Cromwell and the Dissolution of the “Rump” Parliament

Oliver Cromwell was in his fifty-third year when he returned to London after the battle of Worcester. There is a story that he said at this time that if he had been ten years younger he would have made the world tremble. It does not sound in the least like Cromwell, and in fact we have a letter of his written one month after Worcester in which he asked in some perplexity: “How shall we behave ourselves after such mercies?” and stressed his own “weakness” and “inordinate passions”. It is true that in his disposition was the strain of a Protestant crusader. He had been an admirer of Gustavus Adolphus, the Swedish hero of the Thirty Years War, and he might later, had other things been equal, have fought alongside a successor of Gustavus Adolphus, the brilliant young Charles X, if the Swedish king had been willing to turn his arms against the Catholic Habsburgs. But in the years that remained to him, Cromwell’s health was never good; he had been seriously ill both during the Irish and Scottish campaigns. Living in Whitehall Palace close to the poisonous stench of town and Thames, he missed the country air that he had breathed in his young days in the fenlands; he took regular exercise by the river at Hampton Court, but too soon the prison-house of duty in London closed upon him.

After Worcester he became a wealthy man. Hampton Court Palace, as well as the Cockpit, was assigned to him as a residence, where he lived with his family and friends. Besides his pay as commander-in-chief (amounting to £10 a day), he was voted £4,000 a year out of confiscated Royalist estates, and acquired, among other properties, nineteen houses in the Strand. Not only did he give a substantial part of his income to charity, but on more than one occasion he waived a portion of his salary in the public interest. For example, once he left Ireland he never took any of his pay as lord lieutenant. Still, he had to adapt himself to a new scale of values, and his two younger daughters married better than their sisters, into the aristocracy, and received large dowries.

Three women mattered to Oliver Cromwell, his mother, his wife, and his second daughter, and they were all named Elizabeth. (The examples of the great Queen Elizabeth influenced him, too, so far as public policy went.) His mother he visited every night when he was at home. When she was ill he did not care to leave her. Her death, though she lived to the ripe age of eighty-nine, was a grave blow to him. One may hazard the guess that he owed much of his religious faith and also of his liberal attitude of mind to her (for women are, as a rule, more tolerant than men; at any rate, they do not need books of political theory to convince them of the virtues of being charitable). The doctrine that the English were God’s people seems to have been ingrained in her. Cromwell’s wife is  a somewhat less distinct figure, and she was not a little abashed by her husband’s greatness. She accompanied him to Dublin during his campaign in Ireland, which, in view of the English belief in the savagery of the Irish, showed courage: when he was away from her they corresponded frequently, though few of their letters have survived; in one of them he said: “Indeed, I love to write to my dear, who is very much in my heart.”

His children were treated, as successful men are liable to treat their children, with a mixture of strictness and spoiling. Owing to the wars he did not often see his sons as they grew to manhood. Two of them died young; the other two, Richard and Henry, had sharply contrasting characters. Richard was gentle and idle, with little ambition other than to live the life of a country gentlemen, to go hunting, and to marry the girl he loved. Henry had the makings of a soldier and a statesman; the report he brought home when he first visited Ireland in his twenties had all the stamp of mature judgement. But he was never a popular figure; because of his very astuteness men were jealous of him, and he was always at loggerheads with his brother-in-law, Lieutenant-General Charles Fleetwood. Neither of Oliver’s sons inherited the religious enthusiasm of their father, who once observed that “often the children of great men have not the fear of God before their eyes”. His letters to them, usually expressing anxiety over their spiritual welfare, were a little schoolmasterish in tone. like other fathers, he forgot they had grown up.

To his four daughters he was tender and considerate. His eldest, Bridget or Biddy, was like her father in looks and in faith. She was married first to Ireton, who died fifteen months after Cromwell had left him in Ireland, and then to Fleetwood, who had been lieutenant-general in Cromwell’s expeditionary army in Scotland. Both of them were keen Puritans, but Fleetwood had neither Ireton’s brains nor character. It was a loss to Oliver when the weaker Fleetwood replaced Ireton as his eldest son-in-law. Elizabeth was her father’s pride and joy. Even in the indifferent portraiture of that time, she comes down to us as a beautiful and attractive woman. She does seem to have been lucky in her husband, whom the censorious Lucy Hutchinson called “a debauched, ungodly Cavalier”; but she was fortunate both in her children and her friends, and when her father became Lord Protector she was said to have “acted the part of a princess very naturally”. She had a wit and a gaiety that lightened the Puritan Court, but one may take a pinch of salt with popular stories of her Royalist sympathies. Outside his family, there were no other women in Cromwell’s life; Royalist anecdotes about this, as about his youthful wickednesses, do not bear impartial investigation.

