The Fall of the Republic

While in the year 1658 the prestige of the English Commonwealth under the Protectorate of Olive Cromwell never stood so high in Europe, the situation at home was confused. Rumours persisted that King Charles II was planning an invasion with a cavalry force of eight thousand men, and that the younger Royalists were plotting a rising in the City of London and the south of England. The City militia was called up, a number of conspirators were arrested and two of them put to death, and the reports received from England by the exiled Court discouraged any idea of invasion. By the spring all was more or less quiet, and the Privy Council was busily discussing whether a new parliament should be summoned in the autumn and another effort made to induce Cromwell to become King. But the Privy Council was as divided over home affairs as it had been over foreign policy. A few members, headed by John Desborough, wanted a return to the rule of the major-generals; a majority favoured calling a new parliament, but was uncertain whether to recommend reviving monarchy in Cromwell’s family. It is likely that Cromwell himself, still searching for a constitutional settlement, inclined that way; at any rate, the well-in-formed French ambassador reported in March that “the re-establishment of royalty is determined on”. Moreover, the Lord Protector received no agreed advice. In the previous summer, Henry Cromwell’s father-in-law had written to him that the Council was so unhelpful that the Lord Protector was obliged to rely upon his own judgment. “He counsels himself were it not so, lo, I know not what would become of things.” The correspondence between Henry Cromwell, who had now been appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and John Thurloe, Cromwell’s sole Secretary of State, opens a window upon the hopes and fears of Cromwell’s immediate entourage. Their opinion was that a policy of conciliation was the best, that a parliament should be called, and full use made of the victories won abroad to fortify the Lord Protector’s position. At the same time they agreed that for peace at home they must rely entirely upon his personal influence. For he was widely trusted even by men who differed from him over policy. “Does not your peace,” asked Henry Cromwell in June, “depend upon his Highness’s life, and upon his peculiar skill and faculty and personal interest in the army as now modelled and commanded?” Thurloe thought that Cromwell himself would have to make up his own mine “and not so much consider others”.

Thus, after nearly six years of experimenting in different forms of government, it was still purely upon his own personal leadership that Cromwell’s friends and advisers depended for peace and the survival of the Commonwealth. Leadership is hard to define, but its reality was clear to Cromwell’s contemporaries. Andrew Marvell wrote of Cromwell that he seemed “a king by long succession born”, but he went on to say:

“Abroad a king he seems and something more,

At home a subject on an equal floor.”

Foreigners recognized his greatness more plainly than Englishmen ; a woman of perception like Queen Chistina of Sweden could see it, as could a vigilant statesman like Mazarin. At home Cromwell’s republican enemies, such as Haselrigg and Edmund Ludlow, thought of him as just another amateur soldier like themselves whose success as a statesman they ascribed to hypocrisy and devouring personal ambition. But to those who actually served under him – George Monk, John Thurloe, John Milton – his power and influence required no such explanation. He was their “chief of men”. Cromwell’s Royalist opponent, the Earl of Clarendon, besides paying tribute to his reputation abroad, spoke of “his great spirit, admirable sagacity, and most magnanimous resolution”. He also declared that he was not “a man of blood” nor a disciple of Machiavelli. Another Royalist observed that “had his cause been good”, Cromwell would have counted as “one of the greatest and bravest men the world ever produced”.

Such contemporaries (and the eighteenth-century biographers who took their evidence mostly from his critics) judged him chiefly in secular terms. For example, a Venetian envoy wrote of him in 1656 that “it cannot be denied that by his ability and industry he has contributed to his own greatness”. He spoke, too, of his courage, good sense, and prudence. The same sort of compliments might have been paid to other men of the time – to Lambert, to Thurloe, or to Monk. Where Cromwell differed from them was in his blinding sense of vocation, in the belief to which he gradually and reluctantly came that he alone could save his country from anarchy or invasion. He drew his strength from his religion, counting always upon the infinite love of God, and upon that covenant made with men whereby the Almighty “undertakes all and the poor soul nothing”. Even this sense of inner fortitude, like Cromwell’s “industry, courage, and prudence”, would have meant nothing if he had not also possessed the gift of commanding loyalty.

