The Rump Parliament (The Purged Parliament)

The Rump Parliament is the name given to the Long Parliament after Pride's Purge of December 1648 in which those MPs who sought a negotiated settlement with King Charles I were forcibly expelled by the New Model Army. The Rump regarded itself as the lawful Parliament of the Commonwealth of England but the derisive name first used widely in 1660 became its enduring nickname after the Restoration.

Establishment of the Commonwealth

After the purge of December 1648, the Rump Parliament consisted of around eighty MPs. Supported by the New Model Army, the Rump declared itself "the supreme power in this nation" on 4 January 1649 with authority to pass Acts of Parliament without the consent of the King or the House of Lords. One of its first actions was to set up the High Court of Justice, specially convened for the trial of King Charles I.

During the weeks between Pride's Purge and the King's execution, approximately 100 MPs who were not on the list of proscribed members stayed away from Parliament in order to avoid involvement in the trial and regicide. Many returned to Westminster when the Commonwealth was established. During February 1649, around eighty MPs were re-admitted upon registering their dissent to the vote of 5 December 1648 to continue negotiations with the King. The re-admitted MPs assumed that their absence during December and January would absolve them of complicity in the regicide. Of the 470 MPs elected to the Long Parliament, around 200 sat in the Rump Parliament between Pride's Purge and Cromwell's dissolution of Parliament in April 1653, including significant numbers of Presbyterians. Sixty or seventy Members attended Westminster regularly during this period.

Within days of the King's execution, the Rump Parliament resolved to abolish both the House of Lords and the institution of monarchy itself. England was declared a republican "Commonwealth and Free State" on 19 May 1649. During the early 1650s, attempts were made to incorporate Scotland and Ireland into the Commonwealth with England. Under the Commonwealth régime, and under Cromwell's Protectorate after 1653, the three nations were ruled by a single government for the first time in British history.

The Rump Parliament had unprecedented legislative and executive powers. It was solely responsible for governing the nation without the traditional hierarchy of nobles, princes and bishops. Much of its administrative work in central and local government was carried out through the network of committees and commissions that had been established during the early 1640s. The Council of State was first appointed in February 1649 to implement domestic and foreign policy and to ensure the security of the nation. It was stressed that the executive Council of State was subordinate to the legislature, the House of Commons, which remained the supreme authority in the nation.

Following the trauma of Pride's Purge and the King's execution, the Rump Parliament adopted a conciliatory and cautious approach towards policy and legislation, particularly after the re-admission to Parliament of moderate MPs who had stayed away to avoid involvement in the regicide. Radicalism was discouraged in order to appease moderate and Presbyterian opinion in the nation as a whole, which might otherwise tend to favour the Royalists. After the final defeat of the Royalist cause at the battle of Worcester in 1651, the Rump came under the scrutiny of the Army radicals and quickly grew to resent what it regarded as the Army's unwarranted interference in the political process.

The Church

The Rump Parliament was widely expected to introduce immediate and radical changes in the Church but few concessions were made to the radicals who wanted universal toleration for the Protestant sects, and steps were taken to curb the excesses of Millenarians and Ranters. With the disappearance of the old Church courts, moral offences were made into secular crimes. The Adultery Act of May 1650 imposed the death penalty for adultery and fornication (though this was never applied in practice); the Blasphemy Act of August 1650 was aimed at curbing extreme religious "enthusiasm". Censorship was imposed in order to limit the propagation of millenarian pamphlets and the first government journal giving the official version of events was published.

Although observance of the Sabbath was enforced, there were also concessions towards freedom of worship when the statute that required compulsory attendance at Church was repealed in the Toleration Act of September 1650. This statute, which dated back to the reign of Elizabeth I, had been a mainstay of the power of the Anglican bishops.

The process of establishing a Presbyterian church settlement in England, which had started with the Scottish alliance of 1643, slowed to a halt. In an attempt to regulate the clergy and to establish acceptable doctrine, a Committee for the Propagation of the Gospel was proposed to control the appointment of clergy so that only approved ministers were licensed to preach. The propagation scheme was pursued in Wales and northern England, which Puritans regarded as strongholds of Anglican and Catholic influence. Measures for the propagation of the gospel in New England and Ireland were also passed in 1649 and 1650, but discussion of a general propagation Act for the whole of England proceeded slowly. A committee was appointed to consider the proposals for a general religious settlement put forward by the distinguished divine Dr John Owen, but no conclusions had been reached by the time that Cromwell dissolved the Rump in April 1653.

Although a commission was established to review parish livings, the problem of funding clergymen was never settled by the Rump. The ancient and controversial system of tithes, under which parishioners were compelled to pay a portion of their income towards the upkeep of the minister, remained in place despite demands from the radicals for its removal.

The Law

Demands for reform of the law were made by sectarians, the Levellers and the Army radicals. Lawyers were widely despised as corrupt; the central courts, especially that of Chancery, were overworked; the entire legal system was over-complex, slow and prohibitively expensive. Radicals regarded the law as the "Norman Yoke" that had oppressed England since the days of William the Conqueror and called upon Parliament to simplify arcane legal procedures and to curb the power of lawyers by excluding them from Parliament.

