The life of ordinary men and women in seventeenth-century England must always have been hard. Most of them lived upon a mere margin of subsistence, in windowless cottages and insanitary tenements, with virtually no medical care or attention, often the victims of harsh laws and customs, designed for the benefit of their betters. Few of them can have known what the civil war were about, why King and parliament had quarreled, or what was the nature of the religious disputes that divided their masters. It has even been suggested that many of them did not go to church and conned their religion from the various badly printed Bibles that flooded the country, and from wandering preachers, who were self-taught or crazily inspired. Their recreation consisted of visits to the taverns – which were numerous – when they could be afforded (the price of beer was a halfpenny a quart); courting took place in lanes or alleyways; women who gave birth to illegitimate children received little mercy from the authorities; games of a crude sort were played, including football and skittles; but excitment would be aroused by such cruel sports as cock-fighting. Later pictures of a Merry England are largely imaginative. For the vast majority, existence upon earth was short, brutish and nasty.
The ordinary agricultural labourer might earn 8d. a day or a shilling (12d.), with his keep; the skilled craftsman 2s. a day. Corresponding to this was a rate of pay of 8d. a day and all found for the foot soldier, with three times as much for the cream of the army, the mounted troopers. A woman was lucky if she were paid 2s. 6d. a week, and the hours of labour lasted from five in the morning till sunset in the winter, or till about seven in the evening in the summer. As Puritanism grew more influential, restrictions upon Sunday amusements were imposed and enforced, and instead of Saints’ Day, city apprentices were allowed to take a holiday on the second Tuesday of each month, when they usually got into mischief. It is likely that the civil wars, by drawing some 100,000 able-bodied men into the rival armies, created more work for the remainder, but as soon as the wars were over, the interruptions to business that they caused and the return of ex-soldiers into the labour market contributed to an unemployment problem which seems to have been at about its worst at the time King Charles I was executed. Political uncertainty and foreign wars had also helped to bring about a temporary economic depression. The chief reasons why the establishment of the Protectorate in 1654 was popular was because people in general hoped for domestic peace and a business revival after the ending of the Dutch war.
Gradually the economic situation mended. But while harvests were better and the price of wheat was reduced, money wages also fell for a time, and a large number of people remained unemployed. The methods of dealing with poverty and unemployment were servere. The administration of the poor laws had largely broken down during the civil wars. But John Lilburne and Sir Matthew Hale, a judge who had been a Royalist, urged upon the authorities the need for something more in the way of relief than the mere levying of assessments by parishes to assist the aged and impotent; they wanted work to be provided by parish officers. On the whole, however, these questions were left to be solved locally. At quarter sessions, the Justices of the Peace might vote the distribution of cheap food to the poor, or the Justices of Assize might order a rate to be levied in areas smitten by plague or epidemic, but poverty and idleness were regarded as sinful in the Puritan scheme of life, and little of a positive character was achieved.
Soon after Cromwell became Protector, an ordinance was published allowing soldiers demobilized from his army to take up their trade again without fulfilling the apprenticeship laws, and legislation was passed to give relief to wounded soldiers. Dr. Margarat James wrote that while between the years 1645 and 1660 “Parliament seems to have been struggling to evolve a constructive and comprehensive system of relief and employment for the poor, yet the only measure which passed into law were those which had to do with the suppression of vagrants”. In 1656 a committee was ordered to prepare a Bill to enable stocks to be raised to set the poor at work, but it never reached the statute book. In London a Corporation for the Poor, which had been set up in 1647, concentrated not very successfully upon suppressing beggars. In the counties the major-generals employed their new police force to lend aid to the local magistrates in coping with the “idle poor”. This army was also called in at various times to try to maintain law and order upon the highways, where robbery was common. Several highwaymen were caught and punished. In general, Cromwell’s government managed to maintain the English roads in fair condition, to supply regular postal services, and to keep the highways clear of thieves and beggars. Good intentions were not lacking in regard to social reform; the Puritans did not lack charity – Cromwell himself was both generous and compassionate – but the poor law policy of the Interregnum has been described as one of “harshness coupled with failure”.
