The Birth of the Republic

As we have seen, the men who brought the King to trial and execution had all of them been, until a year earlier, with one or two exceptions, monarchists. The rise of republicanism, as in the French Revolution, had come with a rush at the very last moment. But precedents and examples existed. Holland and Venice were already republics. To the educated country gentlemen came the memory of what he had learned in the classics of Greek city-states and the early Roman republic. John Milton quoted with approval from Seneca:

“There can be slain

No sacrifice more acceptable

Than an unjust and wicked King.”

The Jesuits, preaching against Queen Elizabeth’s I in Cromwell’s youth, had found historical instances in plenty to sustain the case for destroying an evil monarch; there is even a story of doubtful provenance that Cromwell himself now employed some of these jesuitical arguments in defending Charles I’s execution to the Scottish Presbyterians. But the Independents. Fifth Monarchists, and other sectarians preferred to draw on examples from the Old Testament in justification of a Republican government. Were the new rulers not the leaders of a Chosen people, who, like Moses and Aaron, had brought them towards the Promised Land?

But a flavour of democracy also attached to the settlement of the English Commonwealth. As early as 4th January 1649 the Commons had voted that “the people of England” were “their original of all just power, the Commons the supreme authority”. This vote they ordered to be printed on the very day of the King’s execution after the proclamation of his successor was forbidden. A great seal was inscribed with the words: “In the first year of freedom by God’s blessing restored.” In Marc, both the monarchy and the House of Lords were formally abolished; a High court of Justice and a Council of State of forty-one members were set up, and finally, on 15th May, the establishment of a Free commonwealth was approved by the House of Commons.

This democratic flavour owed much to the propaganda of the Levellers which had spread extremely swiftly since 1646, although among the Independents, too, demands for liberty and equality had been frequently heard. On 15th January, after long discussions between Lilburne and Wildman on one side, and Henry Ireton on the other, an amended “Agreement of the People” embodying a democratic constitution had been completed and was actually presented to parliament five days later. Cromwell himself had realized that nothing could be decided before the King’s fate was settled, but the Levellers had insisted that a democratic system ought to have been perfected and set in motion before the King was deposed. This was never a practical possibility. However, the Levellers now expressed their disapproval of the King’s execution (even though they had all wanted a republic and clamoured for his trial), and claimed that they had been “cheated and cozened.” The oligarchic form of republican government that was constituted in the spring of 1649 – although it was clearly only of a temporary character – met with virulent criticism from these eager idealists. They demanded forthwith a democratically elected single chamber to govern the country through executive committee, a written constitution, on the lines of their original, unamended “Agreement of the People”, and guarantees for the liberty in perpetuity.

No one happily reared in the comforts of liberal democracy can fail to be attracted by these advanced political conceptions of the Levellers. The difficulty then was that a democratically elected chamber would certainly have contained a substantial number of Royalists, and government by committee would not have worked. Thus the Commonwealth would have been split asunder before it had even come into being. The only way to prevent immediate anarchy was for a group of determined men to seize the reins of power, establish order, and ward off foreign foes. Indeed, such has been the pattern of all modern revolution. That, more or less inevitably, was what happened then.

Cromwell was the first temporary chairman of the Council of State (later he was replaced by John Bradshaw), and Fairfax and others, who had not approved of the King’s execution but promised to be loyal to the new Commonwealth, were allowed to become members. It was notable that Ireton, who more than any other man except Cromwell himself, was the engineer of revolution, and Thomas Harrison, the fanatical soldier who led the Fifth Monarchy men, though proposed, were both rejected for membership of the new Council. It was, paradoxically enough, a conservative body, still willing to persuade itself, in spite of the abolution of the Crown, the Church, and the House of Lords, that it was somehow governing according to the “fundamental laws” and restoring the ancient freedoms and liberties of the nation.

