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England's Inept Government: 'The Rump Parliament', 1649-1653

Updated on August 28, 2020
Jacqueline Stamp profile image

Jacqueline continues to study and explore the Literature and Socio-Political History of England circa1600-1900, and contemporary criticism.


The renowned historian Mark Kishlansky states that, '[f]or most political radicals the execution [of Charles I] was an epiphany; because they had never expected it to come to pass, they had never looked beyond it.' (Kishlansky 194)

Thus he suggests what I shall seek to also demonstrate; that the English parliament was ill prepared to instigate republican government in 1649, and was under pressure to improvise: as Sir Arthur Haselrige argued a decade later, in 1659, ‘force was upon us. What should we do? We turned ourselves into the Commonwealth’ (Kelsey 224).

Haselrige had returned to parliament in early February 1649 to join those ‘relicts [sic] of the Old Form’ (Kelsey 8), whose parliamentary careers had survived Pride’s Purge on 6 December 1648. Many other members also returned to parliament during the early months of 1649, ‘exercis[ing] a decisive and moderating influence on government policies’ (Worden 65) and thus contributing to the ultimate failure of its revolutionary objectives.

Known historically by its derogatory nickname, the Rump Parliament, this government came to ‘represent a nation which neither was nor wished to be represented by it’ (Worden 176). The Rump, therefore, depended on the support of the army in its attempts to create stable republican government for the new Commonwealth. In March 1649 the Rump abolished the Monarchy and the House of Lords, and in May 1649 the Bill declaring England a Commonwealth became law (Kishlansky 194). Unfortunately for its more radical members, and for the army, this was the extent of the Rump’s revolutionary reforms, for

'[t]he inauguration of the Commonwealth proved to be the end, not the beginning, of the Long Parliament’s revolutionary measures, and the regime left in its wake a trail of disillusionment and resentment among the advocates of social and religious reform' (Worden 40).

Previously united in their opposition to a king perceived as too pro-Catholic, the Rump soon found itself divided by differing degrees of Protestantism. The king’s execution caused some, dubbed Fifth Monarchists, to look forward with ‘intense millenarianism’ (Kishlansky 190) to the new kingdom of Christ on earth. Independents wanted religious toleration for all Protestant dissenters, such as Quakers and Ranters, but the majority favoured Presbyterianism and ‘[i]n late 1649 the Purged Parliament tried to establish presbyterianism as the national religion’ (Hutton 19). It was prevented from doing so by a ‘hostile petition from the army’ (Hutton 19) and thus the divisions persisted despite the efforts of Cromwell’s chaplain, John Owen, who regularly preached to them ‘pleading for reconciliation between presbyterians and independents’ (Worden 137). Likewise in politics the Rump suffered from an ‘absence … of any common or continuing revolutionary purpose’ (Worden 42). Its many factions ‘were flexible … ephemeral, and rarely mutually exclusive’ (Worden 27), based primarily on local loyalties cemented by ‘kinship, friendship, patronage, regional association or common interest’ (Worden 27) rather than national reform issues. This lack of consensus on any political or religious issue was a fatal flaw of the Republican Government of 1649 to 1653. The annually-elected forty members of the Council of State used administrative skills acquired during the 1640s to ‘direct national affairs competently enough’ (Barnard 11), but their failure to engage parliament in further revolutionary reform caused anger and disappointment among groups such as the Levellers and the Diggers and contributed to a growing gulf between the Rump and the army.

The Levellers enjoyed significant support within the army for their ‘programme for social justice … poor-relief, redistribution of wealth, legal reform and political empowerment’ (Kishlansky 194), yet their civilian leaders, John Lilburne, William Walwyn and Richard Overton, were soon disillusioned with the republican government Henry Ireton[1] had persuaded them to help install (Coward 71 and Kishlansky 194-195). Lilburne’s two-part publication of his derisory England’s New Chains Discovered in February and March 1649 (Coward 71) resulted in his arrest for treason and the withdrawal of support for the Levellers by the ‘powerful London Baptist congregations’ (Kishlansky 195). Thus the most revolutionary force upon the Rump was crushed before the Commonwealth was even established in law as Rumpers bowed to the inexorable ‘pressures towards moderation’ (Worden 169) which were to be their eventual downfall.

There was still support for Leveller policies within the army, which from 1649 to 1651, was engaged in suppressing opposition to the Commonwealth in Ireland and Scotland, where Charles II had been proclaimed king on the execution of his father. In Ireland, in September and October 1649, troops led by Oliver Cromwell gained legendary victories at Drogheda and Wexford, seeing themselves as avenging angels for the atrocities they believed had been perpetrated against Irish Protestants in 1641 as much as defenders of the Commonwealth against Royalist insurrection.

