The Failure Of Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate

Cromwell dissolves parliament

When Thomas Pride entered the Commons on the 6th December 1648 and ‘purged’ those members who still harboured ideas of negotiation with the monarchy, the Colonel effectively ensured the execution of Charles I and brought about the first birth pangs of an English republic. Less than a month later, the purged or ‘Rump Parliament’ passed a resolution that declared, “the Commons in Parliament assembled has the force of law [and] the supreme power in this nation,” and radically, the Rump stated it no longer recognised and required the “consent and concurrence of the King and the House of Lords.” On the 17th March 1649, the Rump passed an act to abolish the monarchy followed two days later with the abolition of the House of Lords. Seen by many historians as the ‘revolutionary step,’ England’s political authority now became synonymous with the House of Commons. However, the initial phases of the republican government, in the form of the Rump Parliament and its successor the ‘Nominated Assembly,’ failed to establish a secure political infrastructure deemed representative of the nations requirements. The onset of Cromwell’s Protectorate signalled the end of the first republican experiment in England and highlighted the failure of the Rump Parliament and the Nominated Assembly. So how was it that in March 1649, the government declared, “to have the power thereof in any single person, is unnecessary, burdensome, and dangerous to the liberty, safety, and public interest of the people,” yet nearly five years later, it was affirmed that the legislative authority of the Commonwealth “shall be and reside in one person…the style of which person shall be, The Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland.”

To answer the question why the initial stages of the republican government was a failure, it is important to discuss the reasons why Cromwell eventually decided the Rump was no longer a “Parliament for God’s people,” and forcibly dissolved the assembly. According to Blair Worden’s (1974) argument, the traditional charge levied at the Rump that it was initially radical followed by a decline into decadence is exaggerated. The reasons for the Rump’s demise lay in the changing requirements Cromwell made of it. Worden argues that having created the Rump, Cromwell found it never displayed the reforming idealism he demanded of it, thus Cromwell is painted as the ‘architect of the Commonwealth and its destroyer.’ When viewing the Rump’s apparent success or failure in hindsight, it is important to remember that Oliver Cromwell urged the assembly’s members to be “mindful of their duty to God and men, in the discharge of the trust reposed in them.” This was precisely the reason why power was handed to those who had survived Pride’s purges. The Army, and most influentially Cromwell, had demanded that the Rump proceed and reform “all that was amiss in government,” and settle “the Commonwealth upon a foundation of justice and righteousness.” Although the Army delivered the Rump with prominent military victories, which at the least ensured the immediate survival of the Commonwealth, the success installed a growing sense of importance within the armed forces and a determination to gain influence in political matters. The Army developed a renewed energy in their demands for reform, clearly illustrated by the petition calling for a new parliament presented to the Rump in August 1652 by the Council of Officers. Having returned from war, Cromwell pressed hard for the Rump to dissolve itself and make way for a new and reformed political assembly. Characteristic of the Rump’s self-interest and failure to recognise the serious of the demands, the assembly entered a lengthy debate in November 1651, after which it was finally agreed to a dissolution no later than 3rd November 1654. However, the event was three years in the future, would be six years after Pride’s purges, and significantly, fourteen years after the last general election. It is no wonder that the Army grew increasingly frustrated with the Rump’s lack of impetus with Cromwell believing the Rump would “never answer those ends which God, his people, and the whole nation expected of them.” Rumours that the Rump intended to remove Cromwell may have been provocative, but on the 20th April 1653, when it became known that the Rump had decided to hold fresh elections without an examination of the proposed members, Cromwell led his troops to Westminster and ‘purged’ the last remnants of the Long Parliament. The dilemma faced by the Rump was that the army was needed to establish the governments position of authority, but at the same time the armed forces increased the degree of pressure on the Rump to introduce reform, not least the Rump’s own dissolution. It therefore could be argued that the early development of the republican experiment floundered over conflicts with the army, a sentiment shared by Zagorin (1982) who concluded, “the Rump could live neither with the Army nor without it.”

Although the Nominated Assembly was greeted with an air of optimism, this confidence soon disappeared when the Barebones voted itself the title of a parliament, thus it made claim to the privileges and powers of previous parliamentary assemblies. Equally, the Barebones approached the same controversial matters that had soured the relationship between the Army and the Rump Parliament. Whereas Cromwell intended the Nominated Assembly to be an interim form of government, the Barebones had made it clear that it saw itself as part of an established governing body, again in opposition to the military’s notions of the assembly retiring to make way for a new parliament. Although Cromwell had initially believed the Nominated assembly to be “a door to usher in things that God hath promised and prophesised,” he later described the Barebones as “a weakness of my own folly.” Similar to the Rump Parliament’s composition, it appears that the Barebones inherent difficulty was the social profile of the members and the inability to define consistent policies in keeping with a widely acceptable programme of social and religious reform, moreover, the Barebones was a political body characterised by social distinction and lack of consensus. Members of the 1653 Nominated Assembly included Millenarians, Fifth Monarchists and Baptists who all enjoyed an influence within government disproportionate to their number. The ‘rule of saints’ became divided between religious radicalism and social conservatism, and although reforming acts were passed, the division within the Barebones added to the precarious nature of an administration seemingly unfit to govern. Cromwell had wanted a government that would implement England’s ‘ancient laws’ and deliver an ‘ordered ministry,’ neither of which were seen as successful under the Barebone’s administration. By November 1653, the Barebones became increasingly split between radical and conservative notions of government, and without a sense of direction the Barebones, as Barnard (1982) has noted, “tended to go where the radicals blew.” When the conservatives in government feared the radical threats to ‘familiar institutions,’ they duly handed back their powers to Cromwell.

