Establishment of the English Commonwealth Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The establishment of the Commonwealth in England ushered in the first modern republic to be founded upon the trial and execution of a king, anticipating the French Revolution of 1789.

Summary of Event

Historian have located the crest of the English Civil Wars English Civil Wars (1642-1651) at various dates—in 1645, after Parliament’s army decisively defeated the Royalists; in the Second Civil War of 1647-1649, when the Royalists backed by the Scots attempted to rescue the imprisoned king and were crushed by Parliament’s army; at the initial founding of the Commonwealth in 1649 or at its dissolution by Oliver Cromwell Cromwell, Oliver;dissolution of the Commonwealth four years later; and even in 1658, when Cromwell’s death unleashed a new surge of republican radicalism that led to ultimate reaction and the 1660 restoration of the Stuart monarchy. Most historians, however, place the Civil Wars as a shorter period within the English Interregnum Interregnum, English (1642-1660) . That term refers to the years between 1642, when Charles I Charles I (king of England)[Charles 01 (king of England)];flight from London fled from his throne in London, and 1660, when his son returned. Even during those years, Cromwell’s reign as lord protector resembled a monarchy. If a republic is defined as government by the people without a king, then England’s only genuine republic was the Commonwealth of 1649-1653. [kw]Establishment of the English Commonwealth (Dec. 6, 1648-May 19, 1649) [kw]Commonwealth, Establishment of the English (Dec. 6, 1648-May 19, 1649) [kw]English Commonwealth, Establishment of the (Dec. 6, 1648-May 19, 1649) Government and politics;Dec. 6, 1648-May 19, 1649: Establishment of the English Commonwealth [1630] Social issues and reform;Dec. 6, 1648-May 19, 1649: Establishment of the English Commonwealth [1630] England;Dec. 6, 1648-May 19, 1649: Establishment of the English Commonwealth [1630] Commonwealth (1649-1660) Cromwell, Oliver Pride, Thomas Ireton, Henry Charles I

The Commonwealth was established with a dramatic event, the trial and execution of King Charles I Charles I (king of England)[Charles 01 (king of England)];beheading of in January, 1649. As the poet Andrew Marvell Marvell, Andrew later wrote, “This was that memorable hour/ Which first assur’d the forced Pow’r.” He meant the power of the people, who, guided by Cromwell and the other regicides, dared for the first time in history to call their king to account for the bloodshed of the Civil Wars. The new democracy had to be a “forced” power because it made a revolutionary break with England’s constitutional monarchy. Monarchy, constitutional Kings had been dethroned and killed before but had always been replaced by a new king. In 1649, the people—represented by what was left of Parliament and acting through the army—did away with the institution of kingship itself. Americans can easily understand this because their republic, too, had its birth in the repudiation of monarchy. Marvell’s poem reminds people, however, that the act of regicide is not just symbolic. Regicide is politically necessary to “assure” the transfer of power from king to people.

Most of the members of the Long Parliament Long Parliament (1640-1648) —so called because it was elected in 1641 and legally continued to sit until there was a king to dissolve it officially in 1660—shrank from this transfer of power. When Parliament had originally rebelled against the king and launched the Civil Wars, the reformers did not dream of abolishing monarchical government. Rather, Parliament merely wanted a greater share in the traditional monarchy, specifically, the power to control the army, to choose the king’s ministers, or cabinet, and to override his veto. Above all, Parliament wanted to be recognized as the supreme court of the land, the final interpreter of England’s laws and constitution. It was really the king’s rival claim to appoint judges and interpret laws that put him at odds with Parliament and that led to civil war.

Once they had defeated the Royalist army and captured the king, Parliament was divided sharply for two years (1647-1648) over what to do next. The majority of its members were relatively conservative and willing to accept a Presbyterian church in place of the episcopalian system of bishops who, under the king, had ruled the Church of England ever since Henry VIII. The Parliamentary Presbyterians, in other words, expected the king to continue as the head of church and state but with curtailed powers to appoint the chief officers—the bishops and the ministers—in both institutions.

Vehemently opposed to these Presbyterians were the Parliamentary Independents, who considered the Presbyterian clergy worse even than bishops and who believed that the king and his ministers could not be relied on to govern justly. The cause of the Independents was strengthened by the imprisoned king’s treacherous dealings with the Scots, which brought on the Second Civil War and the bloody summer of 1648. When Parliament returned to Westminster that autumn, it immediately fell into a heated debate over whether it should continue to negotiate with the king. The Presbyterians insisted that whatever his faults, the king’s office, like that of Parliament itself, was constitutionally established. Independents retorted by calling the king “Charles Stuart, that man of blood”—their point being that the king was answerable for his crimes just like any other citizen.