Cromwell’s methods were never those of a tyrant. He wrestled with other men’s consciences as well as his own; he tried to understand their difficulties, spiritual, moral or even political; he never thought that he had a monopoly of the truth. In the last years of his life he acquired an extraordinary degree of tolerance, unique in his time: “From his agonies and his exaltations,” it has been said, “he emerged with a great charity towards men.” A word that was frequently used about him, not only by his friends of the great-heartedness of his that, even if they did not understand his mysticism and were puzzled by his inconsistencies as a statesman, most of his soldiers and administrators always trusted him. Thus he kept his power virtually intact until the end of his days. Not that he ever obtained much happiness from it; only the call of duty beckoned him on; he never expected peace until after he was dead.

By the early spring of 1658 his health was beginning to fail, as was shown by a signature already crabbed with premature old age. He had never recovered from the illnesses contracted during the Irish and Scottish campaigns, and his sense of direct responsibility weighed upon him. “The difficulties of his place”, wrote one of his servants, “was so great a burden . . . . as I doubt not to say it drank up his spirits (of which his natural constitution yielded a vast stock) and brought him to his grave.” He died on the afternoon of 3rd September, after nominating his son Richard as his successor.

To understand the articulation of political affairs in the last months of Oliver Cromwell’s life, it must be realized that a number of parties existed in the Commonwealth, though they shaded imperceptibly into one another. In the first place was the army. Ever since 1647 this had, in effect, been a third estate of the realm. Chiefly Independent in its religious opinions, it had formed a counterpoise to parliament which, in whatever form it had met (except for the Assembly of Saints), contained a substantial number of men sympathetic to the Presbyterian point of view. The army on the whole was republican, but believed in a strong executive. Secondly, there were the oligarchic republicans led by Haselrigg, Vane, and Thomas Scot, with some friends in the army such as Colonel Edmund Ludlow. A small group of democratic republicans also existed, though that had been weakened by the death of John Lilbourne, the Leveller leader, in 1657; his successor, John Wildman, had combined intriguing with the Royalists and spying for the government. Next came the group of New Cromwellians, who were still urging Oliver to accept the Crown. They, however, lacked organized leadership. Lord Broghill, their most notable member, and Lord Falconbridge, one of Cromwell’s sons-in-law, were suspect because they had formerly been Royalists; while John Thurloe, though a highly capable administrator, lacked courage and finesse as a politician. But all these groups respected the Lord Protector. The situation was bound to deteriorate after his death.

At first Richard Cromwell was upheld by his father’s ghost. “No civil war broils have since his death arose,” wrote Dryden optimistically, “but Fashion now by habit does obey.” “There is not a dog that wags his tongue,” observed Thurloe, “so great a calm are we in.” Speaking of Charles II, Sir Richard Hyde said: “The King’s condition never appeared so hopeless, so desperate.” But it was not long before Richard Cromwell was in trouble. His chief difficulty was that, never having been a soldier, except for a short time, he commanded little influence in the army. His brother-in-law, General Charles Fleetwood, was jealous of him, and the suggestion was soon put forward that Fleetwood ought to be appointed commander-in-chief, while Richard retained only the title of Lord Protector; but Richard Cromwell, who was by no means unpopular with those who knew him, understood clearly enough that if he let go his control over the army he would become its prisoner.

The new Lord Protector decided not to make any important changes in the composition of the Privy Council that he had inherited from his father; neither Broghill nor Falconbridge, leaders of the New Cromwellians, were admitted to it; only Edward Montagu, who was now in effect in command of the Commonwealth navy, was a Councillor with influence in the armed forces, ready to uphold the Protectorate at all costs. Richard’s two wisest advisors and most loyal supporters, his brother Henry and George Monk, commanded for him in Ireland and Scotland respectively, and could only send him advice by letter. If he had brought them both to London, he might well have saved his throne. As it was, Monk offered astute suggestions. He told him that he ought to reduce the size of the army and, by amalgamating regiments, get rid of senior officers whose loyalty was in doubt. Similarly, he should make changes in the naval commands and, in general, remodel the armed forces so that he could be assured of their unswerving support. monk also thought that he would do well to strengthen the discipline of the Church and call moderate Presbyterians into his counsels. He warned him to think carefully before calling parliament, to try to persuade some of the hereditary peerage to enter his House of Lords, and to rely upon the New Cromwellians, including Broghill and Thurloe, as his principal advisers. The main objection to such recommendations as these was that for Richard Cromwell to turn now to the Presbyterians would have been to compromise with his father’s policy of toleration, while only Monk himself was capable of remodelling the armed forces, since Fleetwood, Desborough, and the rest were already beginning to intrigue against the new Protector. It is not known what Richard thought of Monk’s advice. In any case, he did not follow it. The policy that he did adopt, apparently under the guidance of Thurloe, was quite different and was fatal to him.

