The deeds of the cursed and the conquered, that were wise before their time”. (William Morris, The Pilgrims of Hope).


300 years ago the first and so far the only English Republic came to an end, after 11 years of existence. In those years England, reduced to a state of impotence and contempt under Charles I, had suddenly become a great European power, and had initiated a policy of commercial and colonial expansion which was to last for over 250 years. Yet in May 1660, Charles II returned to England amid general acclamations, and the republican leaders were publicly hanged, disembowelled and quartered. The cynical and witty King observed that it must have been his own fault that he had been abroad so long, for he saw nobody that did not protest he had ever wished for his restoration.

There will be plenty of banalities talked this year about the suitability of monarchy to the British tradition, national character, etc., etc. It may be worth considering in the pages of the New Left Review why the English republic failed, and what happened to the republican tradition after 1660.

The Commonwealth was brought into existence in 1649 by men very few of whom were theoretical republicans. After Charles I had been defeated in the civil war, first the “Presbyterian” majority in the Long Parliament, then the “Independent” Grandees (who commanded the New Model Army, though they were only a minority in the House of Commons) tried to negotiate a settlement with the King. Charles, obsessed with the notion that his function was divine, and that his enemies needed him more than he needed them, played all parties off against one another and instigated a second civil war in 1648. Meanwhile, outside Parliament, outside the ranks of the men of property who had hitherto taken it for granted that ruling the country was their exclusive prerogative, a republican party had grown up—the Levellers. They drew their strength from those who had been the driving force in the war against the King—the artisans and small traders of London, the sectarian congregations of the capital, the Home Counties and East Anglia, and from the rank and file of the New Model Army, especially its yeoman cavalry. The Levellers called for abolition of monarchy and House of Lords, and for a wide extension and redistribution of the franchise so as to make Parliament representative of the men of small property; and for legal, social and economic reform in the interests of greater equality. In 1647 they came near to capturing control of the Army through an Army Council containing elected representatives of the rank and file.

The fact that Charles had provoked a second civil war greatly strengthened the hands of those who wanted to bring the Mam of Blood to justice. To maintain their own position, Cromwell and the “Independent” leaders opened discussions with the Levellers, envisaging a more democratic constitution. Meanwhile the King was hurried to the block, whilst the Levellers protested that he should be tried not by a military junto but by a court truly representative of the people of England. Once their coup had succeeded the generals believed they could do without the embarrassing support of the Levellers and abandoned all talk of democratic reform. The Leveller leaders were imprisoned, and in May 1649 a revolt of regiments sympathetic to them was suppressed at Burford.

So the English republic was set up and ruled by men who, like Cromwell, would have preferred constitutional monarchy. After the suppression of the Levellers, the Commonwealth had no popular basis. Its authority depended on the power of the Army, which was rapidly purged of democratic elements. The franchise was indeed redistributed (1653), but not widened. There were no legal, social or economic reforms to protect the small men. The government’s main achievements—the conquest of Ireland and Scotland, the aggressive commercial foreign policy— were opposed by the democrats. And these policies were very expensive. Together with the maintenance of a vast Army for internal police purposes, they necessitated far heavier taxation than any known under the monarchy. The taxes fell in large part on the men of small property.