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 14, The Humble Petition and Advice. After frustration with the first Protectorate Parliament, it led Oliver Cromwell to prematurely dissolve the body in January 1655. Oh wait, what’s that, Mr. Lord Protector? It wasn’t premature, you just have to go by lunar months? Okay.


After frustration with the first Protectorate Parliament led Oliver Cromwell to totally legitimately dissolve the body in January 1655, he started to fear that God no longer favored his plans. And his anxiety was not at all soothed when, over the next few months, he dealt with a royalist uprising in his backyard and a military debacle half a world away. Cromwell had always been God’s Englishman. But was he still God’s Englishman? To deal with the royalist uprising first, we have to rewind a bit back to late 1653.


After he had cooled his heels in France for a bit, Charles II commissioned a small cabal of six arch-royalist aristocrats, all but one of whom was the son of a major noble, to cook up organize and execute a plot — any plot — to put him on the throne. This group, dubbed the Sealed Knot, was to have the sole and exclusive right to conspire on the would-be king’s behalf. But the problem with the Sealed Knot was that they never thought the time was right. And very quickly, a loose-knit group of more impatient royalists started demanding action. Conveniently, we get to call those guys the Action Party.


See, the Sealed Knot was hoping for a pure uprising of British royalists to restore the monarchy, and were willing to bide their time until the right circumstances presented themselves. Meanwhile, the Action Party was willing to cut deals with just about anyone — the Spanish, the French, disaffected Presbyterians, even levelers — to overthrow the Protectorate. The exiled leveler John Lilburn, for example, actually put out feelers to the Action Party, promising to assassinate the Lord Protector in exchange for 10,000 pounds. And though nothing came of it, shared hatred of Cromwell certainly was turning out some strange bedfellows.


By late 1654, even Charles was getting impatient with his official conspirators in the Sealed Knot, and he started giving the go-ahead to men of the Action Party to organize an uprising in England. On New Year’s Day 1655, though, Cromwell spymaster John Thurlow — who, man, ran one of the best intelligence networks in history, he was always like 15 steps ahead of everybody — broke up part of the Action Party’s looming plot. But the would-be insurgents decided to go ahead with the planned launch date of February the 6th anyway. But as the date neared, they realized they weren’t even close to ready. They pushed it back a week, and then pushed it back again to March the 8th. Thurlow, meanwhile, was busy disrupting their communications, reading their mail, and arresting conspirators pretty much at will. Okay, so yeah, maybe this isn’t going to go exactly as planned, but we’re still gonna go for it. On March the 8th, Royalists in England were supposed to rise en masse to overthrow the hated Protectorate and restore their beloved king. A major rendezvous point set at Marston Moor drew upwards of 150 men. Okay, that’s not too good. Other rendezvous points outside Chester and Newcastle drew, let’s see, 50 men each. The rendezvous at Hull? No one showed up. Nobody.


So when the various Royalist diehards looked around and noticed that hey, there’s only a couple dozen of us, this is madness, let’s bolt before anyone realizes we were even here, they bolted. At only one point did the uprising pick up any steam, and that is where this uprising, called Penrutuck’s Uprising, gets its name. Down outside Salisbury, Sir John Penrutuck rallied 180 men, and on the night of March the 11th, 1655, they burst into Salisbury and took the sheriff and some judges prisoner. Then they opened up the jails to anyone willing to take up arms.


These prisoner recruits pushed Penrutuck’s force to 400 men, and in the morning they all took off west through Dorset and Somerset, calling on local Royalists to rise with them. But nobody wanted to have anything to do with it. When it became clear that they were on their own, men started deserting in droves, and I imagine the recently freed prisoners were chief among the deserters. On March the 14th, Penrutuck’s Royalist quote-unquote army was defeated by a single cavalry troop at South Moulton.


Now obviously Penrutuck’s Uprising turned out to be little more than a nuisance, so hey maybe God is still with me after all. But it did have one critical lasting effect. It hardened Cromwell’s heart against ex-Royalists in England. Thus far, he had been extremely lenient towards them, and had been very sympathetic when his officers complained about the rump seizing Royalist property. He had subsequently gone out of his way to invite as many of them as he could back into society. But after Penrutuck’s Uprising, he appears to have felt not a little bit betrayed by the extent of its support, even as his spymaster Thurlow exposed and arrested most everyone before they became a problem. So the Uprising set the stage not for a restoration of the monarchy, but for the rule of the major generals, and the soon-to-be despised decimation tax.


