Compared to the long-winded bills that pass through Parliament these days, “An act declaring England to be a commonwealth”, dated 19 May 1649, was a masterclass in brevity. But it was also one of England’s most important.
In just 106 words, it brought the centuries-old monarchy and the House of Lords to an end (although this was more a case of dotting the ‘i’s, seeing as the king’s head was already off his shoulders).
What really made the act stand out was the declaration, “…the People of England… shall from henceforth be governed as a commonwealth and free state”. In other words, England was a republic.
The new republic got off to a shaky start given that it came in the midst of the English civil wars. In December 1648, a few months before the act was passed, Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army forced from Parliament those MPs that were deemed to be too soft towards the king – an event known as Pride’s Purge. What was left was a parliament that had lost some of its authority and was ridiculed as the ‘Rump Parliament’.
An ill-fated beast, the Rump Parliament was saddled with crippling debts. It urgently needed to raise funds to continue the fighting in Ireland and Scotland, and to do so, it introduced two deeply unpopular taxes.
The first was an assessment on property that was widely evaded. Parliament warned that either the landed gentry cough up the £90,000 a month or else they put up the army at their own expense. The other was an excise duty that put up the backs of the humbler classes, and Parliament was forced to beat a retreat faced with social unrest.
Hungry for cash, Parliament turned to the City bankers for a loan. Many of the estates that had belonged to the royal cause were to be sold to provide security. But these sales were also unpopular, and struggled to raise enough money.
In the end, Parliament did get its loan, and the restive army was packed off to Ireland. But the accounts were never put right, and after eleven years, the Commonwealth collapsed. The way was now clear for King Charles II to take the throne.