Commonwealth of England

Alex Rover | April 2, 2023


The Commonwealth of England was an unsuccessful attempt to install a republican government in England (1649-1660). Ireland was annexed in 1653, Scotland in 1654. Parliament declared the Commonwealth on May 19, 1649, but after a few years the military commander-in-chief Oliver Cromwell and his puritanical New Model Army took over. Cromwell envisioned a godly reformation and, if necessary, wanted to impose his Puritan-Protestant views militarily on the Commonwealth. Many formulas were tried, but all became failures. After Cromwell”s death, the monarchy of the House of Stuart was restored.

Rump Parliament

After the English Civil War and the execution of King Charles I of England, the Rump Parliament remained in office. On Feb. 14, 1649, Parliament appointed a State Council as its executive body. On May 19, 1649, the important Act Declaring and Constituting the People of England to be a Commonwealth and Free-State passed. The act declared that England was henceforth a Commonwealth and Free-State. Parliament was the nation”s highest authority. They would appoint officers and ministers under their authority. The monarchy and the House of Lords were abolished. Real power, however, rested with the New Model Army. In the struggle between parliament and the army, the army was dominant.

The Levellers were a dissident streak that enjoyed a great deal of sympathy in the New Model Army. Their aim was social and political egalitarianism. They demanded universal suffrage for a sovereign parliament. They also demanded recognition for fundamental rights such as freedom of conscience and equality before the law. On May 14, 1649, Oliver Cromwell finally put down the Levellers” mutiny at Burford. Cromwell and his generals successfully purged the Levellers from the army. To them, giving political power to the majority of the dispossessed meant the end of property rights, and that was unthinkable. Voting rights were then generally reserved for those who owned land worth an insignificant 40 shillings. Cromwell and the Instrument of Government would later raise the requirement to 200 pounds of property for Protectorate voters. The electorate was narrowed.

On May 19, 1649, the Rump Parliament proclaimed the country a Commonwealth and Free State of England. The kingdom became a republic. Parliament was theoretically the nation”s highest authority. They would appoint the officers and ministers. Kingship, the House of Lords and prerogative courts were abolished. The episcopal hierarchy had to go. Otherwise, little meaningful legislation was voted on in this conservative assembly. Some continued to believe in a form of monarchical statehood. The independentists guarded against establishing a state church. The landed gentry defended the interests of existing land ownership. They reluctantly paid taxes to finance the army in particular. From 1649 to 1651, Oliver Cromwell was active in the Third English Civil War. By June 1650, Cromwell had become commander-in-chief of the army. After the battle of Worcester on Sept. 3, 1651, the Commonwealth was secure. No royalists, Scots or Irish to throw a spanner in the works.

The Rump Parliament voted a Blasphemy Act in April 1650 and put the death penalty on adultery in the Adultery Act of May 1650. In September 1650 came the Toleration Act that repealed laws enforcing attendance at a national church. The MPs also voted laws on suppressing religious nonconformism. This religious intolerance was not to the liking of those who wanted to promote religious liberty. After the battle of Worcester on Sept. 3, 1651, Cromwell tried to persuade members of the Rump Parliament to disband and call new elections. The Army Council met on Aug. 2, 1652, and called for early dissolution and new elections. After eighteen months, Cromwell”s patience ran out.

On April 20, 1653, Cromwell and the Army Council forcibly dissolved the Rump Parliament. The Parliament was dispersed by musketeers. Cromwell angrily sent the Rump Parliament home with the words, “You have sat here long enough without accomplishing anything good – go, I say to you, for God”s sake go!” Cromwell and the Army Council had paid little attention to the future. They were more interested in divinity than in forms of government. Cromwell had no clear idea what to do next.

Vergadering van Heiligen

General Thomas Harrison, leaning on his Fifth Monarchist convictions, declared that an assembly of about seventy men should be elected by independentist churches. He relied on the sanhedrin of the Old Testament which could replace English law with the law of Moses. This assembly would rule until Christ returned to earth and was to win the people to godliness. Cromwell did not share Harrison”s ideology, but did agree that government should be in the hands of godly men.

On July 4, 1653, the Assembly of Saints was established. Congregational churches had to nominate pious men, but the designation was kept closely in the hands of Cromwell and his officers. There were 144 members in all. Only 15 are known to have been recommended by the gathered churches. Its social status was generally lower than parliaments of the time. It contained more lower nobility. The vast majority, however, were gentlemen. Royalist pamphlets derided it as Barebone”s Parliament, but London leather salesman Praise-God Barebone was not typical of this assembly.

Divine reform was the reason for the existence of the Assembly of Saints. However, they threatened the reconciliation of conservative political opinion with the republic. Many possessing gentlemen feared a social revolution that would destroy property and privilege. They feared attacks on property rights. Some members showed intolerance toward fellow Protestants. They attacked freedom of religious conscience. On Dec. 12, 1653, the Assembly of Saints dissolved itself. Moderate members pushed through a paper signed by eighty members to return their powers to Cromwell and his officers.