Although only three or four genuinely independent portraits of him exist, Cromwell’s face is familiar to all who have an interest in British history. his long hair, his piercing eyes, his big nose (“Coppernose”, the Royalists nicknamed him), his strong chin, go to make up what has recently been called a typical English face. He was just under six feet tall, an eloquent voice and, in his younger days, a reddish complexion. He bore himself with a natural dignity, but was easily accessible. He never talked to his intimates or even his petitioners, as public men are so often accustomed to do, as if he were addressing a public meeting, and though he always spoke to others with the will of God to himself, he never spoke to others with the voice of God. his worst fault – he admitted it to himself – was his temper, which he lost rather easily when he was young, though later he had it under better control. his finest virtues were his humaneness and his tolerance. The man who ordered the slaughter of the garrison at Drogheda, or the dismissal of two parliaments by the sword, was infinitely tender towards those who suffered. Many of his letters that have come down to us are concerned with helping his old soldiers and assisting their widows. Again the same man who was brutal in condemning the public celebration of the Mass in Ireland, loathed any kind of religious intolerance in England, and in the end, at the height of his supremacy as Protector, permitted the holding of Communion according to the rites of the Church of England, or even of the Mass in many private houses in London.

Like his sons, Oliver, if he could have had his private wishes, would have preferred the life of a country gentleman to ruling in state from Whitehall. But his deep sense of duty, both to his God and to the community, never left him in any doubt that his retirement was impossible. So he had to make do with second-best. He hunted and hawked but, unlike King James I and King Charles I, he never allowed his devotion to sport to keep him long from the affairs of State. At Hampton Court he had fish ponds built, and he welcomed gifts of horses from foreign rulers, though he also purchased many himself. Horses were his abiding passion, and it is said that he possessed the finest stud in the land. But he would not tolerate bear-baiting or cock-fighting, or cruelty to animals in any form. “He was naturally compassionate to objects in distress,” wrote his steward, “even to an effeminate measure.”

In most of his personal tastes Cromwell was essentially English. What he liked best for a meal, it is said, was roast beef and ale; he did not care for foreign kickshaws upon the table. But he was not averse to a glass of wine. Shakespearian “sack” was on tap when he entertained guests, and when he gave a large party he would provide music and French wine. He appreciated both instrumental and vocal music, particularly the organ and motels. And he enjoyed smoking his pipe and an occasional game of bowls.

Nothing is more misleading than to think of Oliver Cromwell as a stern unbending Puritan. Historians sometimes insist that he was less popular with his soldiers than Fairfax and Lambert, but there is little basis for this; on the contrary, many pieces of evidence suggests that Cromwell’s humanity and accessibility were widely recognized, and that he was no stricter disciplinarian than any other officers of his day. It is true that a sentence has often been quoted from a pamphlet written in 1649 in deference of an incipient army mutiny entitled. The Hunting of the Foxes from Newmarket and Triploe Heaths to Whitehall by Fine Small Beagles late of the Army; these were five rebellious troopers whom Cromwell had cashiered. The sentence claimed that Cromwell was an arrant hypocrite who would “weep, howl and repent, even while he doth smite you under the first rib”. Why such interested testimony to his hypocrisy should be quoted as conclusive evidence by responsible authors is hard to fathom. He was also freely accused by the Levellers of aspiring to kingship. But in Cromwell’s letters and speeches it is possible to follow the actual workings of his mind, the doubts, the hesitations, the weighing of arguments, the final and often reluctant decisions. He may sometimes have been deluded as to what was right and wrong – which human being is not? – but that was not hypocrisy. Cromwell had never promised the Levellers that after the death of the King they should enjoy full-scale democracy; he never pretended that the wishes of the rank-and-file of the army should determine the future shape of government. If they thought he had done so, it was they who deceived themselves. If they imagined that his highly individual and emotional religion was a cover for purely personal ambition, their disappointment over their failure to realize their radical aims blinded them, for even their leader, John Lilburne, had recognized Cromwell’s integrity.