But before we get into that, we have to turn our attention briefly to the other side of the world for one of the few out-and-out boondoggles of Cromwell’s career, the so-called Western design. After the conclusion of the Anglo-Dutch War, England suddenly found itself, for the first time in a long time, not at war. But the years of near-constant military conflicts since 1637 had obviously left England with a way bigger and better trained army, and a way bigger and better trained navy. Which meant that it now had to be reckoned with in the endless power jockeying of the Continental Powers. Indeed, both France and Spain were now angling for an alliance.


Cromwell was still ticked off at the French for basically running an undeclared naval war for the last few years and for offering sanctuary to the exiled royal family, and it looked like he was going to sign an agreement with the Spanish. But then the Lord Protector had a change of heart. Most of his advisors favored a French alliance, and at this point in English history it was still the Spanish rather than the French who were considered the great boogeyman of England. So Cromwell elected to turn on Spain and launch a surprise attack on their colonial holdings in the New World.


In early 1655, a plan was put into motion to send the English navy off across the Atlantic to seize the great Spanish colony of Hispaniola, the big island in the Caribbean now split between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. John Lambert was vehemently opposed to the plan and argued that, look, this is going to be expensive, there are going to be a ton of casualties, it will distract us from the work we have to do at home, and oh yeah, there is no guarantee it’s even going to work. But Cromwell, uncharacteristically sinking into a sort of naive sentimentality, shot down Lambert by saying, no, no, it’s going to be great. It’ll be just like the good ol’ Elizabethan days when we whipped those Spanish dogs but good. It’ll be cheap, it’ll be easy, and when we take Hispaniola it’ll bring in a ton of cash.


But right away the operation looked doomed to failure. The men selected to go on the expedition were drawn from regiments across England, and officers saw it as a good opportunity to get rid of their worst or most obnoxious soldiers. Then, when it was time for the fleet to set sail, only about 2,500 men had actually been mustered. But it’ll be fine, we’ll pick up reinforcements in Barbados. But when the fleet got to Barbados, they discovered that the English colonists there were utterly opposed to attacking Hispaniola because it would disrupt the local Caribbean trade networks. But still, a collection of sullen recruits were pressed into service, bringing the total strength of the army up to about 9,000. So we are now maybe approaching a force large enough to take the island, but by the time they got there everyone had come down with dysentery, and they had to withdraw without so much as firing a shot. By now, the commanders of the expedition were ready to call it a day, and unilaterally decided to abandon the attempt to take Hispaniola and instead sailed off to take Jamaica, which was only garrisoned by about 500 Spaniards, which is how Jamaica wound up in the British colonial orbit. When the fleet circled back around and came home, though, they were greeted to a severe tongue-lashing by Cromwell for failing to perform their duty, no one yet knowing that Jamaica would turn out to actually be a pretty good get. Though his public posture was one of anger, privately Cromwell was depressed. This was a guy who was a devout believer in a providential God, who extended and withdrew his favor as men followed or strayed from the true path.


Since the day he had first mounted a horse, Cromwell’s career had been one of unqualified success. He won every battle. He won every war. Now he was tasting failure for the first time, and he was not a little bit dismayed. Because for him, military failure wasn’t just a sign of poor planning or bad tactics, it was a sign of God’s disapproval. So though his next move wasn’t solely about trying to get back into God’s favor, nor would his next move appear to get him back into God’s favor, but it did play a role. Because Cromwell did earnestly believe that the moral regeneration of Britain that was supposed to have accompanied Parliament’s victory in the Civil Wars was not actually coming to fruition, and maybe needed a firmer hand to see God’s will done.


The main thing Cromwell was hoping to accomplish with his next move, though, had less to do with morality and much more to do with security. The Penn-Ruddock’s Uprising, as I said, spun Cromwell off on a much harder policy towards perceived enemies of the state.


So in August 1655, he started working up a plan to coordinate local militias with the regular army, to strengthen the web of security. This led him to divide England up into 10, later 11, military districts, each of which was to be administered directly by one of Cromwell’s major generals. Their orders were to disarm royalists and Catholics, and then force them to produce a 5,000 pound bond to guarantee good behavior. But though this was the main point, the major generals were given a great deal of latitude over local affairs, especially when it came to the kind of puritanical moral policy — literally puritanical, not just figuratively — that Cromwell hoped would realign the country with God.