This much, however, should be said on the other side. Such evidence as we have indicates that the years between the ending of the Dutch war in the spring of 1654 and the death of Oliver Cromwell in the autumn of 1658 were ones of comparatively prosperity, with good harvests, a developing foreign trade, and a fair level of real wages. In spite of the demobilization of part of the army, unemployment gradually diminished, and the navy, army, and horse militia upon which substantial sums of public money had been spent, must have helped to furnish employment. The Council of State did what it could to stimulate local authorities into assisting the poor in areas where unemployment was reported, and the Assize judges were quite as conscientious as they had been in the reign of King Charles I in investigating social problems and proposing relief. Nor is there any reason to suppose that the “new gentry”, who were responsible for the county administration , were either less hard working or less considerate than their predecessors. At the centre of government the Council of State, both before and after the Protectorate was set up, met every afternoon and covered a wide range of problems from running the wars to fixing the prices of food and drink, from appointing public officials to ordering the grass to be cut at Hampton Court. But its chief difficulty, as with the Lord Protector, was how to translate its good purposes into law, and then to obtain the enforcement of the law thoughout the country.
As to domestic reform, the Protectorate Government concentrated chiefly upon the administration of the laws, education, manners, and the Church. In most of these matters it carried on from where the Long Parliament had left off. On the whole, the Rump Parliament was slow and relatively ineffective, while the Assembly of Saints had been quick and rash, if well meaning. The need for the reform of the law was a question about which Cromwell and his fellow soldiers felt strongly; for there was widespread conviction, expressed with animation in many pamphlets of the time, that the law was customarily subject to many unnecessary delays, that its administration favoured the wealthy, and that its penalties were too heavy. Lawyers were unpopular, and were condemned by the Levellers as being the “vermin of the Commonwealth”. Cromwell himself once said that laws that made one man rich and many poor did not suit a Commonwealth, and that “to see men lose their lives for petty matters is a thing God will reckon”.
A beginning had been made with an Act of 1650, which ordered that henceforward all proceedings in the law courts should be conducted in English and not in French or Latin, except in the case of the High Court of Admiralty, which was concerned with international litigation. The Rump also passed a resolution that parties to a dispute should get to trial at once and not be held up by complicated special pleadings. In 1652 it voted further that the High Court judges in Westminster Hall should only receive salaries (fixed at £1,000 a year) and not demand as well fees, presents, and perquisites. But very little progress had been achieved with law reform when Cromwell returned from Worcester. Among his first actions when he became Lord Protector were to secure the appointment of first-class judges both in England and Ireland, regardless of their party affiliations, to pardon men condemned to death for minor offences, and to appoint a committee “to consider how the laws might be made plain and short, and less chargeable to the people”.
A principle grievance of the time was the Court of Chancery. The old perogative courts, like the Star Chamber, the High Commission, the Cours of Wards and Liveries, as well as the Council of Wales and of the North, and the criminal jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts, had been swept away on the first tide of the revolution; and while a High Court of Justice had been introduced to deal with the same kind of treasonable offences that had previously been the concern of the Star Chamber, the only other court now functioning which did not follow along the traditional lines of the Common Law, was the Chancery or Equity court. Equity was not a definite system and Chancellors or Commissioners of the Great Seal were said to have enjoyed too much freedom both to extend their jurisdiction and to interfere with the of the Common Law Courts. John Seldon said that equity was, in effect, the length of the Chancellor’s foot, and it was claimed that over 20,000 cases were pending in the Court, some of them for a period of up to thirty years, thus “bleeding the people”. The Assembly of Saints had wanted to abolish the Court out of hand, but that would only have worsened the chaos.
Cromwell and his Council of State therefore exerted what pressure they could on the leading lawyers of the day to reform Chancery procedure. An ordinance was drafted and passed on August 1654, with the aim both of reducing its delays and its costs. “The principle upon which the ordinance was framed,” wrote Sir William Holdsworth, “was a thorough distrust of the persons who would have to enforce it.” No wonder that two of the three Commissioners of the Great Seal refused to work it and preferred to resign. Cromwell bore them no animosity. The Master of the Rolls is said to have vowed that he would be hanged at Rolls Gate before he would execute the ordinance. Such weighty opposition ruined the new measure and, after an experimental period of three years, it had to be dropped. Cromwell also insisted that only murder, treason, and rebellion should be deemed crimes worthy of capital punishment, and in fact during his Protectorate this principle seems to have been accepted. But the absorption of Cromwell’s parliaments in constitutional squabbles and the steady resistance of the most influential lawyers to any radical reforms prevented as much being accomplished as the Lord Protector wished. The criminal code was not materially lightened until the nineteenth century.
