London during the Protectorate (1653 – 1660)

Following the execution of Charles I, the Rump Parliament declared the country as ‘the Commonwealth and Free State of England’. Successive Parliaments frustrated Oliver Cromwell and the army, leading to the Protectorate style of government that looked increasingly like the old monarchy that had been abolished.

Oliver Cromwell dissolving the Rump Parliament in an engraving by the 18th century artist Benjamin West. The Rump Parliament sat until April 1653 when Cromwell, believing that it had degenerated into a self-serving body, staged an armed coup and replaced it with the unelected ‘Barebones Parliament’.

The Rump Parliament that sat from 1649 was intended to be an interim legislature but there was no agreement on how elections should be held. There was also the distraction of the Anglo-Dutch War that began in July 1652, so it was still sitting in 1653. It had come into existence, as well as the subsequent abolition of the monarchy, due to the backing of the army. Throughout its existence the Rump Parliament trod a fine line between the radical republicans and Presbyterians on one side and the more conservative and Royalist part of the population. In reality, it pleased neither and had only a narrow base of support. There was general unhappiness with its performance, in part due to failures in the war and a growing tension with the army. In April 1653 a proposal from Oliver Cromwell was seemingly agreed that Parliament should end discussion while election preparations were put in place. He was then incensed when Parliament continued to debate the issue. The following day Cromwell led musketeers to the House of Commons and informed MPs they should leave. Major-General Thomas Harrison pulled the Speaker from his chair. The doors of the chamber were then sealed.

When Cromwell dismissed Parliament 40 leading Parliamentary-supporting London citizens signed a petition demanding its recall. Instead, Cromwell ignored their petition and dismissed from their official positions any who subscribed to it. Others who had made their fortune during the Barbados sugar boom instead found favour, such as Martin Noell, Thomas Povey, James Drax (who was knighted by Cromwell in 1658), Andrew Riccard, Thomas Kendall and Luke Lucie, influencing government policies regarding the colonies and the slave trade.

Cromwell and the army had staged a coup but at that stage there was no plan as to what should follow. Different plans were put forward to replace Parliament. Cromwell favoured a variation of that from Major-General Thomas Harrison for a governing body based on the Old Testament of the Bible. The formation of the unelected Nominated Assembly, or Parliament of the Commonwealth, was agreed in June 1653, to consist of 140 representatives from England, Scotland and Ireland, together with Cromwell and Major-Generals Lambert and Harrison. Major-General Thomas Fairfax, commander-in-chief of the army during the Civil War, refused to join the Assembly. It would later be known as the ‘Barebones Parliament’ after its member, the London merchant Praise-God Barbon. It was the first body to govern all of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland.

Moderates in the Assembly became alarmed with certain proposals for legislation. In December 1653 they arranged an early-morning sitting, sparsely attended by radical members who knew nothing of their plans, and agreed to dissolve the body and hand to Cromwell the powers of the Assembly. To Cromwell’s surprise, around 40 assembly members arrived at his home at Whitehall to abdicate the power in his favour. Those radicals who protested were driven away by soldiers. Within a few days a vote on the issue was held in the Assembly, with a clear majority in favour.

A constitution known as the Instrument of Government was debated, which would have been the first written constitution for England, but was never ratified. It was based on a draft by Major-General John Lambert and amended by Cromwell. Executive powers were to be in the hands of the Lord Protector in consultation with the Council of State. Cromwell was declared Lord Protector for life, but it would not be an hereditary position. An elected Parliament was to consist of 430 members from England, Scotland and Ireland. The franchise was open to all those owning property of £200 or more in value but Catholics and known Royalists were ineligible. Constituencies were redrawn to lessen the impact of gentry and in favour of the middle class. It was the responsibility of Parliament to raise revenue to pay for the army.

The draft constitution was adopted by the army’s Council of Officers in December 1653. The following day Cromwell was proclaimed Lord Protector of the Commonwealth. A grand ceremony was held at Westminster Hall in November in which he dressed himself in purple lined with ermine. He travelled from his home at the Cockpit of Whitehall Palace the short distance to Westminster in a state coach with judges, the Privy Council, the Mayor and aldermen of the City taking part in the procession. In April of the following year the Cromwell family moved into the much grander royal apartments at Whitehall. By then Cromwell was king in all but name, addressed as ‘Your Highness’.

The Anglo-Dutch War went badly for the Dutch. However, Cromwell hoped for an anti-popery union between the two Protestant republics and in June 1653 initiated peace negotiations. Talks continued for many months and were finally concluded with the Treaty of Westminster in April 1654. In the event, it did nothing to ease tensions between the two nations.

