Cromwell and the Shape of Government

While at the beginning of the seventeenth century constitutional lawyers insisted that the King in parliament was more powerful than the King out of parliament, the House of Commons by itself still occupied a relatively modest place in the scheme of national government. Its chief strength was that it was required to vote taxes when asked by the Crown, and if it was so asked, its petitions and grievances were naturally heard with greater respect. But because, except in times of war, Queen Elizabeth I had been able to live upon her own hereditary revenues, she had not often needed to call upon the House to grant her subsidies. Early in his reign, King James I had warned the House that as it derived its privileges from him it must not use them against him; he instructed a later House that it must not meddle with his government or plumb the deep mysteries of State. King Charles I affirmed, as late as 1626, the “Parliaments are altogether in my power for their calling, sitting and dissolution; therefore, as I find the fruits of them good or evil, they are to continue or not to be”.

Yet the constitutional history of the last sixty years of the century consisted largely of the rise of the House of Commons to a dominant position in the government of the kingdom. This had never before been its accepted role. In the past, parliaments had been called at irregular intervals and only sat for a few weeks at a time. In looking at the history of the mid-century, then, we must not think in terms of our own life time when the House of Commons is fully representative of the nation, is in sessions for the larger part of the year; when its members are paid, and when it furnishes the bulk of the Cabinet that rules the country. Even when King Charles I was compelled to assent to a Triennial Act in 1641, he committed himself only to calling a parliament once every three years: the responsibility for the actual government was still entirely his and his ministers. The victory of parliament over the King in the civil wars,  which lasted intermittently from 1642 to 1651, had thus produced a totally new state of affairs.

Though the Commons then temporarily became the focus of government ever since “Pride’s Purge” in 1648, the House had been in no sense a representative body, and as the executive Council of State had been completely subject to it, in fact an oligarchy of a somewhat fortuitous character had come to rule the country according to no known or even clearly prescribed constitutional procedure. And so, when Cromwell and the army overthrew the Rump in 1653, they reckoned that they were now in possession of a clean slate on which to rewrite the English constitution.

The question was: What should that new constitution be? One more realist set of Cromwell’s advisors simply wanted to set up a small ad hoc body to rule the country for the time being and meanwhile to frame a new written scheme of government; another, more idealist, thought that they must accept the logic of the Puritan revolution and envisaged a theocratic assembly to govern, representative solely of the chosen godly people or the “honest party” which had won the war. But in 1653, as in 1649, no carefully thought-out scheme of government was in existence, or at any rate generally accepted in the army, ready to replace the incomplete parliamentary system that had been destroyed. “It was necessary to pull down this government,” it was said, “and it would be time enough then to consider what should be placed in the room of it.” Cromwell later observed that since his own authority as commander-in-chief was the sole “constituted authority” now left in the nation, he could if he wished have proceeded to rule as a “single person”. But he deliberately did not choose to do so: he was never an autocrat by temperament. Instead, the Council of the Army selected 140 persons (including eleven representing Scotland and Ireland) out of a list nominated by the congregational churches both to legislate and to direct the government. When this assembly met, Cromwell told the members that it had been decided “not to grasp the power ourselves, to keep it in military hands . . . but to divest the sword of the power and authority in the civil administration”, and put the government in their hands. Cromwell was persuaded that these excellent religious enthusiasts – “Saints” as they were nicknamed – who were in fact for the most part lesser gentry, tradesmen, and schoolmasters, would form the basis of an ideal Puritan administration. but afterwards he came to regard this “Little Parliament” as a tale of his own “weakness and folly”.

The trouble was that most of these worthy men, who were different in character, background, and experience from the Rumpers, though inflamed and inspired by daring radical notions, were totally inexperienced in the art of government. It was as if a group of Congregational ministers or a chamber of commerce was suddenly invited to clear all the in-trays of Whitehall. They were also inflated with a sense of their own new importance. They improperly took the name of parliament; they refused to bring the Dutch war to an end, except upon humiliating terms for their enemies; they thrust the Leveller leader back into prison; they rejected Dr. Owen’s carefully thought-out-scheme for ecclesiastical reform, while at the same time they offended the once predominant Presbyterians; extreme Fifth Monarchy men ruled the committees of the Assembly; and the general who had called them to office was studiously ignored. In a word, the Saints, like most parvenus, made themselves unpopular all round, and Cromwell and Lambert were eventually driven to the conclusion that they must break with their former colleague, Major-General Thomas Harrison, who was the chief architect of this “Assembly of Saints”, and think again.

