1656

Alternative title

Second Protectorate Parliament

Summoned

10 July 1656

Assembled

17 Sept. 1656

Dissolved

4 Feb. 1658

Session

Dates

1
17 Sept. 1656-26 June 1657
2
20 Jan. 1658-4 Feb. 1658

Long description

Of the three parliaments of the Cromwellian Protectorate, the second is arguably the most dramatic. This parliament was dominated by two immediate crises: the need to provide money for the state to maintain a large army and navy to fight an expensive war against Spain; and also the need to legitimise a government founded on a military constitution (the Instrument of Government of 1653) that had never been approved by parliament. Such was the urgency that Cromwell and his council were prepared to use their powers to exclude over 100 of the 460 MPs from sitting at the beginning of the parliament. Many of these were known troublemakers and opponents of the regime, but there were many left who were critical, and new, unexpected, sources of opposition arose as the parliament continued.

The key debates revolved around four areas. First, foreign policy, with the military MPs demanding a renewed effort in the Spanish war, while the Presbyterian and ‘country’ MPs were reluctant to vote the money for it. Secondly, religion, with many issues of toleration and liberty of conscience arising from the case of the notorious Quaker, James Naylor, in December 1656. Thirdly, the continuation of military government in the English and Welsh localities, through the hated rule of the Major Generals, which was eventually voted down in January 1657. Religion and the role of the army fed into the fourth question: the need for a new, civilian constitution to replace the Instrument of Government.

Using a plot to assassinate Cromwell as a pretext, the leading civilian advisers whipped up fears of royalist insurrection and invasion by the exiled Charles II at the head of a Spanish army. In the meantime, they also put together an alternative constitution, with the offer of the crown to Cromwell at its heart, and this was presented to parliament on 23 February 1657. What followed was not only a bitter debate about the form of government, but also a split within the Cromwellian regime, as the army and the civilian factions fell out. Cromwell, who may well have encouraged the ‘kingling