Cromwell had engineered what was in effect a second revolution. He was now, by virtue of the sword, the indisputable head of state and sole source of power. The officers of the army concluded a dispatch with the encomium that ‘we humbly lay ourselves with these thoughts, in this emergency, at your excellency’s feet’. The ministers of Newcastle upon Tyne made ‘their humble addresses to his godly wisdom’. Yet Cromwell did not intend or wish to be a dictator; he was still concerned with the constitutional niceties of his unique position.
He appointed a reformed council of state, with himself a prominent participant, but its thirteen members were in something of a quandary. They were in a situation without precedent, faced with the obligation of creating a constitution out of nothing. Some in the army wished for government by the council itself, perhaps with the assistance of a carefully selected parliament; others pressed for near universal male suffrage; yet others demanded a council of godly men on the model of the Jewish Sanhedrin.
Cromwell spent eight days locked in conversation with his councillors, and from their deliberations emerged a wholly original form of parliament. It was eventually agreed that members of the new assembly should be either nominated by the various Independent congregations or favoured by the army and by prominent individuals; those chosen were to be ‘known persons, men fearing God, and of approved integrity’. One of the godly men chosen to serve was Isaac Praise-God Barebone, a leather merchant and preacher from London who, at his warehouse in Fleet Street, proclaimed the imminent coming of Jesus Christ. His colourful name and nature led to this nominated parliament becoming known as ‘Barebone’s Parliament’. There were 144 men who were nominees, and thus it was also called the ‘Little Parliament’; it was indeed the smallest parliament to date ever to sit at Westminster.
It would be wrong, however, to conclude that all of its members were zealots; the preponderance of them held the rank of gentleman, and their number included a viscount and a baron as well as several baronets and knights. The provost of Eton and the high master of St Paul’s School were among them. Yet, unsurprisingly, the radical element prevailed in their deliberations; those who burn hottest inflame the rest. No one wishes to be known as tepid or lukewarm. In his opening address to them, Cromwell remarked that ‘we are at the threshold’ and that ‘you are at the edge of promises and prophecies’. It was supposed to mark the beginning of a new era.
The members of the new assembly were zealous and busy, but they were perhaps not worldly enough to judge the consequences of their decisions. They determined to abolish the court of chancery, for example, and drastically to simplify the law; some in fact demanded the abolition of the common law, to be substituted by the code of Moses. They voted to abolish tithes, a proposal that might have eventually led to the disestablishment of the Church and the violation of all rights of property.
The alarm and horror of the nation soon became manifest, and Cromwell realized that it was time to end an experiment that had lasted for just five months. He is reported to have said that he was more troubled now by fools than by knaves. A parliament of saints had gone to excess. He had learned that it was not possible to create instruments of power in an arbitrary manner; they had no stable foundation, and therefore veered wildly from side to side. In December the more conservative or moderate of the members were persuaded to launch a pre-emptive coup by voting in an early morning session that they should abdicate their powers; the radicals were in a prayer meeting at the time. The Speaker then took up the mace and led them in procession to Whitehall Palace where Cromwell was waiting to greet them. He professed later to being surprised by their arrival, but this is hard to credit.
A few of the godly remained in the chamber. An army officer entered and asked them, ‘What do you here?’
‘We are seeking the Lord.’
‘Then you may go elsewhere for, to my certain knowledge, he has not been here these twelve years.’
The abrogation of this ‘Little Parliament’ was greeted with considerable relief by those whose livings had been threatened by it. The lawyers celebrated and, according to an Independent lay preacher, ‘most men upon this dissolution take occasion to cry Aha, Aha’.