The third scheme of government tried during the Interregnum was more elaborately planned. John Lambert, who was not merely a very good general but an educated political thinker, had during 1653 drawn up a constitution known as “The Instrument of Government”, which embodied the political ideals of the higher ranks of the army. Under this constitution the electoral constituencies were made more equal, but the franchise was so restricted that parliamentary representatives were bound to be drawn from the wealthier middle classes. Parliament was to meet only once every three years for a minimum period of five months, and then, as of old, chiefly for legislative purposes. The executive power was placed in the hands of a Lord Protector, assisted and guided by a Council of State. The aim of this constitution was to provide stable government, to impose a system of checks and balances within it, and to guarantee the inviolability of both religious liberty and private property. The functions of parliament were thus greatly reduced compared with those of either the Assembly of Saints or the Rump, and were much more in tune with the traditional arrangements under the old monarchy – exercised, however, under Independent supremacy. For Cromwell, “the great Independent”, who claimed that once the Assembly of Saints had surrendered its power to him (this had been engineered by Lambert’s followers in December 1653), his power was “as boundless and unlimited as before”, now accepted the post of Lord Protector offered to him by the Council of Officers. He and his Council of State began promulgating ordinances which, according to “The Instrument”, had the force of law until a new parliament was called. This new balanced constitution, it was hoped, would not only promote smooth government and put the Commonwealth upon a firm foundation, but win for the authority of Cromwell and his colleague a wide national assent.

This hope proved entirely delusive when, on 3rd September 1654 the first Protectorate Parliament met. To the new House of Commons thirty members were called from both conquered Scotland and conquered Ireland, who were in fact virtually the nominees of the army. Apart from them, it was a “free” parliament, chosen by free elections held mainly in the English counties (the number of boroughs was substantially reduced), and at least a hundred of its members had formerly been members of the Long Parliament. Such men were not at all likely to forgive or forget the affronts that they had once suffered at the hands of the army, which had first “purged” them and then expelled them. Nor were they likely to accept in a welcoming spirit the constitution that had suddenly been foisted upon the nation by the Army Grandees. Nor were they even likely to confirm, without considerable questioning, the ordinances imposed upon the nation by the Lord Protector and his Council.

In fact, the members of the first Protectorate Parliament at once made it clear that they proposed to regard themselves as a “constituent assembly” with the fullest authority to rewrite the “Instrument of Government”. The out-and-out oligarchic Republicans, led by Cromwell’s old enemy, Sir Arthur Haselrigg, soon won control of the leadership within the House and outside it they were backed by an eclectic coalition of malcontents – Fifth Monarchy men, Levellers, left-wing Republicans, and even Royalists. This reaction confounded and confused the Protector’s friends. The argument became furious: “It was disputed as if they had been in the schools, where each man had liberty to propose his own Utopia, and to frame a Commonwealth according to his own fancy, as if we had been in republica constituenda and not in republica constituta.” So wrote a candid M.P. On 12th September Cromwell decided to affirm his authority as Lord Protector by force. He maintained that the new constitution had recieved the explicit approval of a greater part of the nation, while the members of parliament called under “The Instrument” had already promised by indentures signed on their behalf when they were elected to accept the government “by a single person and by parliament”. He also emphasized that it was fundamental to this new constitution that parliament should not be perpetual, that liberty of conscience should be upheld, and that control of the armed forces should be shared between the executive and parliament.

Although it is fashionable nowadays to assert that Oliver Cromwell was neither a political thinker nor an imaginative statesman, it is fair to note, as Dr. Samuel Gardiner observed many years ago, that these “four fundamentals” of his have since been accepted by the British people as part of their unwritten constitution.

Cromwell demanded that if the members of parliament wished to continue sitting, they should specifically consent to these fundamentals of government. About three hundred members, many of them acknowledging the logic of the argument about their indentures, signed a recognition of the Protectoral Government and resumed the session. But this made little difference to the behaviour of the House. New leaders took the place of the old Republican stalwarts, who retired in protest and, as subsequent votes showed, the House was almost equally divided between a Court and a country party. The country party was determined that on no account would they permit the Protector to exercise any more than the formal powers which, after the first civil war broke out, had been offered by Cromwell himself and his friends to King Charles I. In fact, this party contended not for co-ordinate or balanced government but for the open supremacy of a single-chamber parliament. Cromwell, reared in the Elizabethan tradition of a “balanced constitution”, regarded this simply as another name for “arbitrary government”. Thus the old quarrel between King Charles I and the Long Parliament was resumed under a new guise, and the Puritans had fallen out among themselves.

