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.
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.
- Behemoth: The History of the Causes of the Civil Wars of England, and the Councils and Artifices by Which They Were Carried on from the Year 1640 to the Year 1660 by Thomas Hobbes
- Thomas Hobbes – Behemoth (Clarendon edition)
- Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes
- Killers of the King by Earl Spencer
- Prince Rupert: The Last Cavalier by Earl Spencer
- Charles I and the People of England by David Cressy
- Cromwell, Our Chief of Men by Lady Antonia Fraser
- Civil War London by David Flintham