In 1653, with Charles I beheaded, Charles II in exile, and the rebellions in Ireland suppressed (brutally, since you asked), Oliver Cromwell had no one left to fight with but his allies. So off he toddled to the House of Commons and closed it down.
How’d we get to this point?
Before Charles I was executed and when the odds of him losing his throne looked about the same as the odds that he’d invent the rechargeable battery, he knocked heads with his parliament over money and power. It’s hard, when you’re not just the king but the head of your country’s church, not to think that god meant you to be the head of everything else too, so Charlie believed he had a divine right to be king.
He wasn’t the only one. It was a long-standing European belief, but that didn’t make it any less of an issue, because Parliament, for the most part, didn’t believe it. It believed in the Magna Carta, which said (with just the slightest bit of paraphrasing), Sure, this guy can be king but there are limits. So Parliament voted him money by the teaspoonful and did everything it could to limit his power.
Charlie sent them home, because that was one of the powers that they both agreed he had.
Bad Parliament. You can’t play at Our house anymore.
Did I say “house”? I meant “palace.”
But dissolving Parliament turned off his largest money tap. He cobbled together assorted of ways to raise money, but after eleven years he needed those pesky parliamentarians again. He’d gotten himself in a war with Scotland over prayer books and bishops. No, seriously: That stuff mattered. Either that or it stood in for what mattered more but didn’t play as well to the crowd.
Whatever they’re about, though, wars are expensive.
So Parliament met and and the new one didn’t get along with the king any better than the last one had. The most Protestant Protestants among its members suspected Charles of edging the country toward Catholicism, what with his Catholic wife and his stained glass church windows and his priests in fancy dress.
No, I’m telling you. All of that mattered.
In 1641, the new Parliament arm-wrestled Charles for various sorts of power and passed–barely–a list of complaints about the king, called the Grand Remonstrance. When Charles didn’t email back immediately and say, Hey, guys, great talking points, let’s discuss them, my door is always open, its supporters circulated the Remonstrance to the public.
And with that, the Parliamentary debate had broken powerfully into the world, where ordinary people were already debating these issues.
Before long, Charles broke into the House of Commons and tried to arrest the five members who annoyed him most, which must’ve been a hard choice. They were all getting on his refined and kingly nerves.
Within weeks, armed bands had invaded Westminster. The king and queen fled. Parliament held London.
Both sides armed themselves, the Scots came in on the side of Parliament, and everyone fought back and forth for a few years, with neither side knocking the other one off the board. That was the First Civil War.
Where did the army stand in all this? Funny you should ask. The country didn’t have a standing army. It raised one when it needed to, then sent it home when it didn’t. That’s how it had always been done, and it saved having to feed and pay soldiers to sit around during peacetime.
In 1645, Charles escaped a siege at Oxford and handed himself to the Scottish army for safety. After nine months of negotiations, Scotland sold him to Parliament for £100,000 and a promise that England would never enter the haggis market.
No, no, no. That bit about the haggis? Please don’t link to it.
Charlie escaped again and made a deal with the Scots: You get rid of these pesky rebels and I’ll make England Presbyterian for three years.
What would have happened after three years if he’d had a chance to make good on the deal? Someone would have taken one chair away and the music would’ve started all over again. And they all pretty much knew that, but no one could tell who’d be chairless when the music stopped, so they all jumped in and started the Second Civil War, which ended with Charles captured again.
This left Parliament with an awkward problem: What were they supposed to do with this guy? No matter how many times he lost his tail feathers, he was still the king.
In the meantime, Parliament wasn’t getting along with its army much better than it had with Charles. Like everything else, this had a religious element to it. Everything had a religious element. It was the language of politics. It was the language of everything. If they’d had cooking shows, they’d have had a religious element to them as well.
What mattered more immediately was that Parliament wanted to negotiate with the king and that Oliver Cromwell, on behalf of the army, didn’t.
How do you settle a problem like that? Ollie tossed out the MPs who didn’t take his side and made his deal with the ones who were left.
And since everything had a religious element, God said it was okay.
The MPs who were left were called the Rump Parliament, not after anyone’s hind end but because the word also means a small part of something that used to be bigger, and they put the king on trial. The House of Lords and the highest available judges said it wasn’t a good idea, so they established a new court, tried the king, found him guilty, and executed him. No one called it revolutionary justice, but that’s pretty much what it was. When you tear down the old order, you make new laws because the old ones don’t work anymore. Is that right? Is that wrong? It depends on your point of view.
England was now a republic, or a commonwealth. The House of Lords was abolished.
Did they all live happily ever after? No, they fought the Third Civil War. The remaining royalists and Scotland rallied about Charles part Two, but by 1651 it was all over. When the last Irish resistance ended in 1653, there was no one left to oppose Cromwell.
And that’s when he lost it with the Rump Parliament. Cromwell and the army wanted it to dissolve itself so they could elect a new, godly assembly. Parliament thought it was plenty godly, thanks, and wanted to stay where it was.
It sounds familiar? It is. We’re still watching the same play, but Cromwell’s playing Charles and Parliament’s playing Parliament. The difference is that Cromwell was a better Charles than Charles was: He stomped into the House of Commons with some musketeers, had them seize the mace, that symbol of Parliament’s royal authority, and sent the MPs home.
The symbol of royal authority? Wasn’t the king dead? Well, yes, but old habits die hard and history–not to mention humans–is nothing if not contradictory. They were still using the thing.
The members of the new Parliament were chosen by the army’s officers for their religious fervor. But it turned out to be too radical and in 1653, when its more problematic members were in a prayer meeting, the remainder of the group dissolved itself.
That left Oliver Cromwell to become the Lord Protector: a king in all but name.
History doesn’t exactly repeat itself, but with the way it barks our repeated phrases you have to wonder sometimes if it doesn’t have tourette’s.