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The Interregnum: Britain's republican decade

Charles I was dead, Oliver Cromwell was on the rise, and a nation was grappling with a strange new reality – one without a monarchy. Anna Keay tells the story of the 1650s, through the eyes of three of the people who helped shape Britain’s republican decade

The Great Seal of the Commonwealth of England
Published: May 16, 2022 at 4:00 pm
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On 5 March 1649, a few weeks into the life of the new Commonwealth of England, a state funeral was held. There was a stellar turn-out for Roland Wilson, army officer and politician. Almost the whole of the new political establishment was there: the head of the victorious New Model Army, Lord Fairfax; the lord mayor of London; and a host of MPs who had just taken up executive authority in the young republic.


As the cavalcade swayed solemnly through the city streets, the crowds built. The mood was subdued at first, until one of the “rabble” spotted in the midst of the politicians and soldiers the 46-year-old Cheshire lawyer John Bradshaw, who had presided at the trial of Charles I a few weeks earlier. They cried aloud: “Here is the rogue that judged the king, kill him, kill him. Let us tear him in pieces.” Bradshaw was petrified as they clamoured towards him, brandishing sticks and clubs. He clutched the arm of the lawyer who walked beside him, begging him not to abandon him, before darting down a narrow side street to give the murderous mob the slip.

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It was little wonder the crowd was angry. The nation had divided during the years of civil war, with some backing Charles I and others the parliamentary leaders who challenged his policies. Yet the fight had never been about monarchy versus republicanism and both sides claimed to be fighting in the king’s name. It was only once the parliamentarians had won, and a radical cabal backed by the army imprisoned many MPs, that Charles I had been tried and executed.

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The experience of seeing Congleton in Cheshire, the town of which he had been mayor, destroyed by disease in 1640–41 had been instrumental in Bradshaw’s journey to becoming a regicide. His careful plague preparations had proved utterly inadequate and citizens died in their hundreds: gravediggers were paid danger money to bury the piles of corpses and, with the economic life of the town close to collapse, starvation stalked the survivors. Bradshaw came away convinced that this was God’s punishment of England for having lost its way, and that it was now his solemn duty to serve justice on “a king more cruel than Nero”.

Holding a dream

The Commonwealth or Republic of England was declared in 1649 – shortly after Charles I’s execution –and for four years the republican dream of a country without a king or head of state, in which the people as represented in parliament were sovereign, held.

In an extraordinary feat of political and administrative engineering the country was restructured along these new egalitarian lines. The House of Lords was abolished, the Church of England was already in the process of being radically reformed, minus bishops, and the vast royal estates and collections were put up for sale.

Interregum timeline: three kingdoms without a king

1649 | As civil war rages, King Charles I is tried and executed. The monarchy is abolished and a Commonwealth, or Republic of England, declared.

1649–51 | An English army led by Oliver Cromwell subjugates Ireland and Scotland.

1651 | Cromwell’s forces defeat Charles II at the battle of Worcester. Charles evades his pursuers by hiding in an oak tree, and escapes to France.

1653 |  The Commonwealth is abolished and a Protectorate declared. This is stewarded by a “Lord Protector”, Oliver Cromwell (shown left).

1654–58 | Cromwell’s administration in Ireland undertakes a mass dispossession of Irish landowners and redistributes the land to the funders and fighters of the English army.

1655 | English forces wrest the island of Jamaica from Spain and establish a colony.

1656 | A political union between England and Scotland is effected; Scotland and Ireland send MPs to Westminster

1658 | Oliver Cromwell dies and is succeeded by his son Richard as Lord Protector.

1659 | The Protectorate collapses and the army seizes control, shutting down parliament.

1659 | George Monck, head of the army in Scotland, declares for parliament and marches on London.

1660 | Monck concludes that the only viable option is the restoration of the monarchy. Charles II returns from his exile in the Netherlands, arriving in London on 29 May, his 30th birthday.

Bradshaw would himself play a key role in the nascent Commonwealth, assuming the presidency of the new Council of State – which acted as the executive of the government in place of the king and the Privy Council – and for three years labouring to make a success of the republic he had helped to sire.

Uppermost in the mind of the council was preventing a royalist counter-attack. The revolution had been condemned in both Scotland and Ireland, and forcing each nation into submission would occupy much of the energy of the new republic. After bloody campaigns in these two lands, the Isle of Man was almost the last Stuart outpost of the British Isles.

