Oliver Cromwell - Estelle Ross

Praise God Barebones

On April 21, 1653, England was entirely without any form of government. A Council of State was established which consisted of a dozen men with Cromwell at their head, since Vane refused the post. A freely elected Parliament was out of the question, and as a temporary expedient Cromwell decided to summon a Convention consisting of "divers persons fearing God, and of approved Fidelity and Honesty." They were bidden to appear at the Council Chamber in Whitehall in the beginning of July. They were for the most part the nominees of Puritan ministers, without ,the slightest knowledge of Parliamentary business—virtue alone was the qualification for statesmanship. One hundred and forty members were thus chosen, Cromwell's son Henry among them. Fairfax declined to sit, but Blake and Monk accepted, as did eighteen members of the Long Parliament. There was great surprise that so many consented to come, and from such hands "to take upon them the supreme Authority of the Nation: considering how little right Cromwell and his officers had to give it, or these gentlemen to take it." It is interesting to know that Irish and Scottish interests were represented by special nominees.

For the most part the members were men of some distinction, though one, Mr. Praise God Barebones, rested his sole claim to notoriety on giving the assembly its nickname. The members of the Convention soon after meeting declared they were a Parliament—and as "The Little Parliament" the assembly is also known.

The first meeting was held on July 4,. 1653. Each person was given a ticket with his name on his entrance. The members were seated round a table while Cromwell stood near the window. To keep the assembly in the right note of godliness, Frederic Rouse, who had written a second-rate .metrical version of the Psalms, was elected Speaker. When all was in readiness Cromwell addressed the members in a remarkable speech, the main purport of which was that they were summoned by God's will to do God's business, and that in doing it they should above all be tolerant of ttther men's views. He spoke of "that series of Providences wherein the Lord hath appeared, dispensing wonderful things to these nations from the beginning of our troubles to this very day. . . . The King removed and brought to justice and many great ones with him. The House of Peers laid aside. The House of Commons itself the representative of the people of England winnowed, sifted, and brought to a handful. . . . I think I may say for myself and my fellow-officers, that we had rather desired and studied healing and looking forward than to rake into sores and to look backward.

"Truly God hath called you to do this work, by, I think, as wonderful Providences as ever passed upon the sons of men in so short a time. And truly, I think, taking the argument of necessity for the Government must not fall; taking the appearance of the hand of God in this thing—I think you would have been loath it should have been resigned into the hands of wicked men and enemies!"

The assembly was convinced that it had instituted the Reign of the Saints on earth. It was the first and only attempt to govern the country entirely by the precepts of the Bible, to have Christianity in the saddle riding forth to redress human wrongs. But since politics, lie other callings, requires special training, it was a government by amateurs, leavened by a few old parliamentary hands. The members knew in a general way the reforms required, but they failed to grasp the necessity of advancing slowly. The new brooms swept too clean. The Church, property, law, and society were all to be set on a new and better basis. Parliament reckoned without the vested interests that were imperiled. Too much reform got on the nation's nerves. The members were charged with acting on a design to ruin property with "enmity to knowledge and a blind and ignorant fanaticism."

"I am more troubled now by the knave than the fool," declared Cromwell, who grew alarmed at their diligence and their one policy of "Overturn, Overturn!" By nature a Conservative, in the stress of public affairs a practical politician—an opportunist, as we should call him now—he knew that they were going too far and that "root and branch" reform was impracticable.

He opened his mind freely in a letter to his new son-in-law, Lieutenant-General Fleetwood:

"Truly I never more needed all helps from my Christian friends than now! Fain would I have my service accepted of the Saints, if the Lord will;—but it is not so. Being of different judgments, and 'those' of each sort seeking most to propagate their own, that spirit of kindness that is to them all, is hardly accepted of any. I hope I can say it, my life has been a willing sacrifice—and I hope, for them all." For a moment he then forgot his public preoccupations in the thought of his daughter and her newly born child: "My love to thy dear Wife—whom indeed I entirely love, both naturally, and upon the best account; and my blessing, if it be worth anything, upon thy little Babe."

