Earlier this autumn saw the 80th anniversary of the Munich agreement, marked by a ‘Peace for our Time’ blog from our assistant director, Dr Emma Peplow. As the first of a series from the House of Commons 1640-1660 section looking at events over the winter of 1648-1649, Dr Vivienne Larminie examines another occasion on which lasting peace seemed within the grasp of politicians at Westminster. Subsequent posts will trace how the hopes of peace-makers were dashed, and how a monarchy became a republic…
On 15 November 1648, after 11 years of civil war – first in Scotland, then in Ireland, and finally also in England and Wales – and several rounds of abortive negotiations between the various parties involved, it seemed to many that there was at last a real prospect of an acceptable political settlement and lasting peace.
That day the House of Commons passed a critical set of resolutions in response to the latest proposals from Charles I, sent from his prison at Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight. It was decided that
‘from and immediately after the King shall have consented unto the Desires of the Two Houses, upon the Treaty, and ratified the same by Act or Acts of Parliament, all his Houses, Honours, Manors and Lands, with the growing Rents and Profits thereof, and all other legal Revenues of the Crown, shall be restored unto him’.
The only proviso was that such garrisons and magazines as Parliament considered vital for ‘the necessary defence of the kingdom’ would be retained in its hands. In return for foregoing these and other ‘profits’, to be mutually agreed, the king would be compensated. Charles was to ‘be settled in a Condition of Honour, Freedom, and Safety, agreeable to the Laws of the Land’ and there was to be an Act of Oblivion and Indemnity which would draw a line under accusations and counter-accusations of rebellion and war damage, subject to agreed limitations and exceptions [Journal of the House of Commons, vi. 76-7].
This was a remarkable turn-around by a House which on 3 January 1648 had passed a ‘Vote of No [Further] Addresses’ to the king. That such resolutions passed was owing to the fact that they received support not only from the Presbyterians, who had long constituted a ‘peace party’, but also from some Independents led by men like William Pierrepont, Nathaniel Fiennes and Sir John Evelyn of Wiltshire, who had convinced themselves that the beleaguered Charles I now had no choice but to concede hard terms and could be bound to keep his word. Later on 15 November the House of Lords voted to endorse the Commons’ resolutions, not least thanks to the presence of peers like Nathaniel’s father, William Fiennes, 1st viscount Saye and Sele, who had been an important negotiator at Carisbrooke. Even the radical Levellers seemed to be on board: meetings with Independents produced a proposal for a fresh Parliament to be called under a new franchise, subject to ratification by ‘the present Parliament and the army.
Furthermore, on 15 November there was also a hopeful signal from the headquarters of the New Model army at St Albans. In The Remonstrance of the Army sent to the Citizens of London, rapidly published, its general council expressed its ‘resolution to comply’ with the treaty. Royalist insurgents of the previous summer, it asserted, had cast a ‘dark and dismal cloud throughout all the Nation for the making of the Army odious in the sight and judgement of all men’. To vindicate the New Model from such calumny, it declared that ‘our hearts are free from the least thought or action for the subversion of Authority or Government’ [The Remonstrance of the Army (1648), 1-2 (E.472.13)]. As to
‘the present Treaty in hand between King and Parliament, we do declare that we shall not obstruct the same, nor meddle therein; provided, that we may be assured of security for the future, our arrears paid, the great burthen of the Kingdom removed and taken off, Religion setled, and the Subject freed from all tyranny and oppression either from Prince or Representatives’ [The Remonstrance of the Army, 3].
Most of the newspapers which, since shortly after the wars began, had issued weekly bulletins on the political and military situation, trumpeted all this as ‘joyful news’. But one or two more radical publications struck a decidedly dissonant tone. Mercurius Militaris referred contemptuously to Charles’s propositions as ‘the king’s pack of wares’ and mocked the craven attitude of MPs and peers. The Commons’ resolution was worthless because the king was ‘uncapable of honor’; the writer hoped that ‘the sword of justice … which is honorable in every stroke, will before [the conclusion of the treaty] be upon him for his murders and oppressions’. Talk of restitution disgusted him: ‘what a pretty cheat is his Majesties rights … when such a pack of his Apes agreed to any oppression and robbery of his, then it became a legal right of the Crown’ [Mercurius Militaris no. 5 (14-21 Nov. 1648), ‘28’, ‘39’ (E.473.8)]. Another journalist demanded rhetorically,
Did we elect Parliaments to redresse our grievances, take off our burthens, hold out our native freedoms and liberties against all pretended, Arbitrary, Tyrannicall, and destructive Kingly powers, and for our safety and well being? ’ [The Moderate no. 19 (14-21 Nov. 1648), 153 (E.473.1)]
The correct answer was evidently yes, but that had not been the result. ‘Instead’, this Parliament had done the opposite. It had increased grievances by imposing ‘arbitrary taxes’, by joining ‘with our enemies to destroy our freedoms and liberties (which our predecessors have bought dear by their blood’) and maintaining ‘the Monarchicall and Arbitrary power of the King’, by inviting ‘in a foraign enemy to destroy us’ [i.e. the Scots], and by acting ‘our enemies design in a Treaty, under a specious pretence of concluding a safe and well grounded Peace for the Nation’ [The Moderate no. 19, 153].
Among the political nation this was probably a minority view, but in the army it was otherwise. The apparently conciliatory tone of the Remonstrance was at variance with ‘the desires of the army’ annexed to it, which were themselves the product of simmering discontent and a conviction that peace negotiations were futile. Among other things, the army requested that ‘speedy and impartial Justice may be enacted on all fomentors, contrivers and actors’ in the civil wars [The Remonstrance of the Army, 4]. The process by which that view prevailed at Westminster over the winter of 1648-1649, silencing contrary opinions, bringing the chief ‘actor’ Charles Stuart to account, and turning a monarchy into a republic, will be the subject of subsequent blog posts in this series.
Biographies of William Pierrepont, Nathaniel Fiennes and Sir John Evelyn are being prepared for publication by the House of Commons 1640-1660 section.