And then there was one. It was said that, in bringing an end to ‘Barebone’s Parliament’, Cromwell took the crown from Christ and put it on his own head. One of his military associates, General John Lambert, had drawn up what was called an ‘Instrument of Government’ in which Cromwell would be granted power as Lord Protector of the British Republic. This ‘Instrument’ has the distinction of being the first, and the last, written constitution of England. Yet its system of checks and balances, including a council, did not dispel the impression that Cromwell was now an autocrat in all but name. Clarendon noted that ‘this extraordinary man, without any other reason than because he had a mind to it . . . mounted himself into the throne of three kingdoms, without the name of king, but with a greater power and authority than had ever been exercised or claimed by any king’.
On 16 December 1653, Oliver Cromwell stood before a chair of state in Westminster Hall. He was dressed in a suit and cloak of black velvet, with long boots; a band of gold ran around his hat. He looked up and raised his right hand to heaven as he swore to observe all the articles of the new constitution; John Lambert then knelt and offered him a civic sword sheathed in its scabbard as a token of peaceful rule. In the proclamation of public acts he was now styled ‘Olivarius Protector’ in the same manner as ‘Carolus Rex’. His passage through the streets was guarded by soldiers. He insisted that the series of nine paintings by Andrea Mantegna, The Triumphs of Caesar, should not be sold off but remain at his apartments in Hampton Court Palace. The proceedings of his court, in such matters as the reception of ambassadors, resembled those of Charles I. His son, Henry Cromwell, was greeted in the entertainment grounds of Spring Gardens with cries of ‘Room for the prince’. Lucy Hutchinson wrote that for Cromwell’s family to emulate regal state was as ridiculous as to dress apes in scarlet.
Many of his former supporters now railed at him for betraying the cause of godly reformation. He was accused of sacrificing the public good to ambition and was denounced as a ‘dissembling perjured villain’. Biblical insults were hurled at him as the ‘Old Dragon’, the ‘Little Horn’, the ‘Man of Sin’ , and the ‘Vile Person’ of Daniel 11: 21. At the pulpit set up by Blackfriars one preacher, Christopher Feake, proclaimed that ‘he has deceived the Lord’s people’; he added that ‘he will not reign long, he will end worse than the last Protector did, that crooked tyrant Richard. Tell him I said it.’ Feake was brought before the council and placed in custody. The governor of Chester Castle, Colonel Robert Duckenfield, put it a little more delicately when he wrote to Cromwell that ‘I believe the root and tree of piety is alive in your lordship, though the leaves thereof, through abundance of temptations and flatteries, seem to me to be withered much of late’.
In a sense the revolution was now over, with all attempts at radical reform at an end. Cromwell instituted a reign of quiet in which men of property might feel safe; in effect he inaugurated a gentry republic. It cannot be said that the new dispensation was received with any great enthusiasm, yet for many it must have been a relief after the disordered governance of recent years. For others, of course, it made no difference at all.
In the first eight months of their power the Lord Protector and the council, in the absence of parliament, passed more than eighty ordinances. Scotland and Ireland were to be incorporated within the commonwealth. The court of chancery was to be reformed. Duels were forbidden, and cock-fighting suppressed; horse racing was suspended for a period. Public drunkenness, and profanity, were punished with a fine or with a whipping. No more than 200 hackney carriages were allowed in London. The postal service was reformed, while the prisons and the public highways were improved. The treasury was reorganized. This was a practical administration.
Cromwell and the council were no less pragmatic in foreign affairs. The European powers were docile, perhaps in fear of a resurgent English navy that had recently challenged and defeated the Dutch. Peace was made with the Protestant nations, among them Sweden and Denmark. France and Spain vied with each other for the favour of the protectorate, in which equation Cromwell tended to incline towards the French side; he wanted to remove the influence of Charles II on the French court.
He also favoured balance in religious matters. An ordinance in the spring of 1654 established a commission of ‘triers’ who would check the qualities and qualifications of proposed clergymen. In the summer of the year commissioners were appointed to every county as ‘ejectors’ who would remove ministers guilty of ignorance, insufficiency, or scandalous behaviour. Cromwell supported religious liberty except for those who espoused pope or bishops. Anglicans were in theory no more tolerated than Roman Catholics, but in practice they were given tacit acceptance.