Cromwell was thus the natural successor to Sir Thomas Fairfax, who resigned as Commander-in-Chief of the army in the Summer of 1650 unable to ‘bring himself to invade the last monarchical state of the British Isles’ (Hutton 23). Cromwell, aided by Colonel George Monck[2], therefore led the invasion of Scotland, defeating Royalist troops at Dunbar on 3September 1650. This victory was finalised exactly one year later as the remnants of the Royalist troops moved south and fought at Worcester, whence Charles II fled into exile. Had Cromwell not engaged in these battles he may have succumbed to the ‘Rump’s drift towards conservatism and abandoned hopes of reformation’ (Coward 72). Instead he was reinvigorated with revolutionary zeal by the ‘radical demands of God and the army’ (Coward 72) and returned to parliament in 1651 ‘more than ever aware of the kind of godly society he wanted to achieve in England (Coward 76). His expectations of a similar commitment from his fellow Rumpers were disappointed. Fiscal policies, inconclusive debates on electoral reform, and protecting English trade with measures such as the 1651 Navigation Act, had taken precedence over revolutionary issues in the Rump. The majority of its members were committed mainly to ‘the preservation of the ordered world they knew’ (Worden 64) and its consequent conservatism rendered the limited achievements of its more radical members ‘primarily negative’ (Worden 170).

The army felt that the Rump had betrayed the puritan revolution for which they had been fighting and they demanded that elections be called to elect a new, more radical, and more godly, parliament. Disputes with individual army officers, such as the Monck case in 1649 (Kishlansky 178), also had a detrimental effect on the relationship between parliament and the army and ‘distrust was mutual and well-founded’ (Kishlansky 204). The Rump’s deliberations over electoral reform were seen by the army as procrastination, but M.P.s were concerned that, because ‘a large number of the potential electorate who had never been royalists were opposed to the Commonwealth and all that it stood for’ (Hutton 21), elections would run contrary to army expectations and return a parliament whose ‘complexion … would be that of the existing one before it was purged’ (Hutton 21). In short, even the conservative Rump Parliament was too radical for the tastes of potential voters. The army and parliament were at an impasse; the former demanding elections which the latter feared would backfire on both of them and return the country to civil war.

Thus the Rump finally lost the support of the army. As it continued to debate electoral reform on 20 April 1653, having promised to vote on the issue that day, its continued discussions became too much for Cromwell. The Rumpers were too smug and settled in their ways for his liking; many of them had taken their seats regularly since 1640 and were therefore very experienced, professional politicians. Cromwell’s military intervention echoed Charles I’s attempt to arrest the ‘Five Members’ in January 1641 and was an ominous portent of the regime to come. Having ‘reluctantly … sacrificed the parliamentary cause for the godly cause’ (Coward 68) in 1648, Cromwell was ‘endlessly patient in building political unity, [yet] … sudden and terrible in its destruction’ (Worden 69). He surpassed the worst of Charles I’s exploits as he wilfully destroyed the parliament he had fought so hard for in the 1640s. His expectations of it had changed as his belief in his personal godly mission had increased, due partly to

'a barrage of petitions and letters … remind[ing] him ,,, of the reforming aspirations he had voiced after Dunbar and Worcester, …[and] that he had a contract with God to put these into effect' (Coward 85).

In the eyes of Cromwell’s supporters both in the army and outside it, the will of God was behind his military victories and was instructing him to build a puritan republic. The Rump was an obstacle in his way. Thus, Sean Kelsey argues that

'the downfall of the republic lies less in its failure by standards hypocritically high than in the success of the Rump’s restoration and preservation of civilian governance. The Rump had not done too little - it had gone too far' (Kelsey 13).

Cromwell, he suggests, saw the army’s share of power slipping away into civilian hands and acted on 20 April 1653 to retrieve it.

The republican government of 1649 to 1653 was a failure only in as much as it failed to deliver the religious and social reforms expected by its most ardent supporters. As a government it ruled the country effectively. As a Republican Government it failed to proceed any further than creating a king-less state, or Commonwealth, at which point it retreated into customary conservatism. This was almost entirely due to its early passion for re-recruiting excluded, more moderate,members for thereby ‘in its beginning was its end’[3].

Works Cited

Toby Barnard, The English Republic 1649-1660 (Harlow: Longman Group Ltd., 1982)

Barry Coward, Oliver Cromwell, (Harlow: Longman Group UK Ltd, 1999)

Juliet Gardiner and Neil Wenborn (Eds), The History Today Companion to British History (London: Collins and Brown, 1995)

Ronald Hutton, The British Republic 1649-1660 (Basingstoke and London:

The MacMillan Press Ltd., 1990)

Sean Kelsey, Inventing a Republic; The Political Culture of the English Commonwealth 1649-1653 (Manchester: Manchester U.P., 1997)

Mark Kishlansky, A Monarchy Transformed; Britain 1603-1714 (London: Penguin Books, 1997)

Elizabeth Knowles (Ed), The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations fifth edition (Oxford and New York: Oxford U.P., 2001)

Blair Worden, The Rump Parliament (Cambridge, New York, London and Melbourne: Cambridge U.P., 1977)

[1] Senior Civil War military leader, son-in-law of Oliver Cromwell, with whom he fought in Ireland. Lord Protector of Ireland from 1650 to his death from overwork in 1651 (Gardiner 422)

[2] 1st Duke of Albemarle, Royalist until 1644. Fought for Parliament from 1647. Died 1670 (Gardiner 520)

[3] Paraphrasing T.S.Eliot “in my beginning is my end”, Four Quartets, East Coker, 1940, and also Mary Queen of Scots’ “in my end is my beginning” (Knowles 294 and 500)

© 2015 Jacqueline Stamp


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