the Commonwealth and the Restoration

England under Oliver Cromwell and King Charles II

Episode 16

Hello, I'm Wilson Pruitt, and you are listening to the History of Methodism Podcast. Today’s episode: the Commonwealth and the Restoration. The death of King Charles I did not immediately abolish the monarchy in England. Charles was executed on trumped up charges of treason by the members of the rump parliament (which, if you recall, was the name given the members of parliament who were not arrested and did not flee upon the New Model Army’s arrival in London). The MPs who supported the regicide saw themselves as upholding biblical values in opposing tyranny, but they did not yet know what would replace it. Fairly quickly, though, they realized they needed to do something, so a few days after the execution of Charles I, parliament passed a law that made it treasonous for anyone to call Charles I’s oldest son Charles II, the King of England. Wesley was not too high on Charles II, whom we will speak of more at the end of the episode. Wesley said that “Charles possessed neither the virtues nor the constancy of his father.” The movement of young Charles from Paris to Jersey to Scotland, paints a consistent picture of desperation. Charles felt entitled to the thrown but the only people who really supported him were the Scots who started the whole mess with the Bishop’s war in 1638. France, fresh off victory in the 30 Years War, has little time for the country that did not support them in their war with the Hapsburgs. While young Charles is trying to secure funds and an army, Oliver Cromwell is spending his time in a decidedly different manner.

History is written by the victors, but more than that, history is written by the long-term victors. Cromwell led the army that defeated the Royalists, but after his death and the return of the Stuarts, historians like the Earl of Clarendon began to portray Cromwell as power hungry from the beginning. They would write about how his aim all along was the throne. This poor reading of history misunderstands the circumstances and happenstances involved in Cromwell’s rise to power. Because, frankly, if all he sought was power, 1549 would have been a great time to claim it. Instead, Cromwell sailed for Ireland to put down an army of Royalists and Irish rebels who hand banded together to fight a common enemy in the newly victorious Parliamentarians. But the New Model Army was not a common enemy and Oliver Cromwell was not a common general. Wesley writes that Cromwell “soon over-ran the whole country; and after some time, all the towns revolted in his favour, and opened the gates at his approach.” At this time, Charles had joined the Scots who were invading England again. Cromwell was called back to resist the invasion, but he was not given immediate command. The position of Captain-General was first offered to Sir Thomas Fairfax, the general who was still Cromwell’s superior, but Fairfax declined out of principle (Fairfax refused to attack Presbyterians) and so only then was Oliver Cromwell made the official head of the New Model Army. Cromwell crushed a numerically superior force at Dunbar and continued to hound the Scots until his decisive victory in the Battle of Worcester, where the Scottish General Alexander Leslie was captured, as well as most of the Scottish officer corps Charles, however, escaped.

John Wesley gives a mostly positive account of the running of the country during this early period of what would later be called the Commonwealth. Wesley writes:

“Thus mankind saw, with astonishment, a parliament composed of sixty or seventy obscure and illiterate members, governing a great empire with unanimity and success. Without any acknowledged subordination, except a council of state consisting of thirty-eight, to whom all addresses were made, they levied armies, maintained fleets, and gave laws to the neighbouring powers of Europe. The finances were managed with economy and exactness. Few private persons became rich by the plunder of the public: the revenues of the crown, the lands of the bishops, and a tax of an hundred and twenty thousand pounds each month, supplied the wants of the government.”

The situation soon changed with regards to the Rump Parliament. Cromwell encouraged his officers to petition for back pay, which parliament did not want to give. As well, the officers encouraged parliament to call for new elections, which parliament did not want to do. Wesley described their response in the following way: “The house was highly offended at the presumption of the army, although they had seen, but too lately, that their own power was wholly founded on that very presumption.” Parliament tried to pass an act against such petitions, but they were too late. Cromwell hurried to Parliament with 300 soldiers and said, “For shame, get you gone. Give place to honester men; to those who will more faithfully discharge their trust. You are no longer a parliament; I tell you, you are no longer a parliament; the Lord has done with you.”

And in that moment, the Rump Parliament was destroyed and all authority of government was transferred to the Army and to Cromwell. After a few more political machinations, Cromwell was named Lord Protector and he appointed a council for governing the country. The governance of the country during the time of his protectorate continued in a strong way, according to Wesley. He writes: “(Cromwell) certainly carried the honour of the nation to the highest pitch; being courted by all the powers of Europe. And he was regular in his private conduct; free from gluttony, drunkenness, luxury and avarice. He promoted, virtuous men, and was inflexible in punishing vice and immorality. He never persecuted any man for his religion; but always expressed a great zeal for Protestantism. On the other hand, he had a boundless ambition; with the most profound dissimulation. In one word, he was a great, bad man.”

Cromwell’s foreign policy was almost universally successful. He saw an expansion of the colonies in the West Indies, including the acquisition of Jamaica, as well as a handy triumph over the Dutch in the 1st Anglo-Dutch War, which brought about free trading lanes for English ships in the Atlantic for many years.