Cromwell managed to maintain his patience with his first House of Commons until, according to a narrow interpretation of the letter of the “Instrument of Government”, he had the right to dissolve it. During the late autumn of 1654 the attitude of the House hardened against the Lord Protector. It refused to consult him, except over one point, in its revision of the “Instrument”, and it told him point-blank that he must give way to everything that it desired. In particular, it wanted to reduce the size of the army below what the Lord Protector believed to be a safety level and to deprive him of any control over the militia. On the whole, Cromwell behaved himself with dignity and restraint up to the last moment, but his officers were less taciturn and tactful than he was; and a proposal put forward in the House that he should be asked to become a hereditary monarch was foolish, ill-timed, and provocative. A meeting of the Army Council to swear loyalty to him also irritated the House; the tension between the executive and the legislature reached such a pitch of fury that the Royalists were encouraged to plot a rising. finally, the House’s grudging attitude towards toleration upset Cromwell, who always thought religious liberty more important than political liberty. So he dissolved parliament as soon as he could.

In his speech of dissolution, Cromwell accused the members of multiplying “dissettlement and division, discontent and dissatisfaction”, together with real “dangers to the whole”, of encouraging the Cavaliers and the Levellers (now negotiating an alliance with each other), of putting the army into  “distemper”, of betraying the sacred cause of freedom of conscience. He denied that he himself had any personal ambitions in maintaining his office as Protector, and wrote that he desired “not to keep it an hour longer than I may preserve England in its just rights and may protect the people of God” in the just liberty of their conscience.

Such was the sad end, in reality, if not in Cromwell’s own mind, to the experiment begun just over a year earlier in a balanced constitutional government. “Circumstances,” wrote John Buchan with Scottish severity, “had forced him to assert a divine right to rule as stiff as any claim to Charles, and to dismiss the wishes of the governed in government with all the arrogance of Stratford.” Likewise, Thomas Carlyle remarked: “By an arithmetical count of heads in England, the Lord protector may surmise he had lost his Enterprise.” Professor Trevor-Roper added: “He dissolved prematurely what was to have been his ideal parliament.”

Nevertheless, it is a mistake to suppose that Oliver Cromwell had betrayed the revolution, at least the revolution for which he himself had taken up the sword. He still tried to adhere to the letter of the “Instrument of Government”; he accepted the view of the Commons that his office must not be hereditary, that the army should be reduced, and taxation along with it. But he thought that a disinterested administration was now best suited to guide the fortunes of the nation, secure the religious fruits of the revolution, and strengthen the position of Britain as a power in the world.

Immediately parliament was dissolved, the insurrection forecast by Cromwell in his closing speech broke out. Both Royalists and Levellers were implicated, though they do not seem to have acted in concert. When it was suppressed, as it was without much difficulty, Cromwell was left with the problem how to maintain security at home and fight a now imminent war against Spain with a smaller military establishment. It is said that the idea of raising a horse militia for policing purposes was again owed to him to the fertile mind of Major-General John Lambert. By the end of 1655, this horse militia was raised at a cost of about £80,000 a year, which was to be paid for by a capital levy imposed upon all known Royalists in the country. It was argued that, strictly, such a levy was a breach of the Act of Oblivion of 1652; but it was plausibly defended on the ground that the Royalists were chiefly responsible for the rising which necessitated the introduction of the new security system. England and Wales were divided into eleven administrative districts, and Cromwell appointed his most trusted officers, headed by Lambert, by his son-in-law, Fleetwood, and by his brother-in-law, John Desborough, all with the local rank of major-general, to maintain law and order, to reinforce the authority of the local governments (since the civil war, local administration was in the hands of County Committees), and to raise the new tax on Royalists which was known as the “decimation” (because it was levied at the rate of ten per cent. upon their real property). An additional duty was also laid upon these major-generals vice, a large order which embraced the prevention of blasphemy, drunkness, and swearing.

It is not to be supposed that Cromwell himself regarded the introduction of the major-generals – which was more or less an open military government – as a permanent part of the Puritan constitutional settlement. It was a security system imposed in an emergency, and so obviously contrary to the traditions of the nation (which had, after all, never known a standing army) as to be impracticable as a long-term solution to the problems of government. When the Spanish was began and the costs of government rose. the major-generals themselves pressed Cromwell to call a new parliament; he was not bound, according to the “Instrument”, by which he still claimed to govern, to call another parliament until 1658, but he was entitled to call one to sit for three months in a national emergency. The emergency was the war. So Cromwell and his Council of State aimed to fashion a friendly house of Commons that would accept the existing Protectoral Government and vote him more money for the armed forces. Again the wheel had turned almost full circle and Cromwell appeared to be facing much the same problems as King Charles I.

