The Restless Republic: Britain without a crown

The execution of King Charles I in January 1649 and the subsequent abolition of the monarchy turned Britain into a republic, which it would remain until the Restoration of Charles II 11 years later. Yet it is a period of British history that so often exists only in the shadows, occasionally as little more than a footnote to the Civil Wars of the previous decade.

But as author Anna Keay admirably demonstrates, this was a fundamentally important period. In The Restless Republic, she tells the story of the British republic through the lives and experiences of a number of contemporaries, some at the centre of events, others on the peripheries, and in so doing provides a perspective that is markedly enlightening.

Some of the individuals are well known, such as John Bradshaw, who tried Charles I, following which Bradshaw found himself, as Lord President of the Council of State, the most important civilian in the country. Then there is Gerrard Winstanley, the leader of the Diggers, whose English Communism was too radical for most. Here the impact of the fighting on civilians is highlighted, together with the destruction, exploitation, and starvation suffered by the population of towns and villages up and down the country.

The religious divides of the period are exemplified through the story of the Fifth Monarchist visionary Anna Trapnell. Her experiences, like those of Winstanley, demonstrate how the ‘men of property’ feared anyone who threatened the status quo, and any religious tolerance extended no further than to those whom the state considered ‘Godly’.

The Royalist heroine, Charlotte, Countess of Derby, was famed for her defence of Lathom House in 1644. She subsequently defended the Isle of Man, which, along with the Channel Islands, the Isles of Scilly, and Barbados were Royalist strongholds during the first years of the republic. The Earl of Derby was himself executed following the disastrous Scottish invasion of England in 1651.

Events such as Cromwell’s campaign in Ireland are recounted through the reporting of Marchamont Needham in his Mercurius Politicus. The Irish campaign, the reduction of the remaining Royalist outposts, the first Anglo-Dutch War, the English expedition against the Spanish West Indies (known as the ‘Western Design’), and the Flanders campaign of 1657-1658 are discussed not so much in military terms, but in terms of their impact on events at home. This book is not a military history in the purest sense, and, as a result, there are a few generalisations that require further consideration. But given the sheer breadth of its subject matter, this is but a minor point.

It was the army which established the republic, but even before the trial and execution of the King, cracks were appearing in its relationship with Parliament, and, as the author observes, ‘that animosity between the Rump Parliament and the army remained the fatal fault line of the Commonwealth’. In fact, this animosity had been growing ever since 1647, and opened up dramatically following the Battle of Worcester in 1651.

As it transpired, ending the monarchy was relatively easy: the challenge proved to be to come up with an alternative system of government that worked. It was opposition to Charles I (and not, in every quarter, opposition to the monarchy itself) that had united the differing factions and interests, but in the years that followed it was only Oliver Cromwell who held the regime together.

Regardless of the reader’s opinion of Cromwell, he did not set out to rule through a military dictatorship, and during the decade of the republic several different models were tried, including the Commonwealth with its Council of State (1649-1653), the Nominated Assembly (or Barebones Parliament, 1653), and, from 1654 onwards, the Protectorate itself. It was under the Protectorate that the country was divided into territorial regions, each under the command of a senior army officer (or ‘major-general’).

The Act of Oblivion of 1652 pardoned those on the losing side in the Civil War, installing what was meant to be a far-reaching amnesty. The experiences of these defeated Royalists are characterised by the L’Estrange family, Norfolk’s leading Royalists (Sir Hamon L’Estrange was governor of King’s Lynn during the siege of 1643). However, the Act of Oblivion was short-lived, and within two years, those of Royalist sympathies found themselves burdened once again to pay for the rule of the major-generals.

right Oliver Cromwell at the Battle of Worcester. Detail from a 17th- century painting by an unknown artist. The 1651 battle dramatically widened animosity between the Rump Parliament and the army.
Oliver Cromwell at the Battle of Worcester. Detail from a 17th- century painting by an unknown artist. The 1651 battle dramatically widened animosity between the Rump Parliament and the army. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Survival of the Republic?

Unlike other histories of the 1650s, this book does not centre around Cromwell himself, although he is prominent in the second half, and, notwithstanding the enormity of Cromwell the statesman, it is his family and personal life that are particularly fascinating. The reader is left with an intriguing question: had it been Henry Cromwell, rather than his elder brother Richard, who succeeded his father as Lord Protector in 1658, would the Republic have survived?

There is arguably no better perspective on Irish affairs than that of William Petty, who went to Ireland as the army’s physician-general, before undertaking the mapping of the country (the Down Survey). This is a fascinating account in its own right, but at the same time it sheds light on an often-overlooked aspect of 17th-century Anglo-Irish history; if it were possible to single out one particular highlight from this book, then this would probably be it.

Like Ireland, Scotland was an occupied country, but, crucially, it was a former ally, and so presented different challenges. Under the governorship of General George Monck, the solution included the construction of four major citadels and a number of small forts from which the country was policed. It was from Scotland, at the end of 1659, that Monck would set in motion a chain of events that ultimately led to the Restoration of Charles II, a Restoration probably only brought about because of the failure of every other viable alternative.

It is of no surprise that this book has been so well received, and I have read no better account of this tumultuous decade than this. It is a scholarly work, but at the same time it is extremely readable. A splendid book.


The Restless Republic: Britain without a crown, Anna Keay, William Collins, hbk (£25), ISBN 978-0008282028.