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Mike Duncan (00:00):
Hello, and welcome to Revolutions. Episode 15. The Good Old Cause So we left off our story in May 1657, with Oliver Cromwell’s decision to not allow himself to be crowned king. But as we are about to see, while Cromwell himself had built up enough gravitas to rule merely as Lord Protector, when he died, that gravitas died with him. Without a strong center of political gravity, a whole framework of the Protectorate will quickly fall apart, clearing the way for the royal restoration that will complete the cycle of the English Revolution.
With the domestic political order settled for the moment, though, the second Protectorate Parliament closed its first session in June 1657 without incident. I repeat, without incident.
For the first time in, well let’s see, the long Parliament was forcibly purged in 1648, and then the rump was disbanded in 1653, and then the nominated assembly killed itself later that same year, and then the first Protectorate Parliament was cut short by the lunar month of all things. And hell, now that I think about it, before that, the short Parliament was disbanded early by King Charles, as were each of his first three Parliaments. I mean, you have to go all the way back to the reign of King James to find a Parliament that did not die in a blaze of political acrimony. And I’m looking here at the so-called Happy Parliament of 1624, which managed to avoid just such a fate only because, wait for it, the King died in early 1625 before things got out of hand.
But looking forward now, as it turns out, the unbroken string of exploding Parliaments will in fact continue. Because Cromwell was so satisfied with the work of the second Protectorate Parliament that he scheduled them to return for a second session beginning in early 1658, which is when it promptly exploded in his face, keeping the streak alive. The rest of 1657, though, was taken up mostly with foreign affairs, and we’ll touch on that briefly before we get back to the good stuff, you know, watching Parliaments blow up. On the international front, Cromwell was still holding out hope that he would be able to forge an alliance of Protestant nations. But by this point, Sweden and Denmark were actually about to go to war with each other, and far from looking for a closer union, the Dutch were actually talking with their old enemies the Spanish about an anti-British alliance.
So as the humble petition and advice was being finalized, Cromwell settled for the continuation of the military alliance with France. The two countries agreed to a one-year partnership based on a very specific set of objectives, seizing three Spanish-held cities on what is today the northern coast of France, Graveline, Mardike, and Dunkirk. The alliance called for Britain to supply the Navy and 6,000 infantry, and for the French to supply a land army 20,000 strong. When the cities were taken, Britain would get Dunkirk and Mardike, which were really a package unit, and the French would get Graveline.
Though this pact was signed in March 1657, the arrival of Spanish reinforcements and the dithering of the French commanders kept the expedition from really getting going until the fall. In late September, though, the Anglo-French army finally got moving, and Mardike surrendered after four days of heavy pounding. The next target was supposed to be nearby Dunkirk, but when the Spanish sent a small army to try and recapture Mardike, the Anglo-French operation stalled even though the Spanish relief army was defeated quite handily. Oh, by the way, both Charles II and his brother James served alongside their new Spanish allies.
As the little war entered the winter, it turned into mostly a headache for the British, whose numbers were depleted by sickness and desertion and unhappiness with the French commanders.
But Cromwell stuck it out, because the prize of Dunkirk would give the growing English navy a continental base, allowing them to control access to the North Sea, and perhaps most importantly, would force the Spanish to think twice about trying to run their new ally Charles II back into power, because Dunkirk was the logical spot from which to launch an invasion of England. But the attempt to capture Dunkirk would not begin until the following spring, so let us return to London, where another Parliament is about to go kablooey.
