Brexit moment 1688

All the efforts, the progress, the confidence built up and settled over many years was in sudden danger.  The establishment was reasserting an ugly face and turning for its model towards European despotism. On a small push of the balance one way or the other the fate and freedoms of the nation would turn. The year was 1688.

King Charles II, from his restoration in 1660, with great skill healed the wounds that were yet open from the Civil War and the Cromwellian dictatorship, not by favouring a side but encouraging both, such that both sides thought they were in the winning place. The Puritans were so strong still that it was assumed that the Church of England would be refashioned as a Presbyterian church as under the Protector, but that was defeated by public opinion.

The King kept the peace until his strength began to fade and it was revealed that his heir, his brother James, had embraced the Popish religion and all the despotic tendencies that implied. For three years from 1679, the Exclusion Crisis raged, in which Parliament sought to exclude James or any Papist from the succession, and King Charles responded by dissolving Parliament, only to find new parliaments elected which were even more vehement against James. The crisis ended only after the exposure of the Rye House plot and the collapse of the opposition.

Then in 1685 the King, the peacemaker, died, and all the issues of the Civil War were open again, twenty-three years after the muskets had ceased.

James II was not a popular king and he was at once at odds with Parliament both in England and Scotland. His one advantage was that the Civil War was too raw a memory for anyone to want another. He also saw time on his side:  he was a modernist, and the most modern of states in Europe were those operating what they called ‘enlightened despotism’. First amongst these was France, under Louis XIV, James’s cousin. Louis also operated a revivified, militant Roman Catholicism, which again was portrayed as the modern way and had been advancing in Europe. Had James known our modern idioms, he might have said that his opponents were “on the wrong side of history”, and he just had to wait for the older generation to pass away.

This was not 1642 though: under James I and Charles I Parliament had met infrequently and the coming men were used to rule by the King alone, but under Charles II Parliament had been a permanent feature.  When James II interfered with elections to Parliament and then dissolved it to assume personal rule, he crossed the Rubicon. Then in 1688, James dismissed justices of the peace throughout England and issued new commissions packing the benches with his supporters, and in this way alienated those who expected as of right to hold rule locally. In Scotland too James predated upon the ruling class – Parliament was dismissed, leading men were prosecuted under ancient, forgotten statutes and new royal decrees introduced, clan chiefs were deprived of authority, and noblemen even had their sons sent abroad to be educated in France.

Unless something happened, the freedoms of England and of Scotland would be lost. The nation would become a European state, remodelled according to a European standard. It might even become a dependency of Louis XIV.

In the autumn the displaced establishment struck. William III of Orange, already a Protestant hero and enemy to Louis XIV, was invited to sail for England. His fleet swept down the Channel, allowed to pass unmolested by the King’s Navy. He landed at Brixham in Devon on 5 November 1688 and by Christmas he was on the throne beside his wife, James’s daughter Mary. James had fled.

Nothing was yet safe though, with a new, unknown quantity on the throne and those who would not forswear the old king still in influence.  A new settlement was made, in the Bill of Rights and the Claim of Right, and what we would now call a new “narrative” of history: the king had abdicated voluntarily and as a Papist was now incapable of holding the Crown. This created “the Whig interpretation” of history, which dominated constitutional theory.

This was an almost bloodless change, known as “the Glorious Revolution”, without upsetting the Old Constitution but reasserting it with new, stated provisions, which are still the basis of our constitution.

There were then rebellions, in the Highlands and most dangerously in Ireland, and Louis XIV attempted an invasion which would have landed his cousin James back in England. The settlement was in danger, but with the French driven back both in the Channel and in Ireland, the settlement restored peace. The necessary change had been made and the moment of danger had passed, and seemed settled at last.


Cromwell despairs of Parliament again

This Parliament, which had seen how Cromwell had handled the two former, the long one and the short one, had surely learned the wit to behave themselves better to him than those had done?

Thomas Hobbes: Behemoth

What can we expect from Parliament, now that the House of Commons has returned, more turbulent than ever? After Parliament won the Civil War, it found itself dethroned by its own creature, Cromwell. Champions of Parliament today should take care. In previous posts I gave Hobbes’s own account of the events of 1553:

Cromwell had dismissed two parliaments in a year, and next called a more supine parliament, forced by oath to obey him. Now Hobbes continues his Socratic dialogue to describe the events he witnessed:

A.  The following year, 1654, had nothing of war, but was spent in civil ordinances, in appointing of judges, preventing of plots (for usurpers are jealous), and in executing the King’s friends and selling their lands. The 3rd of September, according to the instrument, the Parliament met; in which there was no House of Lords, and the House of Commons was made, as formerly, of knights and burgesses; but not as formerly, of two burgesses for a borough and two knights for a county; for boroughs for the most part had but one burgess, and – some counties six or seven knights. Besides, there were twenty members for Scotland, and as many for Ireland. So that now Cromwell had nothing else to do but to show his art of government upon six coach-horses newly presented to him, which, being as rebellious as himself, threw him out of the coachbox and almost killed him.

B.  This Parliament, which had seen how Cromwell had handled the two former, the long one and the short one, had surely learned the wit to behave themselves better to him than those had done?