This time the Protectoral Government was determined that the new House of Commons should be co-operative. Great efforts were reported in the constituencies, and during the regime of the major-generals many borough charters were altered with the aim of providing safe supporters for the Protector. The Council of State took advantage of a somewhat dubious interpretation of a clause in the “Instrument of Government” to examine the returns and to exclude ninety-nine of the members elected; others withdrew in protest at this high-handed conduct, so that in the event only about two hundred members attended the sittings of the New. Of these, about a  hundred were officials, army officers, and Cromwell’s own relations. In the circumstances it was hardly surprising that Cromwell’s personal position was confirmed, the war against Spain was approved, and a grant of money voted for its continuation.

On the other hand, in spite of the “purge”, the House of Commons was soon to exhibit a now customary independence and, what was more significant, the Cromwellians in it were split among themselves. In the first place, after acrimonious debates, the House refused to approve or continue the system of government through local major-generals. On 29th January 1657, a new “Militia Bill” was defeated by 124 votes to 88. On the very next day the government was consoled for this setback by a vote of £400,000 towards the cost of the Spanish war and the proposal was put forward that Oliver Cromwell himself should be given the Crown.

The object of those who advocated this scheme for revising the Protectoral constitution in a monarchical sense was to disavow militarism or military government, and substitute for it a constitution upon a more traditional pattern that would fit the existing legal system of the country. Before the House had met, considerable doubt had been cast upon the lawfulness of the existing constitution, particularly by judges of the High Court. After all, this “Instrument of Government” had never been approved by anyone except the Council of Officers, and it had in effect been repudiated by the first Protectorate Parliament. The advocates of monarchy fancied that they might be able to reconcile Oliver Cromwell to a free parliament and a genuinely balanced constitution by offering him hereditary monarchy in his family; He was to be a kind of King Henry VII, the Cromwell’s replacing the Stuarts as the Lords – or at any rate a new Upper Chamber – was also to be created. Moreover, the powers of parliament were to be strengthened at the expense of those of the Council of State, and parliament was again given control over its own elections, with the added security that none of its members might be arbitrarily excluded by the executive. A further check upon the Protector was that a modest fixed revenue was to be written into the new constitution, while the method of its collection was to be settled solely by parliament.

Thus the House of Commons, while it was to be invited to restore something like the ancient constitution, was at the same time offered the chance of enhancing its own position and restricting that of the Crown in a way which neither the Tudors nor the Stuarts would have accepted. In return for the bait of the Crown, Cromwell was being asked to break with the army. Opposition to this scheme, put forward mainly by lawyers and by ex-monarchists, naturally came from Cromwell’s generals especially John Lambert, Charles Fleetwood, and John Desborough. Cromwell himself admitted frankly that he was attracted by the proposals, for two reasons: first, he was tempted by the argument that his government would henceforward be put on a durable legal basis that could not be questioned either in parliament or in the courts, and thus the Puritan Revolution would at last have attained stability and respectability; secondly, he believed that if he were given the title of King he could acquire those powers of clemency and reprieve which had always been associated with the institution of monarchy, and be able to protect honest Christians from persecution. As we have seen, he had already been perturbed by an intolerant streak disclosed by members of the first Protectorate Parliament. The second parliament had equally shown itself on tolerant by devoting a great deal of its time to planning horrific punishments for a crazy Quacker. but the Protector was hamstrung by his own past and his own following. Republican convictions had always burned most brightly among the Independents, and were now an almost passionate faith among many of the Puritan preachers. Moreover, his power still rested upon the loyalty of the army, where not only were most of the critics of a monarchical system, but where Levelling notions still lingered. Cromwell may have been no political thinker or at best an eclectic one, but he was no fool. He was aware of all the conflicting forces and parties that lapped around him. Paper constitutions might be persuasive, but they needed to be made workable by practical men and not by theorists. Experience had taught Cromwell that a settled government in the Commonwealth depended ultimately upon the power of the sword. To abandon and alienate his old friends was to invite mutiny, revolt, and anarchy. So, in the end, he decided to refuse the Crown, though he was willing to accept a new two-chamber constitution topped off with the added right to name his own successor as Lord Protector.