From a policy of benign neglect, Cromwell created a variegated Church made up of Presbyterians, Independents and Baptists. Doctrine was less important to him than spirit; dogma did not concern him as long as he could create a community that had what he called ‘the root of the matter’ within it. It has been described as not so much a national Church as a confederation of Christian sects. Some of the more committed Anglicans went into exile ‘waiting for a day’, as they put it, when Charles II might claim his throne. Yet many were not exercised by religion at all. In his diary entry for 11 May 1654, Evelyn noted that ‘I now observed how the women began to paint themselves, formerly a most ignominious thing, and used only by prostitutes’.
Small groups of royalists frequented certain taverns of London, and of the provincial towns, where they engaged in plots against the protectorate. Where there are conspiracies, however, there are apt to be informers and suborners. In February 1654, eleven men were arrested at the Ship Tavern by the Old Bailey. It became clear, in the course of investigations, that a powerful group of royalists had been formed to incite a popular rebellion; it was known as the Sealed Knot. The exiled king was in constant and secret correspondence with his supporters, and seemed particularly interested in a scheme to assassinate Cromwell himself. He was to be shot after he had left Whitehall for Hampton Court on a Saturday morning.
Yet Cromwell had created a very efficient secret service under the command of John Thurloe, secretary to the council of state, and the details of the plot were known almost as soon as they were formulated. Alerted by his spy-master Cromwell took to the water on that morning and avoided an attack. Soon after the failure of the conspiracy the authorities mounted raids in London taverns and houses, in the course of which 500 people were arrested. Two of the leaders were executed, while others were transported to Barbados. An old Catholic priest was also seized and executed.
Yet the punishments did not deter other plotters, who would soon attempt to rise again. Cromwell was given a copy of a letter written by the new king in which Charles advised his supporters to ‘consult with those you dare trust, and, if you are ready, agree upon a time . . .’ Cromwell now always carried a gun. In a riding accident, later in the year, the pistol fired in his pocket and the wound kept him in bed for three weeks.
The occasion for a parliament, according to the ‘Instrument of Government’, had now come. On 4 September 1654, Cromwell addressed the new assembly in the Painted Chamber of Westminster Palace; he sat in the chair of state while the members were seated on benches ranged against the walls. ‘Gentlemen,’ he told them, ‘you are met here on the greatest occasion that, I believe, England ever saw.’ He then proceeded to speak for three hours on the various manifestations of God’s providence in an oration that veered from messianic enthusiasm to scriptural exposition. He had called parliament, but ‘my calling be from God’. He was thus reiterating, in his own fashion, the divine right of kings. He was above parliament. Yet he came to them not as a master but as a fellow servant. Now was a time for ‘healing and settling’.
Yet the new parliament was by no means a compliant body. For some days its members had debated, without reaching any conclusion, whether they should give the protectorate their support. On 12 September they found the doors of their chamber closed against them, and they were asked once more to assemble in the Painted Chamber where the Protector wished to address them. He chided them for neglecting the interest of the state, ‘so little valued and so much slighted’, and he would not allow them to proceed any further unless and until they had signed an oath to agree to ‘the form of government now settled’. All members had to accept the condition that ‘the persons elected shall not have power to alter the government as it is hereby settled in one single person and a Parliament’. ‘I am sorry,’ he said, ‘I am sorry, and I could be sorry to the death that there is cause for this. But there is cause . . .’