For the moderates of the Barebones, religious radicalism was just too much to tolerate, adequately demonstrating the confusing opinions about how ‘revolutionary’ the new English administrations should be. Although the Rump was born of innovatory actions, the assembly generally responded to demands for reform at a pace not consistent with a revolutionary zeal for change. Revealingly, the wording of An Act Declaring England to be a Commonwealth (1649) carefully avoided the use of the term ‘republic,’ reflecting a Parliament keen to relieve its assembly from radical associations. Although Sean Kelsey (1997) has argued that there was a wealth of ‘biblical and constitutional’ theory accessible to the regicides to aid the formation of a true republic, it appears that a gulf existed between what constitutional material was available and the willingness of the participants to utilise its content as a precedent. Indeed, the early political institutions may have been only a ‘republic in name,’ established to fill the vacuum crated by the abolition of the monarchy. According to Austin Woolrych (1983), “never can a republic have been established with so few really convinced republicans among its founding fathers.” The Rump even entered into a lengthy debate regarding the abolition of the House of Lords, although it should be noted that even Cromwell felt the Lord’s should remain in an advisory role. Between January 1649 and April 1653, over 130 acts dealt with issues concerning ‘security, finance and taxation, local government, the Army, and social problems,’ and only 14 were enacted pertaining to economic, social, legal, and religious issues. Without these political and social necessities, it was almost impossible for the Rump to establish a secure political base. In addition, the Rump increasingly tried to dissociate itself from the more radical elements characterised by the independent religious ‘sects,’ most notably from within the Army. While the Rump Parliament began to establish itself, the assembly brought immediate protests from the Levellers who saw a ‘self-perpetuating oligarchy’ as already a failure. The manner in which the Rump avoided a revolutionary stance reflects the assembly’s continual battle for day-to-day survival as opposed to addressing the fundamental and national requirements of commonwealth. Even a ‘Rump revisionist’ concedes the early Commonwealth Government “rarely expressed an overt commitment to an ideology of kingless republicanism.” The capacity for change was further obstructed by the composition and attendance of the Rump Parliament. Only a third of the 200 members who sat in the Rump attended sessions with any regularity, and the first Council of State included only 12 regicides with Henry Ireton and Thomas Harrison nominated but rejected by the Commons, moreover the Council was only for one year and subject to ‘Parliament’s jealous control.’ This practice established a division and lack of consensus that featured throughout the Rump’s tenure and demonstrated the government’s desire not to appear revolutionary. By keeping the Army out of political matters, and delegating as little power as possible, the Rump signalled a desire to maintain itself and its political authority in the long-term. Zagorin (1982) has argued quite simply that the Rump’s objective was to preserve its authority and position against its many enemies. One possible reason for the Rump’s failure could therefore have been the perception it gave of a self-perpetuating government with its own agenda for survival and the acquisition of power. Indeed, one reason for its eventual dissolution was Cromwell’s accusation that the Rump was composed of “whoremasters…drunkards [and] corrupt and unjust men.”
Religion, as always in the period, proved to be a cause of disagreement and one reason for the Rump’s failure was the inability to bring about the much hoped-for ‘godly reformation.’ The Rump gained some success with the appointment of a commission to promote the gospel in Wales, and a begrudging and solitary concession to religious toleration was an act introduced in September 1650. However, the matter concerning parishioner’s payments to the clergy created division among both the military and the politicians, and despite the Army’s proposals that the tithes be abolished, the Rump decided to keep the payments compulsory until a future government of Church was created. The Rump was still deliberating religious issues when in April 1653, Cromwell ushered in the beginnings of the ‘Barebones Parliament,’ but just like the Rump, the Barebones was unable to achieve an unambiguous religious settlement because of its internal partitions. Once again, religious issues provided a context for division and dissention, and in the case of the first republican government, religion hammered in another nail in the construction of the Rump’s coffin.
Although successive governments were guilty of not facilitating sufficient haste in response to the demands for reform, the Rump, and indeed, the interim Council of Officers and Council of State that preceded the Nominated Assembly, all found themselves preoccupied with the immediate threats to the security of the Commonwealth. The Dutch threat to commercial shipping and English trading opportunities demanded that foreign and economic policy in 1651-52 took preference over social and law reform. Although the 1651 Navigation Act was a positive response from a government and navy who eventually emerged victorious over the Dutch, the war proved to be prohibitive. Significantly, the Rump found its foreign campaigns a costly exercise, and it forced the continuation of the financially successful but unpopular excise taxation, indeed, even Sean Kelsey (1997) has conceded the Rump “was more ruthless than any king in its exaction of taxes from the nation.” Understandably, matters that were more urgent took priority over the implementation of policies of major reform, nevertheless, the Common’s found it more difficult to control domestic matters and military victories were simply not enough to sate the desire for revolutionary reform. Although the Rump’s foreign policy was successful, the taxation required to finance the campaigns increased the degree of resentment and frustration felt towards the government and initiated a wave of unpopularity directed primarily at those holding the reins of power.