Among those policies were bans on horse racing, stage plays, public drunkenness, swearing, and Sabbath breaking — basically all the things that make life worth living. And as you can imagine, it did not endear the major generals to anyone. That said, what has become known as the rule of the major generals was never as invasive or tyrannical as later critics charged, especially since they never had the resources to run the kind of oppressive military dictatorship they were allegedly running. At its height, the administrative arm of the regime only employed about a thousand commissioners — in a country of three million.


On top of that, the major generals themselves were pretty young — most of them were under 40 and relatively low-born. So, when it came time to deal with the local lords and sheriffs and justices of the peace, there wasn’t a lot of natural deference going around. Apathetic obstruction seems to have been the order of the day out in the counties. So, though the major generals had no qualms about doing what they could when they could, there was not a lot of opportunity for them to do much beyond keeping the royalists under heel, which they did a pretty good job of.


To fund the major generals’ administrative apparatus, Cromwell devised a tax that was partly punitive and partly preventative and almost universally unpopular. The so-called decimation tax. The decimation tax specifically targeted former royalists and said you owe 10 pounds for every 100 pounds of land you own — hence decimation — and 100 pounds for every 1,500 pounds of real property you own. So first of all, yes, we’ve done a 180 since the Rump parliament was dissolved in part because they wouldn’t stop confiscating royalist property. But what made the tax really unpopular — even among non-royalists who didn’t have to pay for it — was how indiscriminate it was. I mean, if you had been a cavalier lieutenant in the first civil war but hadn’t raised your hand in anger since, you were still targeted for decimation. Even the commissioners who were supposed to be collecting the tax hated what they were doing, and exemptions both official and unofficial continually undermined the system.


By October 1655, the rule of the major generals was established across England, but it would never be firmly established. Sure, any attempted royalist conspiracies were sniffed out well in advance. This is right around the time when spymaster Thurlow peeled off one of the members of the Sealed Knot to spy for him. But at the end of the day, the major generals had too much to do and too little support to do it, both in terms of their own bureaucracy and cooperation from local leaders. Plus, they were getting very little support from Cromwell personally, who was absorbed with foreign policy. Because the other thing that happened in October 1655 was that England and France signed a treaty, and the war with the Spanish that had been unofficially declared a Hispaniola was now officially declared.


As with the treaty he had negotiated with the Dutch, Cromwell got a secret clause inserted into the treaty with the French, wherein they agreed not to offer further asylum to Charles II, his brother James, and 17 others specifically named royalists. The House of Stuart had to move their exile down to Spain, and if this kept up, they’d soon be holding court in Tangier. By early 1656 though, it was becoming clear that Cromwell’s central government did not have the resources it needed to support the domestic regime of the major generals, nor to prosecute the war with Spain. And as we all know, there is only one thing that can legitimately raise the kind of cash Cromwell needed, which put the Lord Protector in exactly the same spot King Charles had been in way back in 1637. Because even though Parliament was the only thing that could get him the kind of money he needed, Oliver Cromwell really really didn’t want to call another parliament.


Oh, the more things change. Even his rationale for not wanting to call a parliament was the same as the King’s, because Cromwell at this point had no real fear of crypto-royalist restoring the House of Stuart by majority vote. No, he was worried about extremists like Arthur Haselrig going right back to work trying to assert unilateral parliamentary authority over everything. Cromwell tried to get by as best he could, but by the spring his position was untenable. A meeting of the major generals in May produced uniform complaints about lack of resources, and they advised Cromwell to call another parliament. Also filed under the more things change, they basically offered the same assurances the Earl of Stratford had on the eve of the short parliament, that don’t worry, we’ll be able to manipulate and control them into doing what we want.


Cromwell considered his options, and in late June, finally recognizing that he had to bow to reality, it was announced that elections would be held in August for a new parliament that would meet in September. Those elections turned out to be pretty heated affairs, with very strong and very clearly un-manipulated attacks being leveled on Cromwell, his government, and most especially the now thoroughly despised major generals. Though said major generals all managed to secure election to the new parliament, as did all but one of Cromwell’s executive councillors, the returns made it clear that this parliament was going to have a thing or two to say about the direction Cromwell had taken the country.