When the second Protectorate Parliament was recalled in January 1658, it was absolutely not the same body that had gone into recess back in June. Meeting under the framework of the humble petition and advice, Parliament itself now held control over which members would be allowed to sit and which would be denied their seats. Which meant that all those guys who had been elected and then excluded by the army were welcomed back with open arms. Cromwell’s hope, I suppose, is that any potential for mischief resulting from this reconstitution would be sufficiently moderated by the new upper house that had been established by the humble petition and was convening for the first time. Still simply called the other house, Cromwell, as Lord Protector, was able to personally select the membership, and though he did not risk a political crisis by nominating guys who would be totally opposed by the returning MPs, he did make sure that the 63 men he selected were all staunch Protectorate men who believed in the power-sharing system that defined the constitutional Commonwealth. As usual, Cromwell opened the new session with a speech, but by now the long years of military and political conflict had started to drain him. Instead of delivering another one of his marathon addresses, a physically deteriorated Cromwell was only able to offer a short and perfunctory speech, leaving the rest of his remarks to be delivered by subordinates. But he was not able to get off quite that easy, and the Lord Protector was forced to come back down a few days later and deliver a longer, more emphatic speech about the necessity of political unity. Why? Because, now packed with men who had nothing to do with the writing of the humble petition and advice, the first order of business the Commons attended to was going right back to work trying to reassert the Supreme Authority of Parliament. The MPs listened respectfully to Cromwell’s plea for political peace, and then carried on as if the Lord Protector had come down to simply tell them, good job, keep it up. Just a few days later, they had a petition ready to go that demanded Cromwell return practically all political authority to Parliament. And by Parliament, we are absolutely not including the other House, which, frankly, is an illegitimate monstrosity. The petition started by reminding the Lord Protector that the civil wars had been fought to overturn the tyranny of King Charles who had conspired with the House of Lords to thwart the will of the people, raise money without parliamentary consent, and then deploy the armed forces as a tool of oppression. It then went on to demand that Parliament not be challenged on its legislation, its oversight of the courts, or the staffing of the state bureaucracy. The petition was nothing less than the first step in trying to completely overturn the humble petition and advice.
It was due to be delivered to the Lord Protector on February the 4th, but Cromwell decided it was simply too dangerous to let out of Parliament. So, he once again headed down to Westminster, called everyone together, gave them the serious business, and announced that their sitting was at an end. Since their first session had already lasted more than five months, there was no need to resort to lunar month shenanigans. So yes, the unbroken streak of exploding parliaments lives on. Goodnight, Second Protectorate Parliament.
The army, of course, remained loyal to Cromwell. But the disbanding of the Second Parliament definitely led to some seditious murmuring. Enough, anyway, that the exiled royalists and their Spanish allies started putting feelers out to gauge support for restoring the House of Stuart. You know, we’ll invade with Charles if you rise up and support us.
Included on their list of contacts were old parliamentary leaders like Sir William Waller and the Earl of Manchester. They even tried to woo Sir Thomas Fairfax. But these retired roundheads demanded that any restoration be based on the framework of the old Newport Treaty, which, as you’ll recall, was the immediate cause of Pride’s Purge. But by this point, any exiled royalists still hardcore enough to be working for the restoration now considered the Newport Treaty not an acceptable compromise, but an unjust shackling of divine monarchical authority. So, the overtures went nowhere.
The hope for restoration was dealt a further blow in the spring of 1658, when the Anglo-French alliance was renewed, and they went off to capture Dunkirk. By the middle of May, an army of 25,000 backed by 20 English warships started laying siege to the city. The Spanish sent up a relief army, and on June 4, the two sides met at the Battle of the Dunes, so-called because they fought on the sandy hills northeast of the city. British soldiers fought on both sides. Prince James, for example, was once again present. And just to show you how far we’ve come, the bumbling English amateurs of yesteryear were now considered the best fighters on both sides of the line. I guess that’s what 20 years of near-constant warfare will do for you.
The Anglo-French army won the Battle of the Dunes decisively, though, and on June 14, Dunkirk surrendered. 19-year-old King Louis XIV of France showed up to personally hand the keys of the city over to the English commander. Dunkirk was now in the hands of the British Commonwealth. The hope of restoration was now on the verge of death.
Further dampening the spirits of the diehard royalists was the fact that by now, the prestige of the Commonwealth in Europe was at an all-time high. Not only was it a force to be reckoned with militarily, but its ministers of state had learned from their early mistakes and were now well-respected in continental diplomatic circles, proving themselves invaluable as reasonable mediators and shrewd negotiators in the treacherous game of European power politics.
