment of soldiers and ordered the MPs to disperse with the words: 'In the name of God, go!'

The brief Commonwealth experiment was over and Britain moved towards new constitutional arrangements. The MP who had once defended Parliament from arbitrary monarchs had now ordered that institution to disperse. Cromwell was King in all but name.

The Protectorate

Much of the remaining five years of Cromwell's life were spent trying to devise a political solution which would command widespread support throughout the country and secure religious order. After the short-lived Parliament of the Saints (dissolved when Cromwell considered it too radical), the four nations of the British Isles were governed after 1653 by an Instrument of Government which represented the first practical attempt to devise a constitution which clarified the rights and powers of both Legislature (Parliament) and the Executive (normally the Crown but, in this case, Cromwell). Although a flawed document, the Instrument represented a bold step forward on the path towards a modern political system. Under the terms of the Instrument:

  • Executive power was to be held by the Lord Protector (Cromwell), assisted by a Council of State
  • Vacancies on the Council were to be filled by the Protector, selecting members from candidates nominated by the Council and Parliament
  • Parliament was to be called at least once every three years and couldn't be dissolved without its own consent. It was to contain representatives from all four nations of these islands, instead of there being separate Parliaments for England, Scotland and Ireland as had previously been the case.
  • The Lord Protector could delay the passage of Bills for 20 days, but he could not prevent their passage
  • The army was under the control of the Executive and £200K annually was to be provided to cover the costs of government.
  • Freedom of worship was granted to all except those who 'practice licentiousness' (i.e. Quakers and Ranters), Catholics and those who supported the restoration of Bishops (i.e. Episcopalians). Despite the penalties on Catholics and others, this was a remarkably progressive document which provided for a great deal of religious toleration.

The Instrument of Government was a bold attempt to clearly define the rights and responsibilities of Executive and Legislature and reduce opportunities for disagreement and friction. Britain still does not possess a codified, written constitution and so the Instrument must be regarded as a remarkably far-sighted document.

Cromwell ruled by decree between December 1653 and September 1654, but when Parliament met again in September, the Instrument came under attack from conservatives (who disliked the religious freedom afforded to non - Anglicans) and radicals (who objected to a division of powers in favour of the Executive). Never one to tolerate unproductive debate or opposition to his authority for long, Cromwell dissolved Parliament in January 1655. It was not only Stuart monarchs who found Parliaments difficult to handle.

The Humble Petition and Advice

Following rule by the Major- Generals (1655- 56), Parliament was recalled in 1656 following the outbreak of war with Spain and this offered another chance to forge a constitutional settlement in the form of the Humble Petition and Advice. Parliament proposed the Humble Petition in Spring 1657 and Cromwell accepted. Under the terms of the Petition:

  • Parliament would become a bicameral legislature (i.e. two chambers) and the second house would consist of individuals nominated by the Protector
  • Nobody elected to the Commons could be excluded from it
  • Appointments to the Council of State were to be approved by Parliament
  • Parliament was to provide £300K p.a. to cover the costs of government and £1m p.a. for the armed forces.
  • The Protector was entitled to nominate his successor

The Petition also offered Cromwell the throne but he declined, probably knowing that the army would object.

This document offered a little more authority to the Commons and it was hoped that this would pave the way towards a lasting constitutional settlement. To assist in this end, MPs who were considered radical were excluded by the Council from Parliament.

However, when the Commons convened for its second succession in January 1658, the Humble Petition came in for widespread criticism. Many radicals questioned the role and purpose of the second chamber, others objected to Cromwell's enhanced powers and one bold MP, Sir Henry Vane, even went so far as to compare Cromwell to the Stuarts. Unable to endure such criticism, Cromwell responded in his usual manner by dissolving this independent-minded institution and returning to rule by decree.

By 1658, Cromwell was almost sixty years old and had been engaged in active politics for three decades. Saddened by the loss of his favourite daughter, he died in September 1658 and was succeeded by his son, Richard. However, Richard lacked his father's political nous and had no support base in the army. As the country drifted towards anarchy and factionalism in 1659-60, the army turned to the one figure whom it knew would command widespread support and respect.

After a decade in exile, Charles II returned to claim his thrones.

Levithian figure Copyrighted image Credit: Used with permission

The chaos of the English Civil War - when life was often 'nasty, brutish and short', produced at least one major work of political philosophy, Thomas Hobbes 'Leviathan'. Having witnessed the chaos of war, Hobbes urged all people to set aside selfish concerns and submit themselves to an omnipotent state in the interests of securing stability and order. This image visually represents Hobbes' ideas.

Civil War: The Aftershocks