Assess the validity of the view that the Rump and Barebones parliaments had no real achievements to their credit

The Rump parliament was created when Colonel Pride had carried out his purge of the Long Parliament in December 1648 on the orders of the General Council of the Army. Two hundred and eleven MPs from the Long Parliament survived but the plain fact existed that “the Rump existed as the result of a military purge …..(And) what it can do, it can undo” (Lynch).

This meant that the Rump hinged on the army, as shown when in the summer of 1649 a vote on whether to introduce the controversial Presbyterianism was “in the face of a hostile army scrapped”(Hutton) by one vote. This concept had obvious effects on the rule of the Rump and its strength, which I shall investigate later.

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However, the very idea that the army, on the 20th 1653, “destroyed the Rump for not having served its purpose” (Hutton), portrays that if even its creators were upset at its lack of success then it could be easily argued that it failed to provide any real achievements. A declaration from the Council of the Army illustrates this idea:

“The Rump would never answer those ends which God, his people and the whole nation expected from them.”

What is not in doubt is that the Rump marked the first Commonwealth in British history. On January 4th 1649 the Rump declared that “the people” were sovereign. Charles I was executed (8-30 January 1649) and on the 7th of February the Rump voted to abolish the monarchy in England and Ireland as “unnecessary, burdensome and dangerous to the liberty of the people”.

The previous day it had also voted to make extinct the “useless and dangerous” House of Lords.

On the 17th and 19th of March respectively acts were passed abolishing the monarchy and the House of Lords. With these went the apparatus of monarchical government, i.e. the prerogative courts and the Privy Council.

Then on the 19th May England was declared a “Commonwealth and Free State” in which the “supreme authority” henceforth lay with the “representatives of the people in Parliament”.

With the January 1650 Engagement Act (which stated all adults must be faithful to the Commonwealth) and the July 1650 New Treason Act (which decreed it was ‘high treason’ to deny the Commonwealth’s supreme authority) the Rump became completely sovereign.

However this meant as Smith explains, that, with the established landmarks of the Crown, Church and Lords swept away, there was a feeling that the Rump was a “unique chance to break decisively with existing order”.

This, during the Rump’s tenure, never happened, since in the words of Barnard, “The Rump was uninterested in ideological changes”.

Even the abolition of the Lords and the monarchy were effected with reluctance, with the act to abolish the Lords winning only 41-29, while only 43 members of the Rump signed Charles’ death warrant.

In religious matters the Rump failed, during this “chance for revolution” (Lynch), to impose a framework and doctrine upon the Church of England or to dismantle it which left “all parties dissatisfied” (Hutton). ‘A Committee for the Propagation of the Gospel’ appointed by the Rump in 1652 with the intention of creating a system of strict supervision of clerical appointments reached no agreements. The Rump did nothing on the question of tithes.

Few Rumpers wished society to be left completely free in matters of morality, meaning there was to be no ‘liberty of conscience’. Yet there was still no direction that would replace this notion of freedom of worship. This lack of direction encouraged most parishioners and ministers to cling as “much as possible to pre-Civil War ways”, which would suggest that the Rump achieved little in terms of religion.

In law and social matters, the Rump enacted a set of minor changes, such as relieving some poor debtors and abolishing some writs and fees. However as Hutton writes “all the fundamental problems remained”. The Chancery remained slow, overworked and expensive to use. Monopolies went unchecked, and the grievances of depressed rural classes not even considered.

Coward claims that “it was the Rump’s dilatory record on constitutional reform that led directly to its dissolution”, which is supported by Cromwell’s declaration on 22nd April 1653 which stated “it was a matter of much grief …to observe so little progress made”.

Thus this is traditionally why historians see the Rump as failure, that during a time ripe for reform, the Rump, which people thought had been set-up to activate this constitutional reform, was unable to achieve it.

However, it has recently been argued that the Rump didn’t fail since its aim was not constitutional reform and revolution.

The majority within the Rump are now considered, due to Underdown and Worden, not as ideological republicans with the most startling illustration of this being that 22/41 members of the Council of State in 1649 would not take an oath which declared they approved of the regicide.

The Rump did not intend the abolition of the monarchy and the declaration of the Commonwealth to be the prelude to a revolution. “The Rump’s purpose was to preserve rather than to change the constitution”(Lynch).

The King had tried to subvert the fundamental laws of the kingdom and impose a tyranny and thus had to be removed. The conservatism of the Rump disappointed and embittered radicals who had expected Charles I execution and the creation of the Commonwealth to be followed by a social and religious reformation. But as Smith admits this was only a “zealous minority” and very few supported these radicals. This is shown by the restrictions that the Rump placed on the press in September 1650 and the establishment of a monopoly for a government newspaper, Mercurius Policuis, edited by Needham and launched in June 1650. Also Cromwell’s swift suppression of Levellers in 1649 and imprisonment of Lilburne further shows the distaste for radicalism.