Cromwell’s chief faults were his quick temper, his slowness in making up his mind, and his habit, in later years, of giving way too easily to others. Though he was no doctrinaire, his mind worked with little formal reasoning in the service of God’s people, “the apple of His eye”. His political genius was intuitive: he mulled over the facts, digested the lessons of experience, waited to see if there were any change in circumstances, and then came to his ultimate resolve. He did not afterwards ask his advisors to explain to him why he had done so, for, being a devout Christian, he believed his guidance was providential. He was sure that life had a purpose and that it could be seen working in history. He thought that each individual must find out the truth for himself. But once he was converted he never doubted – such was the prevalent Calvinist climate of his lifetime -that he was indeed one of God’s elect, destined to serve Him to the end.

The position of the English Commonwealth had immensely brightened by the close of the year 1651. Before he died, Henry Ireton had secured the surrender of Limerick, and only mopping-up operations were needed in Ireland. In Scotland her leaders were shattered and divided; her best soldiers were prisoners. Major-General Monk, whom Cromwell left behind, set about ruthlessly completing the military victory. The Isle of Man, the Channel islands, and the Scillies, the last outposts of Royalism, had been reduced to obedience. The Spanish government, which had been one of the first to recognize the new republic, sought an English alliance in its war against France; while France, though it delayed recognition, begun putting out feelers for a detente and contemplated hiring Cromwell’s Ironsides to fight the Spaniards in the Netherlands. Prince Rupert who, after being driven from Southern Ireland had found a base in Portugal, was driven out and chased away from the Mediterranean by Robert Blake. The Dutch, who had benefited by the civil wars and the general confusion to extend their commerce and shipping business throughout the world, were brought to an abrupt halt by Acts passed by the English parliament restricting their right to trade with the British colonies or to bring foreign imports to British ports in their ships.

Cromwell now believed that the time had come to establish the Commonwealth on a firm footing and to restore domestic peace. He pressed hard for an Act of Amnesty for the Royalists, later resenting the many exceptions with which the Act was clogged; he voted for mercy to be shown both to the Earl of Derby and to Sir Charles Cavendish, taken in arms, but he was overruled. But he wanted more than amnesty: he advocated the calling of a new parliament to replace the Rump, he sought a final ecclesiastical settlement, and he urged domestic reforms. In his dispatch after the battle of Dunbar, he had written to the Speaker: “Relieve the oppressed, hear the groans of poor prisoners in England; be pleased to reform the abuses of all professions; and if there be anyone that makes many poor to make a few rich, that suits not a Commonwealth.” After Worcester, he begged that “justice and righteousness, mercy and truth, may flow from you, as a thankful return to our gracious God”.

Parliament began at once to reduce the size of the army, including the garrisons in Scotland and Ireland, and to dispose of the prisoners that had been taken. Many of these prisoners were shipped overseas, either to the West Indies or to New England as indentured servants. It must not be supposed that they were sold into slavery or ill-treated. Indeed, Cromwell’s friends, the Reverend John Cotton of Boston, wrote to him that the prisoners in Massachusetts worked three days a week for their masters and had the other four days to themselves; they had been promised their freedom as soon as the masters had been paid for their investment. but parliament made very little progress in promoting these social reforms that had been adumbrated in Cromwell’s dispatches. Cromwell was slowly reaching the conviction that as long as the present form of government continued in which some fifty overworked politicians virtually staffed both the national legislature and the national executive, no real advances were to be expected.

Cromwell himself had pressed from his place in the House of Commons in the autumn after Worcester that the existing House of Commons should forth with be dissolved and another elected in its stead. A number of the members were ready to enlarge the House, but were quite unwilling to give up their own seats, while they demanded the right to approve any new members who might join them. Eventually, on 18th November 1651, a compromise was reached in the House. A date for a dissolution was fixed three years later (in November 1654), but the existing members gave up their claim automatically to retain their seats in the next House. Cromwell accepted this compromise reluctantly: “He had been talking loudly not of popular reforms but also to executing justice without respect of persons” – that is to say, of uncovering corruption – and in December he summoned a meeting of lawyers and army officers at the house of the Speaker to examine the possibility of strengthening the executive. But nothing came of this, and during 1652 the country was absorbed in the Dutch war.