During October and November the army showed itself exceptionally restless. Fleetwood had the effrontery to present the new Lord Protector with a petition, inviting him to give up his office of commander-in-chief, and the demand was also put forward that the officers whom Oliver Cromwell had cashiered for disloyalty should be restored to their commands. Richard pointed out that he had already nominated Fleetwood as lieutenant-general to command immediately under him, while he promised that no officers should be promoted without the advice of his Privy Council and none should be arbitrarily dismissed. This conciliatory policy failed to satisfy the army malcontents, many of whom were justifiably aggrieved because their pay was in arrears. The decision taken to call parliament in January 1659 was undoubtedly influenced by the consideration that it might prove a counter-balance to the army and might vote supplies that would enable the new Protector to meet his and his father’s debts.

Richard Cromwell’s parliament summoned under the constitution known as the “Petition and Advice”, which had been agreed to in 1657. thus the constituency reforms introduced by the “Instrument of Government” were abandoned and the property qualification for voting in the counties reduced.. This somewhat altered the character of the House of Commons, which, when it met, did not prove unfriendly to the Protector himself but was vehemently anti-military in its attitude. It is possible that as many as two-thirds of the members were willing to vote for the government at a pinch, but, as in the two previous parliaments, Sir Arthur Haselrigg had a following of over fifty out-and-out republicans, a small group craved for true democracy, and John Lambert, who had quarrelled with Oliver Cromwell in 1657, represented the army republicans. A few concealed Royalists also managed to find their way into the House with the aim of creating mischief. The late Dr. Godfrey Davies summed up the situation in these words: “A Protectorate limited by the Humble Petition and Advice was preferred to a republic, a republic to the sword.”

Once again, as in the previous Protectorate parliaments, all the skill and oratory in the House was to be found in the avowed republican opposition. The Court party was outmanoeuvered and out-debated. Haselrigg at once threw down his challenge by telling the new Speaker that he “looked upon him as the greatest man in England”. Thurloe committed a grave error of judgement by introducing a Bill for the recognition of the new Protector. For this gave Haselrigg the precise opportunity that he had exploited so cleverly during earlier parliaments, to set the House by its ears. Once more constitution-mongering was used as an excellent excuse to ignore every other need of the country, to vote no taxes, and to promote no reforms. The past was acrimoniously gone over again in every detail: the origins of the civil wars, the misdeeds of Oliver Cromwell, the cowardice of the House of Lords, the grievances if individual members, the betrayal of the “good old cause” of the republic were all aired. Moreover, exactly the same tactics were adopted to embarras the government as had been tried unsuccessfully against Oliver. A petition was organized in the City of London and presented to the House, designed to please both the straightlaced republicans, the older Leveller sympathizers, and the rank-and-file of the army. It had been a similar petition that provoked Oliver to dissolve the last parliament. Richard took it on the chin, and for the time being the storm passed over.

The opposition now concentrated upon constitutional matters, interspersed with violent attacks upon the army. Military rule was denounced, the conduct and even the loyalty of the soldiers were called into question, and one of the former major-generals of the horse militia was impeached. although the protector was recognized, no serious attempt was made to meet his wishes, either for assistance in paying for the continuing war against Spain or to appease the army by meeting its arrears. after three months the members themselves began to grow bored with the arid constitutional discussions, but the baiting of the army did not diminish and the consequence was to be expected.

So restless had the army become by the beginning of April 1659 that Fleetwood asked permission of Richard Cromwell to call a General Council. Five hundred officers met on 2nd April. Richard Cromwell’s friends tried to persuade the meeting that the best plan would be to trust the Protector to put matters right. the majority, however, decided to draw up a petition outlining their complaints. This petition pointed out that want of pay might compel soldiers to live at “free quarte”, that law suits had been started against officers merely for obeying orders, and that the Cavaliers were being encouraged. The army demanded its arrears and asked that freedom of worship, threatened by the Presbyterians in the Commons, should be reaffirmed. Richard Cromwell forwarded this petition to both houses: the House of Commons ignored it for some days, and then resolved that while it would try to settle the financial problems, no further Councils of the army should on any account be allowed to meet.