Some members protested and refused to sign, but the majority of them either agreed or at least submitted. Cromwell still did not attempt to guide the debates, but he became increasingly alarmed at their nature. He is reported to have said in this period that he ‘would rather keep sheep under a hedge than have to do with the government of men’. Sheep were at least obedient. The members voted to restrict the power of the Protector to veto legislation; they also decided that their decisions were more authoritative than those of the council of state. They believed, in other words, that parliament should still be paramount in the nation. That was not necessarily Cromwell’s view. From day to day they debated every clause of the ‘Instrument of Government’, with the evident wish to replace it with a constitution of their own. On 3 January 1655 they voted to reaffirm the limits to religious toleration; two days later they decided to reduce army pay, thus striking at Cromwell’s natural constituency. On 20 January they began to discuss the formation of a militia under parliamentary control.
Two days later, Cromwell called a halt. He lambasted them for wasting time in frivolous and unnecessary discourse when they should have been considering practical measures for the general reformation of the nation. He told them that ‘I do not know what you have been doing. I do not know whether you have been alive or dead.’ He considered that it was not fit for the common welfare and the public good to allow them to continue; and so, farewell. The first protectorate parliament was dissolved. The larger problem, however, was not addressed. Could a representative parliament ever co-exist with what was essentially a military dictatorship?
Cromwell and the council once more reigned without challenge, but the price of power was eternal vigilance. In his speech of dissolution Cromwell had warned that ‘the cavalier party have been designing and preparing to put this nation in blood again’ together with ‘that party of men called levellers’. The royalist supporters of the Sealed Knot had indeed survived, despite deportations and executions, and seem to have entered an unlikely association with the radical republicans who shared an interest in removing Cromwell from power. For those of a levelling tendency Cromwell was infinitely worse than Charles; he had used them, betrayed them and set himself up as a despot. Yet the royalists could not even agree among themselves. They had planned six different regional conspiracies in 1654, but the only rebellion was a short and ill-organized affair in the West Country. The spy-master, Thurloe, had done his work.
Cromwell had been considering a possible friendship or alliance with Spain, despite the fact that as a Catholic state it was one of the horns of the beast. He had said to a Spanish envoy that an alliance was possible on the conditions that the English were granted liberty of conscience within the Spanish dominions and that free trade be allowed between England and the West Indies. The envoy replied that this was ‘to ask my master’s two eyes’.
Without any agreement, therefore, Cromwell felt emboldened to test Spanish power in the sensitive area of the West Indies. He convinced himself that the action was part of a religious crusade against popery, and he trusted that the warfare would not spread to Europe; he was mistaken, or misguided, in both aspirations. At the end of 1654 Admiral William Penn and General Robert Venables set sail for Barbados with the order ‘to gain an interest in that part of the West Indies in possession of the Spaniards’. They arrived safely enough, in the spring of the following year, but their expedition thereafter was not a success.
In late winter of 1654, Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell dispatched Admiral William Penn and General Robert Venables to the Caribbean with orders to attack islands held by Spain. This massive invasion force became known as Cromwell’s “Western Design,” through which Cromwell envisioned establishing military staging grounds for a fuller invasion of the Spanish American mainland. In the end, Cromwell’s dreams of becoming the master of Spain’s American wealth were dashed by poor planning, a virulent disease environment, and a spirited defense of Santo Domingo on the part of the island’s residents. Turned away from La Española, Penn and Venables salvaged the surviving Englishmen under their command and took the lightly populated island of Jamaica. It is in the context of the English seizure of Jamaica that Cromwell’s Western Design usually appears in historical narratives, with the initial attempt on Santo Domingo only peripherally important.
The English forces sailed to the island of Hispaniola with the purpose of subduing the city of Santo Domingo and taking its treasure. The men marched for four days through rough country in the burning sun with little fresh water; they were apparently untested soldiers who had no idea of the conditions they would confront. Exhausted and demoralized, they were an easy prey for a group of horsemen and cattle-herders who surprised them in ambush. The remaining members of the expedition, still under the command of Venables, managed to sail on to Jamaica where they were able to take and occupy the island. But at the time it seemed like a poor reward, with the additional risk that Spain might now declare a general war against the old enemy.
