The Second Protectorate Parliament

The Second Protectorate Parliament was called during the Rule of the Major-Generals under the urgent need to raise finances to continue the Anglo-Spanish war abroad and to maintain the system of military government at home.

In May 1656, Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell summoned all the Major-Generals to London in order to hear their progress reports and to discuss ways of easing the Protectorate's worsening financial crisis. Under the terms of the Instrument of Government, Cromwell was not obliged to summon a new parliament until 1657 and he was reluctant to do so after the difficulties he had experienced with the First Protectorate Parliament in 1654-5. However, the Major-Generals collectively agreed that a parliament was the easiest way to raise money. They persuaded Cromwell that it was possible to manage the elections to produce a result favourable to the government.

Despite Cromwell's misgivings, campaigning for the elections began in August 1656. The Instrument of Government barred known Royalists from standing for parliament and even from voting, so the principal danger to the Protectorate régime came from the republicans of the old Commonwealth and the religious radicals. The Major-Generals attempted to discourage unsuitable candidates and did their best to influence the voting in their regions, but the election came to be regarded as a referendum on the Protectorate government. Resentment against the high-taxing military rule of the Major-Generals ensured that many opponents to the government were returned. The results were vetted by the Council of State. Out of approximately 400 MPs returned, 93 were judged "ungodly" and prevented from taking their seats at Westminster.

First Session, September 1656 to June 1657

Cromwell's opening speech on 17 September 1656 emphasised the dangers the nation faced from Charles Stuart's alliance with Spain. Cromwell condemned the Levellers, and Edward Sexby in particular, for plotting with the Royalists and with Spain itself. He warned of the dangers of a new civil war arising from the conspiracies of the republican "Commonwealthsmen" and the Fifth Monarchists. On the other hand, he praised the Major-Generals for their fidelity in preserving the nation's peace and justified the taxes necessary to sustain the system.

The first week of the new Parliament was spent in debating the exclusion of the government's opponents. Supporters claimed that the exclusion was justified under the terms of the Instrument of Government. Despite arguments that it was illegal, the resolution to support the government's action was finally carried on 22 September, at which a further 50 MPs withdrew in protest. Outside Parliament, the exclusion was condemned as a worse violation of the constitution than King Charles' attempt to arrest the Five Members in 1642.

In October, Parliament voted its approval of the war against Spain, but was reluctant to authorise higher taxation to fund it. A large number of legislative schemes for social and legal reforms came before before the House, but with little practical outcome. Late in 1656, Parliament was galvanised by the case of the Quaker James Nayler, who rode into Bristol in imitation of Christ's entry into Jerusalem. MPs suspicious of the religious freedom allowed under the Protectorate insisted on prosecuting Nayler for blasphemy before Parliament. Many called for the death sentence; Nayler was finally sentenced to mutilation and imprisonment. The legality of the trial was dubious and Cromwell himself questioned Parliament's authority to judge and condemn Nayler.

In December 1656, Major-General John Disbrowe introduced a bill into Parliament proposing that the punitive 10% tax levied on Royalists (the "decimation tax") should be established on a permanent basis as a means of financing the militia and perpetuating the rule of the Major-Generals. Although it was expected to pass quickly through Parliament, resentment against military government crystallised around the bill and it became the subject of heated debate for several weeks. On 29 January 1657, Parliament decisively rejected it by 124 votes to 88. Cromwell ignored appeals by the Major-Generals and their supporters to intervene in support of the bill; he appeared to give tacit encouragement to those who opposed it. The failure of Disbrowe's bill resulted in the abandonment of the Rule of the Major Generals early in 1657.

A strong body of opinion in the country and in Parliament wanted Cromwell to rule as King. In February 1657, a constitutional manifesto known as the Humble Address and Remonstrance was introduced into Parliament which proposed a number of religious and political reforms, including the offer of the Crown. The proposals were debated for several weeks. They were opposed by the Major-Generals led by John Lambert and supported by MPs who wanted a return to traditional civilian forms of government. On 25 March, Parliament voted by 123 to 62 to ask the Protector to assume the office and title of King. After some hesitation, and in the face of strong opposition from republicans, religious radicals and the army, Cromwell declined the offer. He was reinstated as Lord Protector in June 1657 under a new constitution: the Humble Petition and Advice. Parliament then adjourned for six months.

Second Session, January to February 1658

Under the terms of the Humble Petition and Advice, Parliament alone was given power to purge its own Members. So when Parliament reconvened for its second session on 20 January 1658, the 93 MPs excluded in 1656 were re-admitted, all of whom were hostile to the Protectorate régime. Furthermore, 30 of the government's most active supporters in Parliament were elevated to the new Upper House permitted under the Humble Petition so took no part in debates in the Commons.

Of the 63 persons summoned to sit in the Upper House, 42 accepted. Seven former members of the old House of Lords were invited, but only two accepted: George, Lord Eure and Cromwell's son-in-law, Lord Fauconberg.

Republican "Commonwealthsmen" in the Lower House led by Sir Arthur Hesilrige and Thomas Scot immediately challenged the legitimacy of the Upper House and condemned its similarity to the House of Lords. Despite Cromwell's plea for Parliament to turn its attention to matters of domestic and foreign policy, the debate over the titles and legitimacy of the Upper House continued. Meanwhile, the republicans negotiated with religious radicals to prepare a petition calling for the abandonment of the Upper House, a guarantee of religious toleration and — in a shrewd move to enlist the support of discontented officers — an undertaking that no soldier could be cashiered from the army without a court martial. Copies of the petition were circulated in London and are said to have gathered thousands of signatures.

Cromwell regarded the petition as a threat to the Protectorate government and was alarmed at rumours that it had found favour in the army. Rather than allow the petition to come before Parliament, he went to Westminster on 4 February 1658 where, abruptly and unexpectedly, he dissolved the Second Protectorate Parliament only two weeks after it had reconvened.


Christopher Durston, Cromwell's Major-Generals (Manchester 2001)

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

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

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