For eleven years, between 1649 and 1660, Britain was a republic. Great claims are sometimes made for this ‘interregnum’, as if it were the birth of democracy, but really it proved only one thing: be it under monarchy or republic, be it at court or in parliament, power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
IN 1642, the English Parliament’s dispute with King Charles I over the extent of his powers came to civil war. Westminster’s army proved the better, and at last, seven years later, Colonel Thomas Pride led a coup, escorting the King’s supporters from the Commons so that the remainder – the ‘Rump’ Parliament — could more conveniently convict him of treason. Charles was executed, and in 1649 a republic, the Commonwealth of England, was declared.
Pockets of Royalist resistance remained, which Oliver Cromwell, Westminster’s ruthless commander-in-chief, put down with eye-watering brutality, especially in Ireland. Further triumphs at Dunbar in 1650 and at Worcester the following year forced the young Charles II to accept reality, and exile in France.
The Rump Parliament, meanwhile, administered England busily enough, but in 1653 Cromwell sent in the army to break it up. His military Council of Officers appointed a new Parliament, which settled its differences by handing him supreme legislative and executive power. Britain became, officially, the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell.*
* The so-called ‘English Civil War’ was actually a series of wars that involved the whole of the British Isles, since the armed forces of the Parliament in London had effectively conquered the parliaments and peoples of Scotland, Wales and Ireland in battle.