In April 1646, following a series of defeats and with his capital at Oxford under siege, King Charles I fled north in the hope of securing safe passage to the Continent but unable to do so and fearing capture by rogue elements of an enemy that may seek to do him harm he surrendered himself to the Scottish Covenanter Army based at Newark.
Charles felt that he could better negotiate a deal with his Scottish opponents than he could an English Parliament dominated by Puritans, Radicals, and the New Model Army. He was mistaken, there was no enthusiasm on the part of the Scottish to prolong the war and support a King so utterly abject in defeat and so nine months later in January 1647 they sold him back to the English for £100,000 with Charles remarking bitterly that he had been bartered away rather cheaply.
Although Charles was a prisoner, kept under house arrest, and shunted from one location to another there had not yet been any moves to formally dethrone him and few people as yet envisaged his forced abdication or the abolition of the Monarchy.
Despite his captivity at Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight, to where he had fled and been detained following an earlier escape, Charles had continued secret negotiations with the Scots conceding to most of their demands, and they seizing an opportunity to exploit the continuing divisions between the English Parliament and its Army on 26 December signed with him what became known as the ‘Engagement.’
In return for establishing the Presbyterian Scottish Kirk in England a Covenanter Army would invade the country in support of a Royalist insurrection intended to exploit the unpopularity of a regime that had just abolished Christmas and in doing so restore the King to his throne.
The Second Civil War began in May 1648, but the planned insurrection in support of the King barely materialised and where there were uprisings they were poorly organised and easily crushed.
With the defeat of the now isolated and unsupported Scottish Army at the Battle of Preston in August the attempt by Charles to restore his power by force had failed.
Even now, Charles continued to negotiate separately with both his Parliament and the New Model Army for a settlement to the constitutional crisis but despite the generous terms on offer he did so with scant sincerity, and there were those who now doubted he could be trusted and would break any agreement even before the ink had dried on the parchment.
But even a King who would not countenance any diminution of his sovereignty had to take account of the political reality and so on 1 December 1648 he presented Parliament with his terms for an agreement that would see him restored to the throne subject to their control.
But many radicals and those within the New Model Army believed that in resuming the conflict he had defied the Verdict of God so clearly expressed in the outcome of the First Civil War thereby ceasing to be a King worthy of trust and instead becoming that ‘Man of Blood." It had proved the final straw and when on 1 December, the House of Commons voted in favour of the King’s proposals as enshrined in the Treaty of Newport by 128 votes to 83 they decided to act.
Following discussions within the Army High Council during which it was made plain that any settlement between that ‘Man of Blood’ and Parliament was unacceptable, Oliver Cromwell and his son-in-law Henry Ireton ordered Colonel Thomas Pride to take a company of troops and purge the Chamber.
On 6 December, provided with a list of names, protected by armed guards, and with troops stationed at every exit, Colonel Pride stood atop the stairs that led to the Chamber stopping all those who tried to enter and placing under arrest those whose name appeared on his list.
Three Public Houses stood close to the Parliament Building named Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell - the arrested MP’s were taken straight to Hell and placed under armed guard.
By the end of Pride’s Purge fewer than 200 of the 471 MP’s, remained with most of those arrested released soon after unharmed but denied the right to resume their seats.
The new House of Commons would soon become known disparagingly as the ‘Rump’ nonetheless Cromwell had his compliant Parliament and on 13 December they annulled the Treaty of Newport as instructed. The House of Lords which had voted overwhelmingly in favour of the treaty were simply ignored. There would now be no agreement with the King and instead he would be tried as a ‘tyrant, traitor and murderer; and a public and implacable enemy of the Commonwealth of England.'
Few in the newly purged Parliament demurred but even so Cromwell took no chances permitting only 49 MP’s upon whose loyalty he believed he could depend to vote on the issue of whether the King should stand trial for his life.
He was right to be cautious for even among those he had chosen only 26 voted in favour, but it was enough.
Cromwell and the Army High Council were determined that the trial of Charles I would be an open and public affair, this would be no behind the scenes assassination, no sordid murder committed in the dead of night, for they intended to kill not just the King but the Monarchy itself. But despite such noble intentions and the pretence to legality the proceedings themselves were little short of a show trial.
The trial of the King which began in Westminster Hall on 20 January 1649, soon descended into farce as he refused to enter a plea making the proceedings illegitimate under English criminal law. The normal procedure in such circumstances would be to crush the accused with rocks until he did enter a plea, to death if necessary, but no one would countenance torturing the King. So despite the chaos in the Courtroom, to shouts of Justice! And Shame! To fist fights and guards aiming their muskets at the crowd the trial proceeded to its verdict of guilty and sentence of death.