Did Cromwell, then, become the prisoner of the army, the victim of a monster he had created? The trouble was that by yielding to its wishes in regard to the Crown , he offended his latest supporters – “the new Cromwellians” – without reconciling his old ones. Like every other executive statesman – for example, King William III, Queen Anne, and some of the great presidents of the United States of America – he wanted to rule his country above party, but yet he found he could not do so; he could not, in fact, govern effectively without a party upon whose support he could rely. His heart, it may be said, was in the right place. “It is time,” he is reported to have told a meeting of army officers on 7th March 1657, “to come to a settlement, and lay aside proceedings [military rule] so unacceptable to the nation.” But in refusing the Crown, he had yielded to intense pressures; and in the end his new constitution gained him nothing except the gratifications of a dying dynast. For when in February 1658 this friendly parliament met once again, the excluded members had to be readmitted, in accordance with this new constitution known as “The Humble Petition and Advice”, and his own supporters were first divided and then swamped, the leadership regained for the third time by his old enemy, Sir Arthur Haselrigg. The Independent House of Commons of the sixteen-forties rose again like a phoenix from the ashes.

Thus it was that once more, as in 1654, the majority of the Commons settled down with relish to constitution-mongering and political sabotage. The creation of an Upper Chamber, or a revised House of Lords, furnished Haselrigg, and his friends with a magnificent opportunity for mischief. For Haselrigg himself, a proud, morose man, had been appointed to the new second House by Cromwell, but firmly refused to go there, preferring to take the oath to be faithul to the Lord Proctector’s person: “I will murder no man”, he said with defiant joy. After Cromwell had addressed both the Houses, the Commons demanded a report of his speech, and angrily questioned his right to treat both Houses upon an equal basis. Haselrigg’s friend, Thomas Scot, spread himself into lengthy historical disquisition, reminding his audience, among other things, how the Lords had refused to join in the trial of King Charles I. In vain Cromwell pleaded with the members for political unity in the name of patriotism and religion, reminding them that the war against Spain had still to be won and that European Protestanism was under attack. Once again an opposition to the Lord Protector was formed within the House and agitators stirred themselves outside. This time Cromwell was under no constitutional obligation to keep the parliament in being for five months, and he allowed his temper to take hold of him. Only a fortnight after its first meeting, on 20th January 1658, he dissolved his second Protectorate Parliament.

So collapsed the last of Cromwell’s constitutional experiments, although not the last form of government to be tried during the Interregnum. Threatened with mutiny, treason, and anarchy, Oliver Cromwell had once more felt compelled to take drastic action. Historians, as is their wont, have distributed the blame for this failure in political harmony in various different ways. Some lay it squarely upon Cromwell himself, maintaining that his lack of tact, imagination, or patience had undermined an established parliamentary system. The latest view is that he was “a natural backbencher” without any effective political following and was doomed to fail as a constructive statesman; while a “settlement” with or without monarchy was a mere mirage. Or, to put it differently, the only source of settlement was, as his own son Henry saw, Cromwell’s own leadership and personality.

It is certainly much easier to analyse why the five or six different experiments in forms of government which were tried between the execution of King Charles I and the death of Cromwell nearly ten years later did not succeed, than to decide how they might have succeeded. It is extremely simple to indirect the jealousies and rivalries of parties, the conservatism of an inarticulate people or the restlessness of too articulate parliaments, or to point to a lack of clear and realistic political thought. But is it not a fact that there was far too much political thinking in mid-seventeenth-century England, ranging from the democratic idealism of the Levellers to the selfish oligarchism of Haselrigg, from the constructive ingenuities of John Lambert to the new monarchism of the ex-Royalist Cromwellians, while there was little constructive give-and-take among the victorious Puritans? It is easy, too, to condemn Cromwell himself for his temporary flights into military dictatorship – though even when the major-generals ruled it never existed upon anything like the horrific scale that we ourselves have seen in many countries in modern times from Spain to Hungary.

To put it brutally, the reason for Cromwell’s failure to establish a settled government, with or without the aid of parliaments, was not that he was too ruthless but that he was not ruthless enough. Who, for example, were to emerge from the French Revolution but first the Terrorists and then Napoleon Bonaparte before the Bourbons were recalled? How did the Russian Revolution reach stability, except by calculated terror? Hitler and other modern dictators, too, attained one-party government through revolutionary blood-baths. After the civil was over, Cromwell aimed, understandably enough, at a balanced constitution, and though he purged his parliaments, he at least allowed them to sit and criticize him, and tried hard to come to terms with them. The paradoxical truth is that Cromwell failed to secure a peaceful and progressive government in an England that was confused and divided precisely because, unable to enlist military co-operation, he yet refused to be either a king or a tyrant.