What the Puritan Revolution Achieved

What did the Puritan Revolution achieve? Did it in fact achieve anything? In our standard history books the question is surprisingly little discussed. The year 1660 is taken almost as a closed frontier in historical time or a safety-curtain lowered after a play that is best forgotten. It was a revolution that failed, had it not? For King Charles II was restored unconditionally and by the very army that had once followed Oliver Cromwell. Nothing of importance, we are instructed, was retained out of all the legislation and political activity of the years between 1642, when King Charles I left his capital, and May 1660, when his son returned there. Most of the conclusions that are offered us come in negatives: Cromwell “had not succeeded in making Puritanism admirable to the majority of Englishmen” or “England had repudiated the Puritan attempt to enforce strict morality by the use of the army”.

It would hardly be credible that this revolution, in which so much blood and fire and passion were expended, should have left no mark whatever upon British history. It would be astonishing if all the political experiments, all the philosophical thinking, all the religious exuberance, all the written constitutions and different governments of those eighteen years had made no impression whatsoever upon the minds of men; or if the character of Oliver Cromwell, which, even upon the tercentenary of his death, divided the judgements of historians and arouses journalists to display contradictory opinions, contributed nothing to the moulding of later society.

To take the obvious points first. It is not entirely true that the legislation of the Interregnum left no traces in the statute book. To give two examples: important reforms of the law (which Cromwell had so much at heart) were retained; it was confirmed that in the future the language of the Common Law courts should be English and not French or dog Latin, and also that a defendant might enter a general plea of “not guilty”, and so be able to join issue at once without prelinary production of evidence in bar of an action. Secondly, the series of Navigation Acts introduced after the Restoration were merely an extension of the navigation laws carried through and enforced during the Interregnum. They had the same objects: to enable shipowners and shippers to compete more effecively with their chief commercial rivals, the Dutch, in the carrying trade, and to promote Britain’s business intercourse with her colonies. Maybe none of these Acts were soundly designed for their purpose (though in the twentieth century we are less dogmatic about Protection than our grandfathers), but at least they exemplify a striking continuation of policy.

Among other concrete survivals from the Interregnum are two of our most famous historical regiments, the Coldstream guards – direct descendants of the Ironsides – and the Grenadier Guards. The greatness of the British Navy may also be said to date largely from the Cromwellian era; for, if it was founded by King Henry VIII and built up by Queen Elizabeth I, it won some of its most notable victories in the Dutch and Spanish wars. Nearly half the Lord Protector’s revenue was spent upon the navy; it was the foundation which allowed Britain to become a great power in the seventeenth century, and from the time of Robert Blake it kept a continuous station in the Mediterranean. Blake and Monk in their different ways were commanders of great ability. After the restoration, Monk, Penn, Batten, and other naval officers continued to serve the monarchy and uphold the Commonwealth traditions. the new tactics, principally invented by Blake and Monk, were pursued when war came, and it was naval prestige, won during the Protectorate, that encouraged King Charles II’s government to try conclusions with the Dutch, though less successfully than before.

It was not only the sea that the services of Commonwealth administrators were employed. Indeed, it was under Cromwell that capable men with something approaching a Civil Service cast of mind were employed by the executive, instead of rich men who bought their offices and left most of the duties to their underlings. the alliance with France was affirmed, the wars with the Dutch resumed, the connection with Portugal was strenghtened. Some of the colonial conquests from Spain were maintained. Jamaica, it has been said, became the “pet colony” of the Restoration. Thence were exported coffee, sugar, and pepper, and the island became an excellent market for English manufactured goods. Buccaneering, as you anticipated during the Interregnum, became a profitable industry, and from Jamaica the headquarters of Spanish trade in Central America was sacked. But not all the conquests of the Cromwellian era were retained; the union with Scotland (provided for in “The Instrument of Government”) was abandoned; in October 1662 Dunkirk was sold to France, a step that was very unpopular at the time and helped to bring about the downfall of King Charles II’s minister, the first Earl of Clarendon, who was believed to have advised the sale. Acadia was surrendered to the Dutch in 1667, although later it was regained. The gradual decline in English prestige abroad during the reigns of King Charles II and King James II, a fact to which attention was first drawn in a famous pamphlet by Andrew Marvell, who had served under Thurloe during the Protectorate, was extremely damaging to the Stuarts; even the most loyal Royalists looked back sadly to the “great days of Oliver”. It was not until the Dutchman, King William III, ascended the throne in 1689 that the rulers of England and France again became equals.