Thus, as Hirst concludes, the Rump “always found the doing of business more urgent than the luxury of reform”. The Rump was conservative, and since its aim was not revolution and major constitutional reform, it did not fail to achieve by not providing revolution. But was it competent and did it achieve in its “concentration on making basic government function” (Barnard)?

While as already mentioned earlier the Rump failed to mark the Church with any real direction, with only 3% of its acts being on religion, it did produce various achievements. In April 1650 an Act versus the non-observance of the Sabbath day was passed, while in September of that year it repealed all laws compelling attendance to the national church, a much hated remnant of the 1559 Elizabethan religious settlement.

The previous month it had passed the Blasphemy Act versus religious non-conformists, illustrating its desire to impose ‘godliness’ (a code of moral conduct) upon society.

In terms of finance, the Rump was a “successful administrative body” (Lynch), raising money through taxation, excise levies and confiscated Church lands. That many MPs had been through two Civil Wars ensured this success in administration.

However, the sale of Crown lands proved to be “short-sighted” (Coward) since it made it hard for royalists to reconcile themselves with the Commonwealth and it contravened the spirit of the Pardon and Oblivion Act 1652.

The major achievement on the law front was the abolishment of the use of Latin and stylised handwriting in court records so now more people could understand. However once more not that a great amount was achieved. Again only 3% of acts passed were about the reform of law. Out of the 211MPs, 50 or so were lawyers. Of the 60-70MPs who attended daily, the main single group to do so was the lawyers. “Such men were naturally reluctant to undertake changes that would weaken their privileges” (Lynch). Thus, such self-interest would undermine the argument that the Rump made any major achievements. George Yule certainly agreed in ‘The Independents in the English Civil War’: “The Rump was an oligarchy with no positive policy except that of self-interest” , a trait which made the parliament seem weak and corrupt.

This combines with another factor which made the parliament seem weak which was the fact that the Rump was never expected to be a permanent body. Indeed in September 1651 it had made provisions for its own dissolution, voting by a small majority to disband itself by the end of 1654.

However, the reason the Rump was dissolved, according to Cromwell anyway was because of their self-interest. The Rumpers were apparently intending to “perpetuate themselves” rather than to transfer their power to a temporary council of MPs who would oversee fresh elections as agreed on 19th April 1653. Whether or not this is true it still gave people at the time and later historians the impression of a weak, corrupt, self-interested government.

So far it could easily be argued that while the Rump did achieve some things, on the whole it was nothing of great note, or anything that made a massive difference. However, the Rump’s military and overseas activities and successes can easily change this view.

The most immediate danger to the Rump came from Ireland in January 1949, with Ormond concluding a treaty whereby an alliance between the Catholics and Protestants saw an Irish force of 18,000 men ready for dispatch to England. On August 2nd 1649 Colonel Jones defeated Ormond’s main army at Rathmines. Then two weeks later Cromwell landed near Dublin with 30,000 highly trained soldiers. With the help of the infamous massacres of the civilian populations of Drogheda (11th September 1649) and Wexford (11th October 1649) where about 4,600 people were put to death, Cromwell advanced through southern and western Ireland. “By May 1650 Irish resistance had largely disintegrated” (Smith).

Thus by the summer of 1650, the Scots had replaced the Irish as the principal threat to the Commonwealth. Scotland believed their future lay as part of Britain and by proclaiming Charles King of Great Britain in February 1649 they posed a direct threat to the Commonwealth. This increased in June 1650 when Charles agreed to both Covenants.

On July 22nd Cromwell crossed the border with 16,000 men and on the 3rd of September routed the Scottish at Dunbar. However, Charles proceeded to lead a force of about 13,000 men into England, bypassing Cromwell. Exactly a year after Dunbar Cromwell finally caught up with him at Worcester and again wiped out the threat to the Commonwealth. Thus by September 1651 Cromwell and the Rump were firmly in control of Ireland and Scotland.

Successive English kings had tried and failed to conquer Scotland yet now it fell. Even Ireland, where previous governments had needed a decade to overcome a single chief was overwhelmed as well. “National security was assured and the royalist threat eradicated” (Woolrych).

Scotland and Ireland achieved closer formal union with England by the way of the 1651 declaration for the incorporation of Scotland into the single Commonwealth with England, and the 1652 Act for the Settlement of Ireland. Although the actual ordinances for union were not until after the Rump’s dissolution, the “foundations were laid during the rule of the Commonwealth” (Coward).

England also flourished abroad. The 1651 Navigation Act stipulated that goods imported into England should henceforth be carried either in English ships or in ships belonging to the country of origin.