The reform of manners went forward mare rapidly, for is was in tune with the spirit of the times. Some of the former jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts, such as that relating to marriages and wills, was shifted to civil courts. Civil marriage, accomplished by the necessary procedure of registration, was instituted by the Assembly of Saints, but, in spite of the advocacy of John Milton, no opening was allowed for divorce, which virtually required a private Act of Parliament. An Act making adultery a capital offence was passed in May 1650, but it became a dead letter. The Assize Courts and Quarter Sessions, however, interested themselves in fornication, and Cromwell’s major-generals were called upon to uphold the strict sexual morality of the Puritans. A Bill prohibiting women from painting their faces and wearing patches or immodest dresses surprising never became law, but various attempts were made to enforce or supplement the sumptuary laws of the Middle Ages which aimed at preventing extravagances or indecencies in clothing and personal adornment. Swearing was punishable by a scale of fines. It cost a duke thirty shillings and a gentleman 6s. 8d. Excessive drinking was also frowned upon. The justices of the Peace were urged to suppress unlicensed ale-houses and some of the major-generals showed a positive delight in closing down out-of-the-way taverns, nominally at any rate for reasons of national security. For the same reasons a number of horse-races were prohibited in 1655 and 1656. It is likely that inns and race meetings were in fact centres of conspiracy against the government (it is known that John Wildman, the Leveller leader, made good use of them). Cromwell himself had no objection in principle to good citizens enjoying their glass of ale and humane sports. He was aware in his heart that one could not reform manners or morals be mere prohibitions, and he thought it absurd that all wine should be kept out of a country “lest men should be drunk”. Indeed, he himself enjoyed a glass of wine and a pipe.
It was a golden age for education. Schools and universities, like every other side of public life, had been dislocated by the civil war. But the Acts abolishing bishops and deans and confiscating church properties did not mean the dissolution of schools hitherto largely paid for out of ecclesiasitical endowments. for example, Westminster School, which belonged to the Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey, was given a new corporate body to govern it, and its revenues were vested in trustees. Many new free schools were established – sixty of them in Wales alone – and schoolmasters were selected and approved by a so-called “Committee for Plundered Ministers”. A few schoolmasters were inevitably dismissed because of their Royalist sympathies, but some of them at least were allowed to set up on their own or to teach in private schools. The warden of Winchester, the headmaster of Westminster, and the headmaster of King’s School, Canterbury, were all left in possession, although accused of Royalism, and other headmasters hastened to conform. An Act “for providing ministers and other pious uses”, passed in 1651, named trustees who were empowered to give grants to increase schoolmasters’ salaries.
The universities also flourished after the end of the civil wars. Cromwell had a long-standing local interest in Cambridge and accepted the Chancellorship of Oxford. Royalist heads of colleges were driven out, and the Puritan influx tended to encourage discipline and application in the universities and to awaken them from lethargy and a traditional curriculum. A movement was set on foot to found a new university in the north of England to instill “prudent and religious education”‘ and in 1657 Cromwell was personally responsible for establishing a college at Durham, which was partly paid for out of the unsold revenues of the Dean and Chapter of the Cathedral. Cromwell also thought of founding a new college at Oxford to be named St. Mary’s Hall, where “a general synopsis of the true reformed Protestant Christian religions professed in the Commonwealth” should be drawn up. The idea of having a “glorious university” in London was also conceived. In general, this was a period of lively activity in education. Nothing is more wrong than to suppose that the age of Cromwell and Milton was an intellectual trough. The London of the sixteen-fifties was a centre of original philosophic and scientific thought.
