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Romans in Britain
Anglo-Saxons & Vikings
Lancaster and York
Henry VII and Henry VIII
Children of Henry VIII
Charles I and Charles II
Civil War, Commonwealth
     Preparations for war
     Cavaliers and Roundheads
     Cromwell, the army and parliament
     Pride's Purge
     Trial and execution of Charles I
     The Commonwealth
     In the name of God, go
     Humble Petition and Advice
     Cromwell's England

Restoration, Revolution

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Preparations for war: 1642

During the early months of 1642 both the king and parliament take steps to organize support, while not yet fully accepting that war is inevitable. In June parliament presents the king with a set of demands (the Nineteen Propositions), which it would be clearly impossible for him to accept. Parliament, it is proposed, shall control the army and the church and shall have the right of approval of new privy councillors and peers, as also of the education and marriage of royal children.

Charles rejects the propositions. They are, he says, the kind of conditions imposed upon a prisoner. In August he formally raises the royal standard at Nottingham, signalling that he is at war with his enemies.


There is support for the king in the north and west of England and in the cathedral cities. Parliamentary strength resides above all, like parliament itself, in London; but there is strong enthusiasm for the parliamentary cause in the ports (and in the navy), together with the more commercially advanced towns of the southeast.

However, the geographical division of a royal northwest and a parliamentary southeast is too broad a generalization. The most striking characteristic of the conflict is the split loyalty which often divides counties, towns, villages and families. The patterns of this war are confusing even to the participants.


Cavaliers and Roundheads: 1642-1646

The first engagement between Cavaliers and Roundheads takes place at Edgehill, in October 1642, when an army commanded by Charles I meets a parliamentary force under the third earl of Essex, son of Elizabeth's favourite. The result is inconclusive, as is an advance on London by Charles in the following month. He reaches as far as Turnham Green, only a few miles from Westminster, before being confronted by a large parliamentary army.

The king withdraws without an engagement and retreats to spend the winter at Oxford, where he establishes his court for the remainder of the war.


There are battles in many parts of the country during 1643, none of them much affecting the balance of advantage between the two sides. The main development of the year is a diplomatic one - parliament makes an alliance with the Covenanters, beginning Scotland's somewhat erratic involvement in England's civil war.

The decisive battles of the war follow in the next two years. At Marston Moor, in July 1644, the king's nephew Rupert of the Rhine is heavily defeated by a parliamentary army. At Naseby, in June 1645, the king and Rupert together suffer another major setback.


The commanders on the parliamentary side on both occasions are Thomas Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell. Together they are responsible for the effectiveness of a force proudly named the New Model Army. England's first professional army, it is established in 1645 and has its first major engagement at Naseby. It proves much more disciplined than the hastily organized groups of local militia which have provided the earlier armies on both sides.

Cromwell and the army later play the central role in England's developing political crisis - but only after the capture of the king brings to an end the first phase of the civil war.


By April 1646 Oxford is surrounded by a parliamentary army. Charles escapes from the city in disguise and surrenders to a Scottish army at Newark. He hopes to make an alliance with Scotland against his English enemies (and later he does so), but on this occasion the Scots keep him for eight months and then hand him over (in January 1647) to English parliamentary commissioners.

By August the king is at Hampton Court, a prisoner of the army and of Cromwell. Cromwell attempts to negotiate with him on a possible consitutional settlement. At the same time Cromwell is desperately trying to restore some unity of purpose to parliament in Westminster.


Cromwell, the army and parliament: 1645-1648

Oliver Cromwell is in a unique position as both a member of parliament and a general. In 1645 parliament passes the Self-Denying Ordinance, which prevents members of parliament from serving in the army. The purpose is to ensure the professionalism of the New Model Army, being planned at this same time. But Cromwell's military skill is well known, from earlier engagements. An exception is made.

As a result he is well placed to be the intermediary in a dispute which develops between the army and parliament. The main issue is a struggle between England's puritan sects.


