Independents (Congregationalists, Separatists)

During the course of the First Civil War, the Puritan MPs of the Long Parliament split broadly into two factions: the Independents and the Presbyterians. The division reflected religious differences and also differing attitudes to the conduct of the war, but the Independents and Presbyterians were not organised political parties in the modern sense. Allegiance to either grouping tended to be fluid, influenced by individual responses to particular issues. Relatively few MPs consistently supported either the extreme Independent or Presbyterian positions.

The two factions developed from the "War" and "Peace" parties that emerged in Parliament during the early years of the English Civil War. The War Party favoured confrontation with the King and an outright military victory rather than the negotiated settlement preferred by the Peace Party. The War Party actively supported Parliament's alliance with Scotland under the Solemn League and Covenant until it became apparent that the alliance was unlikely to bring a swift military victory and that the primary objective of the Scots was to secure a Presbyterian church settlement in England. Thereafter, the Peace Party began to co-operate with the Scots while the War Party concentrated upon securing the re-organisation of the Parliamentarian armies that resulted in the formation of the New Model Army in 1645. By this time, the two tendencies were generally known as Independents and Presbyterians.

The Independent faction was a loose coalition of political and religious radicals. It included a small number of republicans associated with Henry Marten and the would-be political reformers later known as "Commonwealthsmen", who included Sir Arthur Hesilrige and Edmund Ludlow. The most prominent of the religious zealots was Sir Henry Vane. Religious radicals, including the future Fifth Monarchists John Carew and Colonel Harrison, bolstered support for the Independents when they were elected to Parliament in the "recruiter" by-elections of the mid-1640s. The religious Independents advocated freedom of religion for non-Catholics and the complete separation of church and state. Their rejection of state-regulated worship brought them into conflict with the Presbyterians, who wanted a national system of church government and were intolerant of non-conformists. Independent congregations were found mostly in London and south-eastern England. Although relatively few in number, they wielded considerable influence in Parliament and among senior army officers.

During 1645-8, the Independents dominated the Long Parliament by gaining the support of uncommitted moderate MPs and of the "Middle Group" that had emerged during the early 1640s under the leadership of John Pym as a bridge between the extremes of the "War" and "Peace" parties. After Pym's death, the Middle Group was led by Oliver St John. The alliance between the Independents and the Middle Group was further strengthened by the support of senior Army officers, and of Oliver Cromwell in particular.

General support for the Independents began to fall away after the First Civil War when conservatives and moderates became concerned that the radicals were threatening to make too many changes in church, state and society. With support from the Scots, the Presbyterian faction called for the disbandment of the New Model Army and for a settlement with the King. Meanwhile, during 1647, the Army began to emerge as a political force in its own right, promoting a programme of constitutional reforms inspired by the Levellers. The Independents remained closely allied to the Army radicals and also retained the support of St John's Middle Group, which continued to press for a negotiated settlement but was not prepared to submit to the King's stubborn intransigence in negotiations. In July 1647, a number of leading Independent MPs were forced to flee to the Army when Presbyterian militants threatened to seize control of London. The Independents were restored to power when the Army marched into the city in August 1647.

The Second Civil War exacerbated the differences between the factions. Moderate support swung back to the Presbyterians who sought a treaty with the King and opposed Independent demands that he should be brought to justice for inflicting a second war upon the nation. Crucially, the New Model Army supported the Independent position and intervened to oust Presbyterian sympathisers from Parliament in Pride's Purge (December 1648).

After Pride's Purge, the so-called Rump Parliament of around fifty Independent MPs sanctioned the trial and execution of King Charles in January 1649 and the subsequent creation of the republican English Commonwealth.


S.R. Gardiner, History of the Great Civil War, four volumes (London 1888-94)

J.H. Hexter, The Reign of King Pym (Harvard 1941)

David Underdown, Pride's Purge (Oxford 1971)

C.V. Wedgwood, The King's War (London 1958)