Naturally, the Levellers, headed by John Lilburne, were offended and attacked the new government, stirring up as much trouble as they could in the army. The Council of State, directed by Cromwell, would have none of that. Lilburne, who had uttered desperate threats, was put into prison, and one or two minutes in the army were promptly suppressed by Fairfax and Cromwell. Indeed, this was one of the striking instances in history where the use of force overcame ideas. Within ten years of its foundation the Leveller movement, whose leaders were soon to stultify themselves by intriguing with the Royalist party abroad against the Commonwealth, was virtually dead, and the republicanism and democracy of the nature were to draw their inspiration elsewhere.

The new republic was beset by many enemies. Abroad, general detestation was expressed at the beheading of an anointed King. So ambassadors were withdrawn from London, aid was provided for the Royalists in exile, though of a limited character, and English commerce was subjected to interruption by licensed pirates sailing not under the skull-and-crossbones but under the Royal Standard. The chief danger to the Commonwealth, however, came from Scotland and Ireland.

In Scotland the Covenanters took the view that whatever mistakes King Charles I might have made and however unwisely he had tried to undermine their religion, the English parliament and army had no right to put to death a Scottish king. They felt extremely uncomfortable about it, and had a guilty conscience, since it was they, after all, who in 1646 had handed over their monarch to the mercies of the rulers in London. But the Scots had not yet recovered from the beating that Hamilton’s army had taken from Cromwell a year earlier; Argyll was still strengthening himself in power; and the danger from Scotland was not imminent.

In Ireland matters were different. Before the King’s death the Lord lieutenant Ormonde had concluded a treaty at Kilkenny with the Irish Catholic rebels. Members of the Irish Assembly in that town were invited to fight for the cause of justice, the Christian religion, and the sacred the cause of justice, the Christian religion, and the sacred person of the King. When it heard this, the Assembly went wild with excitement and cheered “great Ormonde for ever”. In the treaty, the Irish had been promised full security for their religion, but it was typical of the Royalist methods of negotiating about religion that Ormonde now proceeded to write to various English Protestant commanders in Ireland, secretly deprecating the supposed concessions to the Roman Catholic religion and inviting them to join his side. Ormonde had high hopes of driving the Puritan forces out of Ireland, and even of organizing an expeditionary force to invade England on the King’s behalf. In May Ormonde, with a sizeable army, advanced upon Dublin, and another Royalist commander, Lord Inchiquin, captured Drogheda, north of Dublin. Meanwhile Owen Roe O’Neill, a handsome nationalist adventurer, nephew of the great Earl of Tyrone, threw in his lot with Ormonde and occupied Londonderry. The Puritan cause in Ireland seemed desperate.

To the new government in London, therefore, the reconquest of Ireland appeared to be an urgent necessity. General Fairfax told the Council of State and parliament that the first need in organizing an expeditionary force was to appoint a suitable commander, and recommended Cromwell, who hesitated before he accepted the post. He demanded that adequate supplies and money should be allocated as a condition of his taking on the command. He was voted over 12,000 men and 100,000, and created Lord Lieutenant of Ireland with the fees attaching to that office. On 14th July he arrived in Bristol to prepare his base; while he was there he gave his secret blessing to a neutrality agreement which had been concluded between Owen O’Neill and a quiet ex-Royalist officer named George Monk.  He also learned that Colonel Michael Jones, who had been in command at Dublin, had, with the aid of reinforcements sent from England, surprised and defeated Romonde’s army at the battle of Rathmines on 2nd August. Thirteen days later Cromwell landed in Ireland, and promised to restore “that bleeding nation to its former happiness and tranquillity”.

In spite of the victory at Rathmines, Cromwell had a large task before him. When O’Neill’s agreement with Monk had expired he joined Ormonde’s coalition, and the bulk of the country was under the control of the Royalists and native Irish. But Cromwell had many advantages. In the first place, the English navy commanded the sea, for Prince Rupert who, with a small fleet, had anchored at Kinsale in southern Ireland, was blockaded by Admiral Robert Blake and soon forced out; secondly, Cromwell’s army was experienced and well led, and animated by a desire for revenge upon the native Irish, whom they regarded as savage murderers of innocent Protestant people; lastly, the Royalists and Irish Catholics were not united. In fact, they distrusted and suspected one another, a state of feeling that was exacerbated by Cromwell’s propaganda.