So matters had reached the point where the Lord Protector had to decide whether he would side with parliament against the army, or the army against parliament – his father’s earliest dilemma. Since Richard knew that he commanded little influence with the leaders of the army, while he still had a measure of support in the Commons, he plucked up his courage and told Fleetwood and Desborough that the army must stop its meetings as the Commons required, and when he received a refusal to ordered their arrest. But no one would obey his orders, not even his own bodyguard. The same evening Desborough went to see Richard Cromwell in Whitehall, and told him brutally that he must dissolve parliament or take the consequences. After vainly asking permission to consult members of his Privy Council, Richard crumpled under threats, and that was, in fact, the end of the Protectorate. Since Fleetwood and Desborough were both connected to him by marriage, it was said that his own family had destroyed him.

It was not really as simple as that. The Protectorate had been overthrown by the same combination of enemies that had vainly conspired against Oliver Cromwell. While the filibustering of Haselrigg had angered the army, the republicans inside the House of Commons had acted in concert with a powerful republican section in the army, linked by Colonel Ludlow, who was an M.P. and had always been the implacable opponent  of the Protectorate. Though the army was their instrument and perhaps their dupe, it was the irreconcilable republicans who broke the Cromwellian Protectorate. That fact was underlined by what happened afterwards. Fleetwood and his friends had intended to keep the Protectorate in being, to use Richard Cromwell as their tool, and themselves to govern without parliament. But since Richard Cromwell, by his feebleness and final reluctance to rule, had become a wasting asset, since the army itself was split between its official leadership and the republican rank-and-file (much as it had been in 1647), and since Fleetwood and his friends had thought of no new system of government to replace the Protectorate, they now found themselves obliged to come to an agreement with the parliamentary republicans. At a meeting on 2nd May it was settled that the Rump Parliament should be recalled and the oligarchic government of the early sixteen-fifties restored. The Rump met on 7th May, and on 25th May Richard Cromwell submitted to it and retired into private life.

The complicated and unedifying story of the fall of Richard Cromwell has been told at some length (even though its details today are not entirely plain), because it throws a flood of light backwards upon the historical place of Oliver Cromwell. The Rump of some fifty or sixty politicians who now insisted upon their indefeasible right to rule the country in uneasy alliance with the army, several of whom had first been elected to the Commons nearly twenty years earlier, were, as Sir Charles Firth wrote, “the Bourbons of republicanism”. Twenty-one of its members were appointed to the new Council of State, and thus the administration was put into the hands of a narrow oligarchy, lacking in geniune leadership, experience, or public credit, and behaving “like tired, irritable men”. It was impossible, after what had gone before, that men like Haselrigg and Vane could command any loyalty in the army, which they tried to purge and remodel. Even Monk, who wrote from Scotland professing obedience to the new civil power, vainly asked that changes in his army there should not be made without his own consent. Such was the confusion and distrust manifested among the former conquerors of King Charles I that a new Royalist rising and a new coup d’etat by the army obviously had become only questions of time. Oliver had kept the army under control by a combination of personal magnetism and discipline, while seeking a constitutional settlement that allowed for a balanced form of government prescribed by written laws and eschewing arbitrary devices. It is true that the judges and lawyers had never liked the “Instrument of Government” because they refused to recognize its legal basis, but, as compared with the system of Puritan government envisaged by the “Instrument” and later by the “Humble Petition and Advice”, the shaky oligarchy of the returned Rump combined every political disadvantage: it was unpopular, it was muddled, and it was ineffective. If it is the fact, as has so often been asserted, that Oliver Cromwell could not govern with parliaments nor without them, the republican oligarchs could neither govern with the army not without it. “Chaos,” it was said not unfairly by a contemporary Royalist, “was a perfection compared to our present order and government.” As soon as the Royalists rose again, as they did in August 1659, the utter dependence of the parliament on the army, for all it brave words, became crystal clear.