General John Lambert had spent the previous weeks writing a new constitution to replace the Assembly of Saints. Lambert”s work became known as the Instrument of Government. On Dec. 15, 1653, the Army Council then took power altogether and promulgated the Instrument of Government. It was England”s first written constitution. This was a military constitution. On December 16, 1653, Oliver Cromwell was sworn in as Lord Protector, hence the form of government was named Protectorate. Cromwell was obliged to act with and by the majority of the State Council which consisted of 13 to 21 members, over whose membership he had little control. It was the State Council that selected or removed judges and all other civilian magistrates. There were military personnel on the State Council, but a clear majority were civilians. They were essentially a group of strong Calvinists. Cromwell, as Lord Protector, was usually addressed as “Your Highness. The State Council was styled as a Privy Council. Cromwell and the State Council had the dual task of attracting the support of England”s traditional ruling classes and carrying through the Divine Reformation. Cromwell desired the support of England”s landowners and wanted to secure property. In addition, he wanted to make a confederation of Protestant communities, especially Independentists, Presbyterians and Baptists. The new constitution showed an intense distrust of parliaments. First, the State Council had the right to exclude elected MPs at the beginning of each session. Second, the Lord Protector and the State Council had the right to legislate before parliament met. A number of Commonwealth supporters and many more country gentlemen tried unsuccessfully to block ratification of the Instrument of Government.

First Protectorate Parliament

On September 3, 1654, the First Protectorate Parliament began. The State Council excluded about eighty MPs from the session. Cromwell and the State Council had prepared a number of bills they wanted to move through Parliament. Many MPs who had been in the Long Parliament and the Rump Parliament were now also in the Protectorate Parliaments. The MPs spent most of their time attacking the Instrument of Government, the army and eventually Cromwell himself. Speaker after speaker attacked one of the main features of the Instrument of Government: the sharing of power between a single person and Parliament. Many suggested that supreme authority should lie solely in parliament. They indulged in long constitutional debates and discussions. Cromwell wanted to preserve the distinction between a single person and parliament, thus safeguarding his position. MPs feared social and political revolution would result. None of the bills proposed by Cromwell and the State Council made it through parliament. On Jan. 22, 1655, an enraged Cromwell dissolved the First Protectorate Parliament after less than five months. He scolded MPs for not giving just freedom to godly men of different judgments. Parliament had thrown away opportunities to complete the divine cause. For a long time, Cromwell had no desire to heal and stabilize.

Board of major-generals

In August 1655, the major-generals experiment got off the ground. This experimental administration of major-generals grew out of the discussions in the State Council, led by General John Lambert. The Commonwealth was divided into 11 military districts. At the head was appointed from the State Council a major-general, an army commander of Puritan lineage. The Lord Protector gave his pious officers great power. The major-general was to supervise the governments of the provinces. In each province they were assisted by commissioners, mostly zealous Puritans. The major-generals were accountable to Oliver Cromwell himself. This phase best illustrated the iron fist of the Cromwellian regime.

On Oct. 9, 1655, a final version of instructions was sent to the major-generals. The new orders emphasized that the mission of the major-generals was both to maintain security and to impose divine rule. The instructions to the major-generals increasingly changed to divine rule. An elite of saints was to assume the leadership and salvation of a sinful humanity. In this moralistic rule of the major-generals, virtues were encouraged and sins suppressed. Cromwell regarded the major-generals primarily as agents to promote the divine reformation. For the Puritans, Sunday sanctification was of utmost importance. The celebration of church holidays was condemned as pagan and papist. Christmas became a day of fasting. Popular entertainments were now expressly forbidden. No feasting was allowed on church holidays. There was a ban on drama. The major-generals also turned against drunkenness, pubs, gambling houses, brothels, adultery, fornication, swearing and blasphemy. The highest goal remained making the Commonwealth a pious nation. This policy did not make itself popular with the people. It also alienated the nobility and the gentry, the traditional local rulers.

The major-generals had the privilege of levying arbitrary taxes to prop up their regime, but that was not enough to pay the costs. In the transition from May to June 1656, all the major-generals came to London to discuss with the Lord Protector and the Council of State what should be done about the financial crisis. It was with reluctance that Cromwell yielded to those who argued for a return of parliament. After less than a year, the termination of the experiment of major-generals was already underway. The major-generals remained in office for a few more months. Later, Cromwell looked back at the excellent services the major-generals had performed. According to him, they had been very successful in reforming manners, establishing religion and discouraging sin. This judgment is not supported by historical research.

