IV. OLIVER ABSOLUTE

Cromwell returned in modest triumph to London. Seeing the multitude that had collected to witness his arrival, he remarked that a still greater crowd would have gathered to see him hanged. 22 The Rump Parliament gave him an annual allowance of four thousand pounds, and the once royal palace at Hampton Court. It trusted that he would be content to remain its general. It proposed a new election to raise its membership to four hundred, but the present members were to retain their seats without re-election, and were to determine the conditions of the franchise and the validity of the votes. It protected itself against criticism by rigidly restricting the freedom of pulpit and press: “Nothing by pretence of pulpit liberty shall be suffered in prejudice of the peace and honour of the government.” 23 The clergy of the Anglican Established Church were dispossessed of their livings. Persons who professed the Catholic faith were condemned to forfeit two thirds of their property. Rewards were offered for the apprehension of Catholic priests.24

Cromwell, though slow to make up his mind, was prompt to act when he had reached a decision. He suffered impatiently the long debates that in Parliament confused policy and obstructed administration; he agreed with Charles I that the executive power should be distinct and free from the legislative. He began to wonder might it not be a blessing if Cromwell were king. He hinted the idea (December, 1652) to his friend Whitelocke, who lost his friendship by objecting. 25 On the morning of April 20, 1653, hearing that the Rump was about to make itself the unelected master of the new Parliament, he gathered a handful of soldiers, stationed them at the door of the House, entered it with Major General Thomas Harrison at his side, and for a time listened in dark silence to the discussion. When the question was put to the vote he rose and spoke, at first with moderation, soon with fury. He denounced the Rump as a self-perpetuating oligarchy unfit to govern England. “Drunkards!” he cried, indicating one member. “Whoremaster!” he shouted at another. “You are no Parliament. I say you are no Parliament. I will put an end to your sittings.” Turning to Harrison, he ordered, “Call them in, call them in.” His soldiery marched into the chamber; Cromwell commanded them to clear the room; the members left, protesting, “This is not honest”; the empty hall was locked, and next day a notice was found tacked to the door: “This house to lett, now unfurnished.” 26 Going to the room where the Council of State was in session, Cromwell, accompanied by two generals, told it, “If you are met here as private persons, you shall not be disturbed; but if as a Council of State, this is no place for you. . . . Take notice that the Parliament is dissolved.” 27 So ignominiously ended the Long Parliament, which had sat at Westminster, in full or in Rump, since 1640, and had transformed the constitution and government of England. Now there was no constitution, only an army and an untitled king.

Generally the people were glad to have done with a Parliament that had shaken England to the verge of anarchy. According to Cromwell, there was “not so much as the barking of a dog, or any . . . visible repining at its dissolution.” 28 Ardent Puritans accepted the expulsion as clearing the way for the Fifth Monarchy—i.e., the promised coming and rule of Christ. Royalists took heart, and whispered that Cromwell would now call back Charles II and content himself with a dukedom, or the viceroyalty of Ireland. But Oliver was not the man to sit content under another’s will. He instructed his military aides to choose—chiefly from the Puritan congregations of England—140 men, including five from Scotland and six from Ireland, to meet as a “Nominated Parliament.” When it assembled at Whitehall on July 4, 1653, Cromwell confessed that it had been chosen by the army, but he hailed it as beginning a veritable reign of saints under the presidency of Jesus Christ, 29 and proposed to devolve upon it the supreme authority and the task of devising a new constitution. For five months it struggled with this assignment, but it lost itself in long debates, and divided hopelessly on questions of religion and toleration. London wits called it “Barebone’s Parliament,” from one of its members, Praise-God Barebon, a Fifth Monarchy saint.

The army tired of these men as it had tired of those it had expelled in April. The officers, playing Antony, proposed to Cromwell that he make himself king; Caesar gently demurred, but on December 12 eighty members of the Parliament, at the pointed suggestion of the army, announced to Cromwell that the new assembly could come to no agreement, and was voting its own dissolution. An “Instrument of Government” prepared by army leaders proposed that Cromwell be “Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland”; that another Parliament be elected on a property-qualification franchise, excluding royalists and Catholics; and that the executive power be vested in a Council of eight civilians and seven army officers, chosen for life, and serving as adviser to both the Protector and the Parliament. Cromwell accepted and signed this “first and last written English constitution,” 30 and took oath as lord protector on December 16, 1653. The Commonwealth ended, the Protectorate began—two names for Oliver Cromwell.

