London during the Commonwealth (1649-1653)

Following the Civil War between Royalists and Parliamentarians and the imprisonment of Charles I, the King was executed outside his palace at Whitehall. During the years of interregnum the country was governed as a republic, or ‘Commonwealth’ as it was initially known.

Following his defeat by Parliamentary troops King Charles was held captive from May 1646. During that time discussions took place regarding the future of the monarchy. The majority expected Charles to return to the throne but with constraints on his power. The army was more radical and at the end of 1648 marched on Parliament, dismissing any MPs who sought reconciliation with the King. Those that remained were later to become known as the ‘Rump Parliament’. It was intended to be an interim Parliament prior to an election but in the event continued sitting for four years. With the support of the army, they declared themselves to be “the supreme power in this nation”, able to pass laws without consent from the House of Lords or the monarch. In January 1649 they put Charles on trial and found him guilty of tyranny and sentenced to death. He was beheaded in the street at Whitehall and the monarchy was abolished.

There had been 470 MPs elected to the Long Parliament that sat from November 1640. After the purge by the army in December 1648 there were around 80 radicals remaining to put Charles on trial. Following the execution, many moderates who had not agreed with those events were re-admitted to Parliament, bringing the number of MPs in the Rump Parliament up to around 200 members. In March 1649 they abolished the House of Lords and in May declared the country a republic of ‘the Commonwealth and Free State of England’, while Scotland and Ireland were not yet under their control. Members of Parliament then had unprecedented powers to legislate, while much of the work of government was delegated a newly-formed Council of State and a network of committees. Many Royalists formerly in prominent positions either fled abroad and remained in exile for the next few years or moved away from London and lived quietly in the countryside in reduced circumstances, prevented from holding public office or even from travelling.

In reality the extreme radicals, such as the army and Levellers, lacked broad support around the country. After the army had marched into London in December 1648 a reorganization was carried out to ensure their supporters retained political hegemony. To do so they changed the qualifications for holding political office in the City, thus prohibiting any of their opponents from having power. Two thirds of the City’s Common Council therefore became ineligible for re-election and were replaced by republicans.

The Rump Parliament relied on some men who had not in previous generations been of the traditional governing classes. Amongst these were a group of London’s overseas merchants who had been trading with the English colonies of America and the West Indies. Foremost among them was Maurice Thomson, as well as the City of London MP Samuel Vassall. These merchants were a wealthy group of godly men who traded in tobacco, sugar and enslaved Africans. During the Interregnum period they supported Parliament financially and gained influence by holding various offices and sitting on Parliamentary committees.

On the whole, following the re-admittance of less extreme MPs, the Rump Parliament was more cautious and conciliatory in its approach than the army and many of the radicals. Nevertheless, republicans began the repression of their opponents at both ends of the political spectrum. In March the Royalist Mayor of London Abraham Reynardson refused to make the public proclamation of the abolition of the monarchy in the City. He was sent to the Tower of London, a large fine imposed, and he was deprived of the mayoralty. When he refused to pay the fine his house and possessions were confiscated and sold. It was left to the anti-Royalist Thomas Andrewes to make the proclamation and the crowd hooted and groaned. Andrewes succeeded Reynardson as Lord Mayor and in the spring of 1649 the City’s aldermanic court was purged of Royalists. At the other political extreme, the Levellers hoped to revive their radical demands for greater democracy but instead their views were suppressed.

Despite calls from religious radicals such as Fifth Monarchists and Ranters, Parliament adopted a national policy in line with the wishes of London’s religious Independents, with mild toleration for different perspectives, and rejecting the intolerant wishes of Presbyterians. The aim of the Blasphemy Act of 1650 was to curb religious extremism. The Toleration Act repealed compulsory attendance at church that had been introduced in the reign of Queen Elizabeth. Proposals to licence only approved ministers who were allowed to preach were discussed but not implemented.

