Interregnum: Oliver Cromwell, The Commonwealth, & The Lord Protectorate (1649-1660)

The turbulent eleven years known as the “Interregnum” (from the Latin for inter “between” and regnum “reign”) was the only period in English history without a ruling monarch. It was an age of suspicion and paranoia. A king had been executed, Parliament and the New Model Army were relentlessly jockeying for power while Puritanical fanaticism took hold. The Interregnum took place in two effective periods: the Commonwealth (1649-1653) wherein power was largely concentrated in the hands of Parliament, and the Protectorate (153-1659) wherein Oliver Cromwell and his son Richard took power under the shadow of the military as the Lords Protectorate.

After the shocking beheading of Charles I, England became a nominal republic. Abroad on the Continent, European monarchs looked on in horror at England’s regicide. Yet not a single European monarch offered military support to Charles. In London, a statue of Charles was cast down with the marker “Exit the tyrant, the last of the kings.” The Great Seal was replaced with a new seal of Parliament. The House of Lords was abolished as “useless” and “dangerous.” Not two months after the death of Charles Parliament passed an act to abolish the monarchy, and then another declaring England a Commonwealth ruled by the House of Commons. From 1649 onward the decade became one of conflict and confusion as the various factions once united in opposition to Charles suddenly dissolved into infighting: Parliament, the New Model Army, various Puritanical sects, and more radical groups like the Levellers, a rabble-rousing group led by John Lilburne so-named because they wanted to “level” or push for democratic equality; and the Diggers, an extremist group led by Gerrard Winstanley that hoped to enforce equal property rights (or “common land”) and full citizenship enfranchisement. The latter was more akin to modern conceptions of communism.

Portrait of Oliver Cromwell circa 1649

Enter Oliver Cromwell. A country gentleman by birth, a member of Parliament by inheritance, a Puritan by religion, and a soldier by vocation. Oliver Cromwell first entered Parliament in 1628 as MP for Huntingdon. During the Civil War he was a high-ranking member of the meritocratic New Model Army. He was appointed second in command to Lord Fairfax after the great victory over the Royalists at the Battle of Naseby. The victory effectively decimated the Royalists and ultimately paved the way for Charles I’s trial and execution (an execution which Cromwell called “a cruel necessity”). Following the king’s death many disaffected soldiers grumbled among the ranks. They were skeptical of the growing presence of Presbyterianism in England, and they were spiteful of Parliament’s arrears in their compensation. Cromwell seized on this opportunity. He became the voice for the soldiers and their grievances.

Meanwhile, Scotland and Ireland were in open revolt. The Scots had named the exiled son of Charles I, Prince Charles (popularly known as “Charles II”), as King of the Scots. In exchange Charles reluctantly bowed to the Presbyterian Kirk -he converted to Presbyterianism and swore by the Covenant. He half-heartedly promised that if reinstated as rightful King of England, he would enforce Presbyterianism as the state religion of Ireland, Scotland, and England. It was a promise he knew he could not keep but the zealous Scots took it to heart. Along with the backing of the Scots, Charles was offered military aid from Cardinal Jules Mazarin of France, and from William of Orange, Stadholder to the Netherlands, and son-in-law of Charles I by his marriage to Mary (William became the father of the future William III of England).

Charles II and his Scottish forces raised their banner at Dunbar in September 1650 but they were roundly defeated by Cromwell’s forces. Humiliated, they still pressed onward. Charles led a Presbyterian army of Scots into England. As he marched through the countryside he was met with much rejoicing, but few of his countrymen were willing to join the cause and risk their lives. Charles and his forces were badly beaten again at Worcester in 1651. The defeat was mortifying and Charles was again forced into exile. Here we receive an amusing tale of Charles going into hiding to avoid capture, donning the garb of a horseman, assuming the ordinary name of “Will Jackson,” conversing with blacksmiths, hiding for a day in the famous oak tree at Boscobel, and evading capture by sailing across the English Channel in a fishing boat.