At home and abroad, the Protector was running stronger than anyone could have reasonably expected, especially with all the false starts and internal bickering. So all Oliver Cromwell had to do was figure out a way to hand power off successfully, and it looked like the Republican experiment in Britain was going to become permanent. So who was going to succeed him? And when? Well, the answer to the former question, until the very last moment, was who knows? The answer to the latter question was, unfortunately, right now. Through the summer of 1658, Cromwell had his good days and his bad days. He had pretty much stopped attending meetings of the Council of State, but he remained thoroughly engaged in running the country, even as his health continued to fail. He was devastated in August by the death of a daughter, but that did not seem to affect his plan to hold new parliamentary elections in the fall. He still held out hope that maybe this time things would be different. After all, the last elections had been held when everyone was super pissed off at the Major Generals, so maybe this time cooler heads would prevail, and the endless political instability would finally, finally, finally be put to bed.
But of course, fat chance of that, because England is about to be hit by probably the single most destabilizing blow possible, the death of Oliver Cromwell. The Lord Protector slipped into the terminal phase of his illness just as August turned to September 1658, and though it was his full and unquestioned right to name a successor, he still had not done so publicly.
Privately, he pointed to his eldest son Richard as his successor, but even that was only reported second-hand by the men who stood by his deathbed. Now, I have done my level best to keep references to Roman history out of this thing, but I can’t help myself when it comes to this question of succession.
Because, in order to ensure a stable transition of power, what steps did a Roman emperor usually take? Well, first he had to publicly elevate his chosen successor early enough to get everyone used to the idea. He had to make sure that the army and the Praetorian Guard was on board. He had to make sure that the imperial household was on board. If our emperor was smart, before the end of his reign, he had already initiated some kind of formal power-sharing agreement, so that when he died, succession would not even be technically the name for what was happening, because the new emperor would simply be continuing on with the power, prestige, and authority he had already been invested with.
Now I’m not saying that the protectorate would have survived if Oliver Cromwell had done any of these things, or frankly if he had simply picked a better candidate, but he did none of them. And so the whole thing just fell apart when he died. In one of those nice bits of historical poetry, Oliver Cromwell finally passed away on September 3, 1658, the anniversary of his great victories at Dunbar and Worcester. He was 59 years old, and he had been Lord Protector of England, Scotland, and Ireland for just shy of five years. Arguing over the legacy of Oliver Cromwell has provided fine sport for historians since the day he died. Was he a defender of English liberty? A military dictator? A genocidal maniac? A republican visionary? An uncompromising religious zealot? A perfectly willing-to-compromise religious zealot?
Depending on your point of view, it’s easy to put Cromwell in a box labeled good or bad and walk away. But having gone through all of this, he turns out to be one of the more ambiguous historical leaders I’ve come across. Genuinely hesitant about amassing greater power while simultaneously amassing greater power. A devout man of God who concluded it was necessary to make way for freedom of worship. A ruthless general who took great pride in limiting the body count in his battles because he hated throwing lives away for nothing. The pacification of Ireland was obviously appalling, but Cromwell neither started that brutal process nor did he finish it. There is more than enough blame to go around on that front. He killed the king, but only after he spent years trying to figure out a way to put the king back on the throne. He dissolved or purged practically every legislative assembly he encountered, but then he just kept going back for more because maybe the next one will work out. He is portrayed as a dictator, but he kept supporting constitutions that denied anyone or anything unlimited political power. He was an obscure country gentleman who became king in all but name. And we will never stop arguing about who he really was, what he really did, or why he really did it. And now he’s dead.
Upon the Lord Protector’s death, and in accordance with his apparent wishes, his eldest son Richard succeeded him. Richard Cromwell was about to turn 32, and it seemed perfectly natural that the son should succeed the father, even in Republican England. Unfortunately, Richard was not his father. Like, at all. He wasn’t a bad guy. He was affable and well-liked by almost everyone who met him. But laid-back amiability is not exactly what it takes to rule.
He was not a deep thinker. He had almost no political experience, and almost no military experience. He had been promoted to a few posts of late, almost certainly to give him some experience. But he was essentially unequipped to deal with the powerful factions whose long knives had been deathly parried all these years by his father. Indeed, it is almost a given that the army grandees accepted him so easily because they assumed they would be able to push him around. He might not make a great leader, but he sure looked like he was going to make a great puppet.