Two weeks after the King’s execution the royal arms above the Speaker’s chair in the Commons were removed. That August a committee of three MPs was formed to oversee the removal of the royal arms in all public places. Properties owned by the monarchy and some bishops were appropriated by the Commonwealth government and in some cases sold to their supporters. Whitehall Palace had been largely ransacked after the royal family and the other occupants had departed in the early 1640s. Paintings and treasures the Puritans found most offensive, such as those of the Virgin Mary or Jesus, were destroyed or thrown in the Thames. Church and Crown lands were sold to raise finance. The royal parks around London, where previously only those close to the monarch were allowed, were opened to the public but the government ‘privatised’ (to use a modern phrase) Hyde Park in 1652 after which the new owner charged an entry fee. Richmond Park was awarded to the City of London for its support during the war (but returned at the time of the Restoration).

In London many of the large houses of former wealthy occupants were closed up with their contents disintegrating. As an example, the Earl of Arundel had gone into exile in the early 1640s, eventually dying in Italy, and the large Arundel House between the Strand and the river left in ruin, with remaining parts of his collection of antiquities simply left scattered in the garden. (Some of the antiquities became part of the attraction at Cuper’s Pleasure Garden). Some large houses left empty by royalist supporters who had fled abroad, or were keeping a safe distance from London, were requisitioned as accommodation for troops.

Parliamentary troops, many having joined up for idealistic reasons, were often unruly and rebellious. In London they occasionally caused trouble. In April 1649 members of Colonel Whalley’s regimented quartered at Bishopsgate were angered due to lack of pay. Some barricaded themselves in an inn but surrendered when Sir Thomas Fairfax, Commander-in-Chief of the army, and Oliver Cromwell, arrived. They were immediately court-marshalled. Those found guilty were condemned to be executed but finally all were pardoned bar the ringleader Robert Lockyer, who was shot in public at St. Paul’s churchyard the following day. It was reported that 4,000 Levellers attended his funeral procession through the City and the incident created discontent against the government.

Despite the end of the war the government maintained a large number of men on standby in and around London. In August 1651, for example, the Speaker of the House of Commons was able to inspect 14,000 trained bands from London and Westminster at Tothill Fields, close to the Palace of Westminster.

In June 1649 officers of Parliament’s New Model Army worshipped at Christchurch Greyfriars at Newgate Street to celebrate the end of the Civil War, and then marched to Grocers Hall on Princes Street for a feast. It was to prove premature. Fighting continued between Royalists and Parliamentarians, despite the execution of the King. The Scots had already proclaimed his son as their monarch and Charles II continued to hold out the hope of regaining the English throne by mounting an invasion from Scotland or Ireland. However, the Royalist Irish army were brutally crushed by the English Parliamentary forces commanded by Cromwell. In 1650 Charles II therefore forged an alliance with Scotland in return for agreeing to impose Presbyterianism in England. That year Cromwell marched his forces into Scotland to confront the Scottish Covenanter army. At the same time Charles marched a Scottish-Royalist army south but it was defeated at the Battle of Worcester in 1651, ending what was known as the Third Civil War. Charles escaped into exile but Scots prisoners were marched through the streets of London, barefoot and starving, then left out in the open at Tothill Fields at Westminster. Twelve hundred of them died and the remainder were shipped to the African Gold Coast. Charles escaped to France in October and spent the following years in exile.

The major saints’ festivals that had been holidays since pagan times were forbidden. A new law enforced the Sabbath, while the views of Ranters – a group that denied the authority of churches, ministries or scriptures – were repressed. The Christmas festival was abolished but continued to be illegally observed by some. From 1652 all churches were kept closed on Christmas Day by order of the government. For many it was strange to find the churches closed yet shops open. Songs during Sunday services were replaced by long sermons and it was frowned upon for men to take off their hat in church. Singing in the street was banned.

Censorship briefly disappeared and for the first time in the country’s history anyone was able to voice their opinion, with men and women of all social standing able to air their views on political, religious, legal, economic and political issues. That brought forth a huge surge in the publishing of pamphlets by London printers, each promoting views on one topic or another, from academic and serious to scurrilous and libellous. The British Library today contains the collection of the London bookseller George Thomason in which he amassed over 18,000 pamphlets during the period from 1640 to 1655. Anti-government literature resulted in a gradual suppression, replaced instead by government propaganda. In September 1647 Parliament issued an ordnance “against unlicensed or scandalous Pamphlets” in the City and Westminster. From 1649 they gave the Stationers’ Company greater powers to search out printing presses and inspect all printed material. The poet John Milton, author of Paradise Lost, acted as official censor. In 1650 Parliament launched its own official newspaper, Mercurius Pragmaticus, edited by Marchamont Needham, the same man who had been arrested for previously editing the earlier official royalist propaganda. In 1655 the government introduced more efficient controls that almost ended free expression.

