The Third Protectorate Parliament

Before Oliver Cromwell died in September 1658, he nominated his eldest surviving son Richard Cromwell to succeed him as Lord Protector. Despite murmurings of discontent from republicans and army radicals, Richard's succession was generally accepted by the nation as a whole. However, the Protectorate's financial situation was dire. Richard inherited a national debt of £2,500,000 and an annual shortfall of £300,000. Pay arrears for the armed forces stood at nearly £900,000. Once he had pacified his critics among the senior army officers, Richard called the Third Protectorate Parliament in December 1658 in an attempt to deal with the Protectorate's deepening financial crisis.

Like Oliver, Richard's powers as Protector were defined in the constitutional document known as The Humble Petition and Advice (1657), which superseded the earlier Protectorate constitution The Instrument of Government of 1653. Electoral reforms had been introduced by the Instrument, under which the first two Protectorate Parliaments had been elected, but the Council decided to revert to the pre-1653 franchise and arrangement of constituencies for the Third Protectorate Parliament. This was viewed with suspicion by opponents of the government. The Council also decided to retain the MPs sitting for Scotland and Ireland and the nominated Upper House, both of which were controversial. However, unlike the Second Protectorate Parliament of 1656-8, there was no attempt to exclude MPs hostile to the government, and all those elected took their seats when Parliament assembled on 27 January 1659 to hear Richard Cromwell's impressive opening speech.

Cromwellians versus Commonwealthsmen

The Protector's party, headed by John Thurloe, was opposed by the republican "Commonwealthsmen" of the old Rump who wanted a return to the pre-Protectorate Commonwealth of 1649-53. In the early meetings of Parliament, the republican Sir Arthur Hesilrige led a campaign to delay discussion of the Act of Recognition of the new Protector in the hope that Richard's authority would be compromised. In mid-February, the House voted in favour of Richard, but stipulated that the Protector's powers should be more clearly defined before the Act of Recognition became law.

Turning their attention to the controversial Upper House, the Commons agreed to the general principle that there should be a second chamber of Parliament, but debate continued for several weeks regarding its composition, with strong objections to the number of army officers presently sitting and demands that members of the traditional aristocracy who had been faithful to Parliament should be re-admitted. Eventually, the Commons voted by a narrow majority to recognise the Upper House and also to accept the introduction of a limited number of MPs for Scottish and Irish constituencies at Westminster.

MPs confirmed the Protector's authority over the armed forces and a committee was set up to gather precise information about the revenue deficit. By the beginning of April 1659, it appeared that Richard Cromwell was firmly established as Oliver's successor.

However, the republicans worked to spread disaffection in the army by issuing tracts accusing the Protectorate of moving towards a monarchical style of government, of promoting religious intolerance and of planning the disbandment of the army. Richard's response was to convene a Council of Officers in the hope of defusing discontent but hostility between the army and Parliament flared again when MPs attempted to impeach Major-General Boteler for actions he had carried out three years previously during the Rule of the Major-Generals. The Council of Officers led by Fleetwood and Disbrowe called for soldiers' indemnity from prosecution for actions carried out during Oliver's Protectorship. MPs responded by demanding that officers stay out of Parliament's business.

The End of the Protectorate

Forced to choose between Parliament and the Army leaders, Richard tried to assert his authority by dissolving the Council of Officers and ordering its members to leave London. On 21 April, Parliament began debating the re-organisation of the army and the formation of a new militia. Under this provocation, Fleetwood and Disbrowe demanded the dissolution of Parliament and called the soldiers stationed around London to a rendezvous. Richard called upon the army to rally to him, but the soldiers unanimously followed their officers.

Major-General Disbrowe confronted Richard at Whitehall and demanded that he dissolve Parliament and entrust himself to the army, to which he reluctantly agreed. The Third Protectorate Parliament was dissolved on 22 April 1659 leaving the Council of Officers in control of the government.

Fleetwood and Disbrowe intended to keep Richard in power, but completely dependent on the army. However, support for the republican "Good Old Cause" amongst the junior officers and the rank-and-file of the soldiery was stronger than they had supposed. Republicans demanded a return to the pre-Protectorate Commonwealth and in May 1659, Richard was obliged to recall the Rump Parliament that his father had ousted in 1653.


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

Peter Gaunt, Richard Cromwell, Oxford DNB, 2004

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