Crashing out of Monarchy: February 1649 and the making of the English republic

For the final blog in our series on the events during the winter of 1648-9, Dr Patrick Little of the House of Commons 1640-1660 section considers the transition from monarchy to republic after the execution of Charles I… 

After the dramatic events of December 1648 and January 1649, which saw the purging of Parliament and the trial and execution of the king, the far-reaching, ‘hard’ revolution that some hoped for failed to materialise.  Once the radical manifesto put forward by the Levellers and their sympathisers in the army, known as The Agreement of the People, had been put aside as too divisive, there was no Plan B.  Instead the transition from monarchy to republic was gradual and cautious, as the leaders of the Commons negotiated their way through uncharted territory.

Even the dismantling of the old system of government was painfully slow. It was not until 7 February 1649 that the Rump Parliament set up a new executive body, to fulfil those functions traditionally performed by the king and his councillors.  This council of state played an important role in controlling the armed forces, and was the focus for diplomacy and foreign policy, but it was firmly under Parliament’s thumb: most of the councillors were MPs; they were elected by Parliament annually; and their decisions were subject to parliamentary scrutiny.  The establishment of an executive was followed by a certain amount of constitutional tidying-up, but again progress was snail-like.  In mid-March acts were finally passed for the abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords, and it was not until early May that the Rump voted through another crucial measure – the act declaring England to be ‘a commonwealth and free state’.  This last act exemplifies the halting, ad hoc nature of the ‘English Revolution’.  Unlike the verbose constitutional and diplomatic documents of modern times, the act consisted of only 105 words, and made no mention of what the republican state might actually look like – except for the brief comment that it would include neither a monarch nor an upper House of Parliament.  It read thus:

Be it declared and enacted by this present parliament, and by the authority of the same, that the people of England, and of all the dominions and territories thereunto belonging, are and shall be, and are hereby constituted, made, established and confirmed, to be a commonwealth and free state, and shall from henceforth be governed as a commonwealth and free state by the supreme authority of this nation, the representatives of the people in Parliament, and by such as they shall appoint and constitute as officers and ministers under them for the good of the people, and that without any king or House of Lords.

(S.R. Gardiner, The Constitutional Documents of the Puritan Revolution, 1625-1660 (3rd edn. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1906), 388)

 Perhaps the main reason for avoiding detailed statements about the new commonwealth was the sense of uncertainty within the Rump Parliament itself.  Pride’s Purge had removed not only conservative Presbyterians and crypto-royalists, it had also caused the voluntary withdrawal of a large number of less partisan MPs, shocked and dismayed by the army’s actions.  In the weeks after the Purge, only around 70 MPs attended the Commons.  No more than 40 of these were in any sense committed republicans, including Thomas Scot, Henry Marten and Thomas Chaloner – and by no means were all of these men friends of the army. Aware that the Rump’s legitimacy was under question, the surviving MPs were keen to persuade their former colleagues to return to the House.

Commonwealth seal 1651
Seal of the Commonwealth, 1651, showing the Rump Parliament in session (image copyright P.M. Hunneyball)

Gradually those opposed to the regicide – including such republican critics of the army as Sir Henry Vane and Sir Arthur Hesilrige – were coaxed back to Westminster.  By February there were further concessions, aimed at winning over the more moderate MPs secluded at Pride’s Purge – the only condition being the signing of a ‘dissent’, disowning the Newport Treaty negotiated with the late king the previous year.  Such moves certainly provided a more respectable membership of around 200 (although only around a quarter of these men were present at any one time); but it also brought in yet more moderate MPs, who were keen to limit the power of the army in the commonwealth’s affairs, and who opposed radical reform in church and state.

The slow pace of constitutional reform was matched by a lack of enthusiasm for innovation in other areas.  Any major changes to Parliament were resisted, and even when reforms were proposed in January 1650, they only involved recruiting new MPs to the existing Parliament.  The creaking legal system, which was cumbersome and expensive, was defended by the lawyers in the House, who managed to prevent any serious attempt at reform throughout the Rump Parliament.  Religious reform was also restricted.  While a handful of radicals called for an abolition of church hierarchies and even the removal of a dedicated ministry and the closure of the universities, and others supported some kind of freedom for the various sects, a sizeable minority of MPs looked for a completion of the Presbyterian system first proposed by the Westminster Assembly in the mid-1640s; still others were keen to retain an Erastian church, subordinate to Parliament’s own will.  

It is telling that the establishment of a new national church, along Presbyterian lines, was only narrowly defeated in the Commons in August 1649.  Stalemate ensued, and an uneasy hybrid system evolved, with different denominations co-existing.  Parliament limited itself to arranging the funding of ministers and ensuring that blasphemy and other matters, formerly the remit of the church courts, were incorporated into the common law system.  Indeed, the only two areas which brought major change during the commonwealth period were practical and uncontroversial: the rebuilding of the navy and the sale of the estates of the crown, the church, and leading royalists.  The former encouraged both trade and the growth of colonies in the Americas, and the latter was something of a priority for MPs, who welcomed the opportunity of buying up lands at bargain prices and lining their own pockets.

A mark of the basic conservatism of the republican regime can be seen in its political culture.  Some MPs – especially men like Challoner and Algernon Sydney – emphasised the similarities between the current situation and that of classical Rome, and they were backed up by the arguments of writers and theorists like Marchamont Nedham and John Milton. Others used religious arguments, with Francis Rous asserting that God’s will was that ‘the subject had the duty to obey whatever form of government there happened to be’, warning that those who resisted ‘would have confusion, distraction, destruction to bring forth order and safety’ (The Lawfulnes of Obeying the Present Government (1649), 7-8 (BL, E.551.22)).  On the whole, the regime fell back on vaguer arguments based on the ‘common good’, reinforced by a repackaging of royal symbolism, ranging from the coins in people’s pockets to the decorations on the warships that patrolled the seas.  Everywhere, the new commonwealth coat of arms – a cross of St George conjoined with the harp of Ireland – proclaimed that the new republic was stable, traditional, and respectable.  It was a very British revolution.



Further reading:

Sean Kelsey, Inventing a republic: the political culture of the English Commonwealth, 1649 to 1653 (Manchester, UK, and Stanford, CA, 1997)

The House of Commons 1640-1660 section is currently preparing biographies of Thomas Chaloner, Sir Arthur Hesilrige, Henry Marten, Francis Rous, Thomas Scott, Algernon Sydney and Sir Henry Vane.

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