The church of All Hallows Barking is located in the south-eastern corner of the City close to Tower Hill. In January 1650 there was a major disaster when 27 barrels of gunpowder that were being stored by a ship’s chandler against its wall exploded. The blast was so great that 50 houses, including the Rose tavern, were destroyed. A contemporary pamphlet recorded that at least 67 people died, of which 24 could not be identified. The following New Year’s Day there was a violent storm and the Thames flooded its banks at Deptford. The floodwater rose to as much as ten feet deep in the lower town causing much damage and death of livestock, with residents having to take shelter on rooftops.

A plot by Presbyterians to bring Charles II to the throne and establish their form of religion throughout both England and Scotland was discovered. Several prominent Presbyterians were arrested. Christopher Love, the minister of St. Lawrence Jewry church close to the Guildhall, and John Gibbons were sent for trial, found guilty, and beheaded on Tower Hill in August 1651.

Some who had fled abroad in the early or mid-1640s began to drift back in the early 1650s if it was safe to do so. In 1652 Parliament passed the Act of Pardon and Oblivion, effectively granting an amnesty for former Royalists and allowing them to reclaim any property that had not been otherwise appropriated. Parliamentary rule was repressive, however, and many of the aristocracy who had previously held together the social fabric remained in exile,were dead, or living in reduced circumstances. The country had gone through a period of instability and many former soldiers were left unpaid and unemployed. Contemporary reports of those arriving back from exile, such as Wenceslaus Hollar, talked of people being more melancholy than before the war. There was an increase in crime and social disorder. John Evelyn wrote that he found people less respectful than previously and he was robbed while returning to London through Kent.

London had never been a well-planned city but during the 1650s there was an even greater proliferation of wharves, workshops and warehouses, created wherever space would allow. Evelyn complained of the pollution being created by brewers, lime-burners and soap-boilers around “the Imperial seat of our incomparable Monarch”.

Since the time of Queen Elizabeth there had been attempts to limit the further spread of the London conurbation and the government continued to do so, to the great vexation of many. Those who had built houses since 1620 were fined one year’s rent and anyone building after 1656 fined £100. Those craftsmen who could find no room in the City crossed the river and set up at Borough.

The Society of Friends in Truth, or ‘Quakers’, evolved during the Commonwealth period under the leadership of the Leicestershire weaver George Fox who had begun preaching in 1647. Three years later sixty members were sent around the country to spread their message and were so successful in gaining new members in London that the capital was to eventually become the main centre of the Society.

Following the Civil War, the Rump Parliament inherited a poor financial position, made worse by ongoing military campaigns in Scotland and Ireland and the Anglo-Dutch War that began in 1652, the latter brought about by trade disputes. The Royalist navy of Prince Rupert remained a continuous threat to overseas trade. Many of the colonies such as Barbados and Virginia declared their allegiance to Charles II, requiring strong naval action in 1651 by the Commonwealth. The high taxes required to pay for these external campaigns were resented by many in England. Radicals, particularly those in the army, were also angered by slow and cautious progress on issues such as law reform. There were continuous calls to replace the Rump Parliament but little agreement on how to do so. Finally, with growing frustration, the army staged a coup, which was to lead to the creation of Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate.

< Back to Civil War and Restoration

Sources include:

  • Barry Coward ‘The Stuart Age’
  • John Richardson ‘Annals of London’
  • Robin Rowles ‘The Civil War in London’
  • Sir Walter Besant ‘London in the Time of the Stuarts’ (1903)
  • Robert Brenner ‘Merchants and Revolution’
  • Gillian Tindal ‘The Man Who Drew London’
  • Lisa Jardine ‘On A Grander Scale’
  • Liza Picard ‘Restoration London’
  • David Plant ‘BCW Project’

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