Here in 1651, standing alone, was the second of our three protagonists: Charlotte Stanley, Countess of Derby, the French granddaughter of William the Silent who had led the Dutch in their war of independence. She watched and waited from the confines of Castle Rushen, a portrait miniature of Charles II in the folds of her skirt.

Painting of Charlotte, Countess of Derby by Sir Peter Lely
The Countess of Derby stood firm on the Isle of Man, one of the last Stuart outposts in Britain, before her
betrayal by a Manx politician (Photo by Alamy)

Charlotte’s husband had sailed to join the young Charles’s military campaign to restore the monarchy, but the royalists had been wiped out on the floodplain outside Worcester, and Derby and the king were now both fugitives on the run.

A war-weary people had not responded to Charles II’s call to rise, reluctant to reignite the conflict and suspicious of the unruly Highlanders who marched with him. Charlotte had already directed one long siege and was poised to mount another. But the Manxmen and women did not share her resolve. Charlotte stood imperious, declaring: “My goods and house shall burn in his sight, myselfe, children and souldiers, rather then fall into his [Cromwell’s] hands.” Yet, all the while, the Manx politician William Christian was cutting a secret deal with the republic and a massive army was allowed to land.

The Countess of Derby was betrayed. In a final act of defiance she put her name to the terms of surrender without reading a single word. In the years that followed, Charlotte devoted herself not to securing a royalist restoration but to salvaging her own family’s position. She managed to assemble the means to pay the fines that retrieved her confiscated lands. Once these had been paid, the appeal of pushing for further regime-change dulled.

The fall of the Isle of Man, and complete command of Britain and Ireland that followed, took the pressure off the Commonwealth government long enough for the contradictions on which it was built to be exposed. The army wanted radical reform, MPs wanted moderation. The head of the army, General Oliver Cromwell, and his men finally lost patience and marched MPs from their chamber, famously declaring “they had sat long enough” for all the good they had done. Within a year the Commonwealth was gone and instead a new “Protectorate” was born, a kingless state stewarded by a powerful “Lord Protector”, Cromwell himself.

Going to market

John Bradshaw lamented some years into the republic that, despite all their efforts, he doubted he and his comrades had changed a single royalist’s mind. One of his colleagues remarked that it didn’t matter as most “people care not what government they live under, so [long] as they may plough and go to market”. It was true that the majority had backed neither side in the wars but wished simply to keep their heads down and make a living.

One who had no particular political allegiance was our third protagonist, Dr William Petty, a precocious young scientist sent to Ireland in 1652 as physician to the Commonwealth Army. The republic’s bloody campaign there, which Cromwell himself had led, was now over. Hundreds of thousands had died to bring the island under the control of the Puritan English government.

Painting of Sir William Petty holding a skull
William Petty served under Henry Cromwell, but was also knighted by Charles II (Photo by Alamy)

The bodies may have been buried but the financial cost had yet to be paid. In a fateful formulation that dated to Charles I’s time, both the funders and the fighters of the English army were to be rewarded in lands confiscated from the vanquished Irish. Until this could be achieved, the army could not be disbanded and the immense costs would continue to mount.

The crucial stumbling block was the lack of information, for accurate maps did not then exist for most of Ireland. A group of professional surveyors had been tasked with remedying this. As they bustled in and out of meetings at Dublin Castle, William Petty looked on in disbelief. The task was clearly going to take them most of a decade, the costs would be astronomical and the results unreliable.

Petty felt compelled to intervene. He put it to his master, the Protector’s second-oldest surviving son, Henry Cromwell, that he should be given the job instead. He would sack the surveyors and use the underemployed soldiers in their place. Training them to undertake each aspect of the cartographical process, he would create far more accurate maps, produce them for a much lower cost and undertake the whole exercise in just one year. So it was that the most ambitious mapping project in the history of Britain and Ireland was launched.

Petty would confound his many sceptics to complete the task in 13 months. “The Down Survey” set new standards in mapping and in the management of men and projects – and it provided the basis for an epic redistribution of land. Before 1640 about two-thirds of Ireland had been owned by Irish men and women, most of whom were Catholics. By 1660, thanks to the programme of confiscations, three-quarters of Ireland was in the hands of Protestants from mainland Britain. There it would remain. The disenfranchisement of the Irish had been effected, and the consequences would reverberate down the centuries.

