England’s short-lived republic was bold, imperfect, novel and short-lived but we’re still debating the same issues today
Well, folks, it’s history time and this week is the 360th anniversary of the founding of the Protectorate government in a unified Commonwealth Britain under Oliver Cromwell. “So what?” you may well ask given that a fair few years have passed since then. But I would argue it’s worth stopping to think about this very unusual period in British history and the echoes of it we hear today.
The action in my novel Gideon’s Angel takes place in the months leading up to Cromwell’s effective “kingship” in December 1653. The book revolves around two plots to assassinate him before the Protectorate is established, one Royalist and one infernal. And amongst all the action and swashbuckling, incantations and demon-summoning, there are some interesting themes about who is good and who is bad. I paint Cromwell as a sympathetic figure, a man trying to square an impossible political circle in the ashes of a horrific civil war. He polarized opinion in his own time and continues to do so in ours. And he has received rather a bad rap in our collective memory not least for the brutality of the campaign he waged to subdue Ireland. Yet the Protectorate that he and the few men in his inner circle forged, was a system of government way ahead of its time and one that later influenced the men of the Enlightenment both in Europe and North America.
To quote the website of the Cromwell Association: “Firstly, the Cromwellian Protectorate was the first truly British government in our history, the first to lay serious claim to rule over and to pull together the disparate nations of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Secondly, the Protectorate was the first and so far the last government in our history to be empowered and to operate according to the terms of a detailed written constitution.”
We in the UK are still arguing about the need for a written constitution today, and the need for a reformed (or abolished) House of Lords, or a state church. The Protectorate only lasted a few years and much of what it established was undone in the Stuart Restoration. And it disappointed those true republicans who thought that it was a monarchy in all but name (It was briefly debated that Cromwell ought to become King Oliver but he chose “Lord Protector” instead). But it was a novel experiment in modern government and for all its faults, not a bad effort compared to what had gone before or even what came after.
Again, to quote the Cromwell Association: “The new regime generally held true to the path Cromwell set for it in December 1653 – “to act for God and the peace and good of the Nation, and particularly…to consider and relieve the distress of the poor and oppressed. We should remember and commemorate it.”
Not everyone will agree with that sentiment but Cromwell and the Protectorate are part and parcel of our history and the ripples from that political experiment can still be felt.