A majority of the members of parliament are Presbyterians (after the royalist members have left London to join the king). Like their colleagues in Scotland, with whom they form the Solemn League and Covenant of 1643, they aim to impose their own presbyterian system of church government on the country.

Cromwell, by contrast, is an Independent or Congregationalist - as are a majority in the army and a minority in parliament. Puritans of this kind believe that each local congregation should be free to manage its own religious affairs in its own way. Relations between the two groups in parliament become increasingly bitter.


There is disagreement also about the captive king. Some, including at first Cromwell, feel that a constitutional settlement must still be possible. More radical voices urge that the monarchy and the House of Lords should be abolished.

This issue becomes more urgent when Charles (who in November 1647 escapes from Hampton Court to the Isle of Wight) comes to a secret arrangement with a group of Covenanters in Scotland. Their invasion of England on his behalf in 1648 initiates a second phase of the civil war, with royalist uprisings in many parts of the kingdom. Moving with great speed, Fairfax and Cromwell suppress the unrest between May and August 1648.


Meanwhile the king, in the Isle of Wight, has continued to negotiate a possible settlement with the presbyterian majority in parliament. But Charles's action in triggering the renewal of war, by his secret agreement with the presbyterian Covenanters, has shifted Cromwell into the radical camp.

By December 1648 Cromwell is back in London, where he approves a dramatic coup d'état made possible by the army's control of the capital city. It is known, from the name of the commander of the operation, as Pride's Purge.


Pride's Purge: 1648

Early in the morning of the 6th December 1648 three regiments of soldiers arrive to surround the House of Commons. Their commander, Colonel Thomas Pride, stations himself at the entrance to the House. As each member arrives, his name is checked against a list identifying those who are Presbyterians (and still inclined to come to some arrangement with the king) and others, the Independents, who are now determined upon a radical solution.

Some 140 members are denied admission, with any who resist being bundled off to prison. A much reduced house, including Cromwell, now undertakes the legislation which will lead to the trial of the king.


Trial and execution of Charles I: 1649

On 2 January 1649 the House of Commons resolves that it is treason for a king to wage war against parliament. At the same time the members pass a bill setting up a High Court to judge Charles Stuart on this charge of treason. The House of Lords rejects the bill, so on January 4 the commons resolve that the House of Commons, assembled in parliament, is the supreme authority in the land and that its enactments have the force of law whether or not approved by king or lords.

The court, consisting of 135 commissioners, assembles for the trial in Westminster Hall on January 20.


Charles refuses to recognize the court and merely reiterates the doctrine of the divine right of kings. His accusers respond with arguments based upon the sovereignty of parliament. Thus the entire issue of the civil war is restated, with unflinching intransigence on each side, within the narrow confines of this historic hall.

On January 27 the tribunal finds the king guilty of treason. A high scaffold is constructed in Whitehall. Three days later the king steps on to it from one of the large windows of the Banqueting House. His death is a defining moment in English and indeed European history.


In his speech on the scaffold the king raises the question of the will of the people, only to dismiss its relevance: 'Their liberty and freedom consists in having laws by which their life and their goods may be most their own. It is not having share in government, sirs; that is nothing pertaining to them.'

There is no real democracy in the drastic change of regime in 1649, and the resulting republic lasts only eleven years. Yet in a sense the event is an expression of popular will, rejecting arbitrary rule. England is the first kingdom to draw this line so clearly. The restored English monarchy will be different in kind, and the direction is one which other nations subsequently follow.


The Commonwealth: 1649-1653

On the very day of the execution of the king, 30 January 1649, parliament declares England to be a 'commonwealth'. A week later it formally abolishes two institutions which in a practical sense have already ceased to exist. The House of Lords is pronounced 'useless and dangerous' on February 6. On the next day the monarchy is declared to be 'unnecessary, burdensome, and dangerous to the liberty, safety, and the public interest of the people of this nation'.

So the slate is wiped clean. But what now to put in place of the old system? On February 14 the commons elect a council of state, to be the executive arm of the government. Cromwell is chosen as its first chairman.


Acknowledged in this appointment as the political leader of the Commonwealth, Cromwell is also parliament's most effective general - a role which takes him away from the centre of things until the end of 1651.