Sensing this, the major generals decided to step in, and forget manipulation, let’s just blatantly rig the thing. Under the terms of the instrument of government, the executive council had the right to prevent undesirables from taking their seats in parliament, and that was supposed to mean royalists and Catholics. But the major general-dominated council decided to stretch that definition to include anyone they happened to deem a threat to the state.


So they took a look at the list of newly elected MPs and went, okay, well, he doesn’t like us, and he doesn’t like us, and, ooh, he really doesn’t like us. And by the time they were done, they had crossed out just over 100 names in a house composed of only 460 members, so I’m sure that won’t cause any problems at all. Then, in a weird bit of I don’t even know what, the council didn’t tell any of the excluded members they were going to be excluded. Cromwell greeted everyone at Whitehall on September the 17th, 1656, and gave a speech justifying all of his actions — the war with Spain, the rule of the major generals, the decimation tax.


But when the new MPs headed over to Westminster to get down to business, they found three colonels standing at the door checking to make sure everyone had their pass to enter. Oh, you don’t have a pass? Well, then I guess you can’t come in. And that’s how the 100 excluded members discovered they were going to be excluded. This little piece of political theater, reminiscent as it was of Pride’s Purge, obviously infuriated not just the excluded members, but almost all the MPs, who quite rightly took it as an assault on their sovereignty.


Another 50-odd non-excluded members refused to take their seats in protest, so right off the bat, the second Protectorate Parliament had already lost more than a quarter of its members. Those who remained decided that they had better just go ahead and conduct the business of state anyway, and left it to the excluded members themselves to deal with appealing to the council. Appeals, by the way, that pretty much went nowhere.


The second Protectorate Parliament, cleansed as it was now of the most implacable opponents of Cromwell and the major generals, began to ratify the regime’s conduct over the past year and nine months. But when they got to the hated decimation tax in January 1657, things ran off the rails. Things ran off the rails, because the decimation tax was emphatically rejected. That left the rule of the major generals without a tax base and the whole apparatus teetering on the brink of collapse.


But if the rule of the major generals was about to collapse, what would replace it? The instrument of government had been a promising start, but it was clear to everyone that it needed to be revised and maybe even replaced. And there were a number of people who thought that it needed to be revised in one very specific way. You see, the entire sociopolitical structure of England was built around this one thing, and without that one thing in place, no system of government, no matter how creative, no matter how brilliant, no matter how wise, was ever going to last. There was no getting around it. England needed a king.


On February 23, 1657, a bill was introduced into the House called the Humble Petition and Advice. It was designed to supersede both the rule of the major generals, which was now fatally discredited, and the instrument of government.


It did things to reform the Constitution, like create an upper legislative house, modeled on the House of Lords, who would have 40 to 70 members who would act as a check on the passions of the commons. It also took another stab at deciding how executive councilors would be chosen. Make it easier to dump these councilors if they proved obnoxious. But the really big thing, the really controversial thing, was Clause 1. A king would be put back at the center of England’s constitutional system.


The Humble Petition and Advice was nothing less than a deadly, earnest attempt to turn Oliver Cromwell into King Oliver I. A few days after the Humble Petition was read into Parliament, John Lambert, his fellow major generals, and about a hundred other officers met with Cromwell and implored him to reject the crown.


Lambert was ticked off enough that his beloved instrument was being superseded, but do we really want to go back to monarchy after all we’ve been through? But Cromwell took their hectoring tone rather badly, and he got mad at them for trying to pressure him into doing what they wanted him to do, not necessarily what he wanted to do. He apparently now blamed them for forcing him to dissolve the rump and the first protector of Parliament, even though, yeah, that’s not really how it went. But he was right in taking them to the mat for excluding so many elected members of the second protector of Parliament, which only fed the perception that the army was running amok.


He dismissed them all curtly. From then on, the role of the army as a political power unto itself went into permanent eclipse, and was probably also the moment John Lambert started down the road to his sad and tragic end. All through March, Parliament debated the humble petition clause by clause. Lambert tried to orchestrate an opposition, but the majority was against him, and the humble petition started getting passed clause by clause.


