The outbreak of civil war in August 1642 landed Parliament in an unprecedented situation. Besides having to raise money and men to fight, for the first time it had to act as both legislature and executive. Day-to-day government, once the exclusive preserve of the monarch and privy council, was now the responsibility of Parliament. Initially its area of control was largely confined to London and the south-east; later, after the royalists surrendered their headquarters at Oxford in 1646 and the king became a fugitive and a prisoner, Parliament ruled the whole country.
With the 1640–1660 section at History of Parliament now entering the final research phase, last month we hosted a colloquium of historians of the 1640s. The aim was to discuss our findings so far and to exchange insights and evidence with others working on the period. The focus was Parliament’s role in state formation. How far did it devise new fiscal and administrative policies and procedures to cope with the extraordinary demands it faced? Was it able to translate hopes for religious and social reforms into remodelled institutions? Who was in control and what were their priorities? How were Parliament’s experiments in government received? Did any of them survive the further political changes of the 1650s and the Restoration of 1660?
Speakers introduced several different topics, including: factional politics; the alignment of individual MPs; the remoulding of the national church; the proliferation of committees to conduct business; the development of new procedures; and the reaction to the escalating demands of central government from royalists, radicals and ordinary people. In his summary of the day’s lively and constructive discussion, Professor Mike Braddick remarked that we aimed to recognise the ‘mess of human experience’ represented by the complex and sometimes rather impenetrable beliefs and actions of MPs, but at the same time try to make sense of this mess by identifying influential ideas or alignments and establishing some long-term trends.
We recognised some enduring difficulties, especially in vocabulary. Seventeenth century observers described battles at Westminster between ‘Presbyterians’ and ‘Independents’, in which the former usually stood for alliance with the Scots, introduction of a Scottish-style church and compromise with the king, and the latter for more aggressive conduct of the war but greater religious tolerance once it was won. The testimony of these observers is significant: those they called Independent ‘grandees’ did indeed collaborate over a sustained period and direct parliamentary committees to pursue discernible goals, while their opponents coalesced at different times around Parliament’s commander-in-chief Robert Devereux, 3rd earl of Essex, and MPs like Denzil Holles. But beyond the dedicated core, ‘party’ labels prove slippery to apply in practice. While less visibly active MPs might be assigned to interest groups on particular occasions many, perhaps most, are difficult to categorise.
Among topical themes which emerged were shifting alignments, bureaucratisation and corruption, and the resistance of local communities to the centralising tendencies of Westminster. Alongside resentment, there was also a readiness to work the system by lobbying; criticism had less to do with the system itself than with disappointed expectations. There were some constructive developments which remained after the Restoration; immediate problems gave rise to some permanent solutions. With greatly increased taxation came a growing culture of accountability; to carry the administrative burden, Parliament harnessed expertise from outside, especially from the City of London. A small, but key, development was the introduction on a large scale of printed warrants – representing novel forward-planning and standardisation. These modest pieces of paper supplied receipts for money paid in, certified tasks accomplished and suitability for office, and summoned people to give account. This helped to make government more sophisticated and more transparent, even as Parliament discussed ordinances that would indemnify its officials in the event of regime change and cast a cloak over their innovatory and, for some, tyrannous activity.