Commonwealth and Protectorate (1649-1660)
At the time that Parliament was preparing to bring the King to trial, it laid the foundations for a republican form of government. It declared that the people are the source of all just power, that the House of Commons represents the people, and that what it passes as law does not need the consent of either King or House of Lords. The kingship and the House of Lords were both abolished as "useless, burdensome, and dangerous," and a "Commonwealth" was established, with a Council of State at its head.
At once the new government found itself threatened from three sources—from the extreme radicals (called "Levelers") in England, who wanted a more democratic form of government; from the Royalists and Catholics in Ireland; and from the Presbyterians and Royalists of Scotland. To Cromwell, who was now at last made "Captain General and Commander in Chief" of the army, fell the task of dealing with each of these dangers. The Levellers were crushed and their leaders punished. Then Cromwell took two fortified towns in Ireland by storm, and pitilessly put the garrisons to death—as a means, he said, "to prevent the effusion of blood for the future."
The danger from Scotland was not so easily overcome. Immediately after Charles I. was put to death, the Scots had proclaimed his son, Charles II., as King of Scotland; and he had promised them (what his father would never grant) that Presbyterian rule should there be supreme. To prevent the Scots from restoring Charles II. in England, Cromwell invaded Scotland; and he soon confronted the Scottish army, near the little town of Dunbar.
"The enemy," wrote Cromwell, "hath blocked up our way at the pass, through which we cannon get without almost a miracle. He lieth so upon the hills that we know not how to come that way without great difficulty; and our lying there daily consumeth our men, who fall sick beyond imagination."
From this difficulty Cromwell was relieved by a false move of the Scots, who came down from the hills to the level ground by the roadside. Before daybreak, on the morning of September 3, 1650, Cromwell and his men attacked their unsuspecting foes, and in less than an hour's time the whole Scottish army was destroyed. In this battle of Dunbar, three thousand were slain on the field, and ten thousand taken prisoners. To Cromwell the result seemed "one of the most signal mercies that God hath done to England and His people."
The Scots, however, were not crushed. While Cromwell was busy securing Edinburgh, and other strong places, Charles II. and a new army made a sudden dash into England. At once terror seized upon many of the ruling spirits of England, for they dreaded a general uprising in favor of the young King. But, before any serious mischief could befall, Cromwell overtook the Scottish forces at Worcester; and there, just one year after the battle of Dunbar, he won a second great victory. His letter to the speaker of the Parliament, written at ten o'clock of the night of the battle, tells the story:
"NEAR WORCESTER, 3d September, 1651.
"Sir:— Being so weary and scarce able to write, yet I thought it my duty to let you know thus much. That upon this day, being the 3d of September (remarkable for a mercy granted to our forces on this day twelve-month in Scotland), we built a bridge of boats over the river Severn, about half a mile from Worcester. We passed over some horse and foot, and beat the enemy from hedge to hedge until we beat them into Worcester. The enemy then drew all his forces on the other side of the town, and made a considerable fight with us for three hours' space. But in the end we beat them totally, and pursued him to the fort, which we took—and indeed have beaten his whole army.
"This hath been a very glorious mercy, and as stiff a contest, for four or five hours, as ever I have seen. Both your old forces, and those newly raised, have behaved with very great courage; and He that made them come out, made them willing to fight for you. The Lord God Almighty frame our hearts to real thankfulness for this, which is alone His doing. I hope I shall within a day or two give you a more perfect account. In the meantime I hope you will pardon, sir,
Your most humble servant,
The escape of Charles II. from the field of Worcester makes one of the most thrilling stories of history. He slipped away in the darkness, with a few companions, and next morning set out alone, in disguise and with short-cut hair, to try to reach a place of safety. For four days and three nights he traveled on foot, "every step up to his knees in dirt, with nothing but a green coat and a pair of country breeches on, and a pair of country shoes that made him so sore all over his feet that he could scarce stir." He found his most loyal guides and protectors among persecuted Catholics, both high and low. At one time he lay hid all day among the branches of a bushy oak, standing in an open plain, while soldiers searched the country around for fugitives. A brave lady undertook to bring him to the seaport of Bristol, with Charles riding in the saddle as her servant, and the lady mounted behind on a "pillion," according to the fashion of that day. But no ship was to be found at Bristol, and they were forced to go elsewhere. Adventure then followed adventure, while Charles made his way along the southern coast of England, from the Bay of Bristol to the Straits of Dover. At the end of six weeks, he obtained a vessel at Brighton, which took him safely across to France. During the course of his wanderings his secret became known to over forty-five persons; but not one of them, for either fear or hope of reward, played him false.
The battle of Worcester crushed the last opposition to the Commonwealth, and its rule was extended over Scotland and Ireland as well as England. But Cromwell's work was not yet done. In a famous poem, his friend John Milton reminded him that—
The remnant of the Long Parliament, which people in scorn called the "Rump," were unwilling to surrender their power. They insisted that, in the new Parliament which was to take the place of the old, they should not only have seats but should have a veto over the election of new members. Cromwell and his friends opposed this claim, and at last in April, 1653, he forcibly dissolved the "Rump."
"Come, come," Cromwell called out from his place in Parliament. "I will put an end to your prating. You are no Parliament. Some of you are drunkards, and some of you are worse. How can you be a Parliament for God's people? Depart, I say, and let us have done with you!" And stamping with his foot, he called in a company of soldiers, which he had stationed outside, and cleared the hall.
Then Cromwell tried the experiment of ruling by an assembly of "persons fearing God, and of approved fidelity and honesty," who were appointed by the army council, instead of being elected by the people. The wits of that day called it "Barebone's Parliament," from the name of one of its members, Praise-God Barebone. This body began vigorously to reform the abuses which, as Cromwell had said, "made many poor to make a few rich." But the task proved too great for them, and they soon resigned their powers into Cromwell's hands.
Next, a written constitution, called the "Instrument of Government," was prepared by the army leaders, under which Cromwell became "Protector," and governed with the aid of a Council of State and a Parliament. But troubles at once arose between the Protector and his Parliament, and Cromwell was obliged to fall back again upon the army, and to rule by military force.
Worn out at last by much hard fighting and harder governing, and saddened by the loss of those most dear to him, Oliver Cromwell died on September 3, 1658—the anniversary of his great victories at Dunbar and Worcester. He was a great and good man, and many of his ideas for the reform of government and society were in advance of his time. But his attempt at governing by military force, unsupported by a majority of the nation, failed—as it must always fail. He was sincerely and deeply religious. As a poet of his party wrote:
He was succeeded as Protector by his son, Richard Cromwell. Richard, however, had neither the force of character nor the hold on the army that his father had. He permitted the army leaders to restore the "Rump" Parliament, and then that body speedily forced Richard to give up the Protectorate, and retire to private life.
Then the "Rump," which had learned nothing by its former expulsion, quarreled with the army. It was again expelled, and then once more, after a few weeks, restored.
By this time England was heartily tired of Protectors, army, and "Rump" alike, and was ready to welcome Charles II. as the representative of the old line of Kings.
The restoration was accomplished mainly by General Monk, a strong, silent man, who had been stationed in Scotland, and had taken no part in the recent squabbles. Now he marched his troops to London, and forced the "Rump" to admit the members excluded by Colonel Pride in 1648. This reconstituted Long Parliament then ordered a new election; and the new Parliament invited Charles II. to return from France and take the English throne.
The Puritan Revolution was thus at an end. The republic which it had attempted to set up had failed. But its work was not all in vain. The absolute rule which James I. had claimed, and Charles I. had used, thenceforth became more difficult. In the end, the example of Cromwell and his followers made tyrannical government in England impossible.