Cromwell pp 91-135 | Cite as

Oliver Cromwell and His Parliaments

  • H. R. Trevor-Roper
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OLIVER CROMWELL and his parliaments—the theme is almost a tragi-comedy. Cromwell was himself a member of Parliament; he was the appointed general of the armies of Parliament; and the Victorians, in the greatest days of parliamentary government, set up his statue outside the rebuilt Houses of Parliament. But what were Cromwell’s relations with Parliament? The Long Parliament, which appointed him, he first purged by force and then violently expelled from authority. His own Parliament, the Parliament of Saints, which to a large extent was nominated by his government, was carried away by hysteria, rent by intrigue and dissolved, after six months, by an undignified act of suicide. Of the parliaments of the Protectorate, elected on a new franchise and within new limits determined by the government, the first was purged by force within a week and dissolved, by a trick hardly distinguishable from fraud, before its legal term; the second was purged by fraud at the beginning and, when that fraud was reversed, became at once unmanageable and was dissolved within a fortnight. On a superficial view, Cromwell was as great an enemy of Parliament as ever Charles I or Archbishop Laud had been, the only difference being that, as an enemy, he was more successful: he scattered all his parliaments and died in his bed, while theirs deprived them of their power and brought them both ultimately to the block.


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  1. 1.
    Valerie Pearl, in her valuable work, London and the Outbreak of the Puritan Revolution (Oxford, 1961), has shown the strength of Royalism in the effective City government until the internal revolution of Dec. 1641: a revolution described byGoogle Scholar
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    Most recent writers—and not only Marxists and Fabians, for the same bias is to be found in the Roman Catholic W. Schenk’s book, The Concern for Social Justice in the Puritan Revolution (1948)—have tended to find the evidence of such an interest in social reform only among the radical sects, who certainly made most noise about it. But I believe that just as much interest, in a more practical, less doctrinaire way, was shown by the conservative Independents. It can be discovered in their projects for law reform and Church matters, in their educational work (on which see especiallyGoogle Scholar
  6. W. A. L. Vincent’s excellent study, The State and School Education, 1640–1660, 1950), in the ordinances of the Protector and Council between Dec. 1653 and Sept. 1654, and in the social policy carried out in the period of administration by major generals.Google Scholar
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    R. N. Kershaw, “The Elections for the Long Parliament,” in English Historical Review, 1923; Clarendon, History of the Rebellion, I, 220. The extent to which the party of opposition in 1640 was an aristocratic party, controlled by certain great boroughmongering lords, has, I think, been insufficiently emphasized by historians, although Clarendon, as a contemporary, takes it for granted. Pym was a client of the Earl of Bedford (“wholly devoted to the earl of Bedford,” Clarendon, op. cit., I, 245); those who afterward became Independents were largely (like the Independent preachers) clients of the Earl of Warwick, to whom Cromwell himself remained a constant ally, even when their roles were reversed (ibid., p. 874). For the Earl of Warwick as head of a political party, seeGoogle Scholar
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    Brown, Baptists and Fifth Monarchy Men, p. 33. It is often stated that the extremists had a “party” of about sixty (e.g., by H. A. Glass, The Barebones Parliament, 1899; Brown, op. cit., p. 33, and The First Earl of Shaftesbury, New York, 1933, p. 55;Google Scholar
  30. Margaret James, “The Tithes Controversy in the Puritan Revolution,” in History, 1941); but I do not think that so definite a statement can properly be made. It rests on the numbers in divisions, as recorded in the Commons’ Journals and on two (slightly different) voting lists for the last crucial debate, one of which is quoted from Thomason E. 669 by Gardiner, History of the Commonwealth, III, 259 (it is also in Thurloe State Papers, III, 132), and the other, without reference, by Glass. But divisions were not always on a straight conservative-radical issue and it is not proper to label members permanently as “Cromwellians” or “radicals” on the basis of one imperfectly recorded division (Glass’s list gives Squibb as a conservative, which is ridiculous, and the lists anyway do not distinguish, among those who did not vote on the conservative side, between radicals, abstainers, and absentees). Further, many of those who voted as radicals in 1653 afterward, when separated from the radical leaders, conscientiously served the Protectorate, having no doubt been—like Cromwell himself—innocent fellow travelers with the extremists. From a critical study of the tellers in divisions, and from other sources, it is certainly possible to identify the leaders on both sides: Sir Anthony Ashley Cooper, Sir Charles Wolseley, Sir Gilbert Pickering, Alderman Tichborne, on the conservative side; Harrison, Samuel Moyer, Arthur Squibb, Colonel Blount, John Ireton, and Thomas St Nicholas on the radical side. No doubt there were others—like the solid bloc of Baptists and Fifth Monarchists—whose position can be as clearly defined. But it is likely that the ordinary back-benchers belonged to no “party,” but voted according to the occasion, and that the success of the radicals consisted in managing floating voters as well as in having control over disciplined voters.Google Scholar
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    Ivan Roots, in his book The Great Rebellion (1966), p. 182, criticizes this part of my essay on the ground that the Instrument of Government, which changed the parliamentary franchise, was the work not of “Independent country gentry” but of “a group of officers.” But this is to ignore the previous history of the reforms. The Instrument of Government merely put into effect changes which had been advocated by Independent members of Parliament, and their constituents, since 1645 (and indeed before), and which had been worked out in detail in the Rump Parliament in 1650–51. The “group of officers” realized what the “Independent country gentry” had long demanded.Google Scholar
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    See B. L. K. Henderson, “The Cromwellian Charters,” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 1912, pp. 129 ff.Google Scholar
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    The Irish basis of the “Kingship party” was pointed out by Firth, “Cromwell and the Crown,” in English Historical Review, 1902, 1903.Google Scholar
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    Burton, Parliamentary Diary, III, 874, 117, 141, and II, 437 (and cf. Ill, 140); Bordeaux to Mazarin, Feb. 18, 1658, cited in F. Guizot, Histoirc de la république d’Angleterre (Paris, 1864), II, 629.Google Scholar
  37. 56.
    For the failure of the “Kingship party” in Cromwell’s last year see the analysis of their tactics in R. C. H. Catterall, “The Failure of the Humble Petition and Advice,” in American Historical Review, Oct. 1903 (IX, 36–65). Catterall concludes that Cromwell was wiser than the “Kingship men” and was working, more slowly, more prudently, and more patiently than they, to the same result: “Time was the essential requisite. . . . Time, however, was not granted.” What one thinks of Cromwell’s plans and prospects of success must depend on one’s estimate of his character as revealed by his previous career, and here I must dissent from Catterall. I cannot agree that patience was “a quality always at Oliver’s disposal and always exercised by him,” nor find, in his career, evidence of a slow and prudent progress toward a clearly envisaged political aim. Rather he seems to me to have successively borrowed and then impatiendy discarded a series of inconsistent secondhand political systems; and I see no reason to suppose that he was any nearer to a final “settlement” at the time of his death than at any previous time in his history of political failure.Google Scholar

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© Ivan Roots 1972

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