A month in politics: the fall of Protector Richard Cromwell, 1659

As we ponder the abrupt end to Boris Johnson’s premiership, Dr Vivienne Larminie of our Commons 1640-60 section offers a salutary reminder that the sudden collapse of a government is far from unprecedented in British history…

Reporting on events at Whitehall palace on 6 April 1659, weekly newspaper The Publick Intelligencer depicted a harmonious outcome to a potentially dangerous political confrontation. That evening, ‘in one of the publick rooms of audience’, Lieutenant-general Charles Fleetwood and others from the general council of the officers of the armies of England, Scotland and Ireland had presented a petition to Protector Richard Cromwell. The Humble Representation began by stressing the patience and forbearance of forces constituted ‘for the just Rights and Liberties, Civil and Religious of our Countreys, and not as a Mercenary Army’, but went on to state dramatically ‘the crying necessities of the Armies for want of pay’ and their perception of ‘the approaching danger’ that all they had fought for since 1642 ‘was in danger to be lost’. ‘The good old Cause against Tyranny and intolerable oppression’ to which they had signed up, which God had endorsed in their victories in the field, and for which there had ‘been such a plentiful powring forth of Treasure, Prayers, Tears, and Blood’ had been publicly mocked. Disaffected cavaliers were assembling; they and the press were on the warpath. ‘The famous Actions of the Parliament, His late Highness, of blessed memory [i.e. Oliver Cromwell], and the Army’ were ‘vilified and evil spoken of’. The beleaguered officers therefore sought from Richard and his Parliament then sitting both arrears of pay and indemnity for their past actions.

Richard Cromwell (attributed to G. van Soest) [via Wikimedia Commons]

Notwithstanding the tension, according to The Publick Intelligencer, Protector Richard – who happened to be Fleetwood’s brother-in-law – received the address ‘with a very great affection and respect to the whole body of Officers which presented it, using many expressions of tenderness and endearment to them, as the old friends of his renowned Father, and the faithful servants of the Publick Interest of these Nations’. He expressed solidarity with them, and indeed ‘so great a satisfaction appeared on either side at this meeting, as that it speaks nothing less then a vigorous asserting of the present Government, to the terror and confusion of the common enemy’. Thus the newspaper offered the reassurance that, no doubt, a constituency of its readers desperately wanted.

Up to that point a fragile political alliance had held somewhat against the odds. Protector Oliver Cromwell had died on 3 September 1658, having recently declined an offer of the crown but also having, in traditional mode, named his eldest surviving son as his successor. The heir’s character and experience were not promising. Although he had done brief military service in 1647-8, he could not begin to match the tactical brilliance, godly dedication, meritocratic outlook and appreciation of his men that had endeared his father to the army. Unlike his brother Henry Cromwell, who earned respect through his competence in governing Ireland, Richard had made next to no impression as an MP in his first Parliament (1654) and little in his second (1656-7). Rare glimpses of his political stance revealed him as more conservative than Oliver, inclining towards Presbyterians antipathetic to the army. He was known to the public principally for his love of hunting and horse-racing; his laziness and self-indulgence exasperated his father. In August 1657 a serious injury sustained in a hunting accident removed him for months from the political stage.

Yet the succession went smoothly, all things considered. Government officials like John Thurloe were quick off the mark with proclaiming Protector Richard and with orchestrating public endorsement. Richard stirred himself to the challenging tasks of maintaining good relations with the officers and finding the funds for paying their arrears. Members of the council of state including Henry Lawrence, Nathaniel Fiennes, Sir Charles Wolseley, Philip Jones and the future naval commander Edward Montagu gave him solid backing.

But financial contingencies necessitated a general election. From the opening of Richard’s Parliament on 27 January 1659, there were contentious issues to negotiate. Through February and March, civilian republicans led by Sir Arthur Hesilrige tried to block the bill for the recognition of the new protector, and it was finally passed subject to a closer definition of his powers. There were heated debates over the existence and composition of the second chamber, set up in late 1657 to replace the abolished House of Lords, and over the inclusion of MPs for Scottish and Irish constituencies, although both were eventually accepted by majority vote. There were objections to the high number of army officers sitting in the Commons. Richard still hung on.

After its up-beat account of 6 April, for the next month The Publick Intelligencer gave little attention to domestic affairs under the weight of foreign news, although it reprinted the officers’ petition, rectifying a printer’s error. It did, however, note an officers’ prayer meeting (13 April); a petition to Parliament by ‘certain persons commonly called Quakers’ and the response – pleasing to conservatives in the House but not the army – ordering them to return to ‘their respective Habitations, and there apply themselves to their Callings, and submit themselves to the Laws of the Nation, and the Magistracy they live under’ (16 April); and a petition from the trained bands (a volunteer force) of London highlighting ‘Designs to the destruction of your Highness [Richard] both Houses of Parliament, the faithful Army, and good people of the three Nations’ (20 April). It then printed without comment Richard’s proclamations dissolving Parliament on 22 April and commanding Catholics and cavaliers to leave London within three days (23 April).

Charles Fleetwood (unknown artist, after R. Walker) [National Galleries of Scotland]

This last appeared in the 25 April-2 May issue. By the following week Richard’s government had ceased to exist in any meaningful sense. Absent from the newspaper was an account of another confrontation at Whitehall on 21 April. Responding to an order from Richard that the council of officers be dissolved and attempts by MPs to reorganise the army, Fleetwood and his colleagues had turned out in force demanding the dissolution. Richard had had no option but to capitulate. Without mentioning the protector, The Publick Intelligencer’s 2-9 May issue reported an order from Fleetwood and the council of officers for the printing of their declaration seeking the return of the Long Parliament, terminated abruptly by Oliver and the army in 1653. As Richard remained in residence at Whitehall, afraid to move for fear of apprehension by his creditors, there was confusion over whether the protectorate had ended, but eventually, in mid-July, he vacated the palace with an assurance his debts would be paid. For the time being, the English republic had definitively returned. The next chapter can be followed here.


Further reading

To his Highness Richard Lord Protector … the humble representation of the General Council of the Officers (1659)

The Publick Intelligencer, nos. 171-5 (April, May 1659)

Biographies or further biographies of Oliver Cromwell, Henry Cromwell, Richard Cromwell, Nathaniel Fiennes, Charles Fleetwood, Sir Arthur Hesilrige, Henry Lawrence, Edward Montagu, John Thurloe and Sir Charles Wolseley are being prepared for publication by the Commons 1640-1660 project.

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