The explosive question of crowning Oliver Cromwell was left until last, but even then, over Lambert’s furious objections, it, too, passed. On March the 31st, the package was presented to Cromwell as one single bill. Cromwell accepting the crown was the linchpin of the whole project, and the one thing he was most likely to reject. By tying it to all the other reforms, reforms that Cromwell himself now believed necessary, the hope that as practical measure, he would acquiesce and become their king. Cromwell received their work with thanks, and said, “‘Let me think about it.’” Three days later, he called representatives of Parliament over to meet with him, and said, “‘Look, I’ve been thinking about it and praying about it, and I love what you’ve done here. There’s one or two small things I think you can change, and I will sign it in a heartbeat, but we’re going to have to take out the bit about me becoming king. I’m just not going to do it.’” The problem was that the two sides were looking at it from completely different perspectives.


Parliament was talking about practical politics, constitutional legality, but Cromwell never even got that far. He couldn’t get past his own personal conscience. He refused the crown not because he thought it was the wrong thing to do for England, but because it was the wrong thing for him to do on a straight line. The disappointed members returned to Westminster with the ball back in their court. Now, it was their turn to decide whether or not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. After Parliament debated for a few more weeks, Cromwell came down and delivered a long speech, the gist of which was that we shouldn’t let one or two trifling matters get in the way of accepting the reforms from the Parliament. Cromwell was very concerned about the fact that he didn’t want to do anything about one or two trifling matters get in the way of accepting the reforms we all agree are necessary.


It is hard to tell exactly where Cromwell is mentally at this point. Did this speech mean Parliament needed to drop the business about making him king? Or was he signaling that he himself was wavering and that he was starting to consider accepting the crown? The leaders of the king party in the House certainly became convinced that it was the latter. On May the 1st, the humble petition and advice was resubmitted to Cromwell. Parliament had made the few small changes he had requested, but Clause 1 was still sitting there, big as life. The ball was now back in Cromwell’s court. The Lord Protector said, okay, well let me think about it and I’ll get back to you.


Interpreting where Cromwell’s head was during the next week will probably be debated by historians into eternity. Had he already decided to say no and was just stalling for political reasons? Had he decided to say yes but was about to have his mind changed at the last minute? Or was he genuinely unsure about what he was going to do? I have seen all three sides argued. The public seemed inclined to support him accepting the crown. Lambert said that if Cromwell did so, he wouldn’t make a move against his new king, but he would also resign from service.


God, meanwhile, told Cromwell, well, that’s between God and Cromwell. On May the 8th, Oliver Cromwell came back and said no. I will gladly support and defend the humble petition and advice, but not as king. I am not going to do it. So now the ball was back in Parliament’s court, but this time they did not return the volley. After debating for two weeks, they took a vote and decided that they would accept the humble petition without the clause making Cromwell king.


But the final vote was just 53 to 50, which means that far from galvanizing record turnout in the House, the crucial debate over whether to make Cromwell king was actually driving members away. Only 103 MPs voted, out of a body that was supposed to be 460 strong. If anyone really wanted to take the mood of the public on the issue, it seems that exhaustion, just exhaustion, was the prevailing emotion.


John Lambert, at this point, could only take small comfort in this victory over monarchy, and he refused to swear an oath to defend the new constitution, the second and last written constitution in English history. Cromwell soon demanded his resignation and got it. But Lambert will be back. The whole drama blessedly closed on March the 25th, 1657, when Cromwell accepted the humble petition and advice as the new governing constitution of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland. He would remain Lord Protector. There would be no King Oliver the First.


Next week is, of course, Christmas, so we will not be back with a full episode, but I will hopefully have a stocking stuffer waiting for you on Christmas morning. Just a little thing to celebrate the day that if the Puritans had had Christmas, they would celebrate the day that if the Puritans had had their way, no one would have ever celebrated ever again. When we come back, there will be two more episodes before we close the books on the English Revolution. Then I’m going to take some time to gather up my notes before we zoom forward a hundred years to pick up with the American Revolution.


I should also mention that we still have some spots available for the first Revolutions tour, so if you want to come see where the Civil War started at Poick Bridge, and where they ended at Worcester, and where the Putney debates happened, and where Rupert got whipped at Marston Moor, and of course Westminster, where men with guns kept chucking obnoxious MPs out of, go to and click the Tours tab.


Okay, I think that’s everything. Happy Saturnalia to you all.


People Mentioned

Episode Info

The dissolution of the First Protectorate Parliament led to the brief and unpopular Rule of the Major Generals. When the Second Protectorate Parliament was finally called they tried to make Oliver Cromwell king. 

If you enjoyed this podcast, please consider buying Mike Duncan's books:


Podscript is a personal project to make podcast transcripts available to everyone for free. Please support this project by following us on Twitter.