In June 1649 Cromwell is appointed commander-in-chief of a campaign to suppress a royalist uprising in Ireland. He achieves this task, with ruthless brilliance, by the summer of 1650. But now there is trouble in Scotland. The son of the executed king, proclaimed by royalists as Charles II, arrives in Scotland in June from the Netherlands. His somewhat desperate hope is to recover his crown with the help of the Scottish Presbyterians, the Covenanters.


Cromwell is in Scotland before the end of July, but he finds it hard to pin down the Scottish forces (apart from one skilful victory at Dunbar in September). Charles II is crowned king of Scots at Scone on 1 January 1651.

Cromwell is ill with malaria from February to June. When campaigning begins again, Charles II and his army take the initiative by marching into England. Cromwell catches and defeats them in a decisive encounter at Worcester in September 1651 - an event from which Charles II escapes to the continent only after hiding in the famous 'royal oak' at Boscobel and making a long journey in disguise through the west country.


By the end of 1651 Cromwell is back in London. He is still commander-in-chief, but he is also now able to play his part again as a member of parliament. He is not pleased with what he sees.

This parliament is already twelve years old. Known to history as the Rump Parliament, its members are those remaining from the Long Parliament of 1640 after the drastic reduction of Pride's Purge in 1648. Many of them, tasting real power, are engaging in flagrant corruption. Sectarian bitterness and intolerance is rife between Presbyterians and other puritan sects.


There is also marked reluctance on the part of the members to stand for re-election. When pressed in 1651, they propose a new parliament in 1654. Cromwell and others in the army observe this state of affairs with mounting exasperation. Cromwell also has doubts about the war against Holland which the council of state undertakes in 1652; it is in the interests of English trade and merchant shipping, but he is uneasy about being at war with Europe's only other Protestant republic (see Anglo-Dutch Wars).

Exasperation turns to sudden action when it transpires, in April 1653, that parliament is planning new legislation to extend its own term beyond 1654. The result is the second dramatic coup d'e/tat in five years.


In the name of God, go: 1653

On 20 April 1653 Cromwell sits quietly in his usual seat in the House of Commons during the debate on extending the life of the present parliament. At the last moment, when the vote is about to be taken, he rises to address the house. Passionately he denounces the way the early ideals of the Long Parliament have been reduced to corruption and self-interest. He ends with famous words: 'You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!'

When the members protest, Cromwell calls into the chamber a detachment of troops waiting outside. The Speaker is forcibly plucked from his chair. When all the members have been driven outside, the door of the chamber is locked.


That same afternoon Cromwell informs the council of state that its role is at an end. The day's events leave him in charge, as commander-in-chief, with the power of a military dictator. But his ambition is to achieve a new and workable constitution.

He appoints a body of 140 nominees, chosen as 'God-fearing men' (often called the Barebones Parliament, from the name of one of its members - Praise-God Barbon). In his opening address to this assembly, in July 1653, Cromwell declares it to be the supreme power in the nation. But before the end of the year internal conflicts cause this parliament to resign, handing its powers back to Cromwell. He is once again cast in the role of dictator.


Protectorate: 1653-1657

In preparation for this expected turn of events, the leaders of the army have prepared a document to legalize Cromwell's position as head of state. Entitled the Instrument of Government, it appoints Cromwell for life as lord protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland. Executive power is to be his, ruling in conjuction with an appointed council of state.

The drafters of the new constitution are at pains to balance this power with that of an elected parliament, which is to be the highest legislative authority. But they are also aware of the obstruction which parliament can cause. Their solution is an intriguing one.


The Instrument stipulates that parliament must meet every three years (beginning in September 1654), but it adds that the lord protector may dismiss any parliament after five months. Cromwell, the country's ablest leader, is thus given full power - with the proviso that every three years the nation has a window of opportunity to restrain him.

The proposal seems reasonable. The protector's power is to be less absolute than that of Charles I, but his government will be more efficient than the recent efforts by parliament. However the potential for impasse becomes evident as soon as the first parliament convenes in September 1654. Its members do not accept the Instrument of Government.