Almost immediately, the army officers, who had been pretty well smacked down by Oliver Cromwell during the debate over the humble petition and advice, now started to rise up again. In October, a petition signed by many of the junior officers showed up demanding that Richard’s brother-in-law, General Charles Fleetwood, be made commander-in-chief of the army and given full hiring, firing, and promotion powers. Even somebody as new to this as Richard Cromwell could see that this would essentially neuter him right out of the gate, and the petition was quietly killed in a back room.
Then, in November, more senior officers started gathering in London to discuss how to reinstate all their exiled brothers, the ones who had been sacked along the way by Oliver, for example, Thomas Harrison and John Lambert, who in particular still had a passionate following in the ranks, and who had also long considered himself to be the logical heir of Oliver Cromwell.
As Richard attempted to pick his way through the treacherous world of military politics, he also had to pick his way through the treacherous world of civilian politics. The new parliamentary elections that had been scheduled for the fall had been pushed back by his father’s death, but over the winter, they went ahead. Critically, though, one of the things that had been scrapped when the instrument of government was abandoned was the rationalized districts and revised suffrage requirements, so these new elections went back to the old electoral map. Which meant that when the Third Protectorate Parliament met, it was not at all the cooler-heads-prevailing type of group the moment called for.
No, this was Arthur Hasselrig and his parliamentary true-believers once again ready to go to war to protect the sovereignty of the Commons, and this time, Oliver Cromwell wouldn’t be around to foil their plans. When the Third Protectorate Parliament gathered for its first session on January 27, 1659, things got off to an ominous start. About 150 or so members boycotted the opening speeches from Richard and his ministers.
Then a few days later, Richard’s allies in the Commons made a totally stupid tactical blunder. To settle the issue of Richard’s legitimacy, they called for a vote to re-ratify the humble petition and advice and confirm Richard as Lord Protector. But that left the door wide open for Hasselrig and his allies to openly question the legitimacy of both. The next almost three weeks were spent wrapped up in a debate over confirmation, and it quickly became apparent that Hasselrig’s ultimate aim was to stall long enough for allied forces outside Parliament – they gather enough seam – to bowl over the entire Protectorate apparatus.
Finally, Richard received his official recognition, but with the caveat that there would be additional clauses he would have to agree to first, which would be coming along shortly. With Richard’s status still ambiguous, Hasselrig opened up a full-throated attack on the other House, this pretend House of Lords, who had no legitimacy and no place in the Constitution.
This broadside on the upper House wound up eating up another month, and though the Commons finally voted on March the 28th to recognize the other House, by then the outside forces – an alliance of Hasselrig-style parliamentary men, religious secretaries, and Republican-inclined army officers – had launched a propaganda campaign to undermine the whole system. This propaganda campaign was built around the notion of the quote, Good Old Cause, which quickly became a term in frequent use in the press.
What exactly the Good Old Cause was, was left intentionally vague, but in the broadest sense, it was a nostalgic appeal to the early days of the Civil Wars, when men of conscience had been united against tyranny. Now, having listened to the last 14 episodes, can you remember a single moment when anything approaching unity existed, when there weren’t at least a half-dozen different factions of various political and religious stripes running around, all pulling in different directions? Because I sure can’t.
But the appeal of the Good Old Cause, whatever you happen to think that meant, wasn’t about accurately capturing the rich mosaic of partisanship within the parliamentary camp. It was about taking a rhetorical hammer to the Protectorate, which was a rank betrayal of the Good Old Cause, hell-bent on establishing a new tyranny, now represented by Richard Cromwell, his loyal councilors, and the senior grandees pulling the strings. On April 2, 1659, General Fleetwood called a mass meeting of officers, with the intention of letting the Republican-leaning men air their complaints.
The model for this meeting was of course the old rendezvous led by Fairfax and Cromwell, who were able to control and direct the passions of their men. Mostly, Fleetwood wanted to use the threat posed by all this Good Old Cause rhetoric to tighten his grip over Richard. But the proceedings got out of hand in a hurry.
The junior officers soon drew up a petition to Parliament, hinting that they would have no problem dispensing with any evil councilors who threatened the legacy of the Good Old Cause. But though there was a loose alliance between those officers and the men in Parliament, the men in Parliament didn’t much like the idea of the army reasserting itself as an independent political institution, and so Parliament declined to take up the petition. The increasingly self-assertive officers then started reinstating the men sacked by Cromwell, which is how John Lambert gets his official commission back.
