Street demonstrations, military interventions and governments toppled: not today’s Cairo but London, 1640s and 1650s

After the dramatic events in Egypt yesterday, commentators have been arguing over whether the change of government should be considered a ‘military coup’ or a ‘revolution’. Dr Vivienne Larminie discusses the role of the army in government during the Civil War and Interregnum…

On 20 April 1653 Oliver Cromwell, commander-in-chief of the New Model army, led troops into the Palace of Westminster and forcibly dissolved the Parliament elected in October 1640.  It was not the first time that military force had been used against the Long Parliament.  Orderly military contingents and disorderly demonstrators, massing in the streets around Westminster, had affected the course of politics in the early 1640s. In the summer of 1647 Presbyterians seized power with the help of the London militia, only to have it wrested from them by Independents and the army. More famously, in December 1648, Colonel Thomas Pride’s soldiers guarded the entrance to the House and prevented the entry of MPs considered sympathetic to a peace treaty with King Charles I.  But this purge – arguably the first example of a military coup in modern Europe – left a proportion of Members still sitting, giving rise to the name of the Rump Parliament.

Although its Members had been elected by traditional means, the Rump faced problems of legitimacy.  These were soon compounded by the trial and execution of the king and the subsequent inauguration of a republic – the first English commonwealth.  Unprecedentedly, the government of the entire country was wholly in the hands of Parliament.  Externally, it faced the outrage of other European powers, appalled by regicide, the hostility of the Scots, who had not been consulted about the fate of the man who was also their king, and the threats of domestic and foreign insurgents.  From the start there were divisions between Members who had a radical agenda with regard to religion and the remoulding of society to be more equitable or more godly, and other Members – many of them conservative lawyers – who wanted to preserve as much as possible of the existing political and social order.  The latter sometimes claimed to have persuaded themselves to participate in the proceedings of the Rump only because they wished to mitigate its radicalism or to prevent military dictatorship, although their critics supposed the motive was simply fear or self-interest.

The Rump was attacked from all sides.  Those who had hoped for reform in areas such as the legal system were particularly disappointed.  Parliamentary deliberations seemed sluggish, protracted and ultimately fruitless.  The army, which since 1648 had achieved notable victories in Ireland and Scotland, was apparently the only body with the power to bring these to an end.  Yet at least one Member, Robert Reynolds, a lawyer who sat for Hindon, Wiltshire, affirmed later that he and his colleagues were only too well aware of how far their actions, or inaction, fell short of expectations.  He ‘never desired any earthly thing with more earnestness, to see that Parliament fairly dissolved’ and others had given ‘a very loud Yea’ to the proposition.  Outsiders were mistaken in labelling them self-perpetuating: ‘this was never known abroad, how near the Parliament that conquered others were to conquering themselves’ [Burton, Diary, iii. 209–10; B. Worden, The Rump Parliament (1974), 364–6, 375].

The Rump was replaced by another political novelty – the Nominated Parliament, often popularly known as ‘Barebones Parliament’ after a Member, Praise-God Barbon.   This ‘Assembly of the Saints’ was made up of men selected by a council of army officers because of their perceived religious and political credentials.  It was no more successful than its predecessor, and terminated itself after a few months 12 December 1653.  This experiment was not repeated, but after the failure of yet another political model – the Cromwellian protectorate – the Rump returned in May 1659, only to be rejoined by the purged Members in February 1660 and, having become again the Long Parliament, to dissolve itself that April.  The attainment of a workable political settlement which could attract a modicum of public support proved elusive, and Charles II was restored to the throne.


For more on violence against parliament, see our earlier blogpost ‘Forcing Parliament

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