Despite the escape of Charles, the Scots had been conquered for the time being. Now all that was left to do was subjugate Ireland. Cromwell justified his vicious and cold-blooded campaign in Ireland with various Old Testament allegories and cryptic prophecies -a common disposition for the devout Puritan. Cromwell’s troops laid to waste whole sections of Ireland. They massacred and leveled barracks, butchered priests -none survived the English hellfire. Winston Churchill writes that the Irish campaign was “a massacre so all-effacing as to startle even the opinion of those fierce times. All were put to the sword. None escaped; every priest and friar was butchered. The corpses were carefully ransacked for valuables… The war continued in squalid, murderous fashion for two years after Cromwell had left Ireland” (334). When the last lingering Royalists were defeated, the civil war was officially over. Supporters of Charles fled into hiding. England had been mastered, Ireland was terrorized, and Scotland was conquered.

Back in London, Parliament attempted to carve a more conservative route by quietly changing course away from its more radical members. This shift did not sit well with the army which was rife with Puritans. They demanded radical change from the so-called “Rump Parliament.” The final straw came from a trade war. English shipping began to come into conflict with the Dutch monopoly which maintained control of the Baltic trade and the spice trade in the East Indies. Soon war was declared, but many in the army (Oliver Cromwell included) saw the Dutch not as enemies but rather as fellow Protestants in the fight against a global conspiracy of authoritarian Papism. The Dutch war is known to us today as the First Anglo-Dutch War (1652-1654). It was mainly a naval battle of piracy and plunder on the high seas.

At any rate, fed up with Parliamentary leadership which seemed to echo the policies of the late King Charles I, Oliver Cromwell led a military coup against Parliament on April 20, 1653. It was just the kind of coup Charles I was incapable of enacting in 1642 when he burst into the House of Commons demanding the arrests of his opponents. When Oliver Cromwell marched a band of musketeers into the House of Commons, he forcibly dissolved the long-serving “Rump Parliament.” It was a stunning and instantaneous devolution of Parliamentary rule, halting centuries of tradition from Simon de Montfort to the Petition of Right. Now England fell under the shadow of one man’s rule: Oliver Cromwell. However, there was still need for a minor deliberative body. Thus the army council created a minor Parliamentary body known as the “Barebones Parliament” (named for the MP of London, a Puritan preacher aptly named ‘Praise-God Barebone’). In appointing this body Cromwell sought what every ruler wishes: a supplicant and compliant Parliament. Eventually the military took full control and named Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector.

His first act as Lord Protector, Cromwell ended the war with the Dutch and launched a new war against Catholic Spain. Like the Anglo-Dutch War, the Anglo-Spanish War (1654-1660) was a mostly naval conflict that took place on the seas stretching from the Spanish Netherlands to the Caribbean.

Amidst calls to abolish the aristocracy and ongoing squabbles with the gentry, Oliver Cromwell dissolved what remained of Parliament in 1655. There were uprisings that followed, particularly a notable Royalist rebellion which was put down. Martial law was imposed and Cromwell divided England into 12 military districts, each under the control of a different major-general. The move was widely unpopular among the people. This was coupled with rigid Puritanical laws against profanity (men were fined for using phrases like “God is my witness” or “Upon my life”), drunkenness was banned, female dress codes were enacted, sexual activity was regulated, fasting was enforced, and the abolition of English staples like horse-racing, theatres, casinos, and brothels were all strictly prohibited. Quakers and Catholics alike were thrown into the stocks. Soldiers were given free-reign to enter private homes in London and take what food they needed. Walking outside on the sabbath was banned, town may-poles were torn down lest they lead to immorality, and men were fined for traveling to attend neighboring parishes. The Lord Protectorate levied a ten percent tax on all ex-royalists as punishment for the civil war. Per Winston Churchill, during this period the mood of the nation was changing: “To the mass of the nation, however, the rule of Cromwell manifested itself in the form of numberless and miserable petty tyrannies, and thus became hated as no Government has ever been hated in England before or since. What wonder that under the oak-eaves, broad and far throughout the countryside, men dreamed fondly of what they called the good old times and yearned for the day when ‘the King shall enjoy his own again'” (342-343).

