The ‘Story of Parliament’: Civil War leaders

Earlier this year the History published ‘The Story of Parliament: Celebrating 750 years of parliament in Britain’ to mark the anniversary of Simon de Montfort’s parliament in 1265. The book is a brief introduction to the full 750 years of parliamentary history, aimed at the general reader, and available to purchase from the Houses of Parliament bookshop.

 On this blog we are publishing some tasters of ‘The Story of Parliament’ from a number of the academics who contributed to the book. Our second post concentrates on two of Parliament’s leaders in the conflict with Charles II, John Pym and Oliver Cromwell. These men both emerged from relatively humble beginnings to become two of the most important political figures of the Civil War period.

 This article was originally written by Dr Stephen Roberts, editor of the Commons 1640-60 section.

John Pym (1584-1643), was the unofficial leaders of the Commons in the first part of the Civil War, despite the fact he was not wealthy (he owned a very modest amount of land in Somerset) and never held high office. By April 1640, when he took a leading part in voicing opposition to Charles I, he was a veteran of five parliaments. In each of them he sat by courtesy of aristocratic patrons. In the assemblies of the 1620s he criticised the king but was never subsequently singled out for retribution. He spent the 11 years when parliament did not meet in the 1630s in advancing the various economic and puritan colonial ventures. When parliament was again summoned, in 1640, his skilful and persuasive oratory made him a natural leader of opposition in the Commons. From November that year he spearheaded attacks on almost every aspect of the 11 years’ royal rule until an exasperated king attempted to arrest him and four other MPs in January 1642. Thereafter, Pym’s aim was to set secure limits to the king’s power.

After the outbreak of civil war, which Pym blamed on the king, he led the creation of a parliamentarian war effort, developing a range of administrative and fiscal measures, notably the excise tax (1643). Until his death he was pre-eminent in the committee of safety, the main executive committee devised by parliament to oversee this work. From 1641 he was lampooned as “King Pym” because of his dominance of politics. Recently, historians have questioned his independence of judgement and action, but he occupied an unrivalled position as a manager of parliamentary business because of his tireless capacity to work and his authority among fellow-parliamentarians.

Conversely, few politicians have sustained such a complex and ambivalent relationship with parliament as Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658). He was both its champion and its destroyer.

Born in Huntingdon, he was typical of the lesser East Anglian gentry. He played a party in the local government of his native town from 1624, accounting for his election there in 1628. He contributed little to the proceedings of the 1628-29 Parliament, and little is known about his activities in the 1630s: there was nothing to suggest he was then actively hostile to the government of Charles I. Even his opposition to a project of major landowners to drain the East Anglian fens did not amount to much.

But around 1638 Cromwell underwent a religious conversion, and this puritan faith drove his career in the Long Parliament (1640-1660), in which he represented Cambridge. He intervened early and effectively in that assembly, despite his relative inexperience. On the outbreak of civil war he combined sporadic but purposeful attendance in parliament with outstanding military leadership. He engineered the army reforms of 1644-45 and reached the high command of the New Model Army. In 1648, he tacitly supported the expulsion of MPs who sought compromise with the king, and led those who signed Charles’ death warrant. His own growing radicalism was not matched by the Rump Parliament (1648-53). In 1653, he used the army to topple it from power.

As head of state (1653-58) with the title of Lord Protector, he ruled under England’s first and only written constitution. He planned for parliaments to continue to play a part, but with radicals and conservatives alike opposed to his new form of kingship, he struggled to create a government that was not based on military power. These intractable problems of state security and legitimacy persisted after his death.


‘The Story of Parliament’ is available at the Parliamentary bookshop for £14.99. You can purchase it here.

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