The news of the failure to rout Santo Domingo reached Cromwell towards the end of July. He locked himself in his room for an entire day. He had hoped to control the trade and treasure routes of the Spaniards, but he had been thwarted. The new republic had never suffered a military defeat before. He had seen himself as the protector and champion of Protestant interests, but the hand of God seems to have been against him. Cromwell had said, in reply to those who had originally questioned the wisdom of the expedition, that ‘God had not brought us hither where we are but to consider the work that we may do in the world as well as at home’. Yet the Lord had not blessed this work in the world. This caused Cromwell the most painful reflections of his rule, and presaged the fears and doubts that would attend the last years of his protectorate. Wherein had he offended? Or was it the nation itself that had provoked God’s anger?
It may not be coincidental, therefore, that soon after the disaster in the Indies a network of godly rule was established in England. The country was divided into eleven districts, or groups of counties; at the head of each was imposed a major-general of decidedly puritan inclinations. These army commanders were instructed to raise taxes and revive the local militia, to enquire into the conduct of clergy and teachers, to arrest any suspect persons and to prevent further royalist uprisings. Their costs were met by charges imposed on royalists alone. This became known as the ‘decimation tax’, taking one tenth of the ‘malignants” profits from the land, an injustice to which they were forced to submit without complaint. The newspapers and periodicals were suppressed, and no item of news could be printed without the permission of John Thurloe.
Cromwell was attempting that reformation of manners which the last parliament had signally failed to achieve. The major-generals were instructed ‘to encourage and promote godliness and virtue’ and, as a result, the pastimes of the people were largely suppressed. Colonel Pride, who had led the purge of parliament seven years before, raided the bear-garden at Bankside; he himself killed the bears, and then ordered his troops to wring the necks of the game-cocks in other parts of London. Alehouses were shut all over the country; stage plays as well as ‘mirths and jollities’ were forbidden.
One major-general, William Boteler, informed Thurloe that he had imprisoned ‘drunken fellows’ and others ‘suspected to live only on the highway’; those accused of illegal brewing or of keeping a ‘lewd house’ were also arrested. Those who travelled on the Lord’s day could be set in the stocks or placed in a cage; unmarried men and women who had ‘carnal knowledge’ of each other could be sent to a house of correction; those who swore or uttered profanities were heavily fined.
Public morals may have been improved by these measures, but public sympathy for Cromwell’s regime was lost. The people did not wish to be governed, or corrected, by military officials with an attendant crew of spies and informers. Some of the major-generals were considered by the gentry to be low-born interlopers, and the natural leaders of the counties did not relish their loss of authority. A nation cannot be made virtuous by diktat or by government inspectors. The experience of the major-generals, with their troops of horse behind them, also helped to augment the national hatred for standing armies.
The experiment did not last for very long; the major-generals were sent to their counties in the autumn of 1655 and were summoned back to Westminster in the spring of the following year for consultation. With a great war against Spain growing ever more likely, fresh revenues were urgently needed; the major-generals seem to have persuaded a reluctant Cromwell to call another parliament rather than impose further taxation by decree. Thus they contrived their own fall. It was not likely that the representatives of the nation, however they were chosen, would tolerate a continuation of godly rule.
After the attack by Penn and Venables on the Spanish colonies in the Caribbean, Spain declared war on England as a natural and almost inevitable consequence. The West Indian adventure had become a European imbroglio with infinitely more dangerous possibilities. Spain and France were old enemies, however, and Cromwell now inclined towards the court of the young Louis XIV. A commercial treaty was signed in the autumn of 1655, containing certain secret clauses about the expulsion of Charles II from French territory; the English king had in fact already left for Spa and Aachen. Charles then promptly fashioned an agreement with Spain that would allow him to live in the Spanish Netherlands (what is now Belgium and part of northern France); he promised that, on his accession, he would return Jamaica to the Spanish. He was disheartened, always in need of money; he was surrounded by squabbling courtiers. With no realistic prospect of regaining his throne, nothing could ease his distress of mind.