Was he a despot? Obviously he relished power, but this is a common taste, and most natural to conscious ability. He had thought of making himself king, and of establishing a new royal line. 31 He seems to have been sincere in offering to surrender his power to the Nominated Parliament, but its incompetence convinced him that his own executive authority was the sole present alternative to chaos; if he stepped down there seemed no one who could command sufficient support to maintain order. The radicals in the army condemned the Protectorate as just another monarchy; they denounced Cromwell as “a dissembling perjured villain,” and threatened him with “a worse fate than had befallen the last tyrant.” 32 Some of these rebels he sent to the Tower, including the Major General Harrison who had led the soldiers in expelling the Rump. Cromwell’s fear for his own safety led him more and more toward absolutism, for he knew that half the nation would have welcomed his assassination. Like other rulers, he felt the need to surround himself with awe-inspiring splendor and dignity; he moved into Whitehall Palace (1654), refurnished it sumptuously, and adopted royal state; 33 but doubtless much of this show was to impress ambassadors and awe the populace.

Privately he was a man without airs, living simply and devotedly with his mother, wife, and children. His mother loved him fearfully, trembling for his life at every musket shot; dying at ninety-three (1654), she said, “My dear son, I leave my heart with thee.”34He himself, in his middle fifties, was aging rapidly; crisis after crisis had shaken his supposedly iron nerves; the campaigns in Ireland and Scotland had added fever to his gout; and every day was passed in trouble and anxiety. Lely painted a remarkable portrait of him in 1650. Everyone knows Cromwell’s admonition to the painter: “Mr. Lely, I desire you would use all your skill to paint my picture truly like me, and not flatter me at all; but remark all these roughnesses, pimples, warts, and everything; otherwise I never will pay a farthing for it.” 35 Lely took his fee in his hands and polished the Protector considerably; nevertheless he caught well the stern strong face, incarnate will—and also a nervous spirit strained to the breaking point.

Cromwell was criticized for the somber simplicity of his usual dress—a plain black coat and suit; but on official occasions he donned a coat embroidered with gold. In public he maintained an unostentatious dignity; privately he indulged in amusements and jesting, even in practical jokes and occasional buffoonery. 36 He loved music, and played the organ well. 37 His religious piety was apparently sincere, 38 but he took the name of the Lord (not in vain) so often in support for his purposes that many accused him of hypocrisy. Probably there was some hypocrisy in his public piety, little in the private piety that all who knew him attested. His letters and speeches are half sermons; and there is no question that he assumed too readily that God was his right hand. His private morals were impeccable, his public morals were no better than those of other rulers; he used deception or force when he thought them necessary to his major purposes. No one has yet reconciled Christianity with government.

He was not technically absolute. Pursuant to the Instrument of Government, a Council of State was formed and a Parliament was elected. Despite all efforts of the Protector and the army to ensure the return of complaisant delegates, the Commons that convened on September 3, 1654, contained some troublesome republicans, even some royalists. A struggle ensued as to whether the Parliament or the Protector should control the army. Parliament proposed to reduce the number and pay of the soldiers; they rebelled, and persuaded Cromwell to dismiss the Parliament (January 22, 1655). Actually the government of England had been a military dictatorship since Pride had purged the Parliament in 1648.

Cromwell was now driven to govern without pretense of any other than martial law. In the summer of 1655 he divided England into twelve military districts, and over each district he stationed a corps of soldiers headed by a major general. To support the expense of this establishment he laid a tax of ten per cent upon all Royalist estates. The people protested, criticism and rebellion spread, voices were heard calling for the restoration of Charles II. Cromwell replied with stricter censorship, wider espionage, arbitrary arrests, and star-chamber proceedings that bypassed juries and habeas corpus. 39 “Sir Harry” Vane was among the former revolutionists who found their way to jail. Revolutions eat their fathers.

Needing more money than he dared raise by further direct taxes, Cromwell summoned another Parliament. When it assembled (September 17, 1656), his Council of State posted army officers at the door of the House, and forbade entry to 103 members duly elected but suspected of republican, royalist, Presbyterian, or Catholic sympathies. The excluded members signed a remonstrance denouncing the exclusion as a flagrant violation of their constituents’ expressed will, and they branded as rank hypocrisy “the practice of the tyrant to use the name of God and religion, and formal fasts and prayer, to color the blackness of the fact.” 40 Of the 352 members who passed the Council’s scrutiny, 175 were army men, or appointees or relatives of Cromwell. The reduced and submissive Parliament presented to the Protector (March 31, 1657) “An Humble Petition and Advice” asking him to take the title of king. Sensing opposition to this in the army, Cromwell refused, but a compromise gave him the right to name his successor as lord protector. In January, 1658, he consented to readmit the excluded members to the House; at the same time he chose nine peers and sixty-one commoners to sit as a Second House. Many army officers refused to support this move. When they entered into an agreement with the republicans in the Commons to limit the powers of the Second House, Cromwell lost his temper, invaded Westminster Palace, and dismissed the Parliament (February 4, 1658). Now in law, as well as in fact, the English republic ended, and monarchy was restored. History had given another illustration to Plato’s sardonic sequence of monarchy, aristocracy, democracy, dictatorship, and monarchy. 41

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