Oliver Cromwell removing the mace from the Commons Chamber and dissolving the Rump Parliament in 1653, as illustrated by John Leech, 1850

The blunders that restored the Crown

The Fall: Last Days of the English Republic by Henry Reece

This article is taken from the July 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

At the risk of ruining my relationship with The Critic, I quite like the Republic pressure group. These anti-monarchy campaigners are easy to mock, of course, and not merely because they typify the self-righteous soul of retirement liberalism. 

The Fall: Last Days of the English Republic. Henry Reece (Yale University Press, £35)

After all, despite their antics, the Windsors can still muster the support of comfortably more than half their subjects, not much less than 20 years ago. And though young Britons are increasingly sceptical of monarchy, republican prospects still feel bleak. In a country where building 80 miles of railway becomes too radical a proposition, is a wholesale constitutional revolution really so likely? 

But on Republic goes, shouting slogans and waving placards. To me, that doggedness feels admirable, as does their refreshingly unsentimental disdain for ermine and crowns. And if, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, they remain activists without a “taproot in Eden”, Republic’s ageing cadres should surely keep fighting. For as Henry Reece explains in this brilliant new history, little in politics is certain, and even the ancient British monarchy isn’t always destined to succeed. 

Consider the England of February 1660, a place and time when royalism seemed lost. As one unhappy monarchist lamented: “The growing republic flourishes beyond expectations”. Yet just a few months later, Charles Stuart had triumphally been proclaimed King Charles II, his enemies scattered or begging for mercy. Starting from Oliver Cromwell’s death in September 1658, The Fall charts many moments like this, where luck and incompetence intervened to ravage the short-lived republic, along the way puncturing the myth that England inevitably tends towards kingship. 

Central to Reece’s narrative are the flaws of the republic’s leaders. After Cromwell died, his son Richard became Lord Protector. Unfortunately, the younger Cromwell “had little stomach or aptitude” to defend his new government. Though diligent and conciliatory, Reece stresses that Richard’s mishandling of army demands provoked a constitutional coup. 

Leaders of the newly-restored Rump Parliament, suppressed by the elder Cromwell in 1653, soon made their own mistakes. A senior MP, Sir Arthur Hesilrige, helped spark another putsch after insisting the Speaker of the House should oversee officer commissions.

Once they overthrew the Rump in October 1659, the officers displayed their foibles too. Though it was clear that the arrival of George Monck and his Scottish army threatened his junta, Lieutenant-General Charles Fleetwood dithered. Indecision was clearly in his character: preferring divine inspiration to temporal action, he prayed during crucial meetings. 

General Monck declares for a Free Parliament, 1660

Bolstered by countless primary sources, Reece is equally skilled at summoning the mental landscapes of other protagonists. Notoriously abrasive, Hesilrige was described by one fellow parliamentarian as “a man of disobliging carriage” with a “sower” temperament. Lucy Hutchinson, the poet and translator, was similarly sharp about Richard Cromwell. He was, she concluded, a “meeke, temperate and quiet” man.

What emerges from this tumult is not the sweep of history , but rather how contingent the end of the republic really was. Almost four centuries of hindsight have solidified the sense that England’s anti-royalist experiment was an aberration. But if the failure of republicanism hinged on little more than Hesilrige’s foul moods, it follows that things could easily have been different. 

In crafting this argument, the author obviously had to be cautious; counterfactuals can flutter off once unburdened by truth. Fortunately, Reece always ballasts his claims with meticulous research. After examining the national accounts, for example, he concludes that England’s finances in April 1659 were “precarious” but not hopeless. Had Richard Cromwell shown greater courage, for instance by ending a costly war with Spain, he might have strengthened his position.

Other inflection points are just as stark. What might have happened, the author asks, if Hesilrige had compromised with his military rivals? What about if the army leadership of early 1660 had ordered Monck back to Scotland? In essence, Reece argues that the republic could have endured, and certainly Cromwell’s Protectorate enjoyed more legitimacy among the “political nation” than its sudden collapse implies. 

What the country really craved — the term appears constantly in the 1650s — was “settlement” after years of instability. Whether peace came from parliament or king mattered less, and Reece is good at exploring how many embraced the latter both reluctantly and late. “Our poore England unsettled …” confided one Essex clergyman in early 1660, “… the nacion looking to Charles Stuart, out of love to themselves not him, the end of these things god only knoweth.”

Nor did contemporaries see the republic’s fall as inevitable. The royalist howl from February 1660 is the most vivid example here, but there are others. Writing in January of the same year, Edward Hyde, soon to be created the Earl of Clarendon by Charles II, believed a “settled republick” remained possible. 

And when the so-called Convention Parliament, essentially imposed by Monck at musket-point, invited Charles back from Europe, the collective shock was immense. As the Anglo-Irish aristocrat Lord Broghill put it, that both Houses conducted their work so fast “may cause a man to wounder” as much as anything in his turbulent age. 

These reflections prod The Fall beyond high politics, instead conjuring the chaos of a land lolling between two very different futures. Rumours and hearsay were rife, unsurprising when news was so biased and communications so poor. Reece keenly evokes this disordered society whenever he can. Waiting to march south, Monck found himself quartered in a Northumberland cottage with a pair of dunghills outside. 

Celebrating the demise of the Rump Parliament, Londoners jokingly roasted a beef’s hindquarters. Such grubby humanity is especially obvious in The Fall’s final pages, as the Stuarts return and republicans scramble for their lives. A few, like Richard Ingoldsby, shamelessly ingratiated themselves with the new regime. Some, notably his fellow regicide Edmund Ludlow, preferred exile. Others miscalculated: first hiding, then fleeing. Sir Archibald Johnston of Wariston was captured and hanged in 1663. 

The line between failure and success could be bewilderingly thin. “Wariston,” Reece emphasises, “was never a leading player in English politics,” but through a mix of bad timing and bad politics still died on the scaffold. The point is that the destiny of governors, and governments, is rarely guaranteed, something that should inspire Wariston’s republican successors, and unnerve the Windsors and their heirs

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