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Parliaments, 1640-1660

Civil War, Commonwealth and Protectorate

Eleven years after he dissolved Parliament following the rows surrounding the levying of Tunnage and Poundage and religion in the 1628-9 Parliament, Charles I was finally compelled to summon Parliament again as a result of his failure to crush rebellion in Scotland. But he found the Short Parliament of May 1640 unprepared to grant supply as swiftly as he had hoped. The decision to dissolve it and fight the Scots without parliamentary finance, however, proved misguided, for a second confrontation left them the clear victors, and Charles forced to summon a new Parliament to meet in November, to become the notorious Long Parliament which was not finally dissolved until 1660.

Charles I was not in a position to resist the demands of reformers within Parliament in 1640-1, having to accept the attainder and execution of his key minister, the earl of Strafford, and to assent to a series of Acts making changes to state institutions, requiring that Parliaments be held every three years and insisting that Parliament could not be dissolved without its own assent. But Charles did find the political strength to draw the line at demands to intervene in the control of the militia, and the reformation of the Church helped to divide the unity of reformers within Parliament. The result was the outbreak of Civil War in 1642.

After the King's defeat by a newly powerful parliamentary army, Parliament remained divided by tensions over religion and threatened by the religious views and the political ambition and muscle of the army's officers. An army coup in 1648, Pride's Purge, removed from the Long Parliament those determined to continue negotiations with the King, leaving a smaller group of Members, nicknamed the 'Rump' Parliament. The Rump executed the King in January 1649 and declared a Republic, only to be itself removed by the Army, now led by Cromwell, in April 1653.

Cromwell was anxious to legitimise and domesticate his rule through Parliaments, but his relationship with those he called into existence echoed, in some respects, that of Charles I. Barebone's Parliament, which met in July 1653, was a nominated assembly, much mocked for its relatively humble Members, and its dissolution was engineered by Members and army officers who contributed to the creation of a new constitution, the Instrument of Government, in December 1653. The validity and detail of the Instrument was much debated by a new Parliament in 1654; the second Protectorate Parliament of 1656-7 proposed a new constitutional settlement, including the offer of the Crown to the Protector.

Following Cromwell's death in September 1658, and his replacement by his son Richard, a new Parliament was disrupted by both Republicans and Royalists. Richard Cromwell's government, and his Parliament was elbowed aside by army officers, who themselves sought some legitimacy by looking to the Rump Parliament, which reassembled in May 1659. The Rump's stormy relationship with the Army, and the Army's own disintegration at the end of 1659 paved the way for General Monck to occupy London, to restore the 'secluded' Members of the Long Parliament and to oversee free elections to the Convention Parliament in 1660, which, in May that year, responded to an approach from King Charles II in exile by restoring the monarchy.

Work is currently underway on this period. A few articles are currently available for some of the Parliaments in this period; more will be added in due course. For more information, please see: Latest Research, Commons 1640-1660.</