Hello, and welcome to Revolutions,
So we left off last time with Cromwell’s final victory over Charles II at the Battle of Worcester. Although for those of you who missed it, I did manage to find some time last week to put together a couple of supplementals, one on John Lilburne and one on the Diggers. But in terms of the main storyline, we left off on September 3, 1651. The Royalists are broken, Charles II is in flight, the era of Republican England is at hand. Only no one quite knew what that meant. So by all means, let’s go find out.
Since the execution of Charles I back in January 1649, already almost two years ago, the executive functions of government had passed into the hands of the Council of State. This Council of 40 men was composed mostly of civilian leaders. There were not nearly as many army officers as you’d expect from a government that is so often characterized as a military dictatorship.
With the final defeat of Royalism, though, it was high time to start discussing a more permanent constitutional system, which meant it was time to start discussing how to dissolve the current Parliament, which had technically been sitting for more than a decade, though by now it had degenerated into that small or inferior remnant or offshoot, the Rump.
In October 1651, the Rump began considering how to hand power over to the new Parliament. But that turned out to not be the most important issue of the day, because on October 9, 1651, largely thanks to Oliver St. John, Parliament passed the famous Navigation Act. And what was important about the Navigation Act? Oh, that’s right. It pretty much starts the First Anglo-Dutch War, because in about six months, England and the United Provinces are going to be mired in a naval war. But I will tell you, we are not going to get mired in the First Anglo-Dutch War. I’m going to talk about it a little bit here, so you know what it was about. And of course, we’ll have to talk about how much the subsequent treaty negotiations were bungled. But I don’t want to get lost trying to detail all the naval battles. I’d much rather stay in London and detail all the political battles. It’s far more germane to the topic at hand.
Okay, so first of all, yes, it’s a little counterintuitive that there are now two Protestant Republics in Europe, and they’re about to go to war with each other. But neither side really dug the other specific form of Protestantism and this was mostly about commerce and trade anyway. See, up until this point, the Dutch, not the English, were masters of the sea, and they had a virtual monopoly on maritime shipping, and that even included trade between England and her North American colonies. Plus, the Dutch had totally locked up trade around the Baltic and enjoyed unrestricted fishing wherever they felt like dropping a net.
The insanely provocative Navigation Act declared that anything being imported into the British Isles had to be carried either by an English ship or by a ship from the cargo’s country of origin. This was a direct assault on the Dutch transportation monopoly. The Navigation Act also said that any fish brought into the British Isles had to have been caught by an English ship. So basically, Parliament is launching a trade war against the Dutch, in part because of the rising commercial interests of England, in part because Parliament was righteously flushed with victory and wanted to keep the ball rolling, and in part because Oliver St. John had gone down to the Netherlands in the midst of the Third Civil War to negotiate closer ties with the Dutch, had been treated shabbily and was pretty pissed off about it.
After the act was passed, the Dutch sent envoys to negotiate a peaceful settlement. But by the spring of 1652, clashes out at sea between the English and Dutch and the French too, but let’s not get into that, pretty much demanded the conflict be settled with arms. And so it would be.
Having passed the Navigation Act, the Rump finally voted for its own dissolution. But they set November 1654 as the closing date, which is like three years in the future. This is not what most people, especially the army Grandees, had in mind when they started calling for a new Parliament. I mean, the Rump was about as unrepresentative a supposedly representative body as you could possibly have. They had no popular constituency.
So the only thing that could justify the Rump so brazenly extending its own life was if they started enacting all those long overdue reforms that had gotten everyone into this in the first place. A pretty long list of things had accumulated over the years. So let’s quickly take stock of the gargantuan task facing the Rump, and then decide whether they, in fact, manage to justify their own existence.
On the religious front, a loose consensus has emerged that there still ought to be some kind of established Church, with the obvious caveat that there wouldn’t be any penalty for nonattendance. So you’ve got to set that up. Then there was the long festering problem of scandalous absentee or incompetent ministers living fat on forced tithes. You got to figure out a way to get rid of those guys. And then there was the belief that Parliament ought to underwrite the spreading of the gospel into the dark corners of Britain, where conservative Anglicanism or even, gasp, Catholicism still held sway. You got to get that going. To tackle all of this, the Rump formed a few subcommittees in February 1652. We’ll check back on their progress later.