After securing Dublin, Cromwell at once marched north and laid siege to Drogheda. On 10th September he summoned the Royalist governor to surrender “to the end that effusion of blood may be prevented”, and warned him that “if this be refused you will have no cause to blame me”. But the governor decided to fight it out, defended the breaches blown in by Cromwell’s artillery, and twice repulsed the assault columns with heavy losses. Cromwell himself led the third charge and carried the town. In fulfilment of his warning, he gave orders that all those found in arms in the town should be put to the sword. He himself estimated that about 2,000 men were killed, but it was probably fewer. It was an awful lesson to the other Irish garrisons, and though defensible in terms of war as it was waged on all sides in those times and long afterwards, it created a hateful memory in Ireland that never has been forgotten.

After the fall of Drogheda on 12th September, the Irish evacuated Dundalk, farther north, and Trim to the west, and Cromwell’s main army turned south and besieged the port of Wexford that had long been a nest of pirates. When this town was summoned, the governor at first prepared to yield, but then, upon the receipt of reinforcements, changed his mind. Later the castle was betrayed, but the garrison resisted desperately in the streets of the town where there was much slaughter in which innocent citizens were killed. Cromwell was not himself directly responsible for the massarce there. From Wexford he drew on to New Cross and thence to Waterford. As winter drew on, the English soldiers were infected by dysentery and spooted fever. Cromwell himself was taken ill, and his health never really recovered from the campaign. His second-in-command who, as Colonel Jones, had won the battle of Rathmines, died of the plague and was replaced in effect by Cromwell’s son-in-law, Ireton, who had accompanied him to Ireland. Meanwhile in Ulster O’Neill had died and much of the north had come over to the English Commonwealth. In the south Youghal, Kinsale, and Bandon also surrendered, so that most of the Irish coastline was in English hands. In the following year, Cromwell took Kilkenny and Clonmel with some difficulty, and in May handed over to Ireton before returning home under orders to England. Ireton soon occupied Waterford, but afterwards the war degenerated into a series of raids and sieges.

Cromwell was essentially a humane man in his dealings with his fellow Christians, but the trouble was that from the beginning he treated the Irish as savages – much as the settlers in America regarded the Indians. He thought that first they must be subjugated by the sword and then given over to Protestant missionaries, English settlers, and a competent occupying garrison; and not until then did he believe that the country would settle down to a reign of equal laws, economic well-being, and sound religion. He was conscious of the cruelty of his action at Drogheda, for which he furnished apologies and explanations, and no doubt its calculated terror saved his soldier’s lives. but neither that, nor his wholesale condemnation of “popery” in a country which was essentially Roman Catholic, was likely to endear the Puritan Commonwealth to the Irish people. They suffered and remembered.

While Cromwell was away in Ireland, the Council of State and Rump parliament which rules England were not inactive. Their policy consisted of three parts. In the first place they aimed at introducing concessions to reformist ideals. John Milton, the poet who took office under the new government, had seen a vision of a “noble and puissant nation rousing herself like a strong man after sleep and shaking her invincible locks”. Efforts were exerted to put the laws against poor debtors on a more merciful basis instead of allowing them to rot and starve; Fairfax’s soldiers were ordered to clear the highways of robbers; attempts were made to ensure religious liberty, at least among the sects. Undoubtedly many people had been ruined by the long civil wars, unemployed ex-soldiers thronged the towns, trade suffered from interruptions, and commerce was damaged. Now the mass of the people acquiesced in the new government because they longed desperately for a period of peace, stability, and recovery. At the same time the government had to repress the lingering remnants of Royalism. A system of Press licensing was introduced, and gradually all new-sheets and pamphlets, except those favourable to the regime, were swept away. Oaths of loyalty were required from officials, and the Presbyterian preachers were carefully watched. Lastly, certain specifically puritan measures were enacted: adultery and fornication were subject to heavy penalties, and breaches in the observance of the Sabbath Day made punishable by fines.