This war arose more or less accidentally, but it was brought about by a variety of causes. there were a number of political grievances, some of them long-standing, such as the massacre of English traders at Amboyna in 1624, and the support the Dutch Republic had lent to the Royalists in 1649, when Prince Rupert had been afforded shelter for his ships and King Charles II had been given a refuge from which to negotiate with the Scots. Above all stood a business rivalry which waxed throughout the century: squabbles over the herring fisheries, rivalries over the carrying trade, disputes over colonies; most important, arguments about international law, the Dutch claiming that English warships had no right to seize enemy goods carried in neutral ships, unless they were specifically contraband. The Dutch disliked the English Navigation Act of 1651, which forbade foreign ships to carry goods to England unless they came from the country where the goods originated; but even more they objected to the judgements of the English Admiralty Courts, which freely confiscated cargoes carried in Dutch ships, allegedly belonging to hostile nations, seized by privateers under letters of reprisal issued to them. So the war broke out, and in its early months the Dutch fully held their own. The English fleet was bigger and its sailors more experienced, but though both sides had excellent admirals, the Dutch were throughout at a disadvantage. The English, it was said, could attack a mountain of gold, the Dutch a mountain of iron. The war was not specially popular in Puritan England – the Dutch, after all, were fellow Protestants – and the opposition to it was strongly expressed in the army. Cromwell, as commander-in-chief and as a member of the Council of State, played a leading part in the war, but in private he made no secret of his dislike for it. It was another factor that turned him against the ruling parliamentary oligarchy, though its leaders included such old friends of his as Henry Vane and Oliver St. john.

Another question over which Cromwell showed some dissatisfaction in 1652 was that of reforming the Church. Although the bishops had been abolished and in 1648 an ordinance for establishing Presbyterianism had been passed, the power of the Independents and Sectarians was such that the matter had been set on one side until the final end of the civils wars. In February 1652, Cromwell was appointed by parliament a member of a committee, Dr. John Owen, an Independent minister who was Cromwell’s chaplain in Ireland, submitted proposals for the re-establishment of the Church. This Church was to be controlled, instead of by the bishops, by two bodies known as Triers and Ejectors. The Triers were to approve the admission of preachers, the Ejectors to remove unfit ministers and schoolmasters. Outside this Church, other Christiaan sects were to be permitted to hold services, provided that they gave notice of their meetings places to the local magistrates. Owen and his supporters added a list of fifteen Christian fundamentals which they insisted must be accepted by all from toleration. In Cromwell’s view these restrictions went too far: “I shall need no revelation”, he said, “to discover unto me the man who endeavours to improve upon his brethren”; and again: “I had rather that Mahometanism were permitted amongst us than that one of God’s children should be persecuted.” Other members of the committee thought, on the contrary, that Owen’s plan was too liberal; again a settlement was shelved.

Not only did the committee on religion make no progress, but later an Act for propagating the Gospel in Wales was not renewed, much to the indignation of Cromwell (himself of Welsh descent) and of Thomas Harrison, who was a leading figure in the administration of the Act. Another committee, which was set up to reform the law, achieved little progress and was bogged down, as Cromwell related afterwards, with defining the word “encumbrances”. In August 1652 the army leaders began to express their impatience with the dilatoriness of parliament’s proceedings. Not only was the need for reforms in the government, the law, and the Church pressed, but demands for granting arrears in pay to the soldiers were reiterated and the election of a fresh House demanded. Cromwell persuaded the Army Committee to omit the last demand from its petition as presented, and the House of Commons responded by appointing a fresh committee to draw up a Bill for new elections at some unspecified future date (thus abandoning the previous decision to dissolve in November 1654).

Why did the compromise of August 1652 fail to work? How did it come about that within eight months the army forcibly dissolved parliament? Unquestionably a deep distrust prevailed between army and parliament, which became accentuated as the months rolled on. During this crucial period Cromwell himself acted as a conciliator; he arranged and attended meetings representative of both sides in the search for an agreed political solution. But he felt that the discontent with the government of the country was not merely confined to the army. “We found,” he said later, “the people dissatisfied in every corner of the nation.” Moreover, he admitted in private that he shared his fellow-officers’ suspicion of the civilian members of the House: “As for the Members of Parliament [he told the lawyer Bulstrode Whitelocke in November 1652], the army begins to have a strange distaste for them, and I wish there were not too much cause for it; and really their pride and ambition and self-seeking, ingrossing all places of honour and profit to themselves and their friends, and their daily breaking forth into new and violent parties and factions; their delay of business and design to perpetuate themselves, and to continue power in their own hands; their meddling in private matters between party and party, contrary to the institution of Parliament, and their injustice and partiality in those matters, and the scandalous lives of some of the chief of them; these things do give much ground for people to open their mouths against them and to dislike them. . . . ”

In addition to all that, the Dutch war, in which the army played little part, was not going too well, and Tromp, the great Dutch admiral, was still at liberty to range the English Channel.

