The interregnum is the period in English History between the execution of Charles I in
1649 and the ascension of his son Charles II in 1660. During this period Britain was
subjected to a number of experiments in government without monarchy.
The interregnum saw the first experiments of government without monarchy western
Europe had seen since classical times, thus is a very interesting period to look at, to see
the modern political world start to take shape.
But make no mistake, there was not democracy. Although some factions within the
army such as the levellers were calling for a one man one vote the
governing class was still in control, and it would have none of that.
The man who dominated this period was Oliver Cromwell, who had lead his new model
army to victory in the English civil war. A devout puritan his ultimate aim was to
create heaven in England, and perhaps herald the second coming of Christ. His army
was the dominant force throughout the interregnum, and any government was subject to
The governments of the interregnum faced some common problems. All were tainted by
their illegality, and the regicide. No law could be passed by parliament without the
kings signature. This was attempted to be corrected by giving Oliver Cromwell the
crown (known as the Humble Petition and Advice), but his refusal meant
that all actions of the government of the period were illegal.
Another feature of the governments was constant conflict between conservative and
radical factions. It was this that ultimately led to the fall of the republic and the
restoration. Current historical opinion is that Cromwell should have taken the crown
and become King of England, siding with the conservatives and attacking the radicals.
However he did not want to take sides and tried to mediate between the two.
The Rump was the first of the experiments, and was a parliament made up of those who
had tried and executed Charles in 1649.
At the centre of this government was the Council of State. It consisted of 40
members, 31 were elected annually by parliament, 9 were from the army. It was responsible to the day to day running of the country, and was
answerable to parliament.
The Rump had a number of notable achievements. It established an efficient and effective
taxation system, no small feat in England, a country notorious for it’s impoverished
state. Charles II was defeated in the battles of Dunbar in 1650 and Worcester in 1651
while the Rump was in charge of England. Only limited religious reform was achieved,
most importantly was the elimination of recusancy fees. The most marked achievement
was the pacification of Ireland, something which no government has achieved before or
However, it was dogged with problems. Despite the fact it had imposed a tax system on
England and averted a financial crisis, it was still short of cash. Within the Rump there
were major divisions between the conservative and radical factions. There
were calls for elections, which scared the army, fearing that a pro-monarchy
government would result. These problems came to a head in April of 1653 when Oliver
Cromwell forcibly dissolved the Rump.
The Nominated Parliament (Barebones Parliament)
The barebones parliament reflected the army leadership’s desire to bring about a godly
reformation in England. Cromwell hoped that it would create within the existing
political and social order an ordered, productive and puritan society.
The parliament was chosen by the army officers. The criteria for selection was
significance in one’s local area, and one’s ‘godliness’. Membership totalled 140, 5 of
which were from Ireland, and 6 from Scotland. Again there was a
conservative/radical split, but the conservatives were in the majority.
The nominated parliament was ridiculed at it’s time, but it did achieve some significant
reform. Civil marriage ceremonies were introduced, and a system for registration of
births and deaths was established. There was also some minor changes to criminal
However the radical minority was causing trouble. They made sure the made their
presence felt through tactics such as dominating committee work. They insulted Oliver
Cromwell by calling him an ‘old dragon’, and their legislative program included
popular measures such as eliminating tithes, a major source of the wealthy’s income.
The parliament ended on 12 December 1653. The conservatives assembled and voted to
dissolve the nominated parliament while the radicals were at a prayer meeting.
The First Protectorate
Once again faced with the problem of forming a government, a council of the army
officers (the army being the dominant force in Britain) came up with a written constitution
called The Instrument of Government. The new government was very
monarchic in nature, with a ‘lord protector’ appointed for life. Indeed, it is often noted
that the protector sat on a chair resembling a throne, and looked strangely out of place in
his puritan cloak.
The Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell, had all the powers of a constitutional monarch, and
a professional army of 30,000 soldiers, answerable directly to him. He was answerable
to a parliament of 460, which would be elected by all those who owned more than 200
pounds of land every 3 years.
The First Protectorate lasted only 5 months, and it only lasted that long because Cromwell
had an army to intimidate people with. The Parliament proved impossible to work with,
objecting to Cromwell’s power, and the level of religious toleration the Lord Protector
was allowing. Frustrated, Cromwell dismissed the parliament.
The Rule of the Major Generals
The rule of the Major Generals rose because the first protectorate parliament didn’t
England was divided into 11 military districts, each under the control of a Major
General. The administration of these districts came by the way of a new tax, called by the
royalists a ‘Decimation Tax’.
The new rulers tried to impose their puritan beliefs on the general population. In some
districts drinking places were banned, maypoles were cut down, Morris dancing
outlawed, and there was an attempt to ban Christmas.
These measures obviously made them very unpopular with the general population. The
gentry was also disenfranchised, as they saw their traditional leadership roles
The Second Protectorate Parliament
The revenue from the decimation tax was not enough to keep England afloat, so towards
the end of 1655 Cromwell called another parliament. It was elected under the same rules
as the First Protectorate Parliament, but Cromwell excluded 100 of the 458 members
who he considered too radical.
The parliament achieved the introduction of new taxes in exchange for the elimination of
the Major Generals, and set about preparing for a war against Spain. It also passed
some more puritanical laws, banning cosmetics, and increasing the harsh treatment of
However, it still suffered from a radical/conservative split, and in the second sitting,
Cromwell dissolved it, sighting an attack by Radicals as justification.
On 3 September 1658, Oliver Cromwell died. He had chosen his unprepared son
Richard as his successor, but he could not hold England together. It took only 2 years for
monarchy to be restored.
Cromwell’s heir, although intelligent was not capable of running the country. To Rule
England during the interregnum one had to be on good terms with the army. Richard had
not experienced the English civil war and could not relate to those in charge of the army.
Cromwell had not seemed to considered how the country would be run after his death. In
1659, the army forced Richard Cromwell to abdicate.
What followed was a series of governments called and recalled by the army and ultimate
restoration. This process is beyond the scope of this node, and would go nicely under