The move was clearly aimed at the Dutch, the Rump eager to strike “a blow against England’s major commercial rival” (Lynch). What followed in 1652 was the Anglo-Dutch War, and largely due to “the beginnings of the development of a powerful navy by the Commonwealth” (Coward) the Rump’s newspaper had “unending series of victories to report” (Hutton).

Thus the Rump, by it military successes not only provided national security, but earned international respectability due to its “might abroad” (Hutton).

In great contrast to the commercial and foreign policies of early Stuart monarchs the Commonwealth followed “dynamic policies that enabled the subsequent diplomatic achievements of the Protectorate” (Coward).

At the time many felt the reason for the military success was because Divine Providence favoured the Commonwealth, as pointed out by pamphleteers Aschaum and Rous. Cromwell agreed, describing the military victories as “God’s crowning mercy”.

However, as Gee pointed out, surely this meant that any political violence was acceptable and thus this destroyed any notion of the rule of law. The idea that since the Rump was created by a military purge and thus did not rule by law has been used to show that in reality it did not achieve anything. It was, according to some, as “bad as the King’s tyrannical rule” (Smith), and thus achieved nothing more than replacing tyranny by tyranny.

An example used of such ‘tyranny’ has been the Council of State, with 34 out of the 41 councillors on the Council being MPs, with the Council being subject to Parliament’s “jealous” (Woolrych) control. John Lilburne objected to this control, sneering at “this new kind of liberty by the Council of State hastily erected” in ‘England’s New Chains Discovered’. The Levellers led the way in denouncing the Rump since its “narrow representative nature offended their democratic aspirations” (Coward). The very nature of Lilburne’s pamphlet suggests the feeling that the Rump achieved nothing apart from replacing the King’s tyrannical rule by their own.

This portrayal of the Rump having achieved little is often exacerbated by the regime’s unpopularity. Barnard comments that “few had actively wanted it” and for this there are many good reasons. The Rump raised taxation to record levels and maintained an army, which was quartered in the homes of many civilians. The Venetian ambassador of the time comments upon the Rump’s unpopularity:

“The popular voice…shows how much the nation disapproved of the parliament”

Even the people who wanted the Rump “expected different results from it” (Woolrych), for example the vote on the abolition of the Lords and the vote on the implementation of Presbyterianism. These divisions have led to historians claiming that the “Rump talked a lot but did little” (Coward), and has portrayed a parliament pulling in different directions and thus achieving little.

However, as I have already shown, the Rump did achieve. Also it must be mentioned that what it did achieve was in the face of a situation never encountered before. No people before had executed a monarch or had any tradition of republican thought in England.

Thus in this unprecedented position of being both a government and a parliament, the Rump had no clear administration lines to guide it, making their achievements seem all the greater.

The regime was also launched during arguably the “worst economic crisis of the 17th Century” (Coward). Combined with the financial pressure of war, finance problems are factors that have “to be borne in mind in any assessment of the Rump” (Lynch), once more making their achievements seem greater.

By 1651 however, the immediate economic crisis was over and there was no excuse of imminent royalist or foreign invasion to interrupt the Rump’s work. Yet these factors coincided with a down turn in the Rump’s legislative record. The number of Acts passed in 1649 had been 125, compared to only 44 in 1652, with the number of legislative committees established also thirding in the same period. The Rump was becoming less and less effective.

This is seen by some as the major reason Cromwell dissolved parliament and I think it can be easily argued that by 1653 the Rump was not achieving much, especially within England. Hutton: “the achievement of the Commonwealth within England was unimpressive”.

But I think in conclusion that the Rump did achieve. What weakened the Commonwealth was the assumption by sectarians and republicans that the Rump was a stage on the road to full-blown Republicanism. However, the Rump had “never attempted to defend itself by promising future reforms” (Hutton).

Instead the Rump was in the words of Coward “the upholder of law and order and bulwark versus radicalism….and it is significant that the Rump met no serious opposition”.

Trade flourished, Ireland and Scotland were defeated and an economic crisis had been seen out. England’s international prestige had been enhanced. Thomas Burton: “The City of London grew rich…our navy and armies were never better…only honest and good-hearted men could have done the like”.

In view of the pressure on the Rump from outside and from within its own internal divisions, bearing in mind the extent of the administration, financial and military burdens it carried, it was “remarkable” that the Rump was able to achieve four and a half years of “stable government” (Lynch), which is no mean achievement for a ‘stop-gap’.

Also it must not be forgotten when analysing whether the Rump achieved anything of note, that it abolished the House of Lords, the monarchy and established the first Commonwealth in British history.

When he expelled the Rump on the 20th of April 1653, Cromwell closed the option of calling a newly elected parliament for some time to come. England was “now directly under military rule” (Lynch).

