The Council of State, 1649-60


The Council of State was appointed by the Rump Parliament after the execution of King Charles and the abolition of the Monarchy and House of Lords. As the executive body of the Commonwealth under the direction of the House of Commons, its duties were to implement domestic and foreign policy and to ensure the security of the nation.

Members of the Council were initially nomintated by a small parliamentary committee (Thomas Scot, Edmund Ludlow, Luke Robinson, John Lisle, Cornelius Holland) early in February 1649 and the list was submitted to Parliament for approval. Forty-one councillors were nominated, thirty-four of whom were MPs. Even though Parliament had voted to abolish the House of Lords, five peers were nominated to the Council of State. The other two non-parliamentary nominees were the magistrates John Bradshaw and Henry Rolle. Henry Marten's objection to the nominations of the earls of Salisbury and Pembroke to the Council was overruled, but the nominations of the radical soldier-MPs Henry Ireton and Thomas Harrison were rejected.

After a brief period when Cromwell acted as chairman, the first President of the Council of State was John Bradshaw, appointed in March 1649. Elections for the Council of State were held every year throughout the Commonwealth period.


Following the ejection of the Rump Parliament by Oliver Cromwell in April 1653, a ten-member Council of State (later extended to thirteen) acted as an interim government until the inauguration of the Nominated Assembly in July 1653. After the Assembly resigned its powers to Cromwell in December, the Council of State was re-modelled under the Instrument of Government when it became the Lord Protector's privy council with powers to issue ordinances that were legally binding pending ratification by Parliament. Between thirteen and twenty-one councillors were elected by Parliament to advise the Protector, who was also appointed by Parliament. The original members of the Council of State held their places for life.


The Council of State was modified again under the Humble Petition and Advice (1657), which increased Cromwell's power and authorised him to choose twenty-one privy councillors himself. The Council lost its powers to name the Protector's successor, to make declarations of war or peace (both of which went to the Protector) and to dismiss MPs from Parliament. Members of the Council were to be nominated by the Protector and approved by Parliament.


The reinstatement of the Rump Parliament and the subsequent resignation of Richard Cromwell brought the Protectorate to an end in May 1659. A 31-member Council of State was elected on 19 May with wider-ranging powers than the Protectorate Council. A majority of its members was opposed to military rule, which led to friction with high-ranking officers. Parliament was again forcibly dissolved by the Army in October 1659, leaving the Council of State as the sole legal constitutional authority until it was dissolved by order of the Council of Officers and superseded by the Committee of Safety on 25 October 1659. However, nine members of the Council of State, headed by Thomas Scot, Sir Arthur Hesilrige and Anthony Ashley Cooper, continued to meet in secret and to agitate for the restoration of Parliament and a civilian republic.

Two months later, with General Monck threatening to march from Scotland in support of Parliament, General Fleetwood once again restored the Rump Parliament to power (26 December 1659). Elections were held for a new 31-member Council of State which held office until 21 February 1660 when the MPs excluded by Pride's Purge in 1648 were re-admitted. The fully restored Long Parliament voted to call an election, then dissolved itself on 16 March. A new Council of State governed the nation between the dissolution of the Long Parliament and the meeting of the Convention Parliament on 25 April 1660. The Council continued to sit for another month and initiated proceedings against the regicides. It was finally dissolved on 28 May 1660 when King Charles II arrived in London.


Godfrey Davies, The Restoration of Charles II, 1658-60, (San Marino 1955)

C.H. Firth, The Last Years of the Protectorate 1656-58 vol. ii (London 1909)

C.H. Firth and R.S. Raitt (eds), Acts and Ordinances of the Interregnum 1911

S.R. Gardiner, History of the Commonwealth and Protectorate vols. i and iii (London 1903)

Blair Worden, The Rump Parliament (Cambridge 1974)


Presidents and Chronology of the Council of State