The Barebones Parliament sat for five months. Carlyle, in his trenchant vein, declares that "the farther it advanced toward real. Christianism in human affairs, the louder grew the shrieks of Sham. Christianism." This is as it may be. The fact is that, unless sanctity be allied to a rare genius for statesmanship, the children of this world are wiser in politics than the children of light, since they understand men as they are and not as they would have them be. At least these Saints had wisdom enough to know that they did not carry the country with them. On December x,1653, it was moved that the sitting of the Parliament was no longer for the good of the Commonwealth, and that the members should deliver back to the Lord General Cromwell the powers they had received from him. A minority dissented and remained in their seats. The Serjeant shouldered the mace, and, accompanied by the Speaker and the majority, left the House and proceeded to Whitehall, where Cromwell expressed—some said simulated—surprise and emotion when they announced the formal resignation of their office. When this had been accepted a file of soldiers, with a couple of colonels to lead them, turned out the sitting members.

The country was once more without a government, but the Council of' State, appointed by the Little Parliament, had drawn up a written constitution known as the Instrument of Government. By this it was settled that a new Parliament should be elected to consist of four hundred members for England, with thirty apiece for Scotland and Ireland. A certain property qualification was necessary to secure a vote, and Roman Catholics and Malignants, as the Royalists were called, were to' be excluded from the franchise, the former permanently, the latter temporarily. At the head of the government was to be a Lord Protector with strictly limited powers—but they were those of a constitutional king. He had the right to confer honors, to control the army and navy with the consent of Parliament, to pardon offenders, and to give assent to Bills but should he withhold his assent for twenty days, the Bill became law without his approval.

On the afternoon of December 16, 1653, Cromwell rode forth from Whitehall for the installation. Before him went the Commissioners of the Great Seal, the judges and barons fully robed, the Council of the Common-wealth, the Lord Mayor and Aldermen in official attire. Lastly came the man of destiny, soberly clad in plain black velvet, a gold band round his hat, accompanied by the officers of the army.

The ceremony took place in the Court of Chancery, where a chair of state was the substitute for a throne. Cromwell stood uncovered as the terms of the powers conferred upon him were read out. He signed the parchment and took the oath to observe its conditions in face of them all. Then, formally seated, the Commissioner approached and delivered up the Seal, to receive it again at his hands, and the Lord Mayor went through the same ceremony with his cap and sword. When this was over the procession reformed with the Lord Mayor in advance carrying the sword. It then wended its way to Whitehall, through the crowds of eager sightseers who thronged the cobbled streets.

John Milton


Heralds proclaimed the Lord Protector at the Old Exchange, the Palace Yard, and other places. Whitehall, St James's, Somerset House, and Windsor were reserved for his official use. The Lord Mayor and Common Council entertained him magnificently.

What was the Puritan Court like, with the frugal, homely Elizabeth Cromwell Her Highness the Protectress as hostess? It was a decorous Court and only men and women of good character could gain entrance there In this there was no distinction of persons. When Christina, Queen of Sweden, the only child of the famous soldier Gustavus Adolphus, a lady of many adventures, expressed her intention of visiting England, Cromwell was distinctly discouraging, for he feared the effect of her bad example.

The Cromwell family was not without its critics, and Mrs. Hutchinson, with a pen dipped in dislike, is outspoken in her comments: "His wife and children were setting up for principality, which suited no better with any of them than scarlet on the ape; only, to speak the truth of himself, he had much natural greatness, and well became the place he had usurped. His daughter Fleetwood was humbled, and not exalted with these things, but the rest were insolent fools. Claypole, who married his daughter, and his son Henry, were two debauched, ungodly cavaliers. Richard was a peasant in his nature, yet gentle and virtuous, but became not greatness."

Cromwell's mother lived to see his rise to supreme power and in 1654 she died at the age of ninety-four. A close tie had bound mother and son. She did not rejoice in his greatness, for it gave her hourly fear that an assassin's shot would find its billet in his breast. It was only by his daily and twice daily visits, in spite of all his business preoccupation, that she was reassured. In her last conscious moment she was blessing him: "My dear son, I leave my heart with thee. Good-night."