This setback introduces a further period of wrangling about the two great issues of the day: framing a constitution from scratch after the drastic act of regicide; and religious toleration.

In this context religous toleration differs profoundly from its normal meaning. The debate is the long-standing sectarian one between parliament and the army. Should everyone be Presbyterian? Or may the individual Christian choose to be Congregationalist, Baptist, Quaker or even Unitarian? (Similar freedom for papists or episcopalians is not on anyone's agenda). Cromwell, along with the majority of the army, is on the side of toleration. But of the two, the constitutional question is the more pressing.


It is complicated by clear signs of military government, introduced in 1655 when there are royalist insurrections in various parts of the country (themselves prompted by the disarray in parliament). Cromwell resolves the issue by dividing the country into eleven districts, each commanded by a major general with horse militia at his disposal to quell unrest.

Parliament, even though now largely hand-picked by Cromwell, finds the major generals unacceptable. The wrangles go on, until a powerful faction comes to an astonishing conclusion. Perhaps things were better in the old days. In March 1657 parliament presents Cromwell with a proposal entitled Humble Petition and Advice.


Humble Petition and Advice: 1657

The Humble Petition and Advice suggests that the House of Lords should be reinstated as an appointed second chamber, and that Cromwell should become king. After some deliberation he chooses to remain lord protector, but with the right now to select his own successor. He accepts the return of the second chamber, and sets about making his appointments. But once again the reform proves unworkable.

The reason is that the Humble Petition has also safeguarded the integrity of the House of Commons. It is now illegal to exclude properly elected members (as Cromwell and the army have in the past). When parliament assembles in January 1658, radical opponents of Cromwell take their seats. And many of his supporters have been elevated to the Lords.


A more republican House of Commons immediately shows an inclination to reject the Humble Petition proposed by their predecessors, and to insist that the revived House of Lords be again abolished. An exasperated Cromwell dissolves this parliament after two weeks.

With his own power unchallenged, and an undoubted will to legitimize the Commonwealth, it is possible that Cromwell would eventually have been able to establish a viable constitution. The issue remains hypothetical because he dies later in 1658, only seven months after dismissing parliament. He names as his successor, in the office of lord protector, his eldest surviving son, Richard.


Cromwell's England: 1653-1658

Cromwell's regime fails to solve the problems of a deeply divided community, but these are probably insoluble in the immediate aftermath of a bitter civil war. There is profound enmity not only between defeated royalists and victorious puritans, but within the puritan camp itself. It seems unlikely that anyone else could have held the ring as successfully as Cromwell, a ruler with an iron will and great personal intregrity.

What is more remarkable is the standing which he achieves for England in a wider European context. This regicide nation might well be treated as a pariah among the monarchies of Europe. Instead the leading kingdoms compete for Cromwell's friendship.


When he becomes lord protector in 1653, he inherits a war launched by parliament against Holland. This is brought to a satisfactory conclusion in 1654, after which both France and Spain (at war with each other) seek an alliance with England.

Cromwell sides with France - partly because of the high proportion of France's Protestants, partly following the long tradition of English naval warfare against Spain and her empire. The seizing of Jamaica in 1655 proves an early success. In 1657 Robert Blake destroys a Spanish fleet in a battle off Santa Cruz, in the Canaries. A campaign against the Spanish Netherlands brings the capture of Dunkirk in 1658.


These successes are particularly welcome in the puritan Commonwealth - not only because Spain is the most bigotedly Catholic country (and England's traditional enemy on the religious front since the reign of Elizabeth), but because the Spanish Netherlands are sheltering the otherwise friendless heir to the English throne. Charles II is eking out a miserable existence with a tiny court in Brussels.

But the Commonwealth cannot survive the death of its strong leader in 1658. With the ineffective Richard Cromwell as lord protector, all the old hostilities between parliament and the army are unleashed. Decisive action, to resolve a lingering crisis, is eventually taken by Cromwell's commander-in-chief in Scotland - George Monck.


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