This liveliness of thought, exemplified in writers as various as the philosophers Hobbes and Harrington, the poets Milton and Marwell, and the educationist John Dury, the political theorists William Walwyn and Gerrard Winstanley – to name only a few – owed much to the climate of the times. The Church of England, it is true, had already by King Charles I’s reign begun to become a religious society which permitted comprehensive points of view, and had nurtured such theologians as Hooker, Andrews, Donne, Chillingworth, and Jeremy Taylor; but the overthrow of its hierarchy by the Puritans had given an even keener stimulus to liberty of thought. At first it looked as if one system of all-embracing ecclesiastical government would merely give way to another. The need for an Anglo-Scottish alliance to defeat the King which had been accepted by John Pym, had appeared to demand the price of a Presbyterian Church in both countries. But the Long Parliament kept an extremely firm hand upon the deliberations of the Assembly of Divines that was set up in 1643 to work out a programme for an entirely new Church. Though the Assembly laboured for six years or more, it never succeeded in constructing this new edifice, which might have been more intolerant than the old. The reason was that the Independents and Erastians, both in the Assembly and in the Commons, were determined that they would never allow the religious organization of the nation to be dictated to them by Scottish theologians. While in theory the English Commonwealth Government was committed when it took over in 1649 to a Presbyterian Church – with some toleration outside it for dissenting sects – in fact confusion reigned supreme; as Dr. W. A. Shaw observed: “All attempts at a religious settlement subsequent to 1649 took the form of such a definition of toleration as would secure the liberty of individual men and congregation on the one hand and as would guard the State against the dangers of Popery and blasphemy on the other.”
It was Oliver Cromwell’s main contribution to English history, on which he prided himself, that he was strong enough to maintain religious freedom in the face of the intolerant attitude displaced by the majority in the Interregnum parliaments. We have seen how Cromwell’s chaplain, Dr. John Owen, who later became Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, put forward a scheme for religious toleration which was rejected by the Assembly of Saints in 1653. “The Instrument of Government” laid down in three of its clauses that “the Christian religion, as contained in the Scriptures, be held forth and recommended as the public profession of these nations”; but that “to the public profession held forth none shall be compelled by penalties or otherwise”; and that “of such as profess faith in God by Jesus Christ” none should be restrained so long as they did not disturb the public peace. That liberty, however, did not extend to “Popery and Prelacy”. Arrangements were to be made to provide teachers able to instruct the people in “sound doctrine”; but until that had been done, the existing method of paying ministers by tithes was to be continued.
“The Instrument”, in fact, merely outlined broad and undefined conditions for the future religious policy of the country. What was “sound doctrine”? Who were to be included among those who “professed faith by Jesus Christ”? Did they include, for example, Unitarians? How was a new system for the payment of ministers to be worked out? Cromwell’s own idea of a comprehensive Church was disclosed by his immediate adoption of Owen’s plan, and the appointment of Triers to examine the qualifications of candidates for livings and Ejectors to remove scandalous or inefficient ministers. But an attempt by parliament to set up yet another assembly of divines to frame a public profession of Christianity or to explain what was meant by “faith in Jesus Christ” soon collapsed. Nor did the appointment of committees to pay augmentations to ministers’ stipends (the same committees that concerned themselves with schoolmasters) resolve the tricky question of tithes or the general problems of Church endowment. Cromwwell’s two parliaments showed themselves bigoted, and were far from ready to place a liberal interpretation upon the meaning of the Christian faith. The “Humble Petition and Advice” of 1657 added little to the religious clauses embodied in the “Instrument of Government”. This paper constitution also professed willingness to permit toleration of Christians outside the Church, and demanded that a “confession of faith” should be agreed between the Lord Protector and parliament; but again it looked to the future; and the fierce behaviour of the House of Commons towards the unfortunate Quaker, James Naylor, ill accorded with a tolerant outlook. In fact, the religious policy of the Protectorate was largely settled by administrative action; that is to say, by Cromwell himself.
Some historians have described the Protectorate as a time of spiritual anarchy, others as one of sheer confusion. But that is scarcely fair. A clear and firm conception of how religion should be organized existed in Cromwell’s mind. He was prepared to allow each congregation to appoint or approve its own ministers, subject to a few over-riding qualifications of worth to supplement existing benefices upon the lines later pursued in Queen Anne’s bounty, to allow new churches or chapels to be formed, and even to tolerate the holding of services according to the old Anglican rites or the still older Roman Catholic rites in private houses, so long as such services did not lead to a breach of the peace or afford covers for plotting against the national security. He permitted the Jews to return and settle in England and to have their own synagogue and cemetery in London. Above all, he insisted that no man should be punished for his private thoughts or beliefs. Secure in his own personal faith, he felt no urge to force his own beliefs upon others. Hard as it may be for the modern mind to appreciate, his genuinely tolerant outlook did not stem from indifference but from its opposite. He preferred liberty of conscience to intellectual tidiness; he did not believe that men could be compelled to faith by the sword. Thus Congregationalism, Presbyterism, Baptism, and the Society of Friends all look back to the Interregnum as a time of growth; they become sufficiently rooted so that the traditions of Noncomformity or Dissent have shaped British political and social history ever since.