Second Protectorate Parliament

On Sept. 17, 1656, the Second Protectorate Parliament met. The State Council immediately barred more than a hundred elected members from immorality and criminality. Cromwell”s main demand was that parliament provide him with subsidies. At first, parliament was cooperative and productive. It was not long before parliament resumed its fight against the military and the military constitution Instrument of Government. The religious strains were hostile to each other.

On Feb. 23, 1657, MP Christopher Packe presented the new Constitution Humble Petition and Advice to Cromwell at a session. The proposal had been prepared by royalist MPs. Cromwell was not unwilling to abandon the Instrument of Government in favor of a parliamentary constitution. The Humble Petition and Advice formally asked Cromwell to assume the crown. It would be a limited monarchy with advisers and state officers. Parliament would be elected for three years, approve taxes and the army would be reduced. Each member of parliament was to swear an oath of allegiance to the Lord Protector. Cromwell had doubts about accepting the kingship and had to spend a few months thinking about what changes he wanted to make to the Petition.

On March 11, 1657, the Other House got underway. The Other House was part of the negotiation of the Humble Petition and Advise. Cromwell had not been happy with the handling of the Naylor case. Quaker James Naylor had impersonated Jesus Christ at his entry into Bristol. Parliament found that blasphemy and sentenced him to corporal punishment. Cromwell wanted to prevent such a verdict by creating a second chamber that controlled the Commons and had veto power. The Other House could unite up to seventy members nominated by the Protector and his State Council. About fifty of Cromwell”s faithful moved from the Commons to the Other House. This was to provide protection for Cromwell”s soulmates from the religious orthodoxy of the Commons. The result, however, was that Cromwell”s position became weaker in the Commons. Resistance from the Commons became even harsher.

Cromwell cut the knot on May 8, 1657: he refused the kingship. On May 25, 1657, Cromwell ratified an amended Humble Petition and Advice. The causule of kingship was taken out. Cromwell retained his title of Lord Protector. The title was not hereditary, but the Protector was allowed to name his successor. On June 26, 1657, Cromwell was installed as Lord Protector for the second time. The reinstallation had the pomp and circumstance of a royal coronation: a coronation chair, a robe of purple velvet lined with ermine, the sword of justice and a scepter. Only the crown and orb were missing.

In the Commons, MPs continued to attack the military regime and the two-chamber system of the new constitution. The atmosphere was hostile. The Second Protectorate Parliament ended on Feb. 4, 1658, with an example of Cromwell”s impetuosity. After a furious speech, he dissolved his last parliament. Cromwell”s moralistic program explained why he failed to reach a stable solution with the MPs. After the dissolution of parliament, there was a rift with military comrades who had fought with him since the beginning of the English Civil War. At the end of his life, he had few allies left. He was left as a broken man. On Sept. 3, 1658, Oliver Cromwell died a natural death, having suffered from health problems for many years.

Third Protectorate Parliament

Oliver Cromwell had declared that his son Richard Cromwell would succeed him. Richard had never served in the New Model Army and had no authority over the generals. The army had doubts about his position because he had no military experience. On Jan. 27, 1659, the Third Protectorate Parliament began. The only achievement of the Third Protectorate Parliament was that it confirmed Richard Cromwell as Lord Protector the same day. In Parliament, the factions faced each other with knives drawn. Some wanted to continue under the current constitution; others wanted to reconvene the Rump Parliament. The parliamentary factions had no respect for the army and wanted to put some of its figures on trial. It became clear that Richard Cromwell had no authority over the army and factions of Parliament. He could not handle the rivalry between army and parliament. The army forced Richard Cromwell to dissolve parliament on April 22, 1659. He succumbed to the army”s threat. On May 24, 1659, Richard Cromwell offered his letter of resignation and withdrew from politics. It was now apparent how narrow the base of the Protectorate had been.

After the end of the Protectorate, the English Commonwealth remained divided between two camps. The Parliamentarians gave supreme authority to Parliament; the New Model Army wanted to govern England from military circles. On May 7, 1659, the Rump Parliament was recalled by the Army. Parliament issued a declaration establishing a commonwealth without king, single person or House of Lords. King and House of Lords had been abolished for some time, but with the addition of “single person,” the parliament indicated that they did not think the Protectorate was worth repeating. The Rump Parliament wanted to continue with the Commonwealth and reduce the army”s input, but the army asserted itself. On Oct. 26, 1659, the New Model Army established a Security Committee that would govern the Commonwealth under the command of Generals Charles Fleetwood and John Lambert. Great political confusion ensued. Ironically, it was the very Army that put an end to the Army-established Commonwealth.

