Disclaimer: The transcript that follows has been generated using artificial intelligence. We strive to be as accurate as possible, but minor errors and slightly off timestamps may be present.
You can click the timestamp to jump to that time.
Mike Duncan (00:00):
Hello, and welcome to Revolutions. Episode 13 – The Instrument of Government Last time, we saw two consecutive legislative bodies, the Rump Parliament and the Nominated Assembly, abruptly dissolved by men with guns.
Despite his reputation as the slayer of parliaments, though, it doesn’t really look like Oliver Cromwell was happy to see either go away. Well, I guess in the end he was happy to see them go away, but what I mean is that he probably had been hoping it wasn’t going to come to that. But then it did. Twice in a row. So the entire political system has once again crawled up onto the back of Oliver Cromwell. Luckily, John Lambert was right there with the Instrument of Government ready to go.
On December the 15th, just three days after the murder-suicide of barebones as Parliament, the Instrument of Government was adopted. On whose authority was it adopted? Look, just, it was adopted, okay? Does someone want to get Cornet Joyce in here to explain it to these people? The next day, in a sparsely attended ceremony at Westminster, Oliver Cromwell was sworn in as the Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland. But what did that mean? Well, let’s get into it, shall we?
Lambert’s Instrument of Government is actually a pretty nifty piece of work. It was constructed in part from the remnants of the old heads of proposals, and grounded most especially in the theory of separated powers. Lambert had observed that any unchecked political power, whether in the form of a despotic king or a despotic legislature, had the tendency to become, well, despotic. This was one of the reasons both the Rump and the Nominated Assembly had become so onerous to so many people.
But the other thing he observed was that a big legislature is basically incapable of efficient and timely governance. It’s a too-many-cooks-spoil-the-broth kind of thing. So the Instrument of Government divvied up legislative and executive power between three interlocking, mostly co-equal branches of government. A big legislative parliament, a small executive council, and a Lord Protector who straddled them both while being simultaneously limited by both.
On the legislative side, the Instrument thoroughly reorganized parliament. It would now have 400 members representing England and Wales, and another 30 each for Scotland and Ireland. New elections had to be held within three years of the closing of the last session, and each new parliament was guaranteed a minimum life of five months. The property requirement for suffrage was jacked up to 200 pounds annually, and the district lines were radically redrawn to eliminate all the rotten burrows flirting around out there and bring some semblance of rationality to the electoral process.
Catholics were of course disbarred both from voting and serving in parliament, as were ex-royalists who hadn’t been granted specific exemptions, which Lambert hoped would solve the problem of the first parliament potentially voting to restore the monarchy. On the executive side, the council was to be composed of between 13 and 20 members who would serve for life. Lambert devised an elaborate system of choosing new councillors, with parliament nominating six candidates, the sitting council narrowing the list down to two, and then the Lord Protector selecting the winner.
Once a councillor was in though, they could not simply be dismissed by the Lord Protector at will, as a king could eject someone from his privy council. It required a fairly cumbersome impeachment process to get rid of an objectionable councillor. And when you consider that the council was to have control of the armed forces when parliament wasn’t in session, and they were to be the ones who selected a new Lord Protector if the old one died, it is pretty clear that the independent power lodged in the council was one of the major political innovations of the instrument of government.
The office of Lord Protector, meanwhile, was designed to be a king in all but name. But, not the kind of king King Charles I had aimed to be, more like the kind of king that parliament had tried to make him, a sovereign whose power would only be wielded within a tightly constructed box. The Lord Protector, for example, was given a veto power, but it was far from absolute. Basically, the Lord Protector could refuse to sign a bill, but if, after twenty days of inaction, parliament took a second vote, and the bill again passed, then that was it. It was a law. And there was no two-thirds requirement, just another majority vote.