On the legal front, there was an absolute log jam of proposals out there. The courts needed to be more accessible and more honest and cost less. Men should have the right to lawyers and witnesses in their defense. The whole concept of the debtor prison probably needed to be scrapped and the death penalty was maybe being thrown around just a little too freely.
A Commission led by Sir Matthew Hale was established in January 1652, creatively dubbed the Hale Commission, to make recommendations on legal reforms and they wound up submitting 16 different bills for the Rump’s consideration. We’ll check back on them too.
On the social front, the influence of the Levelers had raised the possibility that poor relief might be strengthened and extended, and that steps might be taken to move England in the direction of being a more humanitarian and egalitarian society. But we can clear this up right away. The members of the Rump were firmly in the merchant and landlord camp. Social reform was a total nonstarter.
On the financial front, there was some activity, but it sure didn’t make them any friends in the army. The Rump decided that a good way to raise money to fund, for example, the war against the Dutch would be to confiscate and sell Royalist property. Now, this is all well and good, except that over the course of the Civil Wars, the army had induced dozens of peaceful surrenders of Royalist strongholds by promising estates would not, I repeat, would not be confiscated and sold. The Rump’s decision to start reneging on those promises besmirched the honor of army officers everywhere. And remember, this is an era that takes honor super seriously.
So finally, we circle back around to the political front. How is power going to be transferred from the Rump to a new Parliament? Because there has to be a new Parliament eventually, right? I mean, the Rump can’t just extend itself indefinitely by only calling for so called recruiter elections to fill vacant seats, right? Right! So when are we going to have fresh elections? And how is suffrage going to be determined? And how is membership going to be regulated?
To justify their existence, the Rump Parliament had to tackle all of these issues simultaneously. So what did they actually do? They met four days a week, usually only for a morning session, and accomplished exactly nothing. No religious settlement, no legal reforms, really no social programs. Plus, it looked an awful lot like they were concocting a recruiter election scheme to perpetuate themselves indefinitely so they could all get rich.
By August 1652, the senior command of the army was getting super annoyed with the Rump’s inaction, and they presented a petition that was meant to prod the small or inferior remnant or offshoot in the direction of, you know, doing something. And of course, it was capped off with a demand that the Rump had better come up with a plan to dissolve itself.
Now, before we go on, I should mention one thing. On the issue of succession, the members of the Rump probably had a keener political instinct than the army did, because they knew that something like half the country still harbored Royalist sympathies. Free elections are a wonderful thing, but let’s not kid ourselves. There’s a damn good chance whoever wins will get together in Westminster and, like immediately vote to restore the monarchy. But frustration in the army with the Rump blinded them to this fact. They wanted a new government. So what kind of new government did the army want?
Since we can’t go five minutes without people splitting up into competing factions, it is time for the army to start splitting up into competing factions. Now, of course, Oliver Cromwell was everyone’s supreme leader, but below him, his officers started lining up behind John Lambert on one side and Thomas Harrison on the other.
Lambert and Harrison were old comrades in arms and had both just played a major role in the victory over Charles II. So right now, their disagreements were by no means hostile or bitter. But there were differences. Specifically, Lambert tended toward a more secular Republican vision of England’s future, while Thomas Harrison, well, Thomas Harrison was angling for an unapologetic theocracy because Thomas Harrison was a Fifth Monarchist. The Fifth Monarchists were one of those radical Christian sects that were able to flourish as the old order broke down during the Civil Wars. Their name came from the Book of Daniel, where the Prophet describes four earthly kingdoms which they took to be the Babylonians, Persians, Greeks and Romans.
The Fifth Monarchists believe that after the fall of Rome, a prophesied fifth kingdom ruled by the Son of Man would last for a thousand years. They took this Son of Man to be the Pope, believed his 1,000 years were up, and that he was about to be succeeded by the Kingdom of Christ on Earth. It was the job of the Fifth Monarchists to pave the way for his return. The execution of the wicked King Charles was a part of that process, and next up would be establishing the rule of the Saints.
As a devout Fifth Monarchist, Thomas Harrison believed that when the Rump was dissolved, it should be replaced by a closely held assembly of Godly men. Godliness being determined, of course, by the Fifth Monarchists.