Cromwell himself was under enormous pressure. On the one hand, the extremists in the army, led by Thomas Harrison, were pushing him on to dissolve the Rump Parliament; on the other, the proposal was mooted to replace him as commander-in-chief either by Lambert or by Fairfax. Yet in the spring of 1653 Cromwell still ardently hoped for another compromise: that the Rump would voluntarily dissolve itself so as to allow a more energetic government and legislature to be chosen. Evidently he had expectations of support from his old friend, Sir Henry Vane, who, like him, was tolerant in his religious opinions, had been opposed to Scottish intervention in English affairs, and disliked the Dutch war. Vane was not in favour of dissolving parliament but of transfusing it with fresh blood. Harrison and Lambert in the army, however, wanted government by a temporary committee or commission while a new constitution was drawn up. On 19th April a conference met at Cromwell’s lodgings in Whitehall at which Vane was present, and both sides put their points of view. Hard things were said, but when the meeting was wearily adjourned, it was understood that no final decision was to be reached in the House without the approval of the army.

Nevertheless, the very next day Vane and his friends at once started pushing through a Bill which was believed to aim at the perpetuation of their own power. The guiding light was Sir Arthur Heselrigg, a proud and wealthy northern magnate, of republican opinions and limitless ambitions. It was he who must have persuaded Vane to go back on his undertaking of the night before, whatever it was – and that may, in any case, have been misunderstood by Cromwell. When Cromwell heard the news, he was furious: “He flamed up in wrath against the promise-breakers”, and went down to the House, dressed as he was, accompanied by a guard of soldiers, to see what was happening. He charged the House, as soon as he had an opportunity to speak, with all the faults that he had earlier described in his conversation with Whitelocke, its injustices and delays, the corruption or self-interest or sinister interests bearing upon it. “Perhaps you think this is not parliamentary language?” he exclaimed. “I confess it is not. . . .” Then he accused individual members by name of scandalous conduct, and finally he called the guard to dissolve the House. Vane protested and Cromwell turned on him, his old friend and colleague, in sorrow and anger: “O Sir Henry Vane!” The mace, symbol of the Speaker’s authority, was taken away at Cromwell’s orders; the Bill on elections was snatched from the clerk; the members were thrust out, and the doors were locked.

That same afternoon Cromwell attended the Council of State which he himself, in terms of votes, was the principal member: John Bradshaw,who had presided at the trial of King Charles I, was in the chair. Cromwell informed those present that parliament had been dissolved and that the existing Council of State had come to an end with it. Bradshaw replied to him in famous words: “Sir, we have heard what you did in the House the morning, but before many hours all England will hear it. But, sir, you are mistaken to think that parliament is dissolved, for no power under heaven can dissolve them but themselves. Therefore take notice of that.”

John Buchan wrote that “by the impulsive act of that April morning, Oliver made the second great blunder of his career”, the first being the execution of King Charles I. Sir Charles Firth noted that “with its expulsion [of the Commons] the army flung away the one shred of legality with which it hitherto covered its actions. . . . Hence-forward Cromwell’s life was a vain attempt to clothe that force in constitutional forms. . . .”

To destroy is easy; to rebuild much harder. Cromwell had indeed convinced himself that the Rump was being unfaithful to the real purposes of the Puritan Revolution and that some other kind of government was necessary to promote reforms in Church and State. But he himself was an old parliamentarian – he had fought for parliament against the King – and it was never his intention permanently to replace the House of Commons by either a military dictatorship or a Puritan oligarchy. The trouble was that, once parliament had thus been forcibly dissolved by the army, harmony among the victors in the civil war was irreparably damaged. No doubt it had been injured much earlier, perhaps at the time of Pride’s Purge or when the New Model Army first marched upon London. It was not Cromwell who set the example of intimidating parliament. But from now on, in spite of all Cromwell’s own well-intended efforts to mend matters, the breach between the parliamentary lawyers and the country gentlemen, on the one side, and the republican Puritan soldiers, on the other, was never healed. Because of that, many blossoms of the revolution were doomed to bear no fruit.