Forcing Parliament…

360 years ago today, Oliver Cromwell dissolved the Rump Parliament, with a little help from a company of musketeers. Here’s a look at some occasions when force was used against Parliament …

By 1653, tensions were high between Oliver Cromwell and the Rump Parliament. The Rump came into being after Pride’s Purge in 1648 primarily to ensure the trial and execution of Charles I. Yet after Cromwell’s decisive victory over the future Charles II in the Battle of Worcester in 1651, the army and the Rump could not agree on parliament’s future. Cromwell and the army were called for new elections, or a radical ‘godly’ assembly to govern. The Rump, however, refused to dissolve itself or call new elections.

By 20 April Cromwell had lost patience and that morning joined the debate. Although we do not have a full account of the proceedings, a wide number of sources report that Cromwell gave an increasingly angry speech, ending with:

You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately … In the name of God, go!

At this point he called in the musketeers, and as MPs were ejected he reportedly called several ‘whoremasters’ and the official mace ‘a fool’s bauble’. The Rump was replaced by the ‘Nominated Assembly’ before Cromwell himself became Lord Protector in December 1653.

This was by no means the only time Parliament was threatened with violence; there were several occasions in the 17th century. For example, Charles I had also entered parliament with armed soldiers in January 1642 in an attempt to arrest five members. During Charles II’s reign, another war seemed possible between king and parliament during the Exclusion crisis (1678-81). The newly formed ‘country’ party (which later became the Whigs) tried to prevent Charles’ openly Catholic brother James from inheriting the throne. By 1681 the guns on Tower Hill had been moved inside the Tower of London and partly to avoid mob violence Charles called his next parliament in Oxford. This, however, increased fears of a possible coup, and each side went to Oxford with attendants ‘in large numbers, some of them well-armed.’ (K.H.D. Haley – The First Earl of Shaftesbury, p. 631) The Oxford parliament of March 1681 only lasted a week but violence was avoided; Charles never again called a parliament and James indeed succeeded to the throne.

The 17th century was not alone, however, in instances of violence towards parliament. In 1397 Richard II used a visible threat of force against the so-called ‘Revenge Parliament’. Earlier that summer Richard had arrested some of his old enemies, the ‘Lords Appellant’, who had, ten years previously, forced Richard to execute some of his closest advisors (see the ‘Merciless Parliament’). The three arrested – the Duke of Gloucester, the Earl of Arundel and the Earl of Warwick – were put on trial for treason during the September 1397 parliament.

There has been some debate about how far Richard packed the Commons with his supporters, but several, such as the Speaker Sir John Bussy were at this time ‘uncompromising’ members of the court party. Parliament met in a temporary hall in the palace yard as Westminster Hall was undergoing repair, and members may have been more persuaded to support the king by the thousands of archers that surrounded them. One author describes Richard as ‘riding menacingly through the middle of London surrounded by five thousand armed men’ [The Parliamentary Rolls of Medieval England, 1275-1504, ed. Chris Given-Wilson, p. 333]. Unsurprisingly Richard got his way; the Earl of Arundel was executed for treason, the Duke of Gloucester murdered before he could stand trial, and the Earl of Warwick admitted his guilt and was exiled.

In the 18th Century religious tensions again threatened peace in Westminster, this time from ‘King Mob’. In 1778 the Papists Acts gave Catholics more rights, including permission to serve in the army. Despite the great need for manpower this was deeply unpopular, and Protestant Associations across the country sprung up to oppose the Bill. In 1779 they elected Lord George Gordon as their Leader who agitated on their behalf in parliament, claiming in one speech that he had ‘one hundred and twenty thousand at his back’.

On 2nd June 1780 he led 60,000 to Westminster to petition against the Bill. Security was lax and several broke into the House during the debate; Gordon had to use his influence to allow MPs to leave. The situation in Westminster calmed down and the petition was rejected by the Commons, however, days of rioting followed in London. After Newgate prison was nearly destroyed graffiti claimed that the prisoners were freed on the authority of ‘His majesty, King Mob’. Over 285 were killed in the violence, 200 wounded and 450 arrested, with 20-30 later executed. Gordon himself was tried for treason but acquitted.

Despite all the movements for Reform in the 19th century, there were no violent acts against parliament itself. That did not mean that there were not great periods of tension, however, when parliament appeared to be in serious danger. There were riots across the country when the Lords rejected the second Reform Bill in 1831, and London residences of leading opponents, such as the Duke of Wellington, were attacked. When the Bill was rejected again in May 1832 and Grey’s ministry briefly resigned Britain appeared to be on the edge of revolution, although this was prevented when the bill was finally passed later that year. Tensions again flared in 1848; as revolutions spread across Europe, the mass demonstration of Chartists at Kennington Common in April was expected to end with a march on parliament. Although prevented by heavy rain and the presence of several troops, some had already prepared for the worst, such as the then Prime Minister, Lord John Russell, who was said to have protected the windows at his home in Chesham Palace with volumes of parliamentary papers!


With thanks to Dr Stephen Roberts, Dr Hannes Kleineke, Dr Robin Eagles, Dr Stuart Handley, Dr Kathryn Rix and Dr Philip Salmon for suggestions!

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