But the new government was not particularly efficient. Since it was believed impossible to reconcile either the Royalists or the extreme Republicans, and since dangers from abroad still existed, security was the uppermost consideration in the minds of the new rulers. The practice whereby nearly every important question had to be tossed backwards and forwards between the Council of State and parliament did not make for smooth administration, and experience in the art of government was dearly bought.

The reason why Cromwell was recalled home from Ireland in May 1650 was because the dangers from Scotland was acute and the loyalty of the commander-in-chief, General Fairfax, was suspect. King Charles II, who had assumed his title in exile in Holland, had at first pinned his hopes of restoration on the Irish, and later granted a commission to the Marquis of Montrose to raise forces on his behalf for use in Scotland, where he was named captain-general and later admiral. but Montrose, though a military genius, was a lone wolf with whom the dominant Covenanters under Argyll would have no dealings. The Covenanters were ready to accept Charles II as their king upon conditions, and when Cromwell was conquering the Irish, the King without a throne entered into negotiations with the Covenanters, reluctantly abandoning the loyal and heroic Montrose to his fate – he was hanged in Edinburgh as a traitor by his fellow Scots. In the blood of Montrose a treaty was signed, and in defiance of his father’s memory, the young Stuart prince swore to uphold the Covenant and to impose Presbyterianism upon England. The Scottish Committee of estates, the executive government, then began to organize an army to fight the English Puritans.

On Cromwell’s return to London he was welcomed with enthusiasm. His victories in Ireland had raised the prestige of the Commonwealth and disheartened the Cavaliers. he was granted rewards of an income in confiscated lands, and the use of a house which formed part of the Palace of Whitehall and known as the Cockpit. General Fairfax and his other fellow Councillors of State greeted him in a friendly way, and he himself was affable and modest. Immediately the question was debated what was to be done in regard to Scotland. On 12th June 1650, parliament voted that both Fairfax and Cromwell should go north. But Fairfax was not keen; his support of the new government had always been half-hearted. He was at best a conscientious policeman doing his duty. During Cromwell’s absence, he had strengthened the authority of the government by lengthy tours of the country. But he had refused to take any oath of loyalty to the Republic and Charles I had thought it worth his while to offer him the defunct earldom of Essex (the same earldom had once been offered by his father to Cromwell – earldoms were cheap gifts). When parliament, confident that it was the intention of the Scots to invade England, decided to give orders that they should be forestalled, Fairfax declared that nothing whatsoever would induce him to conduct an offensive war upon a country with which a Solemn League and Covenant had been signed. Some consternation was displayed at Fairfax’s attitude, although it can hardly have been unexpected: for Fairfax wielded real influence, especially in the north of England; and he was trusted both by the Independents and by the Presbyterians – indeed, no one knew exactly where his own religious predilections lay. In vain, Cromwell and others tried to persuade him to change his mind. The dark and taciturn general laid down his command on the nominal ground of ill-health, and at the early age of thirty-eight retired to Yorkshire to grow roses.

Thus it was that Oliver Cromwell, who was now fifty-one, was appointed captain-general and commander-in-chief of the expedition to Scotland. He was already Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, as well as being a member of parliament and of the Council of State. The Scottish campaign was to be the final test of his military skill. the world was still hostile to the Commonwealth. Prince Rupert was at sea threatening the trade routes; Ireland was not yet completely subdued; the measures of the Rump Parliament had not satisfied many of the politically minded in the Puritan community; the Royalists, who had remained in England, being mulcted in their estates with heavy fines, had every urge to rise again should the Scots be victorious. Thus this was the crucial time for the Commonwealth, and all depended upon its new general.

