Rethinking the English Revolution of 1649
Rethinking the English Revolution of 1649 by Jonathan Fitzgibbons was published in The Historical Journal
When the axe fell on 30 January 1649, cutting short the troubled life of King Charles I, one eyewitness claims that there followed ‘such a groan’ from the crowds of spectators ‘as I never heard before and desire I may never hear again’. That groan has reverberated through British history ever since.
Few historians now believe that England witnessed a revolution in 1649. Despite the regicide, the abolition of the kingly title and the creation of a kingless republic most accounts stress that the interregnum was inherently conservative. The new republic, it’s assumed, was unwanted, unintended and nothing more than a stop-gap for the majority of people who longed for the return of monarchy.
The Restoration of King Charles II in 1660 continues to cast its long shadow over 1649. As many tried to defend their lives in the wake of Charles II’s return it’s hardly surprising that few professed any affection for the kingless republic created in 1649 and fewer still associated themselves with its creation.
But does this reflect what people thought at the time? If we strip back the veneer of post-Restoration testimony, and concentrate solely on contemporary evidence, I believe that a very different account emerges.
We must consider the dynamics of constitutional change: if the abolition of kingship and creation of the republic were unforeseen and unintended outcomes of the king’s death we’d expect to find preparations for the kingless regime only after the regicide. Yet this is not the case.
In the weeks before the king’s death parliament was already taking decisions that anticipated, and paved the way for, kingless government. These measures included the creation of a new great seal that obliterated all royal imagery; judicial reforms that ensured that the laws no longer ran in the name of any king; the abolition of the obligation to swear oaths to the king or his successors. These actions are hard to reconcile with any supposed irresolution concerning the fate of England’s monarchy.
Too much weight is placed on the fact that kingship was not formally abolished immediately upon the king’s death. There’s a danger we expect too much. As Britain sets about the process of extricating itself from the European Union we’re reminded that major political and constitutional changes require time and careful planning; rushing forwards without first making adequate preparations is generally a bad idea. Rather than being disappointed with the fact that it took over a week after the regicide for the Commons to resolve upon the abolition of the kingly title we should be impressed that it only took eight days to take that resolution.
Don’t get me wrong – the regicide was, quite literally, an unpopular act carried out by a minority in the army and parliament. Yet, this shouldn’t lead to the conclusion that most parliamentarians were dogmatically committed to monarchy. Those who remained at Westminster in the early months of 1649, many of whom played no part in the king’s trial, confronted their constitutional future with an open rather than a closed mind.
The politics of memory have obscured a crucial dimension of parliamentarian political thought in the late 1640s: a willingness to accept the mutability of governments, to laud the substance of government over its outward form. Only when reflecting on past events from the (dis)comfort of the Restoration era did the majority of parliamentarians conclude that the republican experiment was doomed from the start and that monarchy had always been England’s destiny.
Main image credit: © National Portrait Gallery, London