6 December, 1648: Pride’s Purge

Dr Stephen Roberts, editor of the HOP’s House of Commons 1640-60 project, explains the importance of “Pride’s Purge” which took place on this day in 1648.

Since the victories by the New Model Army which brought the first civil war between Parliament and King Charles I to an end in 1646, relations between the soldiers and their parliamentary employers had been uneasy. Many of the officers and troopers of the New Model regiments were fired up by a protestant religious zeal, which set them on a course towards further reformation of the church. Among the obscure soldiers of the New Model, who later became world-famous as a religious writer, was John Bunyan. Other New Modellers were more interested in reform of the state, and in 1647 a series of meetings in Putney church, near London, explored issues of equality and the franchise.

The radicalism of the army was not matched by the MPs of the Long Parliament. True, there were some MPs who were sympathetic to the ideology and to the problems of pay and conditions that afflicted the soldiers, but most of those in the House of Commons were more socially conservative, more cautious in their approach to religious and political progress than their military employees (to read more about the factions within the Long Parliament, see our website). And Charles I, notionally beaten in 1646, remained a problem. A consummate schemer, who was only too well aware of the differences among his victors, Charles sought alliances wherever he could make them, to recover his authority and his capital city. Notionally a prisoner, first of the Scots (Parliament’s former allies), then of Parliament and the New Model, he made a deal with the Scots whereby in exchange for establishing a Scottish-style presbyterianism in England, he would regain his throne with military help from Scotland and Ireland. The result was what is known as the second civil war, which took place in 1648 and brought more misery to the three kingdoms.

The patience of the New Model with both Houses of Parliament was by December 1648 wearing very thin. Even in 1647 the army had entered London, on that occasion to protect Parliament from the hostility of the City. Yet, knowing what a highly-politicized and motivated army was capable of, and knowing the seemingly unlimited capacity of Charles I for causing mischief, the conservative majority in the Commons carried a motion to carry on negotiating with the king. The following day, 6 December 1648, the MPs found their way into the House of Commons blocked by soldiers under the direction of Colonel Thomas Pride. Holding a list of MPs judged by the army to be its enemies, Pride was helped by Lord Grey of Groby, more familiar with the faces of the MPs than the colonel was, to assign the Members to different categories. The most voluble protesters, some 45 MPs, were taken away to confinement in various places in Westminster, among them an eating-house called Hell. A much larger number were barred from entering the chamber, and were left just to wander off and chew over what had (apparently without warning) happened. At the end of this exercise, which was evidently a determined strategy by the army leadership, two-thirds of the membership of the Commons was purged. Directly afterwards, the revolutionary remnant in Parliament and their military friends put the king on trial and declared that the origin of political power lay with the people. On 30 January 1649, Charles I was beheaded outside his own palace in Whitehall, and the English Republic was proclaimed.

SR

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4 Responses to 6 December, 1648: Pride’s Purge

  1. newtonkey says:

    A telling moment on this momentous day was when Col. John Birch poked his head outside to see what the fuss was about and was arrested, which suggests that he had arrived to work earlier than the soldiers of the morning purge itself. Do I get to keep this moment, or is it inaccurate?

    • epeplow says:

      Thanks for that – yes according to the pamphlet ‘The Parliament under the Power of the Sword’ both Col. Birch and Edward Stephens “were pulled out of the House of Commons, as they looked out the dore” – an early start for them!

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