A. Yes, especially now that Cromwell in his speech at their first meeting had expressly forbidden them to meddle either with the government by a single person and Parliament, or with the militia, or with perpetuating of Parliaments, or taking away liberty of conscience; and told them also that every member of the House, before they sat, must take a recognition of his power in divers points. Whereupon, of above 400 there appeared not above 200 at first; though afterwards some relenting, there sat about 300.

Again, just at their sitting down he published some ordinances of his own, bearing date before their meeting ; that they might see he took his own acts to be as valid as theirs. But all this could not make them know themselves. They proceeded to debate of every article of the recognition.

B. They should have debated that before they had taken it.

A. But then they had never been suffered to sit Cromwell being informed of their stubborn proceedings, and out of hope of any supply from them, dissolved them.

All that passed besides in this year, was the exercise of the High Court of Justice upon some royalists for plots.


Turbulent parliamentarians; the Cromwell approach

His way was to get the supreme power conferred upon him by Parliament. Therefore he called a Parliament, and gave it the supreme power, to the end that they should give it to him again. Was not this witty?

Thomas Hobbes: Behemoth

In a previous article, Cromwell and the parliaments, I quoted Thomas Hobbes on the end of the Long Parliament and what followed. Hobbes was an eye-witness: he had followed other royalists into exile, but had returned to live in London and was there when Oliver Cromwell drove the parliamentarians out at sword-point. He watched as Cromwell assembled a new, appointed assembly of ‘reliable men’, which promptly named itself a parliament.

However, many of the men whom Cromwell appointed, once they had nominal power, decided they could use it. Cromwell was not amused, and neither was the nation. Hobbes takes up the story again, in his Socratic dialogue, of how Oliver Cromwell found his pocket-parliament:

Harrison, who was the head of the Fifth-monarchy-men, laying down his commission, did nothing but animate his party – against him, for which afterwards he was imprisoned.

This little Parliament in the meantime were making of acts so ridiculous and displeasing to the people, that it was thought he chose them on purpose to bring all ruling Parliaments into contempt, and monarchy again into credit.

 B. What acts were these?

 A. One of them was, that all marriages should be made by a justice of peace, and the banns asked three several days in the next market: none were forbidden to be married by a minister, but without a justice of peace the marriage was to be void: so that divers wary couples, to be sure of one another, howsoever they might repent it afterwards, were married both ways. Also they abrogated the engagement, whereby no man was admitted to sue in any court of law that had not taken it, that is, that had not acknowledged the late Rump.

B. Neither of these did any hurt to Cromwell.

A. They were also in hand with an act to cancel all the present laws and law-books, and to make a new code more suitable to the humour of the Fifthmonarchy- men; of whom there were many in this Parliament. Their tenet being, that there ought none to be sovereign but King Jesus, nor any to govern under him but the saints. But their authority ended before this act passed.

B. What is this to Cromwell?

A. Nothing yet. But they were likewise upon an act, now almost ready for the question, that Parliaments henceforward, one upon the end of another, should be perpetual.

B. I understand not this; unless Parliaments can beget one another like animals, or like the phoenix.

A. Why not like the phoenix? Cannot a Parliament at the day of their expiration send out writs for a new one?

B. Do you think they would not rather summon themselves anew; and to save the labour of coming again to Westminster, sit still where they were?

Or if they summon the country to make new elections, and then dissolve themselves, by what authority shall the people meet in their county courts, there being no supreme authority standing?

A. All they did was absurd, though they knew not that; no nor this, whose design was upon the sovereignty, the contriver of this act, it seems, perceived not; but Cromwell’s party in the House saw it well enough. And therefore, as soon as it was laid, there stood up one of the members and made a motion, that since the commonwealth was like to receive little benefit by their sitting, they should dissolve themselves. Harrison and they of his sect were troubled hereat, and made speeches against it; but Cromwell’s party, of whom the speaker was one, left the House, and with the mace before them went to Whitehall, and surrendered their power to Cromwell that had given it to them.

And so he got the sovereignty by an act of Parliament; and within four days after, December the 16th, was installed Protector of the three nations, and took his oath to observe certain rules of governing, engrossed in parchment and read before him. The writing was called the instrument.

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Cromwell and the parliaments

The year 1642 is seared on the consciousness as Parliament squares of against the government, bur 1653 should be too.  Certain comfortable radicals are glad to take Cromwell as an inspiration, as one who stood up for the rights of Parliament.  In truth, he only used them.  He spilled blood in the name of the liberty of Parliament, and drank deep the usurped authority which the Commons gave him.  When the war ended and the king was slain, Cromwell had the power of the disciplined army and the House of Commons was no more than a fractious crowd. Cromwell would suffer no rival.

Cromwell was the result of an overmighty Parliament, but he was no champion of Parliament. He fought to impose his way of thinking, and it was his power which mattered, not the principle which was the nominal reason for the war.

Cromwell dismisses the Long Parliament

In 1653 he held all power and Parliament was at his mercy.  Then he made his move. His speech as he cast the Rump out of the Parliament-house is well known (not least because it was quoted on this blog this week).