Elaborate but hasty preparations were put in hand for the expedition. Troops were concentrated in the north of  England; artillery was transported by sea; Thomas Harrison, now a major-general, was left in charge of the defence of England itself; and the shortest route, through Berwick-on-Tweed, was selected for the line of advance. Meanwhile, the Scots were also equipping themselves for the fray. The Covenanters’ army was put under the command of David Leslie, an experienced professional soldier who had fought alongside Cromwell at the battle of Marston Moor. But since those Scots who had served with the “Engagers” in 1648 were banned from service, many of the soldiers raised by Leslie were relatively untrained, and whilst he had good hopes of exceeding the English army in numbers, he knew he could not equal them in quality, and relied upon defensive tactics, based on inner lines, to baffle his enemy. Leslie’s strategy made nonsense of the claim of the English parliament that in the summer of 1650 the Scots were intending to invade England.

Cromwell crossed the border on 22nd July, but was soon confronted by the difficulties of fighting against a capable general in command of a force imbued not only with some measure of national enthusiasm but also with that very Puritan spirit that had always animated his own army. He had a long supply line stretching back to Newcastle upon Tyne, and could not live on the country because it had been calculatedly laid waste. Leslie had fortified a line running west from Leigh, and the Forth was another formidable obstacle. Although such clashes as took place between the English and the Scots demonstrated the superiority of the former, Cromwell found it impossible to thrust around the Scottish defences and menace Edinburgh or occupy Leith. Since the Commonwealth navy commanded the seas (Robert Blake was driving Prince Rupert from European waters), it was essential to hold a port where supplies could be landed. Thus eventually, at the end of August, Cromwell encamped his army at the port of Dunbar, some thirty miles from Edinburgh, embarked his sick and wounded, and defied his enemy to come to him. Leslie, after outmanoeuvering Cromwell in the first weeks of the campaign, had followed him to Dunbar and deployed his army on Doon Hill, two miles south of Dunbar, thus threatening the road to England. It looked as if the Commonwealth army was cornered and would have to make its escape as best it could by sea; its numbers had been reduced to a mere 11,000 effectives, and the Scots had more than double that number. Well might Leslie have exclaimed, as Marshal Turenne is supposed to have done upon another occasion: “I have him now!” But it was not so.

The battle of Dunbar, which took place upon 3rd September 1650, was in some ways a parallel to that very battle of Marston Moor in which Cromwell and Leslie had fought together. For just as at Marston Moor, Prince Rupert had occupied a defensive position and as evening came did not believe that his foes had any intention of attacking him, so, too, the Scots on the night of 2nd September did not credit the idea that they would, in fact, be assaulted by Cromwell’s inferior army. They actually came down off Doon Hill and extended their lines across the Dunbar-Berwick toad towards the sea so as to be all the more certain of cutting off the English from their land route home. Cromwell and his generals decided upon a dawn offensive. The night was stormy and the moon obscured by squalls of rain. While the Scots crouched in discomfort amid the stooks of corn, the English, who had rested and been refitted in Dunbar, prepared for a surprise in the twilight. It was true that the original attack by six cavalry regiments on the Scottish right was hotly disputed, and when the infantry came in upon the centre, it too was thrust back by superior numbers; but Cromwell himself threw in his reserve of one cavalry regiment and three infantry regiments at the crucial moment and in the right place, and the confusion created by the original surprise was exploited and converted into overwhelming defeat. The Scottish left, cramped against the foot of Doon Hill, scarcely came into the battle at all, and, after an hour’s struggle, was reduced to panic. Ten thousand prisoners were taken, and a few days afterwards the English occupied Edinburgh. The Scots withdrew to Stirling and the line of the Forth. As it was getting late in the campaigning season and Cromwell was still short of man and supplies, he contented himself with clearing his lines of communication and mopping up areas of resistance before winter closed in.