On the other side of the equation, the Lord Protector was the head of the executive council. But if parliament wasn’t in session, and, for example, a question of military deployment came up, the Lord Protector was bound by the majority vote of his council, even if he disagreed with it. Now, the office wasn’t just some empty figurehead, and it drew enormous influence by being able to serve both a legislative and executive function. But the Lord Protector is not an absolute dictator. The office does, however, lend its name to this particular period in British political history. We call it the Protectorate.
The first Protectorate parliament was to convene on September 3, 1654, the auspicious anniversary of Cromwell’s triumphs at Dunbar and Worcester. In the meantime, he would rule with his selected council temporarily, but then allow the new parliament to ratify their decisions to give it all a nice veneer of legitimacy. So that takes care of England. But what about the other two-thirds of the Lord Protector’s domains, Scotland and Ireland?
We left Ireland when Cromwell sailed away back in April 1650, and then left Scotland when Cromwell chased after Charles II in August 1651. So where do these two now-conquered lands stand in the Protectorate? To take Scotland first, after the defeat of Charles II at Worcester, the Rump had intended to simply annex the country. But like most everything else, they never got around to it. Some steps had been taken to align the country with England in preparation, though. The old feudal hierarchies were abandoned and replaced by a system where the Scots essentially governed themselves locally, but were answerable to English commissioners and judges.
This was not so bad considering the alternatives, and the only really controversial bit was that the English imposed religious toleration. The hardcore Scottish Presbyterians were of course righteously ticked off, but most everyone else decided they could live with it, especially if it meant ending the military occupation faster. Scottish commissioners were then invited down to haggle over the coming political union, but the expulsion of the Rump put everything on hold.
Barebones’s Parliament picked up the baton where the Rump had dropped it, along with every other baton the Rump dropped, but their negotiations with the Scots hit a snag when a Royalist insurgency suddenly broke out in Scotland. See, after he landed in France, Charles II had appointed the Earl of Glencairn to pick up the Royalist standard in the north and tried to carry on the fight. As with the Marquess of Montrose’s various adventures, Glencairn found support mostly in the Highlands, but by September 1653, he started making headway in the lowlands too.
The commander of English forces in Scotland was Robert Lilburn, brother of Freeborn John, and in an attempt to nip the uprising in the bud, he probably came down too hard on the Scots and wound up inadvertently provoking further unrest. By January 1654, as Cromwell was settling into his new role as Lord Protector, there were perhaps five to ten thousand Scots under arms, but long entrenched rivalries between highland clans and lowland clans made it difficult to unify the movement. Plus, the Earl of Argyll had decided he was done supporting the monarchy and stuck with the Protectorate regime.
In April, General George Monk took over from Lilburn, and by the end of summer, the insurgency was pretty well broken. While Monk was putting down Glencairn’s uprising, Cromwell and his council passed the Ordinance of Union, which abolished the independent Scottish Parliament. The Scots were now to be represented in a unified British Parliament under the terms of the instrument of government. To make this medicine go down easier, the Ordinance of Union also opened up free trade between England and Scotland, and then the Act of Pardon essentially exonerated every Scotsman who had ever taken up arms against England, except for a short list of specifically named men.
So now that General Monk is up in Scotland from whence he will help restore the monarchy in 1660, I think it’s high time we finally took a tangent and grappled with the career of General George Monk. He was born the second son of a bankrupt landowner, which pretty well meant that he had two available career paths – the military or the clergy. Monk chose the military, and as a 16-year-old volunteer, he served in the ill-fated Cadiz Expedition of 1625, the one organized by Buckingham that we talked about way back in episode 1.
Two years later, he was back home and stabbed a sheriff to death who was coming after his father for debt delinquency. So Monk skipped town and joined the ill-fated La Rochelle Expedition, the one that we also talked about back in episode 1 that got people really super mad at Buckingham. From there, he volunteered for service with the Dutch and wound up serving as a lieutenant under Sir George Goring. He stayed in the Netherlands for nine years until he got into an argument with his Dutch masters and resigned.