Although the Restoration of King Charles II was unconditional, the intention of parliament was to return to the constitutional position of 1642 and not of 1640. Though no mention was made of legislation passed during the first year of the Long Parliament, it was tacitly and implicitly confirmed; for only later ordinances of the Long Parliament, which had not received the assent of King Charles I, were specifically declared invalid. Thus the Tudor Royal courts, the dubious methods of raising taxes, the imprisonment without cause shown, and other exercises in the use of prerogative power were all swept away. Moreover, though the Triennial Act, which Oliver Cromwell had helped to introduce was repealed, a new one required the King to summon a fresh parliament three years after a previous one had been dissolved. King Charles II could therefore, only tax his subjects with parliament’s consent; justice was confined to the Common Law courts and the Court of Chancery; and in effect the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts was much more limited than it had been before the civil wars.

The privileges of the House of Commons were now finally recognized by the Crown. A historian has recently written that at the Restoration, “the old unity of ‘King in Parliament’ was replaced by a new trinity of ‘Kings, Lords, and Commons’, and the replacement was perhaps only unchallenged because it was clothed in a restoration”. The growing independence of the House of Commons was accepted. The Long Parliament or Pensionary Parliament of King Charles II’s reign which, when it met, was enthusiastically Royalist, became, after the initial failures of the government in foreign and domestic policy, hostile in temper ten years later, even though its original membership had not been substantially changed. Constitutional advance is, after all, always dictated by political facts. The structure of parliament was probably not materially altered. King Charles II may have tried to pick his later parliaments, but he did not dare to defy them indefinitely as his father had done. King James II found he was unable to pick or pack a parliament which he needed to promote his own religious ends. Both men were forewarned by the fate of their father. The bloody revolution of forty years later, when King James II preferred to escape in a yacht to France rather than to fight another civil war. If it is true, as Mr. David Ogg has written, that in some respects Charles II was a constitutional monarch, that was because he never forgot that parliament had beaten his father and he did not intend to go into exile again.

Charles II was an agreeable, accessible, highly intelligent man. No man can say with confidence, any more than one can say of any man, that he was completely devoid of moral priniciples, but the behaviour of his Court set lax standards. When he married his Portugese Queen, he at once insisted that his principal mistress should be made her Lady of the Bedchamber. He promoted men not because of their inherent capabilities, but, as in the case of the second Duke of Buckingham, because they were amusing companions. He winked at piracies and robberies if the pirates or robbers happened to entertain him. Like the rest of the Stuarts, he had little sense of personal loyalty; he was indolent and extravagant, and his gay Court was a centre of vice. It has often been pointed out that there were many respectable and devoted men and women among the servants of King Charles II, but the Court set the tone to society, and corruption flourished in the administration in a way that it never did when Oliver Cromwell lived in Whitehall.

If the pattern of society changed during the reign of King Charles II, the Church was even more violently affected by the Restoration. The many Presbyterians who had assisted in bringing back the King had assumed that a place would be found for them in the ecclesiastical settlement. In the autumn of 1656 a scheme for combining Presbyterian and episcopal government, invented by Archbishop Ussher of Armagh, had been published, and many Presbyterians hoped that as the price for their aid they would be comprehended within the Church of England. In fact, it was the Laudians, headed by Dr. Gilbert Sheldon, Bishop of London, who, having carefully prepared the way during the Interregnum, triumphed after Charles II’s return. William Laud, the High Church Archbishop of Canterbury, who had been beheaded on Tower Hill in 1645, like Samson, slew more Puritans by his death then he ever did in his life. The resurgent Laudianism of the Restoration was, however, devoid of any social or political content; it was a purely ecclesiastical victory. At the Savoy conference, held in the Bishop of London’s lodgings in 1660, the Presbyterian leaders, badly led, were outmanoeuvred, and by the Act of Uniformity of 1661, a revised Book of Common Prayer was imposed upon the clergy, who were compelled to sign a declaration promising to adopt the new book and to repudiate the Solemn League and Covenant. Thus the Presbyterians, together with the dissenters or sectarians, were driven out of the Church. It has been estimated that 2,000 out of 10,000 parochial clergy resigned their livings, and when, on St. Bartholomew’s Day, 1662, they gave up their benefices, noncomformity took permanent shape.