The Great Seal of England adopted by the Commonwealth government.

(R. S. Peale and J. A. Hill)

After listening to Parliament debate for two months, members of the army decided to act on their own. Apparently, their decision was made not by Cromwell, who was out of the country, but by his son-in-law, Henry Ireton Ireton, Henry . On December 6, Colonel Thomas Pride Pride, Thomas engaged in an action later known as Pride’s Purge Pride’s Purge (1648)[Prides Purge (1648)] . Pride and his troops took up a station at the door of the House of Commons and read a list of Presbyterians to be excluded from Parliament. Those who had voted to continue negotiations with the king—perhaps two-thirds of the Parliament’s elected members—were effectively retired from public life for the next twelve years. Some of the more vociferous members were even imprisoned.

The remaining third of Parliament continued to sit in what was later known as the Rump Parliament Rump Parliament . This Parliament included Cromwell among its leaders, and with the army at its back, it quickly proceeded to appoint judges to try the king. Charles I’s trial and sentencing took place the week of January 20-27, and he was beheaded on January 30, 1649.

The Commonwealth of England was proclaimed during the next couple of weeks by a series of pronouncements in the House of Commons. Two days after Charles’s execution, the Commons resolved to ban from government anyone who had been in favor of negotiating with the late king. On February 6, the Commons voted to abolish the House of Lords. On February 13, the executive functions of the dissolved monarchy were vested for a year in a Council of State with forty councillors, thirty-one of them members of Parliament. Not until May 19, however, was an act passed declaring England to be “a Commonwealth or Free State.”

During the next two years, the army, headed by Cromwell but taking their orders from Parliament and its Council, went on to establish the new government’s authority by a string of victories, first in Ireland and Scotland (1649-1650), and finally by defeating the king’s son at Worcester in 1651.

Significance

Despite its political and military success, the new government rested on too narrow a basis for it to endure for long. The Commonwealth was a bold innovation that the English proved unwilling to support. Although it claimed to represent the people, the Rump was a mere oligarchy and was promptly rejected by the Levellers Levellers , who wanted a genuine government by the people. At the other extreme, England’s powerful landed interests, who had been represented by the Presbyterian members now excluded from Parliament, soon grew weary of a military government, and Cromwell no doubt hoped to appeal to them when he turned out the Rump in April, 1653, and set himself up as lord protector at the end of the same year. His Protectorate, therefore, was a counterrevolutionary government: It stopped radical reform in its tracks. Not until 1688 and the Glorious Revolution did a king come to the throne of England prepared to acknowledge many of the democratic principles first asserted by the Commonwealth. In the wake of the accession of William III and Mary II, the Declaration of Rights and the Toleration Act instituted several of these principles.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coward, Barry. The Stuart Age: A History of England, 1603-1714. New York: Longman, 1980. The best single-volume survey of the four generations of the Stuart dynasty.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hill, Christopher. God’s Englishman: Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution. London: Penguin, 1970. Biography written by a prolific scholar of seventeenth century British history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hirst, Derek. Authority and Conflict: England, 1603-1658. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986. The best survey of the Civil Wars and Commonwealth.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kennedy, D. E. The English Revolution, 1642-1649. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. The final chapter focuses on the revolutionary events that occurred from January through March, 1649.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Underdown, David. Pride’s Purge: Politics in the Puritan Revolution. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1971. Underdown presents a brilliant reconstruction of the events of 1648-1649.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wedgwood, C. V. The Trial of Charles I. London: Collins, 1964. Vivid narrative account of January, 1649, with the king’s trial and beheading.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Woolrych, Austin. Britain in Revolution, 1625-1660. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Part 4 focuses on the British Commonwealth from 1649 through 1653.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Worden, Blair. The Rump Parliament, 1648-1653. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1974. The best study of Parliament during the Commonwealth period, providing an original explanation of why Cromwell suddenly ended it in April, 1653.

Beginning of England’s Long Parliament

English Civil Wars

Solemn League and Covenant

Battle of Marston Moor

Cromwell Rules England as Lord Protector

Restoration of Charles II

Reign of William and Mary

The Glorious Revolution

Declaration of Rights

Toleration Act

Related articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i>

Charles I; Charles II (of England); Oliver Cromwell; Andrew Marvell; Mary II; Thomas Pride; William III. Commonwealth (1649-1660)

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