Meanwhile, Richard, his advisors on the Council of State, and the Grandees met to settle their differences before a formal breach robbed them all of their authority. But as they were meeting, Parliament held a closed-door session — they literally locked the doors — and they passed two bills. First, there would be no more meetings of officers without express consent from Parliament. And second, any officer who refused to sign a pledge allowing Parliament to meet freely would be immediately sacked.
So this news hit the officers in London, just as they were getting word from their nominal Commander-in-Chief Richard Cromwell, ordering them all to return to their regiments — a belated attempt to nip their agitation in the bud. Unfortunately, Parliament’s attempt to dictate terms to the army inflamed not just the rank-and-file, but also the senior officers like Fleetwood, who now felt like they had to fight back against parliamentary encroachment.
Richard Cromwell was officially caught in the middle. On April 21, Fleetwood called for a general muster of the army at St. James Park, leading Richard to make an ill-fated attempt to assert power independently of the grandees. The young Lord Protector issued his own order for a general muster at Whitehall. It’s time to see who’s really in charge around here. And you can probably guess who turned out to be really in charge.
A few loyal colonels joined Richard at Whitehall, but almost all the enlisted men and most of the rest of the officers headed down to St. James. With his legitimacy fatally undermined, Richard was told by Fleetwood to immediately put himself under the protection of the army. They would be looking after his interests from here on out, which, yeah right. Now totally under the army’s control, Richard officially summoned Parliament with the intention of disbanding them, but Parliament refused to answer the summons, and all Richard could do was break the emblem of his office at their door to signal that the third Protectorate Parliament was over. Yet another assembly going down in a blaze of political acrimony.
The humble petition and advice, by the way, would soon follow it down the memory hole. The question, as always, is who is going to run the country now that the humble petition is all but inoperative. That is when Arthur Haselrig’s propaganda machine went into overdrive and started pumping out pamphlet after pamphlet, reminding everyone that the standard of the good old cause had been carried best by the unjustly dissolved Rump Parliament. And soon enough, manufactured public pressure was calling for the restoration of the Rump.
So in the first week of May, leading officers, including now John Lambert, who was thrilled to see the humble petition cast aside, met with Haselrig and other ex-members of the Rump to work out a deal. In exchange for backing the restoration of the Rump, the army would get permanent indemnity for its soldiers, Richard would get a pension, and the Rump would finally take action on the legal and religious reforms that had been languishing all these years. Haselrig and his allies were pretty non-committal about money for Richard Cromwell, but other than that the deal sounded good.
On May the 6th, 1659, just over 40 guys walked into Westminster, and the Rump Parliament was back in business. Three weeks of uncomfortable squirming later, a terminally irrelevant Richard Cromwell signed a document putting himself under the Rump’s control, in exchange for a nice retirement pension.
The Rump also decided to pay whatever debts he had accumulated during his time in office, but they never planned really on following through with any of that. And after the restoration, Richard had to flee to France to escape his creditors, though just to finish up with him, he would come back under a wink-and-nod assumed name and resettle in England, living a long and quiet life and dying in 1712 at the age of 85. Nobody hated Tumbledown Dick, the unfortunate nickname he has been saddled with by history. He was just in way, way over his head. Next week, we enter the endgame, because, let’s face it, as much as Arthur Haselrig and his cronies thought the Rump Parliament was the purest embodiment of whatever, the rest of the country pretty much despised them. And so it was that 18 years after King Charles removed himself from London and 11 years after his enemies killed him and abolished the monarchy, his son, Charles II, would come riding back into London to be greeted by the cheers of an adoring crowd, closing the book on the English Revolution.
- Charles I of England
- Oliver Cromwell
- Charles II of England
- William Waller
- Thomas Fairfax
- Louis XIV
- Richard Cromwell
- Charles Fleetwood
- John Lambert (general)
- Arthur Haselrig
- Thomas Harrison (soldier)
Oliver Cromwell died on September 3, 1658. His son and heir Richard was iunable to hold the Protectorate together.
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- 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
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