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 it’s influence.

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

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 since.

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 law.

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 achieve much.

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 undermined.

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 Catholics.

However, it still suffered from a radical/conservative split, and in the second sitting, Cromwell dissolved it, sighting an attack by Radicals as justification.

The End

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 Restoration.