The Civil War of King and Parliament is much in vogue today. It is not appreciated how at every stage the rebels in Parliament were staring at failure and how remarkable was their eventual, bloody success. A parliament is a poor method of decision-making and at many points it should have failed. Even the original Remonstrance of 1642 complaining, quite justly, of the corruption of the King’s ministers passed only by dishonesty and circumstance – so those far more radical resolutions made war on the King are all the more remarkable.
The recent BBC4 series Charles I: Downfall of a King, portrayed very well the tumble towards Civil War, but the events which followed were not inevitable.
In 1648, the war was over and the King was captive on the Isle of Wight in Hampshire, and commissioners were sent to negotiate with him. Here was the danger for the radicals: there had possibly never been a majority in the Commons for the war, and certainly none in the Lords, and whatever the King proposed might achieve a vote in favour. The Commons would never have voted to try and to execute the King. The war was begun by and fought in the name of the House of Commons, but by the end, Parliament was powerless: the real power lay in the New Model Army, who were too steeped in blood to see all they fought for handed away.
The most learned commentator at the time the war raged was Thomas Hobbes himself in his classic work Behemoth:
But Cromwell marched on to Edinburgh, and there, by the help of the faction which was contrary to Hamilton’s, he made sure not to be hindered in his designs; the first whereof was to take away the King’s life by the hand of the Parliament.
Whilst these things passed in the north, the Parliament, Cromwell being away, came to itself, and recalling their vote of non-addresses, sent to the King new propositions, somewhat, but not much, easier than formerly. And upon the King’s answer to them, they sent commissioners to treat with him at Newport in the Isle of Wight; where they so long dodged with him about trifles, that Cromwell was come to London before they had done, to the King’s destruction. For the army was now wholly at the devotion of Cromwell, who set the adjutators on work again to make a remonstrance to the House of Commons, wherein they require:
1. That the King be brought to justice;
2. That the Prince and the Duke of York be summoned to appear at a day appointed, and proceeded with, according as they should give satisfaction;
3. That the Parliament settle the peace and future government, and set a reasonable period to their own sitting, and make certain future Parliaments annual or biennial;
4. That a competent number of the King’s chief instruments be executed.
And this to be done both by the House of Commons and by a general agreement of the people testified by their subscriptions. Nor did they stay for an answer, but presently set a guard of soldiers at the Parliament-house door, and other soldiers in Westminster Hall, suffering none to go into the House but such as would serve their turns. All others were frighted away, or made prisoners, and some upon divers quarrels suspended; above ninety of them, because they had refused to vote against the Scots; and others, because they had voted against the vote of non-addresses; and the rest were a House for Cromwell.
The fanatics also in the city being countenanced by the army, pack a new common-council, whereof any forty was to be above the mayor; and their first work was to frame a petition for justice against the King, which Tichborne, the mayor, involving the city in the regicide, delivered to the Parliament.
At the same time, with the like violence, they took the King from Newport in the Isle of Wight, to Hurst Castle, till things were ready for his trial.
Hobbes does not name Captain Pride, attributing to Oliver Cromwell the authorship of this military coup, but it was Pride who entered the Commons and expelled from Parliament those who would not serve the Army’s intentions, hence the name “Pride’s Purge”.
The rump of members we call “the Rump Parliament”. Hobbes continues to describe the Rump’s next actions:
The ordinance being drawn up was brought into the House, where after three several readings it was voted, “that the Lords and Commons of England, assembled in Parliament, do declare, that by the fundamental laws of the realm, it is treason in the King of England to levy war against the Parliament.” And this vote was sent up to the Lords; and they denying their consent, the Commons in anger made another vote; “That all members of committees should proceed and act in any ordinance, whether the Lords concurred or no; and that the people, under God, are the original of all just power; and that the House of Commons have the supreme power of the nation; and that whatsoever the House of Commons enacteth, is law.”
All this passed nemine contradicente.
Pride’s Purge, the army’s exclusion by force of members of Parliament to hand power to those favoured by the army, is the only military coup in English history. This is coup is celebrated by fashionable commentators of our day. Heaven help us all, as they have actual power, through their own, silent coup.
“They had, in their anger against the Lords, formerly declared the supreme power of the nation to be in the House of Commons; and now, on February the 5th, they vote the House of Lords to be useless and dangerous. And thus the kingdom is turned into a democracy, or rather an oligarchy; for presently they made an act, that none of those members, who were secluded for opposing the vote of non-addresses, should ever be re-admitted. And these were commonly called the secluded members; and the rest were by some styled a Parliament, and by others the Rump.
I think you need not now have a catalogue, either of the vices, or of the crimes, or of the follies of the greatest part of them that composed the Long Parliament; than which greater cannot be in the world.”
- 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