He returned to England just in time to join the Bishop’s Wars, and as you will recall from episode 3, he served as a colonel at Newburn and managed to withdraw the artillery in good order – one of the only not totally embarrassing things that happened at the Battle of Newburn. A few years later, in February 1642, he was one of the few soldiers actually shipped over to deal with the Irish Rebellion before preparations for the First Civil War kept everyone else at home.
He fought the Irish rebels until the cessation was signed in September 1643, that was in episode 6, and was preparing to ship off to fight against Parliament, but he pointedly refused to sign a loyalty oath to the king. So instead, he was shipped off to Oxford to personally explain himself to Charles, which apparently he did, because the next thing we know he’s being sent off to help lead the troops coming over from Ireland, but of course those forces were whipped by rising star Sir Thomas Fairfax, that was also episode 6, and Monk was captured.
He would spend the remainder of the war locked in the Tower of London. He was released in early 1646, after swearing to faithfully serve Parliament, and was sent back to Ireland, where he became the Commander-in-Chief of the forces in Ulster.
After fighting off and on for the next few years, he suddenly found himself isolated by the execution of Charles, which galvanized the enemies of Parliament in Ireland. He was forced to negotiate an unpopular truce with the Irish Catholics, and then, a few months later, was forced to abandon his position altogether and sail back to England, after most of his men deserted to the royal banner. This would have been right around episode 10. He was reprimanded by Parliament, but Cromwell was not one to lose a talented officer, and Monk was given command of a regiment, and then a brigade, during the invasion of Scotland.
He was invited into Cromwell’s Council of War, led an infantry brigade at the Battle of Dunbar, and was then left in charge of mop-up operations in Scotland, after Cromwell and everyone else chased Charles II into England. That was episode 11. He finished off the conquest, including putting Dundee to a pretty brutal sack, but then resigned his commission when his health gave out. So that’s the career of General Monk up to this point, right? Oh wait, no. After he resigned his health, he wound up getting named one of the three generals at sea for the Anglo-Dutch War, along with Robert Blake and Richard Dean, because even though he had no naval experience, he was a master of artillery.
After Dean was killed and Blake was injured, Monk wound up in charge of the whole naval war, and was the mastermind behind the final victories in the summer of 1653. So that is the career of Monk up to this point. He will spend the next five years as the military governor of Scotland, and, as I’ve hinted, will play a major role in the final breakdown of the restored rump, yes, the rump is going to be restored, and the restoration of the monarchy, but we’ll get to that later. Okay, end of tangent.
So in Scotland, the major themes of the political settlement were reconciliation and tolerance. The themes of the Irish settlement, on the other hand, were… not that at all. Rather than limiting blame to a few select rebel leaders, the English seemed perfectly willing to blame the Irish collectively. Before it was dissolved, the rump had passed a bill that, if interpreted literally, would have meant the deaths of upwards of 80,000 Irishmen for having participated in the various revolts of the last decade.
But the law was never interpreted literally, nor was it possibly even meant to be. Mostly, it was meant to create a legal rationale for voiding land titles, because what the English really needed was not Irish heads, but Irish land. Over the course of the civil wars, Parliament had raised money by selling off huge, and entirely theoretical, tracts of land to investors. The deal was, you give us cash now, and when the rebellion in Ireland is put down, you’ll be compensated with X amount of land.
Now that bill was coming due. The other bill coming due was presented by all the English soldiers who had served in Ireland in part because they had been promised land when they were discharged. So there were a lot of IOUs floating around out there when Cromwell inherited the problem in 1653. The two big questions facing Cromwell and his council were first, is the confiscated land going to be spread all over Ireland or concentrated in one specific area? And second, what do we do with the Irish currently living on the land? Were they going to be rounded up and moved, or would they be allowed to stay?
In September 1653, Cromwell gave his assent to a bill that answered these questions. The seized land is going to be concentrated in one spot, specifically, ten contiguous counties around Ulster, that hotbed of rebellion, which was now on its way to becoming the Northern Ireland we know and love today.
