Commonwealth of England
The Commonwealth was the republican government which ruled first England and then the whole of Britain, Ireland, the colonies and other Crown possessions during the periods from 1649 (the monarch Charles I being beheaded on January 30 and "An Act declaring England to be a Commonwealth" being passed by the Rump Parliament on 19 May that year) to 1653 and from 1659 to 1660. (The Rump Parliament was what was left over after the purge by Colonel Pride (Pride's Purge), which expelled all the supporters of Charles I). The term is also loosely used to describe the system of government during the whole of 1649 - 1660, the years of the Interregnum, although during 1653 - 1659, the government is properly called The Protectorate and took the form of direct personal rule by Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector.
Radicals vs. Conservatives
Parliament had, to a large degree, encouraged the radical political groups which emerged when the usual social controls broke down during the English Civil War. It had also unwittingly established a new political force when it set up the New Model Army. Not surprisingly, all these groups had their own hopes for the new Commonwealth.
- Led by John Lilburne, Levellers drew their main support from London and the Army. In the Agreement of the People , 1649, the Levellers asked for:
- a more representative and accountable parliament, to meet every two years;
- a reform of law so it would be available to, and fair to all;
- religious toleration.
- Levellers really wanted a more democratic society, though their proposed franchise did not extend to women or to the lowest orders of society.
- Levellers saw the Rump as little better than the monarchy it had replaced. They showed their displeasure in demonstrations, pamphlets and mutinies.
- They did not have the numbers to pose a serious threat to the government, but they scared the Rump into action. The Treasons Act was passed against them in 1649.
- Led by Gerrard Winstanley, Diggers wanted an even more equal society than the Levellers. They advocated:
- communal ownership of land;
- absolute equality for males and females in law and education.
- The Diggers' lifestyle was an early form of communism, but they existed in only very small numbers. They faced a lot of opposition, even from the Levellers.
The breakdown of religious uniformity and incomplete Presbyterian Settlement of 1646 enabled independent churches to flourish. The main sects (see also English Dissenters) were:
Baptists, who advocated adult rebaptism;
Ranters, who claimed that sin did not exist for the "chosen ones";
Fifth Monarchy Men, who opposed all "earthly" governments, believing they must prepare for God's kingdom on earth by establishing a "government of saints".
Despite greater toleration, extreme sects were opposed by the upper classes as they were seen as a threat to social order and property rights. Catholics were also excluded from the toleration applied to the other groups.
Conservatives were still dominant in:
- Central government: the Rump was anxious not to offend the traditional ruling class who support it needed for survival. So it opposed radical ideas.
- Local government: this was dominated by the traditional ruling class.
Political experiments of the Commonwealth
1: The Rump Parliament 1649-53
- The Rump was the purged remnant of the original Long Parliament. As such it was a link with the old constitution.
- With the abolition of the monarchy, Privy Council and the House of Lords, it had unchecked executive, as well as legislative, power.
- The Council of State, which replaced the Privy Council, took over many of the executive functions of the monarchy. It was selected by the Rump, and most of its members were MPs.
- Ultimately however, the Rump depended on the support of the Army with which it had a very uneasy relationship.
Structure of the Rump
- In Pride's Purge, all MPs (including most of the political Presbyterians) who would not accept the need to bring the King to trial had been removed.
- The Rump never had more than 200 members (less than half the number in the original Long Parliament). They included:
- political Independents, some of whom were republicans;
- hardline Presbyterians;
- later admissions, such as formerly excluded MPs who were prepared to denounce the Newport Treaty negotiations with the King.
- Most Rumpers were gentry, though there was a higher proportion of lesser gentry and lawyers than in previous parliaments. Less than one-quarter of them were regicides.
- The Rump was basically a conservative body with vested interests in the existing land ownership and legal systems, so they were unlikely to want to reform these.
- Most of England's traditional ruling classes regarded the Rump as an illegal government made up of regicides and upstarts. However, they were also aware that the Rump might be all that stood in the way of an outright military dictatorship.
- There were many disagreements amongst factions of the Rump. Some wanted a republic, but others favoured retaining some type of monarchical government.
- For the first two years of the Commonwealth, the Rump faced economic depression and the risk of invasion from Scotland and Ireland. (By 1653 Cromwell and the Army had largely eliminated these threats.)
- High taxes, mainly to pay the Army, were resented by the gentry.
- Limited reforms (see below) were enough to antagonise the ruling class but not enough to satisfy the radicals.
Religion: though the national church (now Presbyterian) was retained, the 1559 Act of Uniformity was repealed in 1650. Many independent churches were therefore tolerated, although everyone still had to pay tithes to the established church. (This wide toleration came about mainly because of the insistence of the Army.)
Law: some small improvements were made to law and court procedure, for example all court proceedings were now conducted in English rather than in Law French or Latin. However, there were no widespread reforms of the Common Law. This would have upset the gentry, who regarded the Common Law as reinforcing their status and property rights.)
Morals: the Rump passed many restrictive 'moral' laws to regulate people's behaviour, such as closing down theatres and requiring strict observance of Sundays. This antagonised most of the gentry.
The dissolution of the Rump
- Cromwell forcibly dissolved the Rump in April 1653. It is unclear whether he did this because:
- he feared the Rump was trying to perpetuate itself as the government, or
- because the Rump was preparing for an election which might well return an anti-Commonwealth majority.
- Many former members of the Rump continued to regard themselves as England's only legitimate constitutional authority. It had not agreed to its own dissolution when it was dismissed by Cromwell.
Achievements of the Rump
Despite its unpopularity, the Rump:
- was the last link with the old constitution;
- helped to settle England down after the biggest upheaval in its history;
- made England secure. By 1653 Scotland and Ireland were no longer threats, and both France and Spain had recognised England's new government.
2: The 'Barebones' Parliament, July-December 1653
- The dissolution of the Rump was followed by a short period in which Cromwell and the Army ruled alone.
- Nobody had the constitutional authority to call an election, but Cromwell did not want to impose a military dictatorship.
- Instead, he ruled through a 'nominated assembly' which he believed would be easy for the Army to control, since Army officers did the nominating.
- The Barebones Parliament was opposed by former Rumpers and ridiculed by many gentry as being as assembly of 'inferior' people. However, over 110 of its 140 members were lesser gentry or of higher social status. (An exception was Praise-God Barbon, a Baptist merchant after whom the Assembly got its derogatory nickname.) Many were well educated.
- The assembly reflected the range of views of the officers who nominated it.
- Radicals (approximately 40). Included a hard core of Fifth Monarchists who wanted to be rid of Common Law and any state control of religion.
- Moderates (approximately 60). Wanted some improvements within the existing system and might move to either the radical or conservative side depending on the issue.
Conservatives (approximately 40). Wanted to keep the status quo. Common Law protected the interests of the gentry, and tithes and advowsons were valuable property.
- Cromwell saw the Barebones Parliament as a temporary legislative body which he hoped would produce reforms and develop a consitution for the Commonwealth. However,
- members were divided over key issues;
- only 25 members had had previous parliamentary experience;
- although many had some legal training, there were no qualified lawyers.
- Cromwell seems to have expected this group of 'amateurs' to produce reform without management or direction. When the radicals mustered enough support to defeat a bill which would have preserved the status quo in religion, the conservatives, together with many moderates, surrendered their authority back to Cromwell who sent soldiers to clear the rest of the Assembly. The Barebones Parliament was over.
After this, Cromwell established The Protectorate, making himself a king-like figure. The Commonwealth was finished.