The Nominated Assembly
(Barebone's Parliament)

Following the expulsion of the Rump Parliament in April 1653, the Council of Officers was reluctant to authorise free elections because of the possibility that Presbyterians and even Royalist sympathisers might be returned. Two constitutional schemes were discussed to replace the discredited Parliament. Major-General John Lambert proposed a body similar to the Council of State, with powers limited by a written constitution. Lambert's rival, Major-General Thomas Harrison called for a ruling body based upon the Old Testament Sanhedrin of 70 selected "Saints". Harrison's proposal was influenced by his Fifth Monarchist belief that the rule of the Saints would be a prelude to the reign of Christ on Earth.

With some modifications, Harrison's idea was embraced by Oliver Cromwell and the Council of Officers. The members of the new Assembly were nominated by the Council of Officers and approved by the Council of State. Recommendations were also considered from congregational churches around the country but were not always accepted. Deliberations continued throughout May 1653 and final agreement was reached early in June. There were a total of 140 delegates: 129 representatives for England, five for Scotland and six for Ireland (the Scottish and Irish delegates were English soldiers serving in those countries). Only about one-third of the delegates were drawn from the traditional ruling élites of their regions, though most of the others were minor gentry and landowners. A further five members, including Cromwell, Lambert and Harrison, were later co-opted onto the Assembly. Sir Thomas Fairfax was the most prominent of a handful of nominees who declined to take part.

The Nominated Assembly first met on 4 July 1653. Although it was unelected, the Assembly assumed the title of the Parliament of the Commonwealth on 12 July. The Assembly first met in an atmosphere of optimism and euphoria, but it lasted less than six months.

During its brief life, the Assembly passed twenty-six ordinances dealing with a wide range of administrative, financial and social matters. These included the requirement that all marriages be performed not by the clergy but by a justice of the peace; the compulsory civil registration of births, marriages and deaths within each parish; greater protection for lunatics and their estates, and provision for the relief of impoverished debtors and prisoners.

The Assembly tended to polarise between moderate members and radicals. As with the Independents and Presbyterians of the Long Parliament, however, the radicals and moderates of the Nominated Assembly represent tendencies rather than fixed political parties. Members could be "moderate" in one area of policy and "radical" in another.

The moderate tendency grew alarmed at moves to abolish the court of Chancery and to codify the common law. A bill calling for the abolition of the rights of patrons to appoint clergymen to livings and to reform the gathering of tithes was rejected by only two votes; moderates regarded the attack on patronage as a threat to the rights of property owners. With the tacit support of Major-General Lambert, moderates organised the dissolution of the Nominated Assembly with a co-ordinated early morning meeting on 12 December 1653. Taking advantage of the absence of most of the radicals, who knew nothing of the design, Parliament voted to "deliver up unto Lord-General Cromwell the powers which they received from him". Led by the Speaker, around forty MPs walked to Cromwell's residence at Whitehall where, to his surprise, they formally abdicated their authority to him. Around thirty radicals who remained behind to prepare a protest were driven out by soldiers probably acting under Lambert's orders. Within a few days, a clear majority of around eighty MPs had subscribed to Parliament's declaration of abdication.

The collapse of the Nominated Assembly ushered in the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell under the Army's Instrument of Government.

Derided by Royalists as a fanatical rabble, the Nominated Assembly was nicknamed "Barebone's Parliament" after one of its members, Praise-God Barbon, a London merchant and Independent.


Sources:

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

S.R. Gardiner, History of the Commonwealth and Protectorate vol. ii (London 1903)

Ronald Hutton, The British Republic 1649-60, (Basingstoke 2000)

Austin Woolrych, Commonwealth to Protectorate (Oxford 1982)

Links:

List of Members of the Nominated Assembly (Diary of Thomas Burton)