To facilitate the transfer, dispossessed Irish landlords were going to be removed en masse to the county of Connaught. The question of what to do with the Irish commoners took a little more time, but in 1655 it was decided they could either follow their lords to Connaught, or if they wanted to stay behind, that was cool too. Goes without saying, of course, that when conquered Ireland was folded into the instrument of government, the only men who enjoyed suffrage came from this new English landlord class. And would be represented in the protectorate parliaments, just not by, you know, Irishmen.
While everyone waited for that first parliament to meet, Cromwell and his council tried to get the ball re-rolling on some of the stalled domestic reform measures, including laying out a new established church, discharging rotten ministers, and strengthening national finances by consolidating all revenue into a single treasury. But the big issues during the parliamentary interregnum were in foreign policy, specifically concluding a treaty to end the war with the Dutch. But more broadly, Cromwell had developed a vision for a tight union of Protestant nations, and he wanted to use the treaty negotiations with the Dutch as a springboard for that larger goal. In April 1654, the nice and vaguely worded Treaty of Westminster was signed by the English and Dutch. It contained none of the punitive measures that previous English negotiators had demanded. It did, however, contain an agreement that neither country would harbor the enemies of the other. This was far more important to the English than it was to the Dutch, because exiled royalists had settled in Holland in great numbers. Indeed, their presence and budding alliance with the House of Orange had been one of the sub-causes of the recent war.
Cromwell also got a clause inserted that disbarred the three-year-old Prince of Orange from holding the office of Stadtholder, or Captain General, which was designed to keep the royalist House of Orange from wielding official power in the United Provinces. Now that is interesting to us, of course, because in about 35 years, the three-year-old Prince of Orange will be all grown up and accepting an invitation from the English Parliament to come over, lead the Glorious Revolution, and become King William III.
After the treaty was signed, Cromwell was able to orchestrate commercial treaties with Sweden and Denmark, but that was about as far as his dream of a Protestant Union got. As it turned out, everyone was pretty nervous about the long-term ambitions of this newly militarized English Protectorate, especially since it was in the process of annexing Scotland and Ireland. Nobody wanted to be next on the list.
On September 3, 1654, the first Protectorate Parliament finally convened. Cromwell was hoping that after his experience with the Rump and the nominated Assembly, that the new Parliament would get the country back on track. Unfortunately, as we are about to see, third time was not, in fact, the charm. The composition of the Parliament was a mix of rookies and veterans. About half the new MPs were serving in government for the first time, but 125 had served at some point during the long Parliament, 55 had served in bare-bones as Parliament, and another 18 were regicides.
Cromwell opened the first session with an address calling for political healing, but as soon as he took his leave, a clique of veteran MPs led by Sir Arthur Haselrig got started on a project to completely undermine the instrument of government. Haselrig, you see, was a parliamentary absolutist. He did not believe that any power should, or even could, limit the authority of Parliament. He wasted no time corralling all the rookies and explaining to them just how powerful they really were and how illegitimate the Lord Protector and the Executive Council were. So straight away, the first Protectorate Parliament started doing whatever it felt like.
Haselrig led off with a bill to establish a national church that would suppress all dissenting sects, striking at the very heart of the independent consensus that had emerged after the Civil Wars. Then he opened up the floor for debate on the instrument of government itself.
A Parliament had of course been given the right to ratify any bills or appointments made by Cromwell and the Council over the course of the last nine months. But at Haselrig’s instigation, Parliament took that to mean the instrument of government itself was subject to the same scrutiny. So they started editing it clause by clause. The Executive Council would not serve in perpetuity, but be renewed with each Parliament, the Executive Council would not have a share in any military authority. Basically, they started crossing out anything that made the Executive Council a co-equal of Parliament. Just nine days after he had implored them to act in the name of political healing, Cromwell had to come down to Westminster and lay down the law. He told them that, yes, it is your right to argue about practically anything you feel like arguing about, but there are going to be a few things that are officially beyond your jurisdiction.