When Parliament was finally reconvened in January 1657 the divided kingdom under military rule was brought to an end. The new Parliament was dominated by conservative voices who sought to bring back order to the land. They passed the Humble Petition and Advice which offered Cromwell the crown of England in order to return to a stable monarchy. But Cromwell refused knowing full-well that the army would be strongly opposed. He insisted on keeping his title as Lord Protector, however it was agreed that Cromwell could name his successor: his eldest son Richard. Cromwell had become “King Oliver” in all but name. He and his followers sought to govern a godly kingdom by ridding the country of impurity. Ironically, the Interregnum Parliament accomplished very little social legislation to benefit the people of England. As Winston Churchill notes, “Much better conditions and more improvements were established under the personal rule of Charles I between 1629 and 1640 than under those who claimed to rule in the name of God and the sovereignty of the Saints” (342). However, the religious fanaticism was not to last. Within one year of his investiture, Cromwell would fall ill.

Despite his unrelenting faith in his own conscience and a belief that Providence guided his every move, Oliver Cromwell was remarkably tolerant in religious affairs (providing that the episcopate was abolished). For example, Cromwell allowed Jews to return to England after centuries of being savagely attacked and banished from the island from the 13th century onward beginning with Edward I “Longshanks.”

Of Oliver Cromwell’s inner struggle Winston Churchill writes: “Although a very passionate man when fully roused, he was frequently harassed by inner doubts and conflicts. His strict Puritan upbringing and the soul-stressing of his youth had left him, even though convinced that he belonged to the Chosen People of God, without any certainty as to his own righteousness. Though he attributed his political and military victories to the special interventions of Providence, he could write to a friend that he feared he was liable to ‘make too much’ of ‘outward dispensations.’ This uncertainty about himself excused opportunism, and reflected itself in his famous utterance, ‘No man goes so high as he who knows not where he is going.’ His doubts about political objectives became increasingly marked in his last years, and he grew more and more dependent on the advice and opinions of others. And thus there was ever a conflict in the man between his conviction of his divine right to rule for the good of the people and a genuine Christian humility at his own unworthiness. ‘Is it possible to fall from grace?’ he inquired of his chaplain on his deathbed. On being reassured, he said, ‘Then I am saved, for I know that once I was in grace.’ On September 3, 1658, the anniversary of the Battles of Dunbar and Worcester and of the siege of Drogheda, in the crash and howling of a mighty storm, death came to the Lord Protector” (343).

When Cromwell died suddenly in 1658 (perhaps of malaria or a urinary infection) his son Richard “King Dick” or “Tumbledown Dick” (or even “Queen Dick”) assumed the role of Lord Protector. While not a weak or incompetent ruler, he lacked the unique force and capacity required by the severity of the times. The factionalism between old army radicals and republicans drained power away from the Protectorate. As time passed, the struggle between the military and Parliament became too great and Richard resigned his investiture after just eight months. His absence left a power vacuum in England: the conditions were fertile for a restored monarchy.

In this moment the military was divided, Parliament was impotent, and all eyes turned toward General George Monck, commander of the English forces in Scotland. During the Civil War he had been a captured Royalist who was released on the condition that he fight for the Parliamentarians. In the chaos that followed the death of Charles I, Monck supported a return to traditional English institutions. He led his army into England to forcibly reinstate the “Long Parliament.” On April 4, 1660 Charles the younger wrote a letter to the Speaker of the House of Commons known as the Declaration of Breda. In it he masterfully presented a rationale for England returning to the Stuart line of kings. At the same time the “Convention Parliament,” as it became known, appointed Edward Montagu earl of Manchester as Speaker. A decade earlier he had opposed the king’s trial; now under his leadership Parliament became decidedly a Royalist body. By May 1660 both the Houses of Lords and Commons proclaimed Charles II as King. England had undergone a savage revolution and beheaded a king only to decide that a ruling sovereign was necessary after all.

Charles II was whisked away to London from his place of exile in the Dutch Republic. He landed at Dover amidst great fanfare. No expense was spared. He donned the traditional garb of the ancient kings and he rode through the streets of London in the throes of great celebration. The message of the festivities was clear: it was to be a familiar return to tradition and order. The monarchy was restored. Charles II’s coronation ceremony took place on April 23, 1661 -St. George’s Day at Westminster Abbey. Appropriately, I am writing this little essay on April 23, 2021 -St. George’s Day, 360 years to the day from the date that the monarchy was restored in England.

For this reading I used Winston Churchill’s essential History of English Speaking Peoples, David Starkey’s Crown and Country, Edward Hyde 1st earl of Clarendon’s 1642-1647 The History of the Rebellion, and Peter Ackroyd’s Rebellion: The History of England From James I To The Glorious Revolution.

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