Historical Tales: 4—English - Charles Morris

Cromwell and the Parliament

The Parliament of England had defeated and put an end to the king; it remained for Cromwell to put an end to the Parliament. "The Rump," the remnant of the old Parliament was derisively called. What was left of that great body contained little of its honesty and integrity, much of its pride and incompetency. The members remaining had become infected with the wild notion that they were the governing power in England, and instead of preparing to disband themselves they introduced a bill for the disbanding of the army. They had not yet learned of what stuff Oliver Cromwell was made.

A bill had been passed, it is true, for the dissolution of the Parliament, but in the discussion of how the "New Representative" was to be chosen it became plainly evident that the members of the Rump intended to form part of it, without the formality of re-election. A struggle for power seemed likely to arise between the Parliament and the army. It could have but one ending, with a man like Oliver Cromwell at the head of the latter. The officers demanded that Parliament should immediately dissolve. The members resolutely refused. Cromwell growled his comments.

"As for the members of this Parliament," he said, "the army begins to take them in disgust."

There was ground for it, he continued, in their selfish greed, their interference with law and justice, the scandalous lives of many of the members, and, above all, their plain intention to keep themselves in power.

"There is little to hope for from such men for a settlement of the nation," he concluded.

The war with Holland precipitated the result. This war acted as a barometer for the Parliament. It was a naval combat. In the first meeting of the two fleets the Dutch were defeated, and the mercury of Parliamentarian pride rose. In the next combat Van Tromp, the veteran Dutch admiral, drove Blake with a shattered fleet into the Thames. Van Tromp swept the Channel in triumph, with a broom at his masthead. The hopes of the members went down to zero. They agreed to disband in November. Cromwell promised to reduce the army. But Blake put to sea again, fought Van Tromp in a four days' running fight, and won the honors of the combat. Up again went the mercury of Parliamentary hope and pride. The members determined to continue in power, and not only claimed the right to remain members of the new Parliament, but even to revise the returns of the elected members, and decide for themselves if they would have them as fellows.

Oliver Cromwell


The issue was now sharply drawn between army and Parliament. The officers met and demanded that Parliament should at once dissolve, and let the Council of State manage the new elections. A conference was held between officers and members, at Cromwell's house, on April 19, 1653. It ended in nothing. The members were resolute.

"Our charge," said Haslerig, arrogantly, "cannot be transferred to any one."

The conference adjourned till the next morning, Sir Harry Vane engaging that no action should be taken till it met again. Yet when it met the next morning the leading members of Parliament were absent, Vane among them. Their absence was suspicious. Were they pushing the bill through the House in defiance of the army?

Cromwell was present,—"in plain black clothes, and gray worsted stockings,"—a plain man, but one not safe to trifle with. The officers waited a while for the members. They did not come. Instead there came word that they were in their seats in the House, busily debating the bill that was to make them rulers of the nation without consent of the people, hurrying it rapidly through its several stages. If left alone they would soon make it a law.

Then the man who had hurled Charles I. from his throne lost his patience. This, in his opinion, had gone far enough. Since it had come to a question whether a self-elected Parliament, or the army to which England owed her freedom, should hold the balance of power, Cromwell was not likely to hesitate.

"It is contrary to common honesty!" he broke out, angrily.

Leaving Whitehall, he set out for the House of Parliament, bidding a company of musketeers to follow him. He entered quietly, leaving his soldiers outside. The House now contained no more than fifty-three members. Sir Harry Vane was addressing this fragment of a Parliament with a passionate harangue in favor of the bill. Cromwell sat for some time in silence, listening to his speech, his only words being to his neighbor, St. John.

"I am come to do what grieves me to the heart," he said.

Vane pressed the House to waive its usual forms and pass the bill at once.

"The time has come," said Cromwell to Harrison, whom he had beckoned over to him.

"Think well," answered Harrison; "it is a dangerous work."

The man of fate subsided into silence again. A quarter of an hour more passed. Then the question was put "that this bill do now pass."

Cromwell rose, took off his hat, and spoke. His words were strong. Beginning with commendation of the Parliament for what it had done for the public good, he went on to charge the present members with acts of injustice, delays of justice, self-interest, and similar faults, his tone rising higher as he spoke until it had grown very hot and indignant.

"Your hour is come; the Lord hath done with you," he added.