On behalf of the Army Council, Cromwell announced that a new assembly was to be established, not by election, but by nomination. A number of 140 members was finally agreed and this nominated assembly was opened on July 4th 1653.

The Assembly soon voted to declare itself a parliament and it became known as the ‘Barebones Parliament’. This was a reference by royalists and republicans to a parliament they refused to accept the legitimacy of, naming it after one of the backbenches, Praise God Barebone, a London leather-seller.

This is a major reason why the Barebones is often associated with failure, since after the Restoration it became customary to dismiss the Assembly as if it had been composed simply of the incompetent.

“Peltifoggers, Innkeepers, Stockingmongers and such a rabble as never had hope to be of a Grand Jury” (Exiled Royalist Court letter).

Clarendon agreed, branding the members of the Barebones “a pack of senseless fellows”. How could a Parliament led by men quite unfitted to rule, with the common view that most members were drawn from outside the governing class and were poorly educated, achieve anything of note?

However, once more Austin Woolrych has shown that this is a false picture, since out of the 140 MPs, 116 were members of the gentry. 119 had served as JPs, 40 had been to university, 40 had trained as lawyers, and 24 had sat in a previous parliament, while a further 67 would be elected to later parliaments. Nearly all had some form of administration experience.

Thus, as Coward has written, the Barebones were not a “rabble” and had political competence.

Political competence there might have been but was the achievement of any sort?

Lynch writes that the “Barebones represents Cromwell’s attempt to achieve stable rule in England”. Yet, like the Rump, this parliament was never intended to be permanent. This is clear from its decision to fix a date, November 1654, for its own dissolution. This hardly seems an ingredient for stable government, and the fact that it was only in existence for five months suggest neither stability, nor much time for any major achievement.

With the dissolution of the Rump and Cromwell’s reference to the members of the Barebones as “persons fearing God”, it had reawakened hopes for a godly reformation. However, Coward writes that the “Barebones record made its dissolution inevitable”, with the assembly “disappointing hopes for reforms” (Lynch). Such was its record that it led Cromwell to conclude; “these 140 honest men could not govern”.

Much of the reason for this was because of deep divisions due to what Smith calls “religious radicalism combined with an underlying social conservatism”.

The Barebones had its fanatical members, notably the Fifth Monarchists, led by Major General Thomas Harrison, who believed their task was to prepare the way for Christ’s coming. In their wildest moments they proposed sweeping away all forms of organised religion and the abolition of all recognised law.

These radicals “overshadowed proceedings” (Lynch) and tended to be taken as the characteristic of the assembly as a whole during its five month existence.

Their aims were so “impractical and idealistic” (Coward) that they were bound to fail and not achieve much.

The moderates and conservatives within Parliament grew exasperated with such radicalism and concluded that the only way to check the radicals was to dissolve the assembly. Accordingly, in December, the moderates met in a special session, from which the radicals were excluded and voted to terminate their proceedings.

The Barebones, has however, come to be “seen as something it was not” (Coward), with Capp and Woolrych uncovering only 13 Fifth Monarchists in the Parliament, who played only a “small part in proceedings”.

The ridiculers of the Barebones “allowed prejudice to distort their analysis” (Barnard).

In just over a five-month period, the Barebones Parliament passed over 30 statutes and many other bills were in the pipeline when it ended it December 1653. Most progress was made on law reform. Acts were passed for the relief of creditors and poor prisoners, while civil marriages carried out by JPs were legalised.

To fill the gap left by the collapse of the church courts; machinery was established for the probate of wills and for registering births, marriages and deaths. Even more wide ranging law reforms were being drafted, taking up many of the Hale Commission recommendations (thus being another achievement of the Rump).

Measures were also proposed to rationalise the revenue system including the abolition of the hated excise and an act was passed to regulate the conditions under which idiots and lunatics were kept.

The Barebones continued bringing Scotland even further under English control, while in Ireland lands confiscated from Catholic rebels were bestowed on the soldiers whom had served there and on civilians who had paid for the island’s re-conquest.

“The spate of legislation has led to praise of the Parliament” (Barnard).

When concluding on whether the Barebones parliament achieved anything of note it is important to study its aims. As I have already written, Cromwell set up the Parliament to achieve an interim period of government until new elections could be held. While this did not occur, the Barebones “did go some way towards meeting Cromwell’s hopes” (Coward). There was “enough” (Smith) reforms to satisfy radicals and enough well ordered government to convince rulers of the counties that the republic merited support.

Thus the Barebones, because of its divisions and short period as government struggled to make a massive difference, they did achieve various things, as outlined above, of note. The Rump, in my view, went even further than this, and while it had its doubters, achieved “more than its fair share” (Coward) during its period of office.