On 30 January, as the Rump rushed through legislation that ‘prohibited any person proclaiming themselves King of England, Ireland, and the Dominions thereof’ Charles awaited his fate in the semi-darkness of the Banqueting House in Whitehall once a monument to the glory of the Stuart Monarchy now an ante-chamber of death with fortitude and calm.
When the time came for him to mount the scaffold and place his head upon the block he did so imperious and defiant as was ever so: “I have delivered my conscience; I pray God you do take those courses that are best for the good of the Kingdom and your own salvation.”
Cromwell viewed the Rump as an interim body, the tool with which to complete a specific task, but they thought otherwise. Deeply conservative they wanted to maintain the status-quo and sought a return to normality as soon possible but by this they meant a pre-civil war normality free of Monarchical interference – a run for profit country of deference, rigid social hierarchy, and religious stability frustrating the army, religious radicals, and Cromwell’s own pious Godly enthusiasms.
Indeed, instead of implementing his long cherished plan for religious toleration (Catholics excluded) the Rump passed legislation penalising those they considered religious extremists such as the Ranters and Quakers.
In May 1650, in the role they now saw themselves as guardians of the peoples’ morals, they passed the Adultery Act which imposed the death penalty for those convicted of an adulterous act and three months imprisonment for acts of fornication. Such deeds of sanctimonious hypocrisy from a house of libertines stuck in Cromwell’s craw.
In the meantime, they eagerly sold off Crown Lands and the appropriated Estates of prominent Royalist opponents greatly enriching themselves in the process.
Having disavowed firebrand religion they also rejected the demands of those such as the Levellers for an extension of the franchise not wanting to introduce dangerous elements of democracy into the political system, something that Cromwell could agree with but he remained furious that they refused to provide the funds to alleviate the suffering of soldiers some of whom had not been paid for many years instead threatening to send them to Ireland to quell the rebellion there if they refused to disband.
This was not the Parliament he desired, the country squire and the gentleman politician he understood well enough but the most active members of the Rump were lawyers and those with commercial interests in the City of London; and he was beginning to see it as little better than a serpents lair of avarice and rapacious self-interest poisoning the well of goodly and Godly intentions.
Cromwell was in little doubt that the Rump was doing more harm than good but in the fragile post-civil war years with rebellion still a danger and the debate over what should constitute the new Commonwealth continuing unabated he had no desire to provoke antagonism with the only legitimate source of authority in the country.
In the spring of 1653, Cromwell proposed to the Rump that it should establish a Council to oversee not only its own dissolution but arrangements for the holding of fresh elections.
Parliament appeared to respond positively to the proposal but Cromwell soon learned that it wasn’t even under consideration instead the Rump was seeking to pass legislation to maintain itself in perpetuity.
He had been lied to, he felt betrayed, and he was furious.
On 20 April, Oliver Cromwell attended a session of Parliament for the first time in many months, an ominous sign in itself.
He entered the Chamber alone, removed his hat, and respectfully asked the Speaker for permission to address the House. After a few words thanking them for their due diligence and hard work his tone suddenly changed and he began to berate those Members present.
Cromwell, for so long a gentleman in name only had known hard times tilling the fields alongside his workers and he wasn’t shy of using the language of the ploughman especially when rage overcame him, and it overcame him now.
Apologising for his un-Parliamentary language in advance he declined to take his seat and instead marched up and down the Chamber condemning specific Members without naming them but staring directly at those he accused leaving few in doubt who he was referring to. He called Sir Henry Vane a juggler, Francis Allen a fraudster, Henry Marten and Sir Peter Wentworth were whore-masters, Thomas Challoner was a drunkard, and many others came in for similar abuse. Finally, his face glowering with rage he shouted:
“You have sat too long for any good you have done. Depart, I say, and let’s have done with you. In the name of God, go!”
Then declaring them to be no Parliament and to howls of derision he ordered in the troops.
Cromwell, picking up the Mace, the symbol of Parliamentary authority referred to it as the Fools Bauble and ordered it taken away as General Thomas Harrison forcibly removed the Speaker from his chair and hustled the other Members out of the Chamber.
Previously King Charles I had marched troops into the Chamber of the House of Commons intending to arrest those MP’s he believed were instigating the opposition to his rule, an infringement of Parliamentary sovereignty that set the country on the path to war. Now twelve years on Oliver Cromwell at a single stroke had reversed everything the Civil War had been fought for.
He had shown the sovereignty of Parliament to be no more secure under the new Commonwealth than it had been under the Monarchy. Little wonder many despaired that the Civil War with all its religious divisiveness, bitter hatreds, cost in treasure, and great loss of life had all been in vain.
For the time being at least England would be a military dictatorship.