Parliamentary elections were held in the summer of 1654 according to the still-to-be ratified Instrument of Government and the first sitting of MPs took place shortly after. In the meantime, Cromwell had been busy drafting a large number of ordinances on many issues for the Protectorate Parliament’s ratification. However, many of the MPs elected were hostile to the idea of a Lord Protector, and some were outright Royalist sympathisers. Instead of passing Cromwell’s new legislation they spent their time debating the terms of the Instrument of Government and reducing the size of the army. None of Cromwell’s ordinances were passed.

One piece of legislation that was passed by the Protectorate Parliament in 1654 was to create the Worshipful Company of Hackney Carriage Drivers, which is today still active as a body to which London’s taxi trade belong:

Forasmuch as many Inconveniences do daily arise by reason of the late increase and great irregularity of Hackney Coaches and Hackney Coachmen in London, Westminster and the places thereabouts: For remedy thereof, Be it Ordained by his Highness the Lord Protector, with the consent of his Council… the number of persons keeping Hackney horses for Coaches, within the City of London, Westminster and six miles about the late lines of communication, do not exceed at one time two hundred; nor the Hackney-coaches to be used by them, three hundred, nor their Hackney Horses for Coaches do not exceed the number of six hundred. And for the better Ordering and Governing the said Hackney-coach-men, be it Ordained that the Government and Ordering of them shall from time to time be in the Court of Aldermen, of the City of London, in such manner as is hereby Ordained.

According to the terms of the Instrument of Government, the minimum term of any Parliament should be five months. After five lunar months, in frustration Cromwell dissolved the rebellious Protectorate Parliament and replaced it with a military government for England and Wales, with each of twelve regions to be governed by an army major-general. Philip Skippon, who had commanded London’s trained bands throughout the Civil War, was appointed Major-General for London, Westminster and Middlesex, and Thomas Kelsey south of the Thames in the counties of Surrey and Kent.

London’s merchants were influential in matters regarding England’s overseas trade and colonies, sitting on government committees to advice Cromwell. They were godly slave-traders and slave-plantation owners, who supported the idea of expanding the number of England’s colonies and were fervent in their loathing of Catholic Spain. Perhaps the most important decision taken under their guidance was the Western Design that led to the seizure of Jamaica from the Spanish. Its initial intention was the capture of the important Spanish Caribbean island of Hispaniola, the modern-day Haiti and Dominican Republic. When that poorly-prepared venture dismally failed in the summer of 1655, the invasion fleet drifted on to the relatively unprotected and unpopulated Jamaica, which was taken after some difficulty. It was the first, and rare, instance of government involvement in the establishment of an English colony, which was usually undertaken by aristocrats and merchants. The island greatly increased British territory in the Caribbean, and in the early 18th century became the wealthiest Anglo-American colony. At the time, however, Cromwell considered the capture of the undesirable Jamaica to be a disaster and the leaders of the expedition, who abandoned the venture before its conclusion, were imprisoned in the Tower of London on their return. Cromwell’s ambitions to expand British territories overseas were thereafter abandoned.

There had been a growing interest for some decades amongst linguists and theologians in the study of Hebrew in order to have a better understanding of the original Biblical texts. Puritans’ study of the Bible’s Old Testament made them at least interested in Jews. Jews had been expelled from England during the Middle Ages. During the interregnum various requests and proposals were made for groups living in Amsterdam to come to England and Oliver Cromwell had shown a certain amount of sympathy towards them. In 1654 or 1655 Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel travelled from Amsterdam to London to persuade Cromwell to legitimise Jews in this country. In reality at least 60 had arrived in previous years and had lived in London under the guise of being Catholic, including Antonio Fernandez Carajal who had set up as a ship-owner and bullion merchant in 1635 and worked on behalf of Charles I.

Cromwell passed on Menasseh’s request to a committee to consider and it was discussed at the Whitehall Conference of 1655. Various arguments – theological, political and economic – were considered but in the end there was no great enthusiasm for the idea. Nevertheless, Parliamentary lawyers decided that the original expulsion of Jews in 1290 by Edward I was a royal decree and therefore could not be recognised by them. It was hardly a decision: Cromwell dissolved the committee and Menasseh returned to Amsterdam.

In 1656 twenty Jews led by Antonio Roderigo Robles arrived, declaring themselves as refugees from the Spanish Inquisition. As asylum-seekers from torture by Catholics in Spain it was difficult for the Puritan government to refuse them refuge. They were allowed to set up a synagogue at the house of Moses Athias in the City, at Creechurch Lane near Aldgate, and a burial ground in a former orchard at Mile End.

Ironically, while different groups of Christians – Anglicans, Catholics and non-conformists – were at odds with each other, the small number of Jews in England in the mid-17th century managed to largely avoid persecution. They were the vanguard of much larger numbers that were to arrive later in the century.

