In the first of a new blog series charting the collapse of the British Republic, Dr Vivienne Larminie of the Commons 1640-1660 section discusses the military coup which temporarily suspended the Rump Parliament 360 years ago...
On the morning of Thursday 13 October 1659 ‘at his usual time’, Speaker William Lenthall was making his way by coach from his London residence to preside over a day’s business in the House of Commons when he encountered a check [Publick Intelligencer no. 198, p. 796]. Overnight, troops had positioned themselves along King Street (now Abingdon Street) and occupied Westminster Hall and Westminster Abbey Yard. Furthermore, a sturdy barricade had been erected at Millbank, ‘to hinder all Accesse from those places: And some Boates well manned with Souldiers, did row up and down the Thames about Westminster, and permitted none to land thereabouts’. Initially Lenthall ‘had passage through the ranks of soldiers’, but when he reached the gate into the Palace, the coach was stopped. Lenthall’s attempt to assert his authority to disperse the men met a blank refusal. Faced with no alternative, he instructed his coachman to drive home – ‘and so the House sat not’ [Weekly Intelligencer no. 24, p. 190].
The ‘interruption’ of Parliament, as it came to be known, was to last until late December. It was not the first dramatic termination of proceedings against the will of MPs in the seventeenth century. Neither was it the first time that Speaker Lenthall had faced intimidating challenges, nor that armed demonstrators had crowded the streets of Westminster seeking redress for their grievances and a change of policy from the government. But it came as yet another disturbing development in a turbulent year. Particularly from 1656, the protectorate of Oliver Cromwell had witnessed a return to a degree of political stability. On the one hand the army (containing a mixture of radical and less radical elements) had respected the integrity of its victorious lord general; on the other hand traditional gentry leaders across the country had seized the opportunity to re-engage with a regime that offered the best hope of normality. However, Oliver’s death in September 1658 upset the delicate balance of competing interests held together in his person. The second protectorate, that of his eldest son Richard Cromwell, who lacked substantial military experience, had been short-lived. A Parliament (elected December 1658/January 1659) which not only contained a large and obstructive caucus of covert royalists, but which also saw clashes between civilian republicans and supporters of the army, culminated in a show-down in which leading army officers forced a dissolution (21 April) and Richard’s resignation. As demanded, there had then been a return of the commonwealth (i.e. republic) and of the Rump Parliament (shut down in 1653; reassembled 7 May 1659), but a summer of serious if abortive royalist uprisings had done nothing to heal serious political divisions.
Flush with their success against rebels, desirous of payment and dissatisfied with the Rump, in the autumn elements in the army around General John Lambert petitioned for a settlement of government according to their preferred plan. In retaliation, on Wednesday 12 October MPs led by veteran republican Sir Arthur Hesilrige (one of the Five Members of January 1642) attempted to assert control by revoking the commissions of Lambert and several other commanders and appointing a new commission of seven to govern the army. Among those seven was the newly dismissed commander-in-chief, Charles Fleetwood, but also several critics of the high command including Hesilrige and long-standing Sussex MP Colonel Harbert Morley (sometimes Herbert Morley). They sat ‘all night in the Speaker’s chamber within the Parliament House to issue forth orders’ and, anticipating trouble, posted their own guard round about.
Thus, when Lenthall turned for home on the Thursday morning, he left two sets of soldiers confronting each other around Westminster – a majority loyal to Lambert and Fleetwood and a much smaller group consisting of the Parliament guard and Morley’s regiment. Newspapers depicted them positioned ‘many of them within a pikes length one of another, their Muskets charged, and their Matches lighted and in a churlish silence staring on one another, and far from those friendly Incouragements which in all former dangers they were accustomed to give to one another…’ [Weekly Intelligencer no. 24, p. 190]. Later in the day, a message from the council of state, the executive body which was recruited from among MPs and which included several key players in the confrontation, instructed all the troops to return to their quarters. This was obeyed, but it was clear that Lambert and Fleetwood had the upper hand.
When the council of state met later on 13 October, it was agreed that, ‘to save the effusion of blood’, government should be handed over to the council of army officers until a new Parliament could be called. In the chair that day was yet another veteran MP, Bulstrode Whitelocke, who was a conservative lawyer without military pretensions but who shared the army’s stance on religious toleration. Aware of the need for legitimacy and for allies, the officers invited men like him to come on board. Whitelocke agonised over his response, but having ‘revolved in his mind the present state of affairs’, he convinced himself that ‘there was no visible authority or power for government at this time but that of the army’ and that the alternative of trusting in civilian radicals would jeopardise everything he had striven for over the previous two decades [Whitelocke, Memorials, 685-6]. He thus accepted offers of the presidency of the new council of state and membership of a committee of safety. Royalist observers noted that Whitelocke always managed to jump the right way, but this time his decision was to be disastrous. The story of another winter of political paralysis and uncertainty will be continued in subsequent posts.
- The Weekly Intelligencer of the Common-wealth no. 24 (11-18 Oct 1659; BL, E.1000.7)
- The Publick Intelligencer no. 198 (10-17 Oct 1659; BL, E.771.20)
- Journal of the House of Commons vii at https://www.british-history.ac.uk/commons-jrnl/vol7
- Bulstrode Whitelocke, Memorials of the English Affairs (1732)
Biographies of Oliver Cromwell, Richard Cromwell, Charles Fleetwood, Sir Arthur Hesilrige,John Lambert, William Lenthall, Harbert Morley and Bulstrode Whitelocke are being prepared for publication by the Commons 1640-1660 section.