The Commonwealth - the "Purged" / "Rump" Parliament 1649-53

The fundamental point in understanding the political, constitutional and religious events of the 1650s is that power rested on military force; the Army and a minority of MPs had facilitated the Regicide, abolished monarchy and the House of Lords. The Rump realised that its actions would be largely unacceptable to European courts and feared pro-Stuart royalist support mounting on the Continent. However the most immediate threat to the position of the Commonwealth government came from Scotland and Ireland. Active opposition to English authority had enveloped Scotland since 1637 and Ireland since 1641. Therefore Cromwell was commissioned by Parliament to subjugate both kingdoms.

In 1649-50 the most pressing concern was Ireland. Parliamentarians were contemptuous of the Irish. Cromwell and a large millenarian section of the Army shared this prevailing belief that the Irish deserved especially harsh reprisal. They were seen as rebels, colluders and plotters with the tyrannies of Charles I and the Church of Rome, and corrupters of the true religion. The severity of Cromwell's campaign is infamous and remains in Irish memory to this day. The most notable brutalities took place in the massacres of Drogheda and Wexford. However, Cromwell was conscious of the brutality of the Army's conduct in Ireland, which was contrary to his normal standards, recording his thoughts in correspondence. In these letters Cromwell is clear in his belief that the bloodshed would prevent further 'effusion of blood', forcing the remaining Irish into submission rather than face a similar fate. There were other dimensions to the campaign in Ireland other than political stability of the English polity and a programme of vengeance. Ireland was a source of land. Plantation was resumed and over 40,000 Catholic and Royalist landowners dispossessed and driven westwards. In their place Protestant settlers and soldiers (whom Parliament offered land in lieu of their arrears in pay) were installed so that by 1660 Catholic landownership in Ireland had been reduced to 20% (in 1640 it had stood at 60%). In 1650 Cromwell was recalled from Ireland to combat the Royalist threat from Scotland. The commander Fairfax had refused to take command of the Army and wage war on fellow Protestants, and therefore resigned his commission. The threat from England was mounting: under the influence of the 'Engagers' Charles II had immediately been declared the rightful and legitimate heir in Scotland after the execution of Charles I in 1649. Charles hoped Scotland would unite behind him in full-scale Royalist uprising; this proved difficult however because of the divisions along confessional lines (that is, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Catholics). Charles persevered in his attempt to win Scottish support, arriving in Scotland in 1650 and swearing allegiance to the Covenant.

Throughout the duration of his march north, Cromwell attempted to conciliate with the Scots, and when he arrived his reluctance to put Scotland to the sword seems to explain the initial ineffectiveness of the Army. However, Cromwell eventually came to pitched battle with the Scots, and his military prowess showed through. The defeat of the Scots at the battle of Dunbar is generally considered to be Cromwell's greatest military achievement.

Thus Soctland and Ireland were politically subjugated to England by conquest. The British hegemony of the Commonwealth and Protectorate regimes was consolidated by the maintenance of garrisons and English officials in Scotland and Ireland. The threat posed to the regime by Charles II had not disappeared however, as in 1651 the Stuart claimant was in England and marched south with a substantial army (of some 12,000). Charles believed if he led a rising in person the Royalist cause would be greatly enhanced in England. This was not the case and when Cromwell engaged the Royalist army at Worcester in 1651. After declaring Scotland to be subjugated, the Rump dismantled Scottish machinery of government.

The Rump was never intended to be a permanent settlement and in 1651 voted for its own dissolution by 1654 and established a committee to plan 'a new representative parliament' to the dismay of the Army Council. The idea that the members of the Rump were attempting to prevent a new parliament being elected attracted the scorn of republicans and Fifth Monarchists. Nevertheless it was Cromwell who brought the existence of the Rump to a close. In 1653 the Rump considered a bill that would have extended its life by a year. The Army believed the Rumpers were attempting to write in clauses that would allow for their own perpetuation. We are unable to know exactly what that bill intended as Cromwell tore it apart as he stood before Parliament and dissolved the body.

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