The ‘Barebones Parliament’: an assembly of the saints, 1653

Today, Dr Vivienne Larminie, Assistant Editor of our House of Commons 1640-1660 Section, continues our Named Parliaments series with the ‘Barebones Parliament’ of July-December 1653.

Strictly speaking, the body which convened on 4 July 1653 in the council chamber at Whitehall was not a Parliament at all.  Rather, having relocated to the Commons chamber at Westminster, it resolved to give itself that title two days later.  The ‘Nominated Assembly’, as it might more properly be called, consisted of nearly 150 men who had been summoned by a warrant dated 6 June signed by the army’s commander-in-chief, Oliver Cromwell.  These ‘divers persons, fearing God and of approved fidelity and honesty’ had been chosen by the general ‘with the advice of my council of officers’ and, sometimes at least, on the recommendation of local churches.  Between one and eight men were called from each of the English counties, along with six from Wales and – an innovation at Westminster – five from Scotland and six from Ireland.  Since this included two ‘generals at sea’ – George Monck (Devon) and Robert Blake (Somerset) – and numerous high-ranking officers in service (five of whom were later co-opted to join the rest), those who actually assembled numbered around 120 to 130, many fewer than in a normal Parliament.

As Cromwell explained on 4 July, the nominees had a divine calling to take on ‘the supreme authority and government of this commonwealth’.  A ‘series of providences wherein the presence of God did wonderfully appear’, including victories against the royalists like that at the battle of Worcester (3 September 1651), had demonstrated the rightness of the cause for which the parliamentarians had fought, while the necessity which had prompted the army to dissolve the republic’s Rump Parliament (20 April 1653) had shown the need for an alternative model of governance – one undertaken by those whose sincere godliness was manifest.  In what was in effect a sermon, Cromwell ‘did from the Scriptures’ encourage them; characteristically, he also advocated tolerance to all those of good will, ‘desiring that a tenderness might be used towards all godly and conscientious persons, of what judgement and under what form so ever’.  In contrast to the Long Parliament and the Rump, it was to be a fixed-term assembly, to sit no longer than 3 November 1654; in its hands was the selection of members of annual Parliaments to sit thereafter.

At any rate, that was the intention.  However, the proceedings so earnestly begun soon attracted ridicule.  The body’s membership was actually diverse, including lawyers, substantial country gentlemen and veterans of previous Parliaments. Sir Anthony Ashley Cooper, future 1st earl of Shaftesbury, was among those who sat, as was experienced diplomat Walter Strickland and Dr Jonathan Goddard, warden of Merton College, Oxford, and later a founder member of the Royal Society.  The scholarly elder statesman Francis Rous, step-brother of Long Parliament leader John Pym, was elected Speaker.  A published ‘catalogue’ of Members calculated that about half supported ‘the godly learned ministry and universities’, that is, graduate clergy from Oxford and Cambridge.  On the other hand, about half ostensibly did not.

The perception that the assembly was a nest of hopeless political and religious radicals and sectarians was widespread.  Exiled royalist and former MP Sir Edward Hyde may have betrayed his personal prejudices in characterising those summoned as ‘inferior persons, of no quality or name, artificers of the meanest trades; known only by their gifts in praying and preaching’ [Clarendon, History of the Rebellion, v. 282].  Yet a variety of others shared his perspective: the visiting Swiss envoy, for example, reported back to the Protestant Cantons that participants were enthusiastic Anabaptists (a damning label, evoking sixteenth-century extremists), full of fantastic schemes.  Observers seized upon the possibilities presented by the name and person of Member for London Praise or Praise-God Barbon to proclaim a ‘Barebones Parliament’, the name that has stuck in the popular imagination.  In the sense that Barbon was not the most prominent or even most typical Member, the epithet is misleading.  He was not a Baptist, and ‘Praise-God’ was probably not his baptismal name.  However, he was in trade – as a leatherseller from the ‘Lock and Key’ warehouse in Fleet Street – and he was a keen lay preacher and the pastor of a separatist congregation meeting in his business premises.

The many critics of this Parliament also dismissed its achievements.  Here again reality looks more nuanced.  Samuel Hyland, the Southwark distiller, former Leveller and Surrey MP who was almost certainly the author of the only extant inside account of its proceedings, depicts a body conscious of its limitations.  Members ‘knew well their call was not according to ancient formality’, but appreciated ‘the necessity of … having some act to carry on affairs in way of government’ until ‘a better way of settlement’ might be chosen by the people, something which  was ‘their just right, and dearly purchased liberty’[Exact Relation, ‘To the reader’].  Well-meaning and conscientious, MPs were overwhelmed by the burden of business and paralysed by profound divisions.  Their valiant and largely unsuccessful efforts to tackle the enormous and popular subject of legal reform did result in some notable legislation.  The effect of the Act of August 1653 requiring parishes to appoint registrars to conduct civil marriages is apparent in the registers: there are plenty of examples of justices of the peace conducting weddings rather than members of the clergy.  Some progress was also made in improving the lot of those languishing in debtors’ prisons.  But the other major issue of the assembly, state-imposed tithes and the maintenance of an established national church, generated heated debate: according to Hyland, conservative Members ‘took the pet and were exceeding wroth’ [Exact Relation, 24].  As irreconcilable differences emerged, those Members resigned on 12 December 1653.  This marked the end of the Parliament, months ahead of schedule.  Some army officers promptly produced a new written constitution, the Instrument of Government, and under its provisions Oliver Cromwell was installed as lord protector on 16 December.

VL

Further reading:

  • ‘L.D.’ An Exact Relation (1654)

Biographies of Praise-God Barbon, Robert Blake, Sir Anthony Ashley Cooper, Oliver Cromwell, Jonathan Goddard, Edward Hyde, Samuel Hyland, George Monck, Francis Rous and Walter Strickland are being prepared by the Commons 1640-1660 section.

One thought on “The ‘Barebones Parliament’: an assembly of the saints, 1653

  1. The standard work on the subject is Austin Woolrych, Commonwealth to Protectorate (Oxford, 1982), an exhaustive study of this brief but fascinating moment in Parliamentary history

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