Cromwell was himself in no easy condition. The failure of the expedition to the West Indies, and the onset of war with Spain, had precipitated a sickness described by the French ambassador as ‘a bilious colic, which occasionally flies to the brain’. He added that ‘grief often persecutes him more than either of these, as his mind is not yet accustomed to endure disgrace’. Cromwell survived, but became even more aware of the extent to which the commonwealth relied upon his presence. Who else could preserve the unity and constancy of the state? He was showing signs of his age and of his cares; his hand trembled when he held his hat. ‘Study still to be innocent,’ he told his son, Henry. ‘Cry to the Lord to give you a plain single heart.’
With the plans for a new parliament, and with the preparations for war, Cromwell and his councillors were hard pressed. The Venetian envoy observed that ‘they are so fully occupied that they do not know which way to turn, and the Protector has not a moment to call his own’. Cromwell had no very sanguine expectations about parliament. He may have realized that, far from ‘healing and settling’, the rule of the major-generals had provoked fresh dissension; he must have feared in any case that the combined opposition of republicans and silent royalist supporters might produce a majority against him. He explained later, ‘that it was against my judgement but I could have no quietness till it was done.’
The course of the election campaign was strenuous, and Thurloe wrote to Henry Cromwell that ‘here is the greatest striving to get into Parliament that ever was known’. The call went out against the representatives of the military regime. ‘No swordsmen! No decimators!’ It was a further sign that the country was restless and discomposed. The council of state took measures of its own, however, and excluded approximately one hundred of the elected members for ‘immorality’ or ‘delinquency’; it was another example of brute military power, and provoked much outrage in the country. How could this be called a free parliament?
Cromwell opened its proceedings on 17 September 1656, with a warning of the forces ranged against the country. England was at war with Spain, and the Spanish king was even then preparing to assist Charles Stuart in an invasion launched from Flanders. ‘Why, truly,’ he said employing his usual nervous syntax, ‘your great enemy is the Spaniard. He is. He is a natural enemy, he is naturally so.’ As for the enemy within, the levellers and the cavaliers were plotting to seize a seaport to welcome the king’s forces.
In the course of a long and rambling speech Cromwell defended the major-generals for suppressing vice and for espousing the cause of true religion. And what of the forced taxation to pay for them? ‘If nothing should be done but what is according to law, the throat or the nation may be cut while we send for some to make a law.’ The tenor of this comment is similar to one he had made before, that government should be judged by what is good for the people and not by what pleases them. He was by instinct an authoritarian.
On the day of his speech, three conspirators met to take his life as he entered parliament; they hired a house that stood beside the east door of Westminster Abbey, and planned to shoot him as he left there on his way to the Painted Chamber. They were levellers who wished to return to the old form of a puritan republic. Yet, in the face of a crowd, they lost their nerve and dispersed; it was only the first attempt that the leader of the group, Miles Sindercombe, would undertake. Cromwell, meanwhile, dismissed all such threats as ‘little fiddling things’. News soon came that might yet please the parliament and the nation. At the beginning of October Thurloe announced to parliament that Admiral Blake had seized several Spanish treasure ships on their way back to Cadiz; it was perhaps a sign that God was still with them. Parliament set aside a day for national thanksgiving.
A new Venetian ambassador, Giovanni Sagredo, came to England at this time and wrote that he found ‘not elegant cavaliers but cavalry and infantry; instead of music and ballets they have trumpets and drums; they do not speak of love but of Mars . . . no patches on their faces but muskets on their shoulders; they do not neglect sleep for the sake of amusements, but severe ministers keep their adversaries in incessant wakefulness. In a word, everything here is full of disdain, suspicion and rough menacing faces . . .’