"Commonwealthsmen" like Ludlow, Ireton and Marten regarded a rationalised legal system as an integral part of their reform programme. In January 1652, a 21-man commission chaired by the distinguished lawyer Matthew Hale was appointed to investigate legal reform. However, despite a wide-ranging set of proposals for the removal of abuses and for a partial reconstruction of the court system, only minor reforms were ever enacted by Parliament that fell far short of the changes envisaged by the radicals. Common-law courts were empowered to grant probate of wills, which had formerly been a function of Church tribunals; more lenient punishments for debtors were introduced; the special privileges of peers and MPs before the law were removed; the use of English in legal proceedings rather than Latin was authorised. Little was done to reduce legal fees or to provide easier access to the courts.

The failure of the reform movement was widely attributed to the malign influence of lawyer-MPs who were reluctant to make changes likely to weaken their privileged position. The conservative Bulstrode Whitelocke MP, one of the commissioners of the Great Seal, was prominent in opposing moves towards radical legal reform.


The Rump inherited a large financial deficit from the Long Parliament and finance remained at the heart of the government's problems throughout the Commonwealth period. The two principal means of raising revenue introduced by the Long Parliament were continued by the Rump: an assessment tax on property owners and a general excise duty on goods and commodities. Both these taxes were extremely unpopular. The government claimed that without them, it would be necessary to impose free quarter of soldiers on the civilian population.

Finance was also raised by continuing the process of "compounding" whereby the former owners of confiscated Royalist estates were allowed to buy their property back from the government. This proved counter-productive because it caused resentment against the Commonwealth and discouraged reconciliation with the Royalists. In order to raise security for loans from the City of London, the government began selling off former Church and Crown lands from April 1649.

Owing to the expense of military campaigns in Ireland and Scotland (1649-51), as well as the Anglo-Dutch war (1652), and the need to maintain a powerful army and navy to defend the Commonwealth, Parliament remained short of money. Taxation reached record levels and was deeply resented. The demands of war and the maintenance of national security diverted Parliament's time and resources from the implementation of many proposed social reforms, to the disgust of radicals outside Parliament.

Foreign Policy

The execution of King Charles horrified governments throughout Europe. No foreign power was prepared to recognise the Commonwealth and there was every possibility of foreign intervention in helping the Stuarts to regain the throne. In 1649, Parliament controlled only England and Wales; Scotland declared its allegiance to Charles II and most of Ireland was in Royalist hands. Colonial settlements in Virginia, Maryland and Barbados remained Royalist; the Scillies, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man were used as bases for Royalist privateers to prey upon Commonwealth shipping, and a privateering squadron commanded by Prince Rupert began operating from Kinsale in southern Ireland in February 1649.

Leaders of the Rump recognised that the key to the survival of the Commonwealth was a strong navy to complement the New Model Army. The office of Lord High Admiral was abolished and the powers of the Navy Committee were increased. Sir Henry Vane came to dominate naval administration, while command of the fleet was given to joint "Generals-at-Sea" of proven loyalty and dedication to the Commonwealth. From March 1649, a major programme of shipbuilding was undertaken and by the end of 1651, twenty powerful new warships had been built and a further twenty-five had been bought or captured, almost doubling the size of the fleet.

The Commonwealth navy provided vital support for Oliver Cromwell's invasions of Ireland and Scotland during the Third Civil War, which secured the Commonwealth government's control of the British Isles. General-at-Sea Robert Blake chased Rupert's squadron from Ireland to Portugal, and in 1650 Parliament authorised Blake to attack Portuguese shipping, which coerced King John of Portugal to abandon his support for Rupert and to officially recognise the Commonwealth. Spain expelled Royalist envoys and recognised the Commonwealth in December 1650, partly as a result of England's aggressive policy towards Spain's enemies Portugal and France. Outlying Royalist privateer bases were captured during 1651, and General-at-Sea George Ayscue subjugated Barbados and the American colonies early in 1652.

France was slow to recognise the Commonwealth because of close family ties between the Stuart and Bourbon dynasties. Unofficial hostilities broke out between French and English shipping, and Royalist privateers were allowed to operate from French ports. In September 1652, Parliament ordered Blake to intervene in the Franco-Spanish war by attacking and destroying a French fleet sailing to relieve the siege of Dunkirk, which forced the town to surrender to Spain. Alarmed at England's increasing naval power, France came to terms and formally recognised the Commonwealth in December 1652.

Despite apparent ideological similarities between the English Commonwealth and the United Provinces of the Netherlands, the First Anglo-Dutch war broke out in 1652 — largely a result of trade rivalry between the two nations.


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

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

John Morrill (ed), Revolution and Restoration, England in the 1650s (London 1992)

Austin Woolrych, Commonwealth to Protectorate, (London 1982)

David Underdown, Pride's Purge (Oxford 1971)

Blair Worden, The Rump Parliament (Cambridge 1974)


Origins of the name "The Rump": a biased account from Curiosities of Literature by Isaac D'Israeli (1823)