Each of the various governing bodies of the Commonwealth period struggled unsuccessfully with the dilemma of attempting to produce policies that pleased both ends of the political spectrum: at one extreme the radical but vocal godly and activist republicans; at the other the majority who simply wanted a return to normality and perhaps the restoration of a monarchy. There were numerous plots against the government and an extensive spy network was necessary to provide intelligence, managed by Secretary of State John Thurloe.

There were several plots to assassinate Cromwell. Three men were tried in Westminster Hall and condemned to death in 1654. Cromwell was fond of riding in Hyde Park where there was at least one plot to kill him there. In 1657 Miles Sindercombe, a Leveller, determined to shoot him in the park with a specially-made gun but when the opportunity failed to materialize his plan changed more than once. He was betrayed and several plotters were arrested. Unable to face the consequences, Sindercombe poisoned himself in the Tower of London on the night before his execution. Another plot, which ended in trial at Westminster Hall, was that instigated by Dr. John Hewitt, former chaplain to Charles I, in which Charles II would land at Hull, backed by the Spanish army. Hewitt and another conspirator were beheaded.

With advice from regional major-generals, Cromwell reluctantly called an election for a second Protectorate Parliament with the primary aim of raising money to pay for the army and navy. It sat from September 1656 but 93 of the 400 MPs were considered ungodly and prevented from taking their seats. In its first session MPs considered but failed to agree on military funding. During a debate regarding Sandicombe’s plot one MP proposed that Cromwell should “take upon himself the government according to the ancient constitution, so the hopes of our enemies in plots would be at an end”. Seeking a departure from military rule, a two-thirds majority of MPs agreed on the Humble Address and Remonstrance, in which Cromwell would be appointed as monarch. The possibility of political stability that a revived monarchy might bring was desirable but, perhaps wary of the reaction from the radical republican army, he announced in a speech in April 1657 that God would not allow him to “build Jericho again”. Instead, as a compromise, under the Humble Petition and Advice, he was given the power to nominate his successor and appoint a new upper chamber. The 93 MPs prevented from sitting were also allowed back into Parliament.

Despite Cromwell’s refusal to accept the Crown, a solemn inauguration ceremony was held at Westminster Hall in June 1657. The coronation chair and Stone of Scone were brought from Westminster Abbey and placed below a canopy over an elevated platform at the south end of the hall. On it were the Bible, and sword and sceptre of the Commonwealth, beside which sat the Speaker. Cromwell entered the hall, preceded by the various dignitaries, including the Lord Mayor of London.

For the second session of the Second Protectorate Parliament, held in 1658, the new Upper House came into being as a replacement for the House of Lords that had been abolished nine years earlier. Debate about the legitimacy of the new upper chamber commenced in the Commons. A petition hostile to its creation began circulating in London and received thousands of signatures. The petition’s support amongst the army concerned Cromwell sufficiently that he went to Westminster and dissolved Parliament, just two weeks after the session had begun.

Cromwell’s health began to suffer and he died in September 1658 at Whitehall Palace. His body was embalmed and taken to Somerset House where his effigy was exhibited for two months, dressed in robe of state. Long lines of curious people came to pay their respects. His public funeral took place at Westminster Abbey in November, although his remains had been privately interred at the Abbey several weeks earlier. On the day of the funeral his wax effigy was carried in the royal robes, with a crown and sceptre, accompanied by hooded mourners marching to the beat of muffled drums.

In May 1659 the Commons determined that Whitehall Palace should be “improved to the best advantage” and put up for sale, with the proceeds used to pay the arrears owed to the army. That scheme was overtaken by events and the sale never took place.

Cromwell had previously announced his son Richard as his successor but Richard did not have the authority of his father and was forced to resign after just eight months. As Parliament dissolved into chaos General George Monck, commander of the army in Scotland, marched his men south to restore order. Elections brought a new Parliament, which voted to restore the monarchy.

< Back to London during the Commonwealth

Sources include:

  • Robert Brenner ‘Merchants and Revolution’
  • Robin Rowles ‘The Civil War in London’
  • L.H. Roper ‘Advancing Empire’
  • John Richardson ‘Annals of London’
  • Edgar Sheppard ‘The Old Palace of Whitehall’ (1902)
  • Susan Foreman ‘From Palace to Power’
  • Sir Robert Cooke ‘The Palace of Westminster’
  • Stephen Coote ‘Samuel Pepys – A life’

Stay Connected

Be the first to hear when new content is added by joining my email newsletter.

I won't share your details and you can easily opt-out any time. Learn more in my Privacy Policy