First, power is going to be split between the Lord Protector, his Executive Council, and Parliament. No one is above any of the others, got it? Second, you can never vote to extend Parliament in perpetuity. Third, liberty of religious conscience is going to be a thing, so get over it. Fourth, joint military control is also going to be a thing, so get over that too.
Cromwell then presented them with a declaration summing up these principles that everyone had to sign. Haselrig, of course, refused to put his name on it, and was forced to withdraw from Parliament, which, for Cromwell, was just as good as getting him to sign the declaration at all. Two weeks later, though, one of the constitutional issues that was still open for debate, how a new Lord Protector was going to be chosen, was suddenly thrust to the forefront.
While riding home one day, Cromwell decided, just for kicks, to take the reins of his carriage. But one of the horses went a little crazy, and the whole carriage pitched over and crashed. Now, the crash itself was not the problem. The problem was that Cromwell had a loaded pistol in his pocket at the time, and the impact set it off. The Lord Protector miraculously emerged in one piece, but the near miss reminded Parliament that the question of succession, at this point, could only be answered by the council. And that really wouldn’t do.
By January 1655, it was becoming clear to Cromwell that Parliament was not in fact interested in honoring the power-sharing framework of the instrument of government, so much as undermining it completely by gathering up all power for themselves. Confirming Cromwell’s suspicions, Parliament put together a series of amendments to the instrument that, among other things, gave Parliament, not the Lord Protector, the final say in who would serve on the council, gave Parliament, not the council, the right to select the new Lord Protector, and that sign declaration or no sign declaration, they weren’t going to share military authority with anyone.
Then they made the fateful decision to present Cromwell with the amendments as one package bill. He could accept it, or veto it, but he couldn’t say yes to some parts while rejecting others. It was all or nothing. This was the last straw for the Lord Protector. Usually Parliament just didn’t get it. But he had a problem. According to the instrument of government, which he was defending so vocally, a Parliament must sit for at least five months before it could be disbanded. Believing that any delay in dissolving them would only invite further mischief, Cromwell came up with a brilliant and transparently devious idea.
The instrument said five months, right, but it didn’t say what kind of months. Okay, well, how many kinds of months are there? Oh, there are two. Solar months and lunar months, which are shorter. So, on January the 22nd, 1655, exactly five lunar months since the first session of Parliament, Cromwell strode into the chamber, spent two hours denouncing the whole lot of them, and then declared the first Protectorate Parliament dissolved. It didn’t take men with guns to clear out the MPs this time, though it did lead to the direct rule of men with guns.
Next week, Cromwell will take yet another crack at trying to devise a system of government for Britain. Though the instrument of government would remain in force, the second Protectorate Parliament would not be called until September 1656. In the meantime, power would be wielded directly by a group of major generals, operating through an administrative framework invented by Cromwell out of whole cloth.
But trying to simply govern the country would not be the Lord Protector’s only problem, as yet another Royalist uprising will plague him at home, while the collapse of the so-called Western design abroad will utterly demoralize him and force Cromwell to question whether God had finally abandoned him.
- Oliver Cromwell
- George Joyce
- Charles II of England
- John Lilburne
- George Goring
- Thomas Fairfax
- Richard Dean
- Arthur Haselrig
- Lord Protector
- Charles I of England
- William III of England
- George Monck, 1st Duke of Albemarle
The Instrument of Government was the first written constituion in English history.
If you enjoyed this podcast, please consider buying Mike Duncan's books:
- Hero of Two Worlds: The Marquis de Lafayette in the Age of Revolution: https://amzn.to/3VNqViT
- The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic: https://amzn.to/3h26YpW
- The History of Rome: The Republic: https://amzn.to/3UAvImK
Podscript is a personal project to make podcast transcripts available to everyone for free. Please support this project by following us on Twitter.