The Cavalier Parliament

Our ‘Named Parliaments’ series continues. Today Paul Seaward, British Academy/Wolfson Research Professor at the History of Parliament Trust explores the Cavalier Parliament, the first Parliament after the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660…

The Parliament elected in April 1661 was designed to sweep away the last vestiges of the English Revolution and restore the monarchy to its pre-Civil War glory. It was the Convention of 1660, elected a year earlier, that had brought the Interregnum to an end, summoning Charles II back from his continental exile; but men who had fought for the king and his father had been deliberately excluded from it. As far as the king was concerned, the Convention needed to be replaced as soon as possible with something more vigorously reactionary. His new Parliament fitted the bill: ‘no man’, wrote his lord chancellor and chief minister, the earl of Clarendon, ‘could wish a more active spirit to be in them, than they were in truth possessed with’.

Charles II of England in Coronation robes, circa 1661-1662

Among its principal preoccupations was religion. The new Parliament did all it could to support the revival of the episcopal Church of England: it brought bishops back into the House of Lords, from whence they had been removed in 1641; it passed a new Act of Uniformity, imposing qualifications on parish clergy designed to winkle out those who felt that the English church remained too close to the old, Catholic, religion; it passed a Corporation Act, intended to remove from local government anyone who might sympathise with the ideas about church or state that had brought about the revolution; and it created a set of new and draconian penalties against people who attended informal religious services outside the structures of the Church – the Conventicle Acts, the ‘quintessence of arbitrary malice’, as they were called by Andrew Marvell, the celebrated poet, a Member of the Parliament who was a key figure among the ‘Presbyterians’, as they were called, whose efforts to oppose such legislation were, though well-organised, unavailing.

To call it the ‘Cavalier’ Parliament was to associate it with the royalists of the Civil War. ‘Cavalier’ was a word taken from Spanish, which originally meant simply a cavalryman, but had acquired connotations of the sort of loud, confident and aggressive behaviour that you might expect of young seventeenth-century gentlemen, and had then been applied to the king’s supporters in the war. In fact, the word seems not to have been applied to the 1661 Parliament until much later. The only seventeenth century uses of the phrase I’ve found either use it for the assembly of royalist Members of the 1641 Long Parliament that met at the king’s headquarters at Oxford in 1644, or for the Irish Parliament elected in 1661. Though the phrase was used for this Parliament in 1745 it only seems to have become common towards the end of the nineteenth century.

The Parliament is also referred to as the ‘Long Parliament’ or the ‘Pensionary Parliament’. ‘Long Parliament’ was a mocking comparison with the Parliament that had fought Charles I, and pointed to the fact that the 1661 Parliament would remain in existence for longer than its reviled predecessor had done: it was in use by the 1780s and probably much earlier. The phrase ‘Pensionary Parliament’ was much more popular. In use as early as 1679, and common in the 1690s and well after, it referred to the systematic efforts of government ministers from the mid-1660s onwards to buy the support of Members through the wholesale distribution of pensions and offices. Their campaigns were given wide publicity by their opponents, who put out pamphlets listing in outraged or sardonic terms the benefits Members received from the court. The most famous, A Seasonable Argument to Perswade All the Grand Juries in England, to Petition for a New Parliament. Or, A List of the Principal Labourers in the Great Design of Popery and Arbitrary Power, published in1677, was attributed to Andrew Marvell, whose Account of the Growth of Popery and Arbitrary Government in England was a vigorous denunciation of what he saw as the systematic corruption of an entire Parliament.

How Cavalier was the Cavalier Parliament? Out of the 617 men who sat in the House of Commons in the first six years of the Parliament, between 1661 and 1667, more than half (330) had in some way shown their support for Charles I or Charles II during the Civil War. A much smaller number – less than 10% (56) – had served on the side of Parliament. But since the Parliament lasted for nearly eighteen years, its royalism would, over time, fade, as the generation that had directly experienced the Civil War diminished: and while support for the government was shored up for a while by the much-criticised distribution of places and pensions, it came under enormous strain as suspicions grew that Charles II hankered after French-style absolutist government and had warmer feelings for the Catholic Church than for the Church of England. The news that his heir, his brother James, had himself become a Catholic, created a crisis over ways of neutralising the threat to the Church that eventually persuaded the king that his loyal Parliament of 1661 favoured his interests no longer. He dissolved it in 1679.

PS

Further reading

  • History of Parliament website: http://historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1660-1690/parliament/1661
  • Paul Seaward, The Cavalier Parliament and the Reconstruction of the Old Regime, 1661-1667 (Cambridge, 1989)
  • D.T. Witcombe, Charles II and the Cavalier House of Commons, 1663-1674 (Manchester, 1966)
  • Annabel Patterson, The Long Parliament of Charles II (London, 2008)

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