Parliament was variously and continually employed with private petitions and private bills as well as matters of state. A member complained that ‘one business jostled out another’. It seemed likely that, just as its predecessor, it would achieve nothing of any consequence. Yet the religious zeal of its members was not in doubt when the case of James Naylor was put before them. He was a Quaker whose preachings aroused apocalyptic yearnings among his disciples; he was ‘the hope of Israel’ and ‘the Lamb of God’. In the summer of the year he had entered Bristol as Christ had once gone into Jerusalem; two women led his horse while others cried out ‘Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Israel’. He was arrested and brought before the bar of parliament where he was questioned. ‘I was set up,’ he said, ‘as a sign to summon this nation.’
A debate of nine days followed his appearance in which it was agreed that this horrid blasphemy was more dangerous to the nation than any Spanish warship; it struck at the heart of its relationship with God, than which nothing was more precious. ‘Let us all stop our ears,’ one member said, ‘and stone him.’ It was not clear whether parliament had the judicial power to punish him, yet the members voted that Naylor should be placed in the pillory and whipped through the streets; his tongue was to be bored through with a hot iron and the letter ‘B’ for blasphemer branded on his forehead. He would then be sentenced to an indefinite imprisonment.
The ordeal of the tongue and forehead took place at the end of the year. A diarist, Thomas Burton, noted that ‘Rich, the mad merchant, sat bare-headed at Naylor’s feet all the time. Sometimes he sang, and cried, and stroked his hair and face, and kissed his hand, and sucked the fire out of his forehead.’ Naylor was patient, and the spectators were sympathetic to the plight of one who had endured the wrath of this parliament. Cromwell himself wished to know ‘the grounds and reason’ for its assumption of judicial power, but no response was ever made for the very good reason that the sentence was both arbitrary and unjustified. Some contemporaries warned that, if parliament felt itself able to condemn and punish one misguided man, who could feel safe?
At the beginning of 1657 a debate was held on a bill for maintaining the ‘decimation tax’ to subsidize the major-generals. To the surprise of many Cromwell’s son-in-law, John Claypole, opposed the measure; this was generally believed to mean that the Protector had withdrawn his support from the godly commanders in the field. Parliament itself was in large measure composed of people from the communities who had been subject to the strict measures of the major-generals, and the bill was rejected by thirty-six votes. The pietistic experiment was ended.
Another question of governance was raised. Should not Cromwell now become king and the House of Stuart be replaced by the House of Cromwell? This would satisfy the yearning of many people for a return to a traditional form of government. If Cromwell were sovereign, he might be able to curb the pretensions of parliament that had already gone beyond its powers. The newsletters anticipated a sudden ‘alteration of government’. On 19 January 1657, one member, John Ashe of Freshford, moved that Cromwell ‘take upon him the government according to the ancient constitution’.
On 23 February Sir Christopher Packe brought forward a remonstrance, under the title of the ‘humble petition and advice’, to the effect that Cromwell should assume ‘the name, style, title and dignity of king’ and that the House of Lords should be restored. The fury of the opponents of monarchy, most particularly the military element, was unrestrained. General John Lambert declared that any such reversal would be contrary to the principles for which he and his fellow soldiers had fought. Kingship had been so bathed in blood that it could not be restored. This was not a theoretical point. Cromwell was informed that a group of soldiers had bound themselves on oath to kill him as soon as he accepted the title.
Four days after the ‘humble petition’ had been advanced, one hundred representatives of the army visited Cromwell at Whitehall where they pleaded with him to resist the offer of advancement. He told them that he liked the title of king as little as they did; it was nothing but a bauble or a feather in the hat. He then reviewed the history of the last few years, in which he stated that he had faithfully followed the advice of the army; he said that ‘they had made him their drudge upon all occasions’, yet they had not met with success. None of the parliaments, none of the constitutional proposals, had worked. He told them that ‘it is time to come to a settlement’. A House of Lords, for example, was needed to check the pretensions of the Commons; they left him with their fury ‘much abated’, and a few days later another army delegation assured him that they would acquiesce in whatever he decided ‘for the good of these nations’.