By the end of 1652, the Rump had done nothing to mollify the army and in fact, ticked them off even more in November by ordering another 700 Royalist estates confiscated.
In January 1653, officers started gathering in London. As the weeks continued to roll by without anything getting done, calls for Cromwell to step in and forcibly dissolve the Rump grew louder, but Cromwell resisted taking such a drastic step. As March turned April, however, the Rump entered what can only be described as a suicidal death spiral.
They had finally taken up a regular Wednesday meeting to hash out how the next Parliament would be elected. But on March 30, 1653, they abruptly set aside the matter and moved on to other things. Then, two days later, they failed to renew funding for a project to spread the gospel in Wales, which enraged not just Harrison and the Fifth Monarchists, but Godly men of all stripes.
By now, a final confrontation was looming. Cromwell had stopped attending the Council of State, and on April 18 and 19th, he met with his senior officers and what allies in Parliament they had left to hash out a plan for the Rump to elect a 40 men caretaker government to run the country until new elections could be held and then disband themselves. Cromwell left this meeting apparently believing that the MPs he had just met with were going to take the proposal back to the Commons and get it, if not passed, then at least debated. But as he sat in a meeting at Whitehall the next day, a breathless messenger showed up with news that the Rump was considering a bill on political succession alright, but it was not Cromwell’s bill. And not only that, they were intending to pass it that very day.
Cromwell didn’t believe the first messenger, but then two more messengers came and told him exactly the same thing. So Cromwell and his entourage, including Thomas Harrison, dropped what they were doing and headed down to Westminster to see for themselves.
When Cromwell got down to the Commons, he took his seat and let the debate continue uninterrupted. Just as the speaker was about to call a vote, though, Cromwell said some words privately to Harrison, then rose and began to speak. He started out calmly enough, praising the good work they had done. But then he abruptly turned on them, started cataloging their fault, and suddenly concluded, it is not fit that you should sit here any longer. You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing lately. Before the shocked Rump could react, Cromwell turned to Harrison and said, call them in! Then 20 or 30 musketeers marched into the Chamber. With the soldiers in the room, Cromwell really took off, denouncing individual members in turn as drunkards and prostitutes and Judases. He finished up by finishing them off.
How can you be a Parliament for God’s people? Depart, I say, and let us have done with you in the name of God, go!
Then the soldiers started to clear the room. There was commotion and protest, but everyone got hustled out in a hurry. And that, my friends, was the end of the Rump Parliament, at least for the time being.
Cromwell’s decision to dissolve the Rump was almost certainly spur of the moment, though there has been much argument about this over the years. But the whole incident is shrouded in a bit of mystery because, get this, no one knows the contents of the bill the Rump was actually debating. Seriously! Cromwell grabbed it off the table, and no one has seen it since. I think a very likely scenario presented by Austin Woolrych in Britain in Revolution is that Cromwell thought the bill was about to set up self-perpetuating recruiter elections, and that’s why he felt compelled to take such a drastic step. But upon reviewing the language of the bill, he realized that wasn’t what it said at all. Because if it had been about recruiter elections, he would have made like 10,000 copies and said, look, they were trying to perpetuate themselves into eternity, and that’s why I had to step in. But instead, the one copy of the bill was destroyed. Which makes you wonder?
Premeditated or not, the dissolution of the Rump was a military coup that snuffed out the last pillar of the old constitution of King, Lords and Commons. When the Long Parliament convened back in 1640, no one, and I mean no one, thought that in a little over a decade, the entire political system would have collapsed onto the shoulders of an obscure country gentleman that no one has ever heard of. Least of all, the obscure country gentleman that no one has ever heard of himself.
Two days after the Rump was tossed out, Cromwell convened a new Council of State. Under what authority did he convene the new Council of State? Look, just, it’s a Council of State, so just go with it, okay? The first and really only order of business was to figure out who or what the Council of State could hand power off to, which Cromwell wanted to happen as soon as possible to avoid accusations that he was running a military dictatorship.
John Lambert, who was probably more disgusted with the Rump than anyone, favored a small executive committee that would be streamlined enough to actually get things done. Thomas Harrison, on the other hand, wanted a larger body, but one whose membership would be tightly restricted to the Godly, establishing the rule of the Saints that would pave the way for the coming Kingdom of Christ.
