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Oliver Cromwell The King Killer

On February 7th 1649 Parliament voted to abolish the monarchy. A few days earlier King Charles had gone to the scaffold. The Prince of Wales, also Charles, was in exile in Holland. When his chaplain addressed him as ‘Your Majesty’ he broke down in tears; it could only mean that his father had been executed.

In a touching but faintly pathetic gesture, Jersey proclaimed Charles king and granted him a subsidy of £633: it was all that remained to the Stuarts. The 18-year-old monarch, King in name only, began the fruitless task of building a European system of alliance to help him reclaim the throne. When no help was forthcoming, it became apparent that the only possibility of regaining the crown lay with the support of groups within the British Isles.

But the loyalty of his subjects did not stretch to an armed uprising against their new rulers. In 1650 Charles’ Scottish allies were defeated at Dunbar, and the young King himself at Worcester. As he travelled through England, Charles found a population eager to come out and cheer his ragged army, but reluctant to lay down their lives for the royalist cause. His plans of invasion and a glorious restoration of the Stuarts ended in embarrassing defeat; the royalist rabble was annihilated by Cromwell.

The Civil War had thrown down one power in the land, but it had raised another wholly new one: the Army. Forty thousand strong, it was a force which no one could truly master. The conflict between Crown and Parliament became a conflict between Parliament and Army. Cromwell was the only man who could hold the ring. As the new republic sought to reform the government, they found themselves drawn back to the model of kingship. Parliament could legislate, but it could not rule. That required an Executive. And an Executive would always need a head – it seemed inevitable that “power must be reduced to one”. But who? Perhaps the late king’s son? But he had already proved a rebel. Perhaps the younger son, James? But why did it have to be a Stuart at all? Had not God shown his favour in the late war? Might not Cromwell be the Lord’s anointed?

But Cromwell knew that the Army would never accept a new king. Over the years of the Commonwealth he vacillated, seeming to reach for the Crown, only to reject it at the last moment. But to legitimise his role as Lord Protector, Cromwell had no less than two investitures, in effect pseudo-coronations. In the first he dressed in sober black, but in the second, inspired by fears for his succession, he was decked out in ermine just like a real king. Beyond the problem of the Army, there was another reason to resist the calls to ascend to the throne. Kingship would in fact diminish his power – as dictator he had more power than any king in English history.

But there was still the perennial problem of succession. To placate the Army, Cromwell had kept his heir, Richard, away from politics. But at the last there seemed no alternative to Richard, and he succeeded his father. The succession of Richard ran as smoothly as any Prince of Wales assuming a father’s crown. But this tranquillity was brief. In April 1659 Richard was deposed by the army and parliament purged of his few supporters. Few felt they owed any loyalty to an ineffectual 31-year-old who happened to be the eldest surviving son of the illustrious Oliver. It was impossible to revere a ruler who was known as ‘Queen Dick’. The anarchy and civil strife that political writers had always promised when there was no monarchical authority proved to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. The peaceable succession of government was, throughout the 17th Century, the great problem that always threatened the safety of the country. It was a shadowy prospect in 1603, but between 1654 and 1660 it was magnified to national crisis. In the 12 months after April 1659 there were no fewer than seven different governments.

There was only one solution. Charles Stuart was still in exile in the Low Countries. He played his hand with consummate skill, pre-empting negotiations with Parliament with his own Declaration of Breda. The statement of intent was enough for the Convention Parliament, and Charles was invited to take his throne with unconditional powers. The Restoration of the monarchy in June 1660 was the most glorious display of royal ceremony ever seen. The monarchy was back.

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