Given the talk about government policies and reform that is currently gripping the U.S, I thought it timely to repost an article about England’s Parliamentary struggles following the English Civil War.
The following article was originally written for the English Historical Fiction Authors blog and published January 2015. If you enjoy English history and haven’t visited the blog, check out the EHFA site here.
It was not all daffodils and roses for the new Commonwealth following the English Civil War. The tide that had carried Parliament to victory, surging them forward with the promise of a new society, became stagnant. Though most desired reform, the divided factions could not agree on a new course, so they were forced to the middle ground. To put things in perspective, ‘moderate’ was still radical by today’s standards.
A year following the King’s death, harsh penalties for licentious behaviour were introduced. The governing assembly at this time, the Rump Parliament, enacted a law against adultery and fornication in 1650, with the former carrying a death penalty and the latter three months in the gaol. To read about this Act, click here.
But this wasn’t enough for some of the more radical Puritan factions like the Fifth Monarchists. They had not lost their vision of a more godly society.
The Fifth Monarchists became an organized political body in 1651. Until that time, members were content to stand on the sidelines and bear witness to the new society. But when it became apparent to them that the Rump Parliament was not furthering this state, they decided to act.
The movement had its roots in urban centres, with the highest concentrations being around London. Outside London, groups were scattered mainly around southern England and a couple of chapters in Wales. Most were tradespeople, primarily in the cloth and leather industry, but an important source of recruitment was the army.
Their spokesman became Major-General Thomas Harrison, member of the Council of State and president of the Commission for the Propagation of the Gospel in Wales. Another notable Fifth Monarchist was John Carew, also on the Council of State. Both Harrison and Carew served as commissioners during the trial of King Charles and were amongst those who signed his death warrant.
Their first meeting was held at Allhallows Church in London on December 1651, led by preachers Christopher Feake, John Simpson and Henry Jessey. Prior to this meeting, they attempted to gain Cromwell’s support, but while Cromwell also wanted reform, he had a different perspective on how to achieve it.
To understand their position, it’s necessary to comprehend the core of their religious beliefs. The Fifth Monarchists believed in the Millennium, that the Kingdom of Heaven would be realized on earth. Their name relates to the Fifth Kingdom, a utopia set out in the book of Daniel that follows after the rise and fall of four successive kingdoms.
The preoccupation with prophecy and celestial portents became common during the 16th and 17th century, and many theologians and scholars debated the meaning of prophetic tracts such as the book of Daniel and Revelations.
Prior to the Reformation, theologians had interpreted the prophecies metaphorically, but with the upheaval of the English Civil War, more literal views took root. At this time, the struggles against the King became symbols of the struggles of Christ and the Saints against the Anti-Christ. It was a way to make sense of a chaotic upheaval. People needed a measure of control in a world gone mad. The overthrowing of the monarchy was equated with the end of the fourth, or base, kingdom and King Charles I, an agent of the Anti-Christ. They even had a year for this new Kingdom: 1666.
The Fifth Monarchists saw themselves as Saints, the preordained elect and chosen ones. They saw it as their calling to prepare the way for King Christ and the New Jerusalem.
Some of their demands were quite modern and would not feel out of place in today’s political climate: legal reform and the reduction of taxes. But the cornerstone of their platform involved state sanctioned church reform. They strongly supported purging the clergy, abolishing tithes, and imposing puritanical morality. Clergymen who were deemed to preach outside the prescribed doctrine were to be purged from their post, and the abolition of church tithes would involve tearing down the state church and putting the governance in the hands of Parliament.
But the Rump Parliament wasn’t delivering it.
On April 1, 1653, Oliver Cromwell made the bold step to dissolve Parliament by force. He called in a troop of soldiers, led by Fifth Monarchist Major-General Harrison to assist him.
At first, Cromwell was sympathetic to the Fifth Monarchists, and he worked closely with Harrison. It had been Harrison’s recommendation to model the next Parliament after the Jewish Sanhedrin and choose 70 members to the Assembly. In they end, they agreed to nominate one member from each county for a total of 144.
The Barebone’s Parliament or Parliament of Saints opened on July 4, 1653. Here was the Fifth Monarchists’ opportunity to realize their vision and shape the future of the country.
Though only 12 of the 144 members were Fifth Monarchists, the fact that they succeeded in influencing the formation of this new Parliament showed that at that time, theirs was a significant voice.
Unfortunately, this new Parliament proved to be more dysfunctional than the last. With the exception of the Fifth Monarchists who were organized and voted en masse, most of the other members were not united, and consensus often could not be reached. The will was not there to achieve legal reform, and when they lobbied to abolish church tithes, public opinion went against them, as most equated this with abolishing property.
The Barebone’s Parliament was short-lived and was dissolved on December 12, 1653. Four days later, the country went into a radical new direction and formed the Protectorate, with Cromwell as Lord Protector. Ironically, one of the goals of millenarians was the abolishment of the monarchy, and Cromwell had essentially set himself up as de facto king.
Understandably, the Fifth Monarchists felt betrayed; their Kingdom of Heaven had suddenly moved further away.
The Protectorate lasted until 1659, following the death of Cromwell and the deposing of his heir, Richard Cromwell. Charles II was restored in 1660. The Fifth Monarchists fared poorly under the Protectorate and even worse in the Restoration with Harrison and Carew being executed as regicides. Everything that the Fifth Monarchists fought for had been reversed.
The country had come full circle.
The Fifth Monarchy Men: A study in Seventeenth Century Millenarianism, by Bernard Capp
English Dissenters: Fifth Monarchists or Fifth Monarchy Men http://exlibris.org/nonconform/engdis/fifthmonarchists.html