The debate in parliament lasted for more than a month and occupied twenty-four sittings, some of them lasting all day. Eventually, at the end of March, Cromwell was formally requested to assume the crown. He replied that he had lived for the last part of his life ‘in the fire, in the midst of trouble’, and he requested more time for reflection. It was thought that he would accept the role of king, if only to unite a predominantly conservative nation, but in truth he was in conflict with himself. He knew that his senior military colleagues were passionately opposed to the change, but he knew also that this might prove his last and best chance to return the country to its traditional ways. It was in his means to provide the conditions for a regular and stable government.
It was not a question of private ambition; as he had said many times, the crown and sceptre meant very little to him. He already had more power than any English king. So he struggled. Thurloe said that Cromwell had ‘great difficulties in his own mind’ and that ‘he keeps himself reserved from everybody that I know of’; when a parliamentary delegation came to him, in the middle of April, ‘he came out of his chamber half unready in his gown, with a black scarf around his neck’. No doubt he prayed incessantly for divine guidance, hoping that as in the past a resolve or a decision would be presented to him as if by an act of grace.
He heard vital news of God’s providence in England’s affairs when he was told that Admiral Blake had successfully maintained a siege of the Spanish coast and had destroyed another treasure fleet, thus disabling Spain as a maritime power. England now effectively controlled the high seas, an ascendancy that was unprecedented in its history. With colonies in Jamaica and Barbados, as well as those such as Virginia on the American mainland, Cromwell was the first statesman since the days of Walsingham to contemplate a global empire. As Edmund Waller put it,
Others may use the ocean as their road
Only the English make it their abode.
Pepys noted, in the pusillanimous years of Charles II, that ‘it is strange how everybody do nowadays reflect upon Oliver and commend him, what brave things he did, and made all the neighbour princes fear him’.
Yet on the most pressing matter of monarchy he could not, or dare not, come to a decision. On 3 April he declared to a parliamentary delegation that he could not discharge his duties ‘under that title’; five days later parliament urged him to reconsider, on which occasion it is reported that he delivered ‘a speech so dark, that none knows whether he will accept it or not’. He may still have been waiting for divine guidance. He knew that it was proper and expedient that he should take the crown but, as he said, ‘I would not seek to set up that which providence hath destroyed and laid in the dust, and I would not build Jericho again.’ In the first week of May it is reported that he told a group of members of parliament that he had decided to accept the title; yet once more he changed his mind.
On 8 May he told parliament that he could not and would not become King Oliver I. ‘At the best,’ he said, ‘I should do it doubtingly. And certainly what is so [done] is not of faith.’ The protests of the army officers had in the end proved to be persuasive; two of them, Fleetwood and Desborough, had in fact married into Cromwell’s family. They had told him that, if he accepted the crown, they would resign from all their offices and retire into private life. Other officers, who had been with him from the beginning and had fought with him through fire, also registered their strong disapproval. This was decisive. He could not at this late stage abandon his comrades and colleagues; he could not betray their trust or spoil their hopes. So his final answer to parliament was that ‘I cannot undertake this government with the title of king’.
The only way forward was by means of compromise. Even if Cromwell would not be king, he could accept the other constitutional measures recommended by parliament; in particular it seemed just, and necessary, to re-establish the House of Lords as a check upon the legislature. On 25 May the ‘humble petition’ was presented again with Cromwell named as chief magistrate and Lord Protector, an appointment which he accepted as ‘one of the greatest tasks that ever was laid upon the back of a human creature’. On 26 June 1657, Oliver Cromwell was draped in purple and in ermine for the ceremony of installation in Westminster Hall; upon the table before his throne rested the sword of state and a sceptre of solid gold. The blast of trumpets announced his reign. His office was not declared to be hereditary but he had been given the power to name his successor; it was generally believed that this would be one of his sons. So began the second protectorate, which was now a restored monarchy in all but name.