At Cromwell’s death in 1658, his son, Richard, was named Lord Protector, but Richard did not have his father’s character and there was soon disarray in the country. Other officers took charge but, once the Cromwell name was out of power, the government lost authority. Officers of the Civil Wars soon began to plan for a way out of the current regime. A central figure was General Monck, who had fought for the Royalists while King Charles I lived, but who had been captured and taken to the Tower of London. In London, he befriended Cromwell, pardoned, and was sent to Ireland and performed admirably. Because of such service, Cromwell named Monck the governor of Scotland After Cromwell’s death, Monck came south from Scotland at the head of a Scottish army 8,000 strong. Sir Thomas Fairfax came out of retirement to join them. In front of London, 3,000 soldiers came out to face Monck, but most of them soon joined him leaving their commander to flee and London free of any defense. Once in London, Monck soon called back Parliament and sent a letter to Charles offering him the throne. General Monck was the king-maker, Charles II was soon crowned, and the Restoration had begun.

The period from 1662 up until 1685 is called by some the Restoration for it was the restoration of the Stuart Monarchy. Some historians choose to demarcate the period as the total of the reigns of Charles II and his brother, James II, but those quibbles are for other podcasts. For our purposes, the restoration will last until the death of Charles II.

Wesley described Charles II at his coronation in the following way:

When Charles came to the throne he was thirty years of age, posssessed of a genteel person, and elegant address, and an engaging manner. HIs whole behaviour was well calculated to support and increase popularity…His indolence and love of pleasure made him averse to all kinds of business; his familiariaties were prostituted to the worst of his subjects; and he took no care to reward his former friends, as he had taken no steps to be avenged of his former enemies.

The restoration period is a return to many of the pre-Civil War practices in England and Scotland. The House of Lords are reinstated and Bishops are given their seats again. There are also many things from the Commonwealth that are retained, Jamaica for one. The standards, quality, and even uniform of the New Model Army, are maintained. The royalist parliaments of England and Scotland give unwavering support of Charles at first, with the Scottish parliament being even more royalist than the English one. Soon after the restoration, the act of uniformity was passed, which John Wesley calls, “the famous horrid act…by which it was required that every clergyman should be re-ordained, if he had not been received episcopal ordination; and that he should declare his assent to every thing contained in the Book of Common Prayer.” This was the same period as the publication of the 1662 Prayer Book, which Wesley will use all his life. Yet he has few words for that edition compared with the vitriol he hurls at the Act of Uniformity. It was personal to him. His mother, Susanna, was the child of the Rev. Samuel Annesley, who refused to follow the Act of Uniformity and thus lost his parish of St. Giles, Cripplegate, but we shall spend much more time with Rev. Annesley in a later episode.

Wesley saw the seeds of doubt in the King rise among the people due to the profligancy of Charles, an example of which was the selling of Dunkirk to the French to pay royal debts. Charles also married Catherine of Portugal due to her dowry of the colonies of Tangier and Bombay, rather than any other qualities.

In 1665, the Second Anglo-Dutch war broke out. It started out well for the English and the Duke of York, the future James II, but the Dutch soon won, thanks to alliances with France and Denmark, crushing Charles’s popularity within the country. Yet in defeat, Charles was able to receive the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, which soon became New York.

In the years that followed, alliances shifted, England allied with the French against the Dutch, only to lose again. Then England found itself allied with the Dutch against the French. It was during this time that the Duke of York’s eldest daughter, Mary, was engaged to wed William of Orange, a wedding that was much lauded across England due to the Protestant bona fides of William. Charles and Catherine had no direct heirs on top of this, for Catherine was barren, and so Mary remained the heir of the next generation.

The latter years of Charles II’s reign were filled with plots and intrigues, talk of Jesuit invasion, and the first passing of the statute of habeas corpus, but it also ended with a struggle between the king and parliament. The same parliament that had been elected in 1662 still sat in Westminster. They had supported the King in an almost unwavering fashion, but near the end of the 1670s, Charles finally disbanded it. It wasn’t long before his wasteful lifestyle, though, necessitated a parliament to pay the bills, but instead of calling it to London, he called the next Parliament to Oxford. This did not solve his problems. As Wesley writes, “this parliament trod exactly in the steps of the former.” Charles wouldn’t have it and disbanded them again soon, taking on the trappings of a despot, according to Wesley. The crown soon revoked the charter of the city of London. Like his father had hoped to be, and like King Louis XIV of France was in practice, Charles II had become an absolute monarch, though it was not to last. In 1685, after marrying his niece, Anne, to the King of Denmark, Charles became ill and died within days. He was Fifty-Five years old and had been King for 25 years.

Wesley’s summation of his reign is scathing:

He was in every respect a consummate hypocrite, equally void of piety, mercy, honesty and gratitude. Under a cover of gentleness, he was cruel and revengeful to an high degree. He was abandoned to all vices. A worse man never sat on the English throne, and few worse princes.”

Charles’s heir, his brother James, would soon be crowned James II, but he was not long for the throne. Within three years, England was invaded by a foreign power, though history would name this revolution glorious. Next time, on the History of Methodism.


Diane Purkiss, The English Civil War

Christopher Hibbert, Cavaliers and Roundheads