The defeat at Dunbar lowered the pride of the Scottish Covenanters. Hitherto, King Charles II, who had been graciously allowed to come to Scotland to watch the expected victory, had been kept in humiliating tutlage. Now, on 1st January, 1651, he was crowned King at Scone, put in nominal command of the Scottish army while the ehlp of out-and-out royalists was welcomed. On the other hand, this had the effect of dividing the Covenanters. Some of the more rigid Scottish Presbyterians attributed their defeat at Dunbar to the fact that they had fought for a “maligant” King, tainted by all sorts of doubtful religious affiliations. Cromwell’s experts i political warfare (at which he was no mean hand himself) put out proclamations aimed at alienating the Covenanters,  their fellow Puritans, from the Royalists or “men of blood”. It is said that this propaganda played its part in bringing about the surrender of the virtually impregnable Edinburgh castle and gaining an English victory in the Glasgow area. Yet the winter was severe, Cromwell himself was taken ill, and Leslie, counting upon Scottish patriotism rather then religious excitement, was a resourceful enemy. During the summer a series of probing attacks and attempts to outflank Leslie’s lines and compel him to fight again all proved abortive. Moreover, the danger existed that if Cromwell threw the bulk of his army across the Forth, the road to England would be exposed, and that King Charles II, relying upon his supporters there to revolt in large numbers, would gladly march along it.

The significance of the Worcester campaign, which was in fact the concluding phase of Cromwell’s war in Scotland, was that Cromwell deliberately chose to face this last danger. No one can doubt that he was fully aware of the strategic possibilities. Cromwell had allowed his lieutenant-general, Charles Fleetwood, to return to London precisely in order to marshall a new militia which would be at hand to reinforce him if the Scots broke through. He also knew that his own highly trained cavalry was capable of overtaking the Scots once they left their bases and adventured across the order. His only problem was how to make the Scots budge from their entrenched positions.

On 17th July 1651, Colonel Robert Overton managed to slip a brigade across the Forth at Queensferry and obtain a lodgement on the northern bank. Once that success was achieved, Cromwell sent his best general, John Lambert, fought the battle of Inverkeithing, routing the troops that Leslie detached to meet him. Cromwell at once determined to push the bulk of his army over the Forth and to seize Perth, thereby cutting off Leslie from his supplies directly the English move on Perth was known in the Scottish camp, King Charles II ordered an advance into England. It is doubtful if Leslie approved of this, for his heart was never in the Worcester campaign. The real commander of the invasion of England was the second Duke of Hamilton, who thus followed in the doomed footsteps of his executed brother, like him marching down through Lancashire to die for a Stuart king.

The campaign went entirely according to Cromwell’s expectations. within a month of King Charles II’s crossing the border on 6th August, all was over. Major-General Thomas Harrison, who had earlier been summoned by Cromwell into Scotland for consultation, was waiting at Newcastle in case the invaders should take the eastern road; Lambert, with four or five thousand picked cavalry, went in swift pursuit of the Scots; and Harrison soon joined him in Lancashire. there they might have defeated the King, but Cromwell wanted to crush him competely and so bring the civil was to their conclusion. Once the Scots tired, they were bound to be caught. They were surrounded in Worcester at the beginning of September. The young King put up a splendid fight against odds, and succeeded in making his own escape after many eventures, sailing in mid-October from Brighton to join his mother in France. But his followers and the Scots paid the full penalty of defeat. James Stanley, seventh Earl of Derby. of a family ever loyal to the throne, who had rallied to King Charles II in Lancashire, was executed, leaving his wife in command of the garrison of the Isle of Man. the second Duke of Hamilton died of his wounds at Worcester. Four thousand Scottish prisoners were sent to London to subsist on biscuits and cheese in captivity, and Scotland itself became an occupied country. Cromwell, having written his dispatches, rode south in a leisurely manner, was greeted enthusiastically by a parliamentary delegation at Aylesbury, and then “went a little out of the way a-hawking”.

Within three years of King Charles I’s death, the Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland had been firmly established.