Henry Reece on The Fall

Henry Reece

The academic and historian discusses the dying days of the Protectorate.
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When one looks at the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland under Oliver Cromwell in August 1658, would it have been fanciful to imagine a Republic for the foreseeable future, yet within two years the Stuarts were back on the throne?

By August 1658, the Cromwellian Protectorate had restored domestic peace and social order, brought international prestige, made huge reductions in the size of the army and thereby reduced the tax burden, and introduced a moderate religious settlement. Social life returned to normal and the animosities and divisions of the 1640s were put to one side. Plenty of questions remained about the legitimacy of the Protectorate, with its origins in military rule, and concerns about the succession on Cromwell’s death. But at this point, the Protectorate represented stability and settlement, Charles Stuart a return to conflict and disorder. It is the turnaround in fortunes over the next twenty months that makes this such a fascinating period. Contemporaries struggled to make sense of it: ‘it was past imagination’, Samuel Pepys, concluded, ‘both the greatness and the suddenness of it’.

Was it decisions that Richard Cromwell made that led to the fall of the Protectorate?

The fall of Richard Cromwell’s Protectorate resembled a slow-motion car crash more than a systemic breakdown of the body politic. Richard failed to run interference between the army and parliament as his father had always done. He was too passive in early April 1659, too aggressive between 18 to 21 April, and then lapsed into passivity again after the dissolution of parliament. But the fault was not his alone. His councillors pushed too far and too fast against the army and ignored basic precepts of parliamentary management. Too many MPs ignored the advice of one of their number that ‘Any government is better than no government, and any civil better than a military government’, and indulged in debates guaranteed to provoke the army. The generals, who are normally fingered as the primary culprits for the fall of the Protectorate, made plenty of mistakes but only carry a relatively small share of the blame. It was an outcome that none of the main protagonists wanted; more adept politicians might well have produced a compromise that ensured the survival of the Protectorate.

Was the problem with the Protectorate that it was too reliant on the Cromwells to have been sustainable long-term?

Richard Cromwell lived to the age of 86. Had he survived as Protector, which he might easily have done, his rule would stand as the fifth longest in English history. He would probably at some stage have accepted the offer of the crown that his father declined. What the English political establishment has always sought is settled government that ensured social order, and it has not been too fussy where it found it – George I was 52nd in the line of succession when he became king in 1714. When Richard Cromwell died in 1712, after what could have been a long and unmistakeably Protestant rule, a Cromwellian succession would have been as acceptable as a Hanoverian succession was two years later.

Was the problem with the choice of Richard as successor to Oliver, rather than Henry?

When Oliver Cromwell died in September 1658, his younger son, Henry, had far more experience of government than did Richard, the older son. Henry had been commander-in-chief and then Lord Deputy in Ireland since 1655. He had curtailed the influence of the army and religious sects; conciliated the Presbyterians; and emphasized civilian and established norms in government. On paper, he was much better qualified than his brother to succeed Oliver. But Henry was also an intemperate opponent of the army leaders, abhorred their involvement in politics, and made no secret of his views. If he had become Protector, he would have been more decisive and harder-nosed than Richard but probably at the cost of irreconcilable conflict with the army early in his rule.

Historians have described Cromwell as a monarchist. What do you think his view of the Restoration would have been?

I suspect that it would not have been the restoration of the monarchy per se that would have grieved him. Cromwell had no problem with monarchical government: he would probably have been amenable to the continuation of the Stuart monarchy in late 1648 if Charles I could have been persuaded to abdicate in favour of his youngest son, the duke of Gloucester; and the Protector did, after all, come very close to accepting the offer of the crown himself In 1657. It would have been everything that came with the Restoration, particularly the persecution of the religious sects, that would have caused him so much anguish. Cromwell’s efforts to build a godly commonwealth would have failed; the return of the old order would be God’s punishment for his shortcomings.

How should we look back on the Protectorate – failed experiment or a period of success?

On one level it’s difficult to describe a form of government that lasted little more than five years as a period of success. There is certainly an argument that a regime that originated with military usurpation, and whose legitimacy rested on a constitution (the Humble Petition and Advice) conjured up by a purged parliament, would always suffer from a narrow and shallow political base. My view is rather different. The Protectorate demonstrated, certainly in its later years, that non-monarchical rule could deliver the settlement that the political nation craved after the years of war, economic disruption, breakdown of social order, and religious turmoil. This desire for settlement was so strong that, for most, it trumped concerns about legitimacy. William Pierrepont, one of the most respected parliamentary grandees of the 1640s, withdrew from public life after Pride’s Purge in December 1648. Ten years later, he saw Richard Cromwell’s Protectorate as the means to ‘compose all the differences, bringing [in] all of all parties that were men of interest and love to their country’.

What are you working on next?

My first two books focused on the English republic in the 1650s. I’m now interested in looking at the late 1640s, and the events that led up to the purge of parliament in December 1648 and the execution of Charles I in January 1649.

Henry Reece is the author of The Fall: Last Days of the English Republic, published by Yale University Press.