How far this liberal attitude of mind extended to economic affairs during the Protectorate is difficult to assess. The medieval approach of paternalism was breaking down, but old habits died hard. thus the structure of wage and price fixing, the prescription of standards of work, the upholding of craft guilds and apprenticeship regulations continued. there was some democratization of the guilds; industrial and commercial monopolies met with public criticism. The problem was, as always to distinguish between justifiable rules and mere restraints upon trade. To determine patent, the government looked for legal advice. Equally, while there was opposition in Puritan circles to the maintenance of monopolies in commerce, it was recognized that its regulation was essential. For instance, though for a time the Protector threw open the East India trade, the old company reasonably argued that it could not afford to pay for forts and trading posts in India unless it was given the right to charge for the admission of merchants who made use of them. Thus, upon the advice of his Council of State, Cromwell granted a new charter to the old joint stock company in 1657. The Merchant Adventurers, the Levant company, and the Greenland Company were also at length upheld in their privileges. Nevertheless, a large number of “interlopers” managed to earn a living from foreign trade, and the nearer countries, such as France, Portugal, and the Scandinavian group, with which business was done, were virtually left open to all-comers. The power of the English navy and its exploits in the Mediterranean proved advantageous to English commerce, and broadly the Interregnum seems to have been an era of freer and prospering trade.
This prosperity was reflected in the customs and excise returns on which the national finances were based. The cost of waging the civil wars had required the invention of new forms of taxation, of which the most prominent were excise and the monthly assessments. The excise was a tax on consumption, imitated from abroad and first introduced in 1643. The monthly assessments were taxes on property apportioned between the counties and there levied at fixed rates upon rents and also upon personal property. In practice, the excise took the place of the old feudal dues and the assessments of the medieval subsidies, both of which had grown out of date and yielded comparatively little. Naturally these new taxes were unpopular, just as ship money had been; but they were efficient, and, together with the customs, were the main sources from which the army and navy were paid. When the civil wars ended, the expenditure of the government did not materially fall, partly because of the expense of garrisoning Ireland and Scotland, partly because the army was still needed for security, and partly because of the wars that were waged against the Dutch and the Spaniards. When, under pressure from his first Protectorate Parliament, Cromwell reduced the size of the army and the rate of the monthly assessments, he was still left with a security problem, which was temporary resolved by the institution of the major-generals and the “decimation” of the Royalists.
Up to the beginning of the Protectorate, the Long Parliament had been able to sustain a high level of public expenditure by means of selling off the King’s properties and the properties of the Church, and by fining Royalists who were obliged to compound for their estates. A complicated committee system dealt piecemeal with these varied sources of revenue. Most of them were exhausted when Cromwell became Protector. His government gradually wound up the committees and put the administration of public finance upon a more satisfactory basis. The Exchequer course was restored, and all tax revenues were paid into one Treasury with a proper system of audit and control. The monthly assessments alone were not directly controlled by the Exchequer, partly because as a novel tax it did not fit into the old system, but chiefly no doubt because the commander-in-chief wished to keep the fund out of which the army was paid, in the hands of the Treasurers at War.
The financial changes of the Interregnum had considerable social significance. The vast sales of lands, not merely those belonging to the Church and King but also to Royalists, who were compelled to part with some of their properties to pay fines or through confiscation, caused values to depreciate and enabled enterprising speculators, including merchants, financiers, army officers, and other officials, to make money, sometimes by selling back land to the very Royalists from whom it was confiscated. Secondly, the abolition of outmoded feudal dues and incidents, such as those that King Charles I’s ministers had exploited during the so-called “eleven years; tyranny”, and the introduction of the excise, which was subject to parliamentary control, strengthened the power of the Commons over the Crown when the Restoration came. On the other hand, these new taxes and the accumulation of public debts, relatively heavy for a time when funding was not invented, discontented both the smaller gentry and the shopkeeping classes, and though that discontent was not of major importance so long as Oliver Cromwell himself ruled, it contributed to a general sense of dissatisfaction which helped the recall of the Stuarts after he was dead.