The Act of Uniformity was buttressed by a number of other measures known collectively as “the Clarendon Code”. By the Conventicle Act, if five or more persons met for religious purposes the meeting was declared illegal, and transportation was the penalty for the third offence. By the Five Mile Act, all men in holy orders who did not take the prescribed oaths were forbidden to teach or preach in corporate towns. Another Act allowed constables to break into houses where it was suspected that nonconformists met. The reason for this panic legislation was because the government feared that the noncomformists were plotting another revolution under the cover of religion. This was far from being the case. But a heavy blow had been delivered against the Presbyterians; some of them joined the Church of England, took the oaths, and created a kind of Low Church movement. Others allied with their old enemies, the Independents or Congregationalists. And, in reaction against the violence of both sides in the former religious conflict, a Broad or Latitudinarian movement began in the Church, with which a former brother-in-law of Oliver Cromwell, Dr. Wilkins, Bishop of Chester, was associated.

Though dissent continued to flourish in those areas where the magistrates were sympathetic and therefore did not strictly enforce the Clarendon Code, undoubtedly the Code was damaging to the nonconformists. According to one estimate, there were in the reign of King Charles II only about 150,000 of them left out of a total population of over five millions. When one considers how Puritanism had coloured the whole life of the country in the Cromwellian era, this is strikingly low figure, if it can be believed. But whatever they lacked in numbers, the nonconformists made up in tenacity and variety; when the Grand Duke of Tuscany visited the country he was astounded at the diversity of religious beliefs. Naturally, one must not underestimate the strain to which they were subjected by the persecution under the Clarendon Code. A recent writer on Puritanism in that period has hazarded the opinion that it injured them permanently, and that, after the smoke of battle cleared in 1689, their “old resiliency of spirit” had disappeared. But if the religious side of nonconformity suffered, its political, economic and, above all, social influence remained strong, if indirect. Though the nonconformists could take no part in public life, they formed a pressure group as early as the eighteenth century. Above all, the Puritan Revolution brought to birth the nonconformist conscience, which ripened during the struggles under the later Stuarts, came to maturity in the reign of Queen Anne, and permeated middle-class society, regardless of creed, in the reign of Queen Victoria.

The severity of the Clarendon Code was explained by the fear of the government that the dissenters might take advantage of the confusion caused by the second Dutch was (1664-7), the Great Plague (1665), and the Great Fire of London (1666), to plot a fresh revolution; but they were never sufficiently powerful or united to contemplate any such action. true, they were disappointed, especially after the promises of indulgence given by the King himself in the early years of his reign, that they were not allowed to attend their chapels peacefully under their own ministers, while the Presbyterians believed that they had been betrayed. But in so far as republican plotting continued after the Restoration, it was in the spirit of Haselrigg, Ludlow, and the keener secular politicians, and was not specifically religious in its inspiration.

King Charles II declared himself to be a Roman Catholic upon his death-bed in 1685, and his brother had long been an open adherent of that religion when he came to the throne as King James II. It was a remarkable historical volte-face. That less than thirty years after Oliver Cromwell was buried and much more than a century after Queen Mary I died, a new Roman Catholic ruler should succeed peacefully to the thrones of both England and Scotland postulated a degree of religious apathy and a weakening in the national character that contrasted strangely with all the passion and excitement of the Interregnum.

Yet a flash of the old spirit soon disclosed tat whatever promises the new King had given to his parliament, and however acquiescent the official Church of England might be in turning the other cheek, this state of affairs could not endure. For the ninth Earl of Argyll landed in Scotland with a handful of followers and tried to arouse the ardour of the Presbyterians, while the Duke of Monmouth, the King’s illegitimate nephew, pitched camp in Lyme in Dorset, after sailing from Holland, and planned to arouse the West of England and capture Bristol as a base. Here, in fact, the dissenters rallied to the standard of the “Protestant Duke” in large numbers. Crowds of uncompromising nonconformist tradesmen and peasants offered their services in the very area which had been most persistently Royalist during the civil wars. The motives of these men in joining Monmouth were religious and not economic. The two rebellions came too soon and were crushed. But nonconformity had been awakened out of its passive acceptance of persecution by the old anti-papal war-cries that had pierced the air in the sixteen-forties. Soon the ruling classes were to unite almost solidly against the Jesuit-inspired ambitions of King James II. Though in his declaration of Indulgence of 1687 the King tried to draw over the nonconformists to his side, the Marquis of Halifax, who had once been the protector of the rights of James Stuart when his brother had been upon the throne, riposted with a famous pamphlet, entitled A Letter to a Dissenter, in which he argued that liberty and infallibility were contradictory and that the nonconformists, rather than trust the promises of the Declaration of Indulgence, ought to await “the next probable revolution”. When seven bishops were sent to the Tower of London to await trial for seditious libel because they had refused for specified reasons to permit the reading of King James II’s second Declaration of Indulgence in the churches, many nonconformists actually assured them of their sympathy. Thus a virtually united nation drove the Roman Catholic King from his throne and achieved a revolution without a battle.