The wrong brother

The Protectorate was always a precarious construct, too radical for the moderates, too moderate for the radicals. Oliver Cromwell died in 1658. Had Henry Cromwell (an experienced politician and soldier with real strength of character) been named as his father’s successor the regime might just have endured, but in the hands of his less capable, older brother, Richard, it was doomed. Within nine months the Protectorate had collapsed, and the army had once again seized control. It was only after exhausting every other alternative that the head of the army in Scotland, George Monck, concluded that the monarchy must be restored.

John Bradshaw’s state funeral was the last great occasion of the republican era. A year later his decaying corpse was exhumed from Westminster Abbey, and hanged, drawn and quartered before a baying crowd at Tyburn. Apprentices snapped off his decaying toes and traded them as souvenirs.

Charlotte, Dowager Countess of Derby attended Charles II’s coronation, but considered the new king too quick to forgive. In direct violation of the amnesty that had been declared, she had her Manx betrayer, William Christian, shot dead. When William Petty was introduced to the new king, he stammered out an apology for having worked for the Cromwells. But Charles II waved away his explanations, eager instead to know more about Petty’s designs for a double-hulled boat. A new age had dawned.

The decade of revolution and republicanism in Britain and Ireland was short but seismic. As Dickens would write of revolutionary France “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” Through the lives of those who experienced it, something much more interesting than who was “right” and who was “wrong” is revealed: how these lands fared and were formed in the flames of revolution.

How the years of Interregnum forged modern Britain

The 1650s fostered press freedoms, the scientific revolution and international expansionism
The republicanism of the 1650s may have been extinguished by the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, but the effects of those years would endure. It was precisely through the disruption, disagreement and dissent that many components of modern Britain were forged. The strong hand of the monarchy and the state-sponsored church had long helped control beliefs and ideas – political, social and religious – but as Britain descended into war and new systems emerged, that control shattered.

The war had been sparked by disputes about religion; as the floodgates to religious difference were opened a remarkable range of religious sects and societies came into view: Fifth Monarchists and Seekers, Baptists and Quakers. The English censorship regime, whereby any printed publication had to be licensed by the Stationers’ Company, broke down in the 1640s, as the number of printed works increased from hundreds to thousands per year.

Newspapers, unknown in Britain at the beginning of the century, became commonplace, with ploughmen and innkeepers, as well as the professional classes, reading daily news of domestic and foreign affairs. Literacy leapt up and men and women who had never left their locality were suddenly alive to national and international affairs.

The need to sign an oath of allegiance to the new republic cleared out the senior ranks of numerous institutions. At royalist Oxford the exodus was widespread and young scientists like William Petty found themselves suddenly promoted.

In 1649 the Oxford Experimental Philosophy Club was born, and (renaming itself the Royal Society at the Restoration) would be at the forefront of a scientific revolution.

The military force necessary to wage war, and to keep control once it had been won, brought with it a significant expansion in the size of the state. A standing army of thousands, and a navy strong enough to shore up a revolutionary regime, meant higher taxes and more men and administrative machinery.

The need to control the British Isles, to see off challenges to the new regime, forced a deeper integration than had ever been attempted. Scotland and Ireland were both conquered by the English republican army. Ireland was subjected to a wholesale redistribution of land that would disenfranchise its Catholic population almost entirely, and Scotland bound together with England in a parliamentary union that would be the direct forerunner of the Act of Union of 1707.

In many ways it was the Restoration of 1660, rather than the Commonwealth years of the 1650s, that was the aberration. In the 1650s were sewn the seeds of the future: freedom of the press, freedom of worship, naval and military strength, scientific endeavour and a belief in parliamentary supremacy.

The crucial further ingredient was internationalism. In the 1650s the East India Company was granted a new charter and the British state embarked upon its first proper trans-oceanic colonial mission, establishing a colony in Jamaica. Just as that island had not been the original goal, so the consequences would be unexpected. But as British endeavours overseas prospered, and African people were forcibly transported across the Atlantic to work the sun-baked fields of the Caribbean, so began the international expansionism that would dominate the relationship between Britain and the world for centuries to come.

Anna Keay is a historian of the 17th century and director of the Landmark Trust. She is the author of The Restless Republic: Britain Without a Crown (William Collins, 2022)


This content first appeared in the April 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine


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