George Monck, general of Scotland, did not like to see anarchy happen, wanted to preserve the stability of the nation and had long had plans to advance on London. Monck declared his intention to uphold the authority of parliament. On Dec. 26, 1659, the Rump Parliament appointed him commander-in-chief of England and Scotland. On Jan. 2, 1660, George Monck crossed the border from Scotland and marched south to London. It was known that he wanted to restore the monarchy. General John Lambert wanted to take on Monck, but all of his army deserted. Other armies of the New Model Army disintegrated and offered no resistance. This was the end of the New Model Army. In February 1660, Monck entered London. Power was in his hands without the slightest fight. On Feb. 21, 1660, Monck readmitted all excluded members of the Long Parliament to parliamentary session. He reconvened the Long Parliament on the condition that it dissolve itself and call new elections. The MPs saw no way out of the chaos other than the return of Charles from the House of Stuart. On March 16, 1660, the Long Parliament dissolved itself.

On April 4, 1660, Charles Stuart proposed the Declaration of Breda. He promised a general pardon for crimes committed during the English Civil War and the English Commonwealth for those who recognized him as a legal king. It would facilitate his return. After the Convention Parliament established itself on April 25, 1660, things moved quickly. Many members with royalist beliefs were elected. On May 1, 1660, the Lords stated that rule should be by king, Lords and Commons. The ambitions of both parliamentarians and military were defeated. The Commonwealth came to an end. On May 8, 1660, the Convention Parliament declared that King Charles II was the legal monarch since the death of his father Charles I. Charles II was asked to return and take charge of the government of the kingdom. He left the Netherlands, landing at Dover on May 25, 1660 and arriving in London on May 29, 1660. On April 23, 1661, he was formally crowned Charles II of England. The Restoration had proceeded without disorder. The repression of the king”s assassins and revolutionaries was carried out with relative moderation.

The Restoration was not an easy return. The monarchy, the House of Lords and the Anglican state church with its episcopal hierarchy were indeed restored. Parliament, however, came out of the battle strengthened. It obliged the king to impose Anglicanism on the nation. It gave the king an annual endowment. It was impossible for the king to demand money from his subjects or to arrest anyone. The ban on all forms of extra-parliamentary rights remained in effect after the Restoration. The old feudal rights of the Crown were abolished. The prerogative courts disappeared forever.

The English Commonwealth quickly revolved around Puritan religious fanatic Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell was convinced that his calling came from God and that he was God”s chosen one. He championed a divine reformation. Cromwell never gave a clear and specific definition as to what he understood this to mean. He stuck to vague references to his goal: an inner reformation, a reformation of manners, a campaign against individual sinfulness … He got no further than a set of religious precepts. Cromwell allowed the diversity of Puritans, Independents, Presbyterians and Baptists. He allowed himself to be drawn by the Fifth Monarchists to an Assembly of Saints; he was not satisfied with the condemnation of the Quaker James Naylor. Cromwell gave much religious freedom to Protestant movements. Toleration was not extended to “Popery and Prelacy. Cromwell cast his wrath on popes, prelates, as well as bishops. There was no place for Anglicans and Catholics in his regime. Consequently, parliamentary hostility to religious freedom was strong. They considered religious freedom a threat to the social and political order. Cromwell had problems with people outside his movement as well as those within his movement. Puritanism was blamed for the spiritual coercion of the Protectorate. Puritanism fell into disrepute.

Cromwell was not a true politician. With the execution of the king, the abolition of the House of Lords and the dismantling of the state church, the traditional state structure had effectively disappeared. He failed to find a sustainable alternative. He failed to lead his military rule in constitutional forms that enjoyed popular consensus. In the process, what was to take its place remained hazy. Politics was a loose framework of state control within which individuals could find God for themselves. Cromwell wanted to work with parliaments to give legitimacy to his rule, but they had to carry out his program. The statement that most exposes his judgment on politics is “forms of government are dross and dung in comparison of Christ.” Cromwell thought forms of government and laws had little relevance. The Commonwealth ended up in the vacuum of personal rule without legitimacy or consensus.


  1. Engelse Gemenebest
  2. Commonwealth of England
  3. Wikisource: Act Declaring and Constituting the People of England to be a Commonwealth and Free-State
  4. Barry Coward: “Oliver Cromwell”, p12
  5. ^ a b Schultz 2010.
  6. ^ Wikisource:An Act declaring England to be a Commonwealth
  7. У. Черчилль. Британия в Новое время, 2006, с. 284.
  8. У. Черчилль. Британия в Новое время, 2006, с. 301.
  9. У. Черчилль. Британия в Новое время, 2006, с. 310-311.
  10. Entre 1642 et 1651, pouvoir disputé avec le Royaume d”Irlande.
  11. (en) « Act Declaring and Constituting the People of England to be a Commonwealth and Free-State », sur le WikiSource anglophone.
  12. (en) Jørgen Sevaldsen et al., Angles on the English-Speaking World, V. 7 : The State of the Union : Scotland, 1707–2007, Museum Tusculanum Press, 2007, 154 p. (ISBN 978-87-635-0702-8, lire en ligne), p. 39.
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