Thomas Hobbes was an eye witness to events and he describes that year in his work Behemoth: The History and Causes of the Civil Wars of England, in the form of a Socratic dialogue:

B. Come we then to the year 1653.

A. Cromwell wanted now but one step to the end of his ambition, and that was to set his foot upon the neck of this Long Parliament; which he did April the 23rd of this present year 1653, a time very seasonable. For though the Dutch were not mastered yet, they were much weakened; and what with prizes from the enemy and squeezing the royal party, the treasury was pretty full, and the tax of 120,0001. a month began to come in; all which was his own in right of the army. Therefore, without more ado, attended by the Major-Generals Lambert and Harrison; and some other officers, and as many soldiers as he thought fit, he went to the Parliament House, and dissolved them, turning them out, and locked up the doors. And for this action he was more applauded by the people than for any of his victories in the war, and the Parliament men as much scorned and derided.

 B. Now that there was no parlirment, who had the supreme power?

 A. If by power you mean the right to govern, nobody had it. If you mean the supreme strength, it was clearly in Cromwell, who was obeyed as – general of all the forces in England, Scotland, and Ireland.

 B. Did he pretend that for title?

 A. No: but presently after he invented a title, which was this; that he was necessitated for the defence of the cause, for which at first the Parliament had taken up arms, that is to say, rebelled, to have recourse to extraordinary actions. You know the pretence of the Long Parliament’s rebellion was salus populi, the safety of the nation against a dangerous conspiracy of Papists and a malignant party at home; and that every man is bound, as far as his power extends, to procure the safety of the whole nation, which none but the army were able to do, and the Parliament had hitherto neglected. Was it not then the general’s duty to do it i Had he not therefore right? For that law of salus populi is directed only to those that have power enough to defend the people; that is, to them that have the supreme power.

 B. Yes, certainly, he had as good a title as the Long Parliament. But the Long Parliament did represent the people; and it seems to me that the sovereign power is essentially annexed to the representative of the people.

 A. Yes, if he that makes a representative, that is in the present case the King, do call them together to receive the sovereign power, and he divest himself thereof; otherwise not. Nor was ever the Lower House of Parliament the representative of the whole nation, but of the commons only; nor had that House the power to oblige by their acts or ordinances, any lord or any priest.

 B. Did Cromwell come in upon the only title of salus populi?

 A. This is a title that very few men understand. His way was to get the supreme power conferred upon him by Parliament. Therefore he called a Parliament, and gave it the supreme power, to the end that they should give it to him again. Was not this witty?

First, therefore, he published a declaration of the causes why he dissolved the Parliament. The sum whereof was, that instead of endeavouring to promote the good of God’s people, they endeavoured, by a bill then ready to pass, to recruit the House and perpetuate their own power.

 Next he constituted a council of state of his own creatures, to be the supreme authority of England; but no longer than till the next Parliament should be called and met.

Thirdly, he summoned 142 persons, such as he himself or his trusty officers made choice of; the greatest part of whom were instructed what to do; obscure persons, and most of them fanatics, though styled by Cromwell men of approved fidelity and honesty. To these the council of state surrendered the supreme authority, and not long after these men surrendered it to Cromwell. July the 4th this Parliament met, and chose for their Speaker one Mr. Rous, and called themselves from that time forward the Parliament of England. But Cromwell, for the more surety, constituted also a council of state; not of such petty fellows as most of these were, but of himself and his principal officers. These did all the business, both public and private; making ordinances, and giving audiences to foreign ambassadors. But he had now more enemies than before. Harrison, who was the head of the Fifth-monarchy-men, laying down his commission, did nothing but animate his party – against him j for which afterwards he was imprisoned.

This little Parliament in the meantime were making of acts so ridiculous and displeasing to the people, that it was thought he chose them on purpose to bring all ruling Parliaments into contempt, and monarchy again into credit.

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Depart, I say; and let us have done with you

Well, thank goodness they have gone home. It is a zombie Parliament which in the past two and a half years has managed to achieve nothing, and has paralysed itself with a proxy war – arguing over Brexit issues as an excuse for argument on domestic matters left unaddressed.

Cromwell ejected the Long Parliament with pike and musket, and his words are famously given

You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately… Depart, I say; and let us have done with you .

A longer version of his speech sounds very familiar to our own days though:

It is high time for me to put an end to your sitting in this place, which you have dishonoured by your contempt of all virtue, and defiled by your practice of every vice. Ye are a factious crew, and enemies to all good government. Ye are a pack of mercenary wretches, and would like Esau sell your country for a mess of pottage, and like Judas betray your God for a few pieces of money.


Is there a single virtue now remaining amongst you? Is there one vice you do not possess? Ye have no more religion than my horse. Gold is your God. Which of you have not bartered your conscience for bribes? Is there a man amongst you that has the least care for the good of the Commonwealth? Ye are grown intolerably odious to the whole nation; you were deputed here by the people to get grievances redress’d, are yourselves gone!

They will not be missed these next weeks. The only regret is that when they assemble again, it will be the same venal mob with little hope of their repentance in the interim.

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