As MPs prepare to vote over whether or not to accept the Brexit deal negotiated by Theresa May, we have the second post in the series on the tumultuous events of 1648-1649, as parliamentarians disputed with each other over a treaty which might end the civil wars. Dr Vivienne Larminie of the House of Commons 1640-1660 section moves on from 15 November to 6 December 1648, to look at a critical vote and a forcible change of direction…
Over the three weeks since the prime minister announced her Brexit deal, observers might have been forgiven for detecting unprecedented twists and turns in politics at Westminster. From day to day the balance has seemed to shift between rejection and acceptance of the proposed ‘divorce settlement’ with the EU, and between groups with radically different visions of the best way forward for a country where opinion is sharply divided. Yet while there are no mathematically exact historical parallels, work at the History of Parliament reveals many resonances with past political crises, and some where the stakes have been at least as high and the consequences arguably even more far-reaching.
On 6 December 1648, three weeks after Parliament had taken a critical step towards a peace treaty with Charles I that would finally end civil war, events took a dramatic turn. Soldiers from the New Model army, which in its council of officers embodied the most potent collective voice opposing the treaty and which among its ranks included some of the most radical spokesmen for the ‘will of the people’, arrived at Westminster and proceeded to purge the House of Commons of those MPs who had supported a deal with the king. Armed with a list of the offending Members compiled the previous night, the troops’ commanding officer, Colonel Thomas Pride, stood with Thomas Grey, Lord Grey of Groby, on the stairs to the House and – having identified them individually – excluded those who tried to enter, or let them through, according to that list. On the whole, the exercise was conducted with courtesy, but none the less, 45 MPs were arrested and four times as many were turned away or, intimidated by the military force, did not even attempt to gain access.
‘Pride’s Purge’ did not come out of the blue. It was not the first time that the army had intervened to alter the balance of power in Parliament: in August 1647 it had facilitated by its very presence in London the overturning of a coup by the Presbyterian party. In 1648 intervention was preceded by a series of key votes in the House and trenchant declarations from the army which were not readily reconcilable, and a confrontation of some sort looked likely. Despite the moderately encouraging signs which appeared from that quarter on 15 November, on the 20th Parliament had received A Remonstrance or Declaration of the Army (1648, BL E.474.3), which included among other demands, ‘that King Charles, as the capitall grand author of the late troubles, may be speedily brought to justice’, and that the Parliament then sitting might ‘have a speedy period put to it’. This was later bolstered by petitions from individual regiments, such as that which requested General Sir Thomas Fairfax that ‘justice might take place upon all, from the highest to the lowest, from the king to the meanest subject’ [The Declarations and Humble Representations of the Officers and Soldiers in Colonel Scroops, Colonel Sanders, Col. Wautons Regiment (1648), 2 (BL E.475.24)]
It was thus in a distinctly hostile context that MPs diverted to the Army Committee – one of the standing committees which prefigure modern parliamentary organisation – the accompanying demand for the satisfaction of arrears of army pay, and proceeded instead to debate the latest proposals sent to them from their commissioners with the imprisoned king on the Isle of Wight. A series of divisions over the next few days revealed considerable dissatisfaction with different clauses, but also majorities for persisting in the search for a settlement. Then on 1 December the army moved Charles from Carisbrooke Castle to Hurst Castle, on the mainland, and on the 2nd contingents of the army itself marched to London. Yet after a marathon sitting from the 4th to the 5th – as the darkest time of year approached MPs had again voted over whether candles should be brought in to allow discussion to be prolonged after nightfall – there was a result which defied such pressures. Despite attempts by MPs like John Lisle to close down the debate, on the 5th the Commons resolved ‘That the Answers of the King to the Propositions of both Houses are a Ground for the House to proceed upon, for the Settlement of the Peace of the Kingdom’. Leading supporters of the treaty like William Pierrepont and Sir John Evelyn were delegated to go that afternoon to sell the deal to Fairfax and his officers, and to confer with them ‘for the keeping and preserving a good Correspondence between the Parliament and the Army’ [Journal of the House of Commons vi. 93].
As has been seen, ‘good correspondence’ proved to be beyond reach. Pierrepont and Evelyn, who were no advocates of a ‘soft’ peace with the king and had negotiated very much for a settlement on their terms, had many friends in the army. They were not among those arrested by Pride on 6 December, and may still have been en route from army headquarters at St Albans. Their friend Nathaniel Fiennes was detained, but like the widely-respected Sir Benjamin Rudyard, another member of the treaty negotiating team, he was soon released. Out-and-out Presbyterians were not so lucky. In particular, William Prynne and Clement Walker, who had form in denouncing both their political opponents (Pierrepont and friends) and the army, were among a small number of unrepentant hard-liners still incarcerated in late January 1649 and beyond. Characteristically, they broadcast in print their fury at the treatment they had received – A Declaration and Protestation (1649, BL 669.f.13.72) – and went on to deliver diatribes against the political developments which ensued from the purge.
Meanwhile, however, among those in the army who promoted the purge of Parliament there was a conviction that it was a necessary step towards a goal which was entirely justified before God – although even here it seems there were different degrees of certainty and confidence: not all who participated recorded their motives and reasoning. Colonel Edmund Ludlowe, who had been visible as a teller marshalling opposition to the treaty, set down in his memoirs many years later that
‘I was so well satisfyed in the justice and necessity of [the purge] (looking upon a good cause and a good sword to be a good authority), that, as I had (long before it was put in execution) earnestly desired and prayed the Lord would open a way and fit instrument for it’.
He could not, he explained, see
‘any other way to appease the wrath of God towards the nation for the blood that had bin shedd during the warrs, nor to settle the peace of the nation for the future, but by bringing of the King to justice, and no other way to effect that in so regular a way as by excluding those members of parlament who, being by some temptation or other drawne off to the King, obstructed the same’ [Edmund Ludlow, A Voyce from the Watch Tower, ed. A.B. Worden (1978), 143].
The path to justice will be the subject of the next blog in this series, due on 8 January.
- David Underdown, Pride’s Purge (1971)
- Blair Worden, The Rump Parliament (1977)
- Many contemporary publications relating to events surrounding the purge – both pamphlets and newspapers – are available via the subscription resource Early English Books Online.
Biographies of Sir John Evelyn, Sir Thomas Fairfax, Thomas Grey, Lord Grey of Groby, Nathaniel Fiennes, John Lisle, Edmund Ludlowe, William Pierrepont, Thomas Pride, William Prynne, Sir Benjamin Rudyard and Clement Walker are currently being prepared for publication by the House of Commons 1640-1660 section.