In the end, the Council of State set up an assembly of 140 members representing every county in England, plus six members each for Scotland and Ireland. These members, however, were not going to be elected. Instead, candidates would be nominated by a convention of army officers, and then a majority vote would confirm them. Conscious of the dicey political ground upon which he stood, Cromwell also went out of his way not to call this new assembly a Parliament, and instead it was referred to as the Nominated Assembly, though that is not what history is going to call it.
With the candidates all selected, the nominated assembly was set to meet on July 4 at Whitehall, not Westminster, because, like I say, Cromwell really didn’t want people to mistake it for a Parliament. In the meantime, the war with the Dutch was reaching its climax. England looked like it was going to be the winner, but really, both sides were ready to call it quits. When Dutch ambassadors came to London in June to hash out a treaty, though, the Council of State presented them with absurdly harsh terms that the Dutch just couldn’t accept. So the fleet had to go back out for one more big battle in August, which the English again won, but not without considerable losses. The war needed to end. Both sides recognized it. But the men who now ran England were not super experienced with high diplomacy, and negotiations would drag into 1654, as the Dutch tried to convince the English that, look, we’re here to negotiate, not find some humiliating capitulation. I mean, you didn’t beat us that badly. At one point, Cromwell even had to open up a secret correspondence with the Dutch envoys, basically begging them to be patient while he tried to talk some sense into his guys.
Now, as I just mentioned, the Nominated Assembly that gathered in July 1653 is not known to history as the Nominated Assembly. They are instead known by the sneering label Barebone’s Parliament. Critics of the assembly, and there were quite a few of them, as I’m sure you can imagine, wanted to paint it as a collection of low born religious zealots. So they latched onto one guy in particular who had the wonderful name Praise-God Barebone. So they called it Barebone’s as Parliament, even though it was really not Barebone’s as Parliament.
Cromwell opened the Assembly with a two hour speech, during which he implored them to remember that they sat as a result of God’s will. It had all come down to this, so please don’t blow it. He told them that they had until November 1654 to complete what business they could, and then they would elect men to succeed them in a second Nominated Assembly. And then those guys, now somewhat removed from the dirty business of the, you know, military coup, would arrange for a permanent constitutional settlement.
One of the first things the Assembly did, though, was to vote to call themselves a Parliament. Cromwell may have been squeamish about the name, but they were not. Then the Council of State was expanded from 13 to 31 members, a pretty even mix of Harrison aligned religious radicals and more conservative men who just wanted a functional government. Critically for the next constitutional experiment, which will be along in about six months, the Council of State was subordinated to the Assembly, and Oliver Cromwell made sure that he enjoyed no special authority or position. Two mistakes that would be corrected in Lambert’s instrument of government, which we’ll get into next week.
At first, Barebone’s Parliament ran great. The assembly met six days a week for all day sessions and attendance was pretty good. They dove headlong into all the reforms the Rump had neglected. But as it turned out, reform is not as easy as it sounds, especially when you’ve got a bunch of Fifth Monarchists wandering around whose idea of reform is the creation of a biblical theocracy.
The specific issues that wound up crashing Barebone’s Parliament, however, were legal reform and compulsory tithes. Now, I don’t think we’ve talked about it yet, but tithes had long been a source of discontent. They legally obligated a parishioner to pony up cash to support a Minister they probably had no say in choosing, often didn’t like and sometimes had never even met. A big part of the Puritan reform movement was the belief that congregations ought to choose their own Ministers and then support them voluntarily, the logic being that if a Minister couldn’t convince people to contribute voluntarily, then he probably wasn’t worth supporting in the first place.
Complicating the matter, though, was the fact that over the years the right to collect tithes had slowly passed into the hands of laymen. In fact, by the time of the Revolution, something like a third of all tithes were in fact collected by local landlords whose families had somehow acquired the title to them at some point in the misty past. Handed down from father to son, these tithes were now considered a form of property, and abolishing them would be a direct assault on the kind of freeborn rights that John Lilburne has always been ranting about.
The men of Barebone’s Parliament soon broke down into two parties, one that favored reforming the system to correct the worst abuses and another, more radical party that favored outright abolition. Both sides considered the other misguided and dangerous.