But if the nonconformists did not enter into conspiracies before the reign of King James II, there was a link between the men who had fought King Charles I and those who destroyed his son. A group of underground conspirators, some of whom had been imprisoned during the Clarendon regime, had emerged to associate, first with the second Duke of Buckingham whose “cabal” was said to include Cromwell’s famous chaplain, Dr. John Owen, and caused Samuel Pepys to report: “Some say we are carried in Oliver’s bucket.” Later this group tried to exclude James Stuart from the throne and even to revive a republican movement. It was concerned in the so-called Rye House Plot (1683) against King Charles II, and later the Duke of Monmouth’s rising. Some of these conspirators were caught and executed, but a few survivors fled to Holland and returned with William of Orange at the Glorious Revolution.

The Revolution Settlement in 1689 comprised as Act of Toleration which, in effect, acquiesced in organized nonconformity by permitting the suspension of the penal code against dissenting meetings and granting concessions to dissenting ministers. The Bill of Rights, to which King William III gave his assent in the same year, further reinforced the powers of parliament and reduced those of the Crown. It also laid it down that henceforth no monarch might be a Roman Catholic or marry a Roman Catholic. It was perhaps the greatest constitutional document in modern history and, like the revolution of 1649, it owed its origins to the misdeeds of a Stuart King.

After the pendulum had swung back in the early years of Charles II’s reign, the settlement of 1689 thus completed the constitutional revolution of the seventeenth century. The Bill of Rights repaired some of the inadequacies of the legislation of 1641. Possibly if King Charles I had agreed to the same sort of restrictions upon his perogative and if the parliamentary leaders could attained earlier. As it was, the execution of King Charles I and the experiments of the Protectorate produced a Royalist reaction, but at the same time afforded a warning to the aristocracy and wealthier ruling  classes of what might happen again if they did not this time join together to depose a monarch who attempted to dispense with parliament and rule by his personal powers. The importance of the Puritan Revolution in British history cannot be understood except in the context of the settlement of 1689.

It is sometimes said that this revolution was an historical aberation which it is best patriotically to slide over, an affront to the ideal of the peaceful and orderly constitutional progress which appeals to placid Englishmen. In the same way, Oliver Cromwell has never been accepted as a national hero in the same senses as, say, the first William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, the Duke of Wellington, or Lord Nelson. Not even a great soldier, some of his critics observe, for other men fought his battles for him, and anyhow he did not fight French or Germans but the Scots, the Irish, and his fellow countrymen. Disregarding the testimonies of his own letters and his own servants, his humaneness is denied because he treated the ancestors of the Sinn Feiners as badly as the Black-and-Tans. The Irish hate him because he conquered them, the Scots because he subdued them, the aesthetes because he collected horses instead of paintings, the Roman Catholics because he did not believe in the Mass, the Socialists because he suppressed the Levellers, the Liberals because for a short spell he ruled as a military dictator, the Conservatives because he killed a King.

But history need not be written in such simple terms, and Cromwell should be seen not through the coloured spectacles of our own emotions, but in the glaring light of his own times. One may conclude by quoting the words of a recent writer, not a professional historian but a detached observer:

“Cromwell’s claim to greatness is that, within the limitations set him by the people he had to deal with and the events with which he had to contend, he pursued a policy which, apart from restoring our national reputation abroad, saved England at home from the extremes of bloody repression and deepening chaos.

“Cromwell neither betrayed, nor did he fulfil, the ideals of the Puritan Revolution. He tried and failed to make of Puritanism a political instrument. He was forced to acquiesce in an attempt, which failed, to impose upon England the Puritan pattern of social behaviour. But both these failures were contained within the frame of a larger success. A new priniciple of Government had been asserted; a new standard of behaviour had been established. For good or ill the religious and secular principles of the Reformation had been consolidated, and were never again to be seriously challenged. The defeat of James II had been assured thirty years before he ascended the throne; England had been secured from the Counter-Reformation, and from all its implications of bloodshed, misery and obscurantism.” (1)

Thus the spirit and achievements of Oliver Cromwell were active elements in the revolution of 1688; they gave their impulse to a permanent form of English institutions; they largely attained their long-term objectives; and they may be said to have entered effectively into the making of modern England.

(1) John Marlowe. The Puritan Tradition in English Life (1956).