"It is a strange language, this," cried one of the members, springing up hastily; "unusual this within the walls of Parliament. And from a trusted servant, too; and one whom we have so highly honored; and one—"

" Come, come," cried Cromwell, in the tone in which he would have commanded his army to charge, "we have had enough of this." He strode furiously into the middle of the chamber, clapped on his hat, and exclaimed, "I will put an end to your prating."

He continued speaking hotly and rapidly, "stamping the floor with his feet" in his rage, the words rolling from him in a fury. Of these words we only know those with which he ended.

"It is not fit that you should sit here any longer! You should give place to better men! You are no Parliament!" came from him in harsh and broken exclamations. "Call them in," he said, briefly, to Harrison.

At the word of command a troop of some thirty musketeers marched into the chamber. Grim fellows they were, dogs of war, the men of the Rump could not face this argument; it was force arrayed against law,—or what called itself law,—wrong against wrong, for neither army nor Parliament truly represented the people, though just then the army seemed its most rightful representative.

"I say you are no Parliament!" roared the lord general, hot with anger. "Some of you are drunkards." His eye fell on a bottle-loving member.

"Some of you are lewd livers; living in open contempt of God's commandments" His hot gaze flashed on Henry Marten and Sir Peter Wentworth. "Following your own greedy appetites and the devil's commandments; corrupt, unjust persons, scandalous to the profession of the gospel: how can you be a Parliament for God's people? Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God—go!"

These words were like bomb shells exploded in the chamber of Parliament. Such a scene had never before and has never since been seen in the House of Commons. The members were all on their feet, some white with terror, some red with indignation. Vane fearlessly faced the irate general.

"Your action," he said, hotly, "is against all right and all honor."

"Ah, Sir Harry Vane, Sir Harry Vane," retorted Cromwell, bitterly, "you might have prevented all this; but you are a juggler, and have no common honesty. The Lord deliver me from Sir Harry Vane!"

The retort was a just one. Vane had attempted to usurp the government. Cromwell turned to the speaker, who obstinately clung to his seat, declaring that he would not yield it except to force.

"Fetch him down!" roared the general.

"Sir, I will lend you a hand," said Harrison.

Speaker Lenthall left the chair. One man could not resist an army. Through the door glided, silent as ghosts, the members of Parliament.

"It is you that have forced me to this," said Cromwell, with a shade of regret in his voice. "I have sought the Lord night and day, that He would rather slay me than put upon me the doing of this work."

He had, doubtless; he was a man of deep piety and intense bigotry; but the Lord's answer, it is to be feared, came out of the depths of his own consciousness. Men like Cromwell call upon God, but answer for Him themselves.

"What shall be done with this bauble?" said the general, lifting the sacred mace, the sign-manual of government by the representatives of the people. "Take it away!" he finished, handing it to a musketeer.

His flashing eyes followed the retiring members until they all had left the House. Then the musketeers filed out, followed by Cromwell and Harrison. The door was locked, and the key and mace carried away by Colonel Otley.

A few hours afterwards the Council of State, the executive committee of Parliament, was similarly dissolved by the lord-general, who, in person, bade its members to depart.

"We have heard," cried John Bradshaw, one of its members, "what you have done this morning at the House, and in some hours all England will hear it. But you mistake, sir, if you think the Parliament dissolved. No power on earth can dissolve the Parliament but itself, be sure of that."

The people did hear it,—and sustained Cromwell in his action. Of the two sets of usurpers, the army and a non-representative Parliament, they preferred the former.

"We did not hear a dog bark at their going," said Cromwell, afterwards.

It was not the first time in history that the army had overturned representative government. In this case it was not done with the design of establishing a despotism. Cromwell was honest in his purpose of reforming the administration, and establishing a Parliamentary government. But he had to do with intractable elements. He called a constituent convention, giving to it the duty of paving the way to a constitutional Parliament. Instead of this, the convention began the work of reforming the constitution, and proposed such radical changes that the lord-general grew alarmed. Doubtless his musketeers would have dealt with the convention as they had done with the Rump Parliament, had it not fallen to pieces through its own dissensions. It handed back to Cromwell the power it had received from him. He became the lord protector of the realm. The revolutionary government had drifted, despite itself, into a despotism. A despotism it was to remain while Cromwell lived.