The other thing that fractured Barebone’s Parliament was legal reform, which opened up a similar split between those who wanted to tweak the system to make it less corrupt and more humane, and those who wanted to scrap the damn Norman yoke altogether and create a brand new ultra simplified code written in plain English. Adding some spice to the legal debates were the Fifth Monarchists, who said that biblical law was all that anyone needed, so what are you guys even talking about?
Much to the chagrin of the radicals, the committee set up to handle legal reform was moving in the direction of moderate tweaks, based in part on the work of the Hail Commission. But one day the radicals found themselves in the majority in the main Assembly, and they voted to create a separate committee whose task would be to devise a whole new model of law. So now there were two committees working simultaneously towards contradictory ends, which didn’t do much to promote the spirit of unity in Barebone’s Parliament.
The polarization of the Assembly accelerated through the fall of 1653, as everyone entrenched into their respective bunkers. Attendance in the main Assembly dropped off a cliff as members despaired at their ability to break the deadlock. There was, however, a brief spike on November 1 for the debate on how to reconstitute the Council of State. It had been decided that 16 of the Councilors would automatically keep their seat while the other 15 would face possible replacement. The radicals, especially the religious radicals, got beat bad in the subsequent vote, and even Thomas Harrison just barely managed to keep his place in the Council. The rebuke led the Fifth Monarchists to essentially withdraw their support from the Assembly. They began to attack it mercilessly in sermons and pamphlets, which only demoralized and degraded the body even further. By the middle of November, only about 50 guys were showing up to work each day.
By now, John Lambert, too, had given up on the Assembly, though obviously not for the same reasons as Thomas Harrison. And as it turned out, Lambert was not just an excellent military officer, he was also something of a political philosopher. Sensing that Barebone’s Parliament was not long for this world, Lambert spent the autumn of 1653 writing The Instrument of Government, which he hoped to get adopted as the first written Constitution in English history. We’ll talk more about The Instrument next week because Lambert is about to get his wish.
But before we can really get into it, Barebone’s Parliament needs to die. So let’s go ahead and kill it right now. In the end, it was tithes that drove the stake through the heart of Barebone’s Parliament. By early December, the moderates had put together a reform package aimed at correcting the worst abuses while leaving the system itself intact. But when the package was taken up for debate on December 10, the very first clause was voted down by an alliance of radicals who wanted the whole system scrapped, Conservatives who opposed all reform on principle, and probably a sprinkling of men aligned with John Lambert who were gleefully doing their part to make the assembly look broken beyond repair, which of course, it now did.
After this fateful vote on tithes, Lambert and his allies met with moderate members of the Assembly, and they hatched a plan to have Barebone’s Parliament commit suicide. On December 12, the moderates rose early and convened in session far earlier than normal. The 40 or 50 they mustered outnumbered the 30 odd radicals who happen to be hanging around, and it quickly became clear what the moderates were up to as they started to rise one by one and denounce the radical members for destroying the legitimacy of the Assembly. The radicals tried to get a word in, but the speaker, clearly in on the moderate plot, refused to let them take the floor. When everyone had said what they came to say, all the moderates and the speaker abruptly walked out of the hall. As they walked out, a company of soldiers walked in to forcibly eject anyone who tried to stay behind. The radicals attempted to stand their ground, but, you know, men with guns!
When the moderates left the hall, they marched straight over to Oliver Cromwell and tendered their collective resignation. Now Cromwell knew something was up and had in fact, already seen a copy of Lambert’s Instrument of Government. But he had been holding out hope that the Nominated Assembly would persevere. When he accepted their mass resignation, he claimed to be surprised, and maybe he was, but he can’t have been that surprised.
For the second time in a year, the political system of England has collapsed onto the shoulders of Oliver Cromwell. Next week he will again try to get this weight off his shoulders as quickly as possible by helping to inaugurate The Instrument of Government, the first written Constitution in English history. But Cromwell wouldn’t be able to shed all the weight because one of the main problems Lambert hoped to solve with The Instrument was that the nation required a much stronger executive branch. And that is how an obscure country gentleman that no one has ever heard of will become the Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland and the Dominion their two belonging for his life!
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