The importance of royal pardons in Restoration England.

The UK is celebrating the centenary of the passing of the Representation of the People Act 1918, which allowed some women to vote for the first time. This has enlivened a debate relating to the posthumous pardon of Suffragettes convicted of offences during the campaign for ‘Votes for Women’. The History of Parliament’s Director and editor of the Commons 1640-1660 section, Dr Stephen Roberts explains the significance of the royal pardon in Restoration England…

Posthumous pardoning has recently become a powerful and emotive element in public discussion. Classes of people thought to have suffered injustice at the hands of the state have attracted champions who have argued that their offences should be effaced from the record as unjust or morally monstrous. Two examples are the British soldiers of 1914-18, shot for acts which at the time were considered to have amounted to cowardice or desertion; and the activists for women’s suffrage punished for acts of criminal damage or civil disobedience. These are campaigns for selective pardoning, but in 1660, in what were unique circumstances, the concept of pardon was one which gripped the attention of everyone in public life in England and Wales.

After a period of nearly 20 years of disruption to kingly rule – civil war between king and parliament, followed by a republic and then the Cromwellian protectorate – Charles Stuart had returned from exile to re-establish the monarchy and to reign as Charles II. In May that year he issued from Breda, in the Netherlands, a Declaration which promised ‘a free and general pardon’ to all his people, giving them 40 days from publication to ‘lay hold on’ his pardon, meaning in practice that people should explicitly and publicly accept it by affirmation or in writing. There were many of the new king’s subjects with much to be nervous about. Many had fought against him in the civil war, in either high or low military rank. Others had benefited from confiscations of the royal estates or from the estates of his supporters, or from the lands and tithes of the Church of England, of which the king was head. The most nervous of all were the men who in January 1649 had signed the death of warrant of the new king’s father, Charles I, or made speeches in Parliament or delivered sermons from the pulpit against the king in particular or monarchy in general. Although his promise was for a general pardon to everyone, ‘how faulty soever’, Charles imposed one important condition, which was that any exceptions to the rule of a general pardon would be determined by Parliament. So if any people were to be excluded from the pardon, it would be decided by Parliament who they would be.

The Declaration of Breda, as it came to be known, was dated 4 April 1660, and the Parliament that would determine some of the exceptions to the Declaration assembled three weeks later. While most people were content to trust that the Declaration would apply to them, others were unwilling to take any chances, and made contact with the Speaker of the Commons, the memorably-named Sir Harbottle Grimston, to make their own effusive Declarations of loyalty to the new king. Some of these were former MPs, such as John Claypoole, who had married the daughter of Oliver Cromwell. He had risen through this connection not only to achieve credibility as an MP in two Parliaments and then as a member of Cromwell’s equivalent of the House of Lords, but also to be master of the lord protector’s horse, a position of influence at the Cromwellian court. It was Claypoole’s membership, by marriage, of the Cromwell family that gave rise to his sense of insecurity. Others felt exposed because of unsympathetic neighbours. Sampson Lort, who had been elected in controversial circumstances to Parliament in 1659, for Pembroke, had encouraged his militia troop to carry a banner with the republican motto, ‘no king, no lords we are engaged’. Neither of these men had as much to fear as John Hutchinson, who had signed the death warrant in 1649. It was Hutchinson’s wife, Lucy, author of a celebrated posthumous memoir of her husband, who wrote in her husband’s name, but against his wishes, to the Speaker expressing his true repentance for his part against the late king. According to Lucy herself, it was the only occasion on which she ever disobeyed her husband. For all three of these, their self-abasements worked, and their pardons were secure. Not for Hutchinson the ignominy and agony of the traitor’s death by hanging and ritual dismemberment while still alive.

The king’s pardon was a general one, but by making Parliament central to the process of bestowing it, the king had cleverly demonstrated his respect for the institution which had fought against, tried and executed his father before defeating and banishing Charles II himself. He had also just as cleverly distanced himself to some extent from the process and from judgments as to guilt or innocence. The concept of the general pardon also imposed on all in public life the responsibility for clearing their own names. Some quickly and correctly foresaw that the declarations, speeches and letters of June 1660 were a prelude to a longer process of rehabilitation of most; low-level harassment for a substantial minority; and arrest, trial and public execution for a very small number. A few, such as Col. John Jones, a signatory of the death warrant in 1649, failed to realise the danger they were in, despite the Declaration of Breda. He was arrested on 2 June while out walking for exercise in London, and went to his death as regicide a little over four months later.  A fortnight after Jones’s arrest, the king issued a proclamation which acknowledged those who had actively decided to ‘lay hold on’ his pardon, and which now extended it to all his subjects regardless of any such initiative on their part. ‘Notorious delinquents’ were made an exception, and the scene was set for the trials of the regicides.


Keep up to date with the progress of The Commons 1640-1660 project here. 

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