Part of the failure of the Rump could at least have come from the contribution made by the general populace that expressed unpopular sentiment, and perhaps at times, found a comparison with the excessive demands by Charles I’s regime. It is speculative, but public and political feeling may have already developed a ‘better the devil you know’ attitude when reflecting upon the regicide. A defender of the Rump has admitted that this government created arbitrary courts to execute its enemies and “meddled incessantly in corporate politics up and down the country.” To underpin its right to authority and government, the Rump passed an act to impose an oath upon the nation. Although individuals like William Prynne objected to the ‘Engagement Oath,’ some political theorists asserted that the country’s citizens were bound to obey whatever authority imposed order and provided protection, however, a more recent argument considers the Rump acted simply out of panic. Seemingly aware of the Rump’s unpopularity and vulnerability, the Engagement stated that the male population over the age of 18 should “declare and promise [to be] be true and faithful to the Commonwealth of England as it is now established.” The Engagement only served to develop antagonism towards the government, moreover; accusations of corruption and self-seeking left a ‘sour taste of tyranny’ and further encouraged bitterness towards the government. In much the same manner that Charles I failed to take into consideration a bubbling cauldron of growing resentment during his personal rule, so the Rump failed to recognise the significance of its dwindling support, furthermore the Rump generally seemed to be a re-active assembly rather than a positive pro-active government. The expectations were set high for the new government, but it appears that the Rump Parliament consistently failed to reach them by not actively responding to demands born of a revolutionary momentum. In conclusion, David Underdown’s statement appears to sum up the Rump’s failure to live up to the, albeit somewhat extravagant expectations of its creators; the Rump followed a pattern of “initial effort, followed by a relapse into inertia, broken by flickerings of reformist energy, each the result of pressure form the Army.”
The debate and controversy surrounding the Rump Parliament appears to mirror that which characterises the historiography of King Charles I’s reign between 1629 and 1640, namely, was these periods a success or failure. The perceived tyrannical nature of the ‘personal rule’ eventually led to the creation of an army that brought about Charles’ downfall, equally, the same armed forces ultimately brought to an end the perceived fecklessness of the Rump Parliament. For contemporary opinion also, it must have appeared ironic that it was the Army that eventually dismantled both the personal rule and the Rump Parliament. Parliament had originally created an army to protect its privileges from the Caroline monarchy, but the Rump now found its assembly threatened by that very force that brought about the Rump’s existence. Dorothy Osborne noted that Cromwell’s action was “as great a breach of privilege of Parliament as the demanding [of] the five members.” Despite all the issues that collectively contributed towards the Rump’s unpopularity, none were strong enough on their own to constitute an accusation of ‘total’ failure. It was probably the government’s negligence and a degree of incompetence in dealing with these ‘smaller’ issues that led to its most significant mistake; its failure to respond to the impatient calls for its own dissolution. By delaying the arrival of its successor and seeking to preserve its survival, the Rump found itself facing an increasing threat within a political climate intolerant towards the Rump’s perceived inability to promote reform. The Council of Officers mounted steady pressure on the government to implement a programme of social and legal reform, although arguably, it did not help that religious issues divided both the Council and the members of government. Throughout its tenure, the Rump faced a continued struggle for its own survival in the face of radicalism and demands for more social and religious reform. Impatience with the Rumps ability to implement policies productive to the commonwealth finally signalled the death knell for England’s first revolutionary government. One reason for the Rump’s dissolution, and therefore a failure, was its negligent record on constitutional reform. No matter how ground breaking the Rump was in terms of England’s political history, the new parliament ultimately failed to sustain coherent policies and practice, and was eventually dissolved by forces under the command of Cromwell. However, the interim authorities and the ‘Barebones Parliament’ found itself facing a number of similar problems resulting in failure to take up the reigns of the flagging horse that was the Rump. Ironically, in light of the radical and revolutionary nature of the republics beginnings, it was the moderates within the Nominated Assembly whose nerves broke first. Increasingly, alarmed at radical proposals, and prompted by the abolition of the tithes, a party of moderates surrendered power back to Cromwell. Although Cromwell made repeated attempts to work with a Parliament throughout the Protectorate, he never found a government that provided for “the liberty of the people of God and for the liberty of the nation.” However, the Protectorate was to fair no better with the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy bringing the failed revolution full circle.