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 ‘kinglings’ in the early stages, was put under immense pressure from the senior officers, and began to fear that taking the crown would provoke not only mutiny in the army but also the wrath of God. In early April he stalled, and on 8 May he refused to accept the crown. Crucially, however, Cromwell accepted the rest of the new civilian constitution, now known as the Humble Petition and Advice, almost as it stood, and his reinauguration as protector in June was as close to a coronation as could be managed in the absence of a crown.
There is another side to this parliament, however. It should also be remembered that the 1656-7 sitting was the only time during the protectorate of Oliver Cromwell that any parliamentary acts passed into law. There were two occasions when the lord protector gave his formal assent, on 27 November 1656 and 26 June 1657, and among the legislation passed were acts to disallow the Stuart claim to the throne, to set new assessment rates, and to confirm the Irish land settlement. Alongside this successful legislation there were many bills that were debated and sent to committee but never passed. These included major issues such as union with Ireland and Scotland. There were also many petitions to parliament from individuals and groups asking for redress or favours, and the usual round of lobbying and meetings outside the House. This ordinary, day-to-day business was often delayed or lost among the big issues of the day, but it is in itself an important sign that this parliament was functioning very much along traditional lines. This sense of normality only broke down in the second sitting, in January-February 1658, when (in line with the Humble Petition and Advice) the excluded members were allowed to return. They set about questioning the regime and its new foundation, and refused to allow the smooth passage of the legislation necessary to tie up the loose ends of the new civilian set-up. As a result, Cromwell was forced to intervene and close the parliament on 4 February 1658, saying, ‘I think it high time that an end be put to your sitting… Let God judge between you and me’.
Patrick Little and David L. Smith, Parliaments and Politics during the Cromwellian Protectorate (Cambridge, 2007).