Colonel John Lambert was the man who, after defeating this Royalist rising, essayed to become another Oliver Cromwell. Though he was a good soldier, an able political thinker, and a proved administrator, he lacking many of the gifts of his great predecessor. He was not in any obvious sense of the term a Puritan, and his personal ambitions made him the target of suspicion. Not being given the rewards he expected after his victory over the Royalists, he returned to his home in Yorkshire, where he indulged in a fit of sulking, ignoring orders to come to London. Soon after he eventually arrived there, a petition was sent up to the Rump Parliment from the officers of his army stationed in Derby, asking that Fleetwood should be  appointed commander-in-chief, with full powers, and that Lambert himself should be restored to his previous post of major-general, which had already been denied him. Fleetwood was ordered to suppress this petition (which General Monk in Scotland had refused to allow the men in his army to support), and on 5th October a new petition was put forward by another group of army officers, which included the requirement that no officer might be cashiered except by court martial or by order of the local commander. Parliament retorted by cashiering Lambert and eight other high-rnking officers, and vesting the control of the army in a number of commissioners.

After the defeat of their rising, the Royalists had become depressed. The policy was now tried of suborning Commonwealth commanders from their loyalties. The suggestion was put forward that Lambert’s daughter, Mary, a pretty girl “of extraordinary sweetness of disposition”, should marry Charles II’s brother, the Duke of York, and General Monk’s brother, an Anglican clergman, was sent up to Edinburgh to offer him £100,000 if he would transfer his services to the exiled King. Monk, like Lambert, was no Puritan – “he had no fancies of religion which turned his head”, so Sir Edward Hyde wrote – but he had a reputation for being fond of money. Fleetwood, though Puritan enough, was known to be a weakling, usually siding with the last person to whom he spoke, and was not taken into much account. Thus the future seemed to rest between two non-Puritan generals who each had a considerable following in the army.

The first move was by Lambert who, on 13th October, led a contingent to Westminster and dissolved the Rump by force, setting up a Committee of Safety to replace the Council of State. But Monk, as soon as he heard this news, decided to march to London in defence of the Rump. He “told Lambert in so many words that what he was prepared to tolerate in Oliver Cromwell he could not stomach in a lesser man”. Monk purged his own army of all officers he suspected of not being personally loyal to himself, and concentrated his force upon the Scottish frontier. Meanwhile a Republican rising took place in London, Fleetwood threw up the sponge, and Haselrigg returned in triumph with the garrison of Portsmouth. On the day after Christmass, the Rump met again in Westminster, while Lambert’s army, unpaid and without supplies, melted way from him, and Monk advanced unopposed through York, where he was welcomed with enthusiasm by the retired commander-in-chief, Lord Fairfax. As Monk moved slowly across England, addresses were recieved by him from all over the country, demanding the calling of “a free parliament”, and hearty demonstrations took place in favour of King Charles II. The City of London, which had greeted the two restorations of the Rump with equal apathy and had refused to grant financial aid to the government, now anounced that it would pay no further taxes until the attentuated House of Commons filled its vacancies. Monk, when he arrived in the capital, was ordered to enforce obedience upon the City; he did so, but then “was dark, and chewed his tobacco”, and eventually, impressed by the wave of feeling in London and elsewhere in favour of the Stuarts, took the decision, like Cromwell, Desborough, and Lambert before him, to turn his sword against the civil power. He told the Rump to admit its secluded members and not to sit beyond 6th May 1660, so that “a free parliament” might be elected . Meanwhile, he entered into direct communication with King Charles II. When, under his supervision, the new parliament or Convention met, it invited the King to come home again.

So, in the end, the restoration of the Stuart line came without bloodshed. As we read the dismal story of the last days of the English Commonwelth, we are conscious that the Puritan impulse that gave it its original moral strength had departed; no one showed any concern about liberty of conscience, and no one played a part that was in the least heroic. Nothing remained but a small group of ambitious generals and jealous oligarths, struggling with one another for power. A few intellectual republicans, like Vane and James Harrington, were engaged in working out wonderrful paper constitutions while their world fell in upon them. In retrospect, the revolution appeared to have come to its real end when Oliver Cromwell died. Those of his contemporaries and later historians who claimed that he himself had betrayed the revolution when he dismissed the Rump in december 1653, ought to have reflected upon what actually happened when the Rump resumed power in 1659, and how totally incapable it showed itself to be either of controlling the army or governing the country, even when it had a loyal general at its disposal.

But one significant event happened before CKing Charles II returned to England. In May 1660, when the Convention had assembled letters were read to it from the King, together with a declaration signed by him at Breda. In this declaration the King promised that he would leave to a future parliament many  major decisions of policy, and also proclaimed “we do declare a liberty to tender consciences”. Those who heard those words, while hoping for the settled government that Oliver